Concerning languages

Taiver: This place smells. Ellius: huh??

One element of worldbuilding I love is conlangs, or constructed languages. I really admire those who create full-fledged languages for their worlds, and I try to at the very minimum come up with sound-sets for my names, if not a little more than that.

I’m no linguist, and I mostly just go on gut (or is that ear?) instinct, trying to make sure things really sound like they’re from the same language. I’ve read stories where you get something like Bob and Drzzel supposedly from the same language. And while I won’t rail against a logical apostrophe, there’s too many times where I wonder what exactly the author wanted from that apostrophe. Was it supposed to be a glottal stop? A contraction of two words? A missing letter due to some sort of mutation (er, not the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles kind, but this sort of thing)? Or did they just think it looked cool?

Knowledge-wise, I tend to be crow-like, just picking up little tidbits here and there. I’m like this with languages, too. I learned a smattering of Sindarin from JRR Tolkien, a tiny bit of Finnish from a childhood friend, a little Welsh from another friend, know some French and Chinese due to my background, and a little Turkish and Russian just because I thought they sounded pretty. I don’t think I know even enough to be dangerous, but it’s fun to incorporate the little things I have learned to make my languages not just randomized English. That said, I sometimes worry that people won’t know how to pronounce something. They’ll run into a strange combination of letters and maybe they’ll even think I just did that to look cool.

I’ve really had to wrestle a lot with conlang issues in my new novel. In Empire there’s not one but four proto-conlangs behind the scenes. The main character’s primary language is just done as English, but the initial setting is a huge trade and travel hub, so there are many, many languages that can be spoken there. In addition the action references three other countries with three different languages. So I’m faced with a few problems:

– When characters speak in a tongue that is not the main one–how best to provide a translation.
– When characters speak for an extended time in another language–how best to handle that.
– How to indicate pronunciation, or if it’s better to just abandon that entirely
– How to avoid confusion with many different sounding placenames and character names, to avoid what one of my writing group described eloquently as “blah blah went to the spring of blah with his blah blah mc BLAHBLABLAH” (This is tricky because different kinds of readers have different tolerances)

For now, I’ve dealt with the first point by having the translation soon after; the main character speaks several languages, and though he’s not effortlessly fluent, he can translate them in his head. Eg.

Anli gripped the dagger at her hip. “Sū àb kĕlé?” she demanded–what’s wrong with him?— forgetting silence in her suspicion.


With no space to draw his weapons, Taiver seized on words. “Wait! We’re friends. Er– Cu duris ert felis suinla Kosmir. … No? Nerudhan, then? Kedh dann er faihrût èsoinlat Kosmir.” He executed the closest thing to a bow he could manage in the space, ducking his head, and hoped that he had said something to the effect of “Kosmir sends his greetings.”

But then I came to a situation where three characters have a conversation in the main character’s mother tongue (about four exchanges), which he understands but with a little effort, and it seemed like a LOT to translate over and over. I wasn’t sure how it ought to be handled. Would it be better to show the first line in that language and translate the rest? Or translate everything and just say it’s in that other language? Or render it all in that language and have the character translate by his thoughts and reactions? When does it go from enriching the world to just plain being obscure?

For now I’ve abandoned indicating the pronunciation. I find it disruptive when there’s an exchange like, “NEE-man?” he said, frowning. “NAY-man,” she corrected him. Once is okay, I suppose, but it just feels like the author telling us how to read the word.

And on the last problem, I think I’ll just have to deal with on revisions, after some beta readers have had a stab at it.

How about you? Do you conlang? How little or much do you do? What challenges have you faced, and how do you tackle them? If you do have your own conlangs, share a little with me! I adore them, and would love to hear yours!

(Oh, and PS, happy year of the Dragon!)


Writing in my sketchbooks, drawing in my notebooks

The Empire of Hunger characters: Idrich, Anli, Bajyer, Taiver, and Ellius

So I’ve been a bit stumped on the writing front lately, after getting to around 15000 words in The Empire of Hunger. Rewrote a scene about four times only to roll back to the first version for now… It’s tough to push on knowing there are little problems here and there. Revising something this long is really something I’m going to have to get used to.

But in the meantime, I had an idea for a header for the site. so I went ahead and made it! I love doodling in my notebooks–and then when I was sick, I was writing in my sketchbooks–and thought it’d be fun to do something doodle-like for my header. It might be nice to handwrite my title too… Hmmmm.

For some reason I prefer doing cartoony style drawings for these characters. Like with little dot-eyes. I guess because they look pretty specific in my head, and it’s hard for me to draw them correctly. Then again, in the text they are drawn with verbal “broad strokes” too, so maybe it all works out. I just don’t like to spell appearances out too much, since I know you’ll imagine something different anyway.

Story Sketch: Bayjer

This is really a story sketch of Bayjer, Anli and Ellius, I think. But we’ll call it Bayjer’s for now, since it’s his POV.



“I’ve never seen a witch take so much tafil!” Anli frowned as she raised her cup. Her eyes never strayed from Ellius, who was huddled in the far corner of the tavern, over a twist of paper filled with the red dust. He stared at the dust like he did not know what to do with it, though Bayjer had seen him take the stuff before.

“How would you know?” Bayjer asked. “There aren’t any Ingfakuti witches.”

“There are a few,” Anli said, her delicate features turning dark. “But most of them are dead, yes. That’s the best you can do with the corpse-eaters.”

“You’re in a foul mood tonight. But I understand most witches like them fresher than that.”

Bayjer smirked as Anli made a warding sign. Across the room, Ellius had tapped the tafil into a bowl of rice porridge. The odd look of confusion was fading, giving way to something almost… greedy. Bayjer looked away. He felt suddenly uneasy, and took a long drink.

“But you’re right,” he said to Anli, as she refilled his cup and then her own. “I’ve sold the doses before. He’s got nearly three there. And yesterday he took two more.”

“And still he looks wasted. A witch on that much tafil should be glutted and fat. Something is wrong with him. Taiver should end our association with him.”

Bayjer ran his fingers through his short beard. “I won’t say you’re wrong, my lady, but I trust Taiver’s instincts.”

“Even Taiver makes mistakes,” Anli said.

Ellius used his spoon for only the first two swallows of porridge; after that, he simply picked up the bowl and bolted its contents, as if he were a starving man. Bayjer watched his adam’s apple bobbing rapidly as he swallowed. When the bowl was emptied, Ellius licked the rim and the insides, oblivious to the curious stares of those watching. Then he stared into the bowl as if he might refill it by will alone.

Bayjer tugged on his beard and shifted restlessly. “I’ll talk to Taiver,” he said, and then rose. “Come on, let’s go, Anli.”

Her grateful look unnerved him.

Story Sketch: Idriq, revisited

So, as mentioned, Idriq is no longer a young lord but rather, a young lady! And so. A new story sketch for her. I actually like this much better, anyway. As with all story sketches, raw, unedited and exploratory.



Taiver had been watching the sharp-faced lad for near an hour before the youth approached him.

“I understand you and your friends are seeking employment.”

Taiver cocked a smile at the lad and drank before answering. “We might be. Depends on the job. And the pay.”

“It’s simple enough,” the lad said. “Look and listen, and don’t get noticed.”

“And the pay?” Taiver repeated, avoiding Bajyer’s eye across the table. If he looked at Bajyer now, he’d only laugh, and that wouldn’t do them any good, not if the lad had his father’s money to spend.

“Seventy lir,” the lad told him. Taiver’s eyebrows jerked up.

“That much? Who are you working for?”

“I’m working for myself,” the lad said, looking irritated. “Of course.”

“Come now.” Taiver set his tankard down and frowned at the boy. “That’s a lot of coin, but not enough to hide your master’s name.

“I’m not hiding anything,” the lad said. “I am employed by the Order of Firhkenn, but I am an independent agent.”

“Lying isn’t a nice habit for young lads such as yourself–”

Taiver found the rest of his sentence cut short as the lad put a blade to his throat. Bajyer, bless his heart, finished the sentence for Taiver as he bared his own blade and showed it to the boy. “–And that’s not very priestly behavior!”

“I’m not a lad,” the lad said, coolly, “And neither am I a priest. My name is Idriq Bestricht, and if you lot aren’t interested in helping me, there’s plenty here who will.”

Taiver’s eyes widened as he saw the lad clearly, as if for the first time: the fine, if sharp, bones; the soft brow; the almost-hidden swell of small breasts under the fur-lined vest. The not-lad pulled a silver emblem out from under that vest and showed it to them.

“The Raven is rolling in his grave,” Bajyer muttered, backing off. “Eyes of Firhkenn. I don’t know about this, Taiver.”

But Taiver was all smiles. A lad that wasn’t a lad, seventy lir, and a chance to spy for a heathen cult. He couldn’t imagine anything that sounded more troublesome, or more entertaining. He held out a palm to Idriq and bowed a little at the waist.

“I am never one to balk at assisting a lady,” he said, cheerfully, and when her scowl deepened, he knew it was a done deal.


Last night I finished the first outline for The Scarlet Empire, which is yay! I’m still not used to outlining stuff, but the story was getting so complex in my head that I just thought I really needed to. Now, to actually start writing!

In the meantime I keep doodling. I decided that I’m going to make Idriq a girl, which means, ignore the Story Sketch from yesterday. In my mind she dresses and carries herself somewhat boyishly, in part to combat the lack of respect she gets, in part just because she prefers to. For the most part her role and behavior won’t change in the story.

Anyway! Doodles.

Story Sketch: Idriq

I’m taking a short story workshop from Cat Rambo and just had the first session today. Really great, lots of things I kind of “knew” on instinct solidified, and lots of things I didn’t really know as well. And now I think I shall finally have to sit down and read some Kurt Vonnegut, which I have been meaning to do for ages, and revisit Joe Hill, whom I tried once and felt lukewarm about.

One of her assignments for next week was to write 250 words about a character from a short story summary we had to bring, doing something mundane. Which made me smile a little, since that’s kind of like these story sketches I am doing. (Er, well, sort of. In the exploring a character sort of way.) The short story summary I brought was about a Vessian warrior’s daughter, so I look forward to working on that, as it’ll help with the worldbuiling I’m doing for (tentatively titled) The Scarlet Empire. (Hm, I am also considering Empire of Hunger ? Hm, that looks much worse typed out. Need to keep considering.)

OK, today’s story sketch: Idriq. Whose name I may decide to spell differently, we’ll see. Idric? Ideric? Preferences? 🙂



Being the third son of a nobleman was barely better than being born working-class, as Idriq saw it. Sent here and there on his father’s interests… He might as well have been a merchant’s son, working for his wages. His father should not have been surprised that he took up with other, more promising causes. He should have been pleased that Idriq had chosen to serve as Eyes for the Firhkenn order instead of becoming a thief or a gambler.

But Lord Bestricht bellowed and raged just as if Idric had signed on to the Elite. He grew red in the face and broke china, and threw silverware, and frightened Mother. Later on he drank until he passed out, and Idriq and his mother dragged him into bed, holding their noses against the tavern-floor reek of him.

His mother’s touch was soft when she patted his hand. “It’s a good thing you do,” she said, not quite meeting his eyes, as was polite for a woman and her son. “And Anereiq will be pleased.” A small smile caressed her lips as she named her eldest son.

Idriq bowed to her, and said his thanks, and excused himself. Later, he was glad when the Lord Knight asked no questions of his request to be sent away immediately.

Story Sketch: Ellius

As fun as it is to doodle the characters, this is going to be a novel or novella, so I’ve started “word sketching” as well. I’ve decided to try to go through all the characters, writing a short piece about each. As an exercise, I’m also going to post them here, just for fun. These’ll probably be spontaneous and raw, unedited, so I can’t promise they’ll be good… but, they’re sketches— good isn’t the point. Finding, learning, experimenting, building for later… that’s hopefully what I’ll be doing.



The stories of the Vessian witches are the stuff of nightmares: gaunt figures in tattered robes and bits of armor, with ravenous eyes and ferocious appetites, unstoppable forces of nature. One lone witch of Vess, they say, could wipe out entire battallions with raging rivers of fire, dissolving the corpses of their victims into slurry they magically consume them for power. To even speak to one is to invite death to sup on your blood and bones.

Strange, then, to think that Ellius is one of them.

He is still, and quiet, and his appetites are private. The only hint of the mad hunger reputed of his kind is in the leanness of his face and body, and the rare, faint flash of some secret desperation in his eyes. Though he is tall and broad of shoulder, he has less strength than would be expected of a man of his size; it takes him and Anli both to wrest the heavy crates of cargo onto the back of the cart. His laugh is soft and restrained—at least, the only laugh Taiver has heard him utter—and seems to hide as many secrets as the rest of him.

His smile is not common, and more often a grimace, which is why for Taiver it is an irresistible challenge to tease it out.

Taiver jokes and jabs; he worries at Ellius like a dog with a stubborn piece of sinew. He is intrigued, and then he is more; too late he realizes he has been consumed by his own curiosity.


So I’ve been trying to properly draw Ellius so I can get a fix on his face and I can’t seem to. I keep drawing this generic roman-statue-esque face I often draw for certain types of characters. But after thinking and thinking about it, he actually, I think, looks something like Price Lir from “The Last Unicorn” cartoon, only maybe with different hair (maybe?) and of course, you know, realistic and stuff. But that sort of tall, lanky, gawky, a little dorky and yet somehow also a little heroic and handsome looking, only a little, with a kind-ish face. I had pictured his hair swept back, badly cut off with a knife.

I suppose it doesn’t really matter so much, since he’ll be comprised of words, being a novel character, but still.

I also realized that the Taiver in my head looks quite a bit like Daniel Dae Kim with facial hair. *laughs*

Developing character

So I am toying with a new story idea and one of the things I always do at this stage is doodle! And I thought it might be fun to share. So here are some notebook margin doodles of some characters I am developing for an as yet untitled fantasy story. The plot outline really wants to be a novel, which makes me cringe because I’ve still got to finish The Motley Star and revise The Red Box. Or, I could go haring off a new idea. Hmmm, which shall it be!

Briefly, Taiver is the adult son of a merchant and despite being the official representative of his father’s interests in the port of Graipyj Yiz, still a bit of a wastrel, letting his sister handle the business. Ellius is a “barbarian” mage, come from across the sea to escape certain secrets of his past.