Story Guides: How to Name a City

Dover twitched as the pen scratched across the paper yet again. ScritchScritchScritchScritchScritch! A few words made their way onto the page, then ScritchScritchScritch.

“Would you cut it out, it’s like nails on chalkboard!” Standing from his chair Dover retreated to the kitchen to escape from the repeated noise.

Lisa grumbled at his departure, jotting down a new idea. “Pleasant Valley…no, too clichĂ©.” The pen scratched out yet another idea.

Many writers struggle to name town and cities, or even other locations, when starting a new book or switching settings. While I do not count myself as an expert by any means, I believe that collaboration among writers allows for fresh perspective and new ideas. Even the most experienced author can learn from the greenest writer. Thus, I have chosen to share my process in hopes of helping you write, and in hopes that you will have suggestions to make me a better writer.

For Real Life Settings

While much of this article will deal with fantasy writing, as that is my strong suit, I thought I would begin with some tips for writing in the real world, or alternate versions of it. Currently, I am writing a story set in the Northwest. The main character grew up in a small town in Massachussets, and moved to an even smaller town in Wyoming. While I could have picked a quick and easy stereotypical name, or even chosen a real, familiar town, I wanted to at least consider the possibility of a unique name that spoke to the town I wanted to create.

The first thing I did was to research existing names in the area. Do towns in Wyoming have historical names? Are they descriptions of the environment? Are they named after locations in another country, or after indigenous words? Rather than research the origins of each and every town in Wyoming, I picked one town to model my fictional one off of. The town I picked was Medicine Bow. Typically, this would be accomplished through a quick internet search. Since I live nearby, I was able to go visit the museum there to learn about the town, and discovered that the name came from a Native American expression, “good medicine.” Good medicine is anything that is good for a purpose, and the trees in the Medicine Bow forest were good medicine for making bows. Thus, the town, forest, and mountains were all named Medicine Bow.

Now that I had a base, I had to consider how I could name my town. This town was named after an economic resource, but also a Native American description of the area. What resources were in my area, and how did the people interact with the Native tribes when they first arrived? For my town I decided to create an cursed area not far from the town so that my main characters would have plenty of places to get in trouble. Since the area is borderline desert, the main resource was water. The cursed area was a small pool that filled off the main river, remaining full all year but becoming poisonous from bacteria during dry seasons when it was cut off from the main river.

A quick google search says that the Arapaho word for “water” is “Nec.” That might not be accurate, but since this town was settled by Europeans, it’s unlikely that they’d name it correctly in the Arapaho language. Now I have my name and history that I can include in a blurb later on:

“When the white people first settled in the area, the Natives would come to trade. They often heard Natives talk about bad ‘Nec,’ so the town eventually became known as Bad Neck.”

This sounds like a town you’d find in Wyoming, so I’ve done a good job creating the town name and several features that will help make an interesting setting for my story, as well. If you look up “town of Bad Neck,” you won’t find an exact match easily, so the name is unique, too.

If you’d like to hear more about how I create names, including fantasy towns, surnames, race names, and more, please like, follow, share, and leave a comment to let me know what you’re interested in!

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