Start With A Place Name

An Okanagan Lake beach in Peachland, British Columbia, Canada


The Okanagan Valley where I grew up is blessed with an array of colorful place names, including names derived from the Salish language of the original First Nations inhabitants, such as Kelowna, Osoyoos, and Spallumcheen, and names created by later immigrants, such as Peachland, Summerland, and Lake Country. I was thinking about Peachland today and that got me thinking  about the use of place names as titles and how to use that as a starting point for writing something new. (The photo at the top of this post is of a beach on Okanagan Lake in Peachland, British Columbia, Canada.)

My challenge to you today is to start with a place name and use that as your writing prompt.

1. Make a list of at least three literary works, TV shows or movies named after their location. (You can make a longer list if you want.)

2. Take a moment to analyze the nature of the place, the meaning of the name, the sound of the name, and how those connect with their literary namesakes. You should discover a number of ways that place-inspired titles and literary works relate: now you can reverse engineer those associations to find new approaches to writing.

3. Make a list of at least ten interesting place names. What constitutes an interesting place name?–Anything that strikes your interest. This exercise may work better if you choose places that you know well, but that’s not an absolute requirement.

4. Pick a name you particularly like. Roll it around in your mouth. How does it sound? How does it feel to pronounce it? What does it mean? Jot down some quick notes on your impressions of the name itself.

5. What is that place like? Make some notes about your impressions of the place.

6. Look at the notes you’ve just made. What kind of writing does that combination lend itself to?–A poem, a memoir fragment or creative non-fiction essay, a story, a work for performance in a particular genre? For a short work, write a fast rough draft; for longer works, write a quick story synopsis.

7. When you’ve written a draft, or roughed out your concept, reconsider the title. You can expand on it or alter it–for example, “Golden Pond” vs “On Golden Pond”–or you can change the title altogether. You’re not locked into using the place name as a title, its purpose is to fire up your brainstorming.

If you like systematic brainstorming, you might write up several batches of place name-inspired notes like this and then stick them in a drawer for at least a week. When you come back to them later, they may inspire a completely different set of ideas.

Tip 1: Pick at least one or two places from locations important to your childhood, as these tend to have strong emotional connotations.

Tip 2: Pick at least one place that you’ve never been to and know nothing substantial about–just to mix things up.

Bonus Round: Try combining this prompt with another writing prompt. You may find it pairs particularly well with the prompt about hiraeth.

As always, if you play with this prompt, I’d love to hear how it works for you.

Photo credit: erwlas (CC BY 2.0)