Plausible Places

In fiction, a major goal of naming is not to confuse the reader.  It may be cute to name all the kids in the family something beginning with J.  In fiction it’s just plain annoying.  That’s certainly true of place names.  Making place names up is more a matter of expedience than pleasure.  I try to look at local patterns and go from there.  Using real names is best, but writers need to be cautious in this litigious age about using the real names of small places.

Looking at the names our pioneer forebears chose can be depressing.  Consider how many Salems and Springfields there are, coast to coast, not to mention a Portland in Maine as well as Oregon.  The obvious alternatives to back-home names were the ones already in place, Native American names like Multnomah and Skamokawa.  There were more than four hundred native languages in the area that became Washington State.  The sound combinations changed every fifty miles or so.

In southeast Washington, on the Oregon-Idaho border, the best-known place name is Walla Walla.  Towns within a hundred miles are named Wallowa and Wallula, so the Wall- prefix must be place-friendly.  Pullman (home of WSU) and Lewiston (ID) indicate the tendency to name places after prominent people.  (Note Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams, and Mt. St. Helens.)  The Tri-Cities area of Kennewick, Pasco, and Richland provides three examples of the naming patterns–Kennewick is Indian, Pasco is British, a family name, and Richland is one of those chamber of commerce come-ons that dot suburbs all over the country.  One town on the river, Bingen, gave a German friend of mine the giggles, because the local pronunciation uses a soft g.  The German city it was named for, Bingen am Rhein, takes a hard g.  Up on the northern border with Canada, we have the reverse case.  The town of Bellingham, home of Western Washington University, sounds like Belling Ham locally, though the proper British pronunciation is something like Bellinjum.

I like the k/c sound in Kennewick.  There are a good many k/c names along the Columbia River–Cathlamet, Kalama, Camas, and Klickitat come to mind, all of them Indian names.  Of real places on the river, Longview and Goldendale echo Richland, and Lyle and Stevenson are like Pasco.  My favorite southern Washington name, though, stands alone–White Salmon.  I’d call that one a story name.  Names like that aren’t used very often.  In Buffalo Bill’s Defunct, I called the seat of my imaginary county Klalo, which is not only local-sounding (vide Kalama and Klickitat) but also ties in to Klamath Falls in Oregon.

Latouche County, the made-up venue for my current mystery series, embodies another naming pattern.  Hudson’s Bay Company fur trappers were mostly French speakers, and French terms and surnames underline their historical presence.  The names are often mispronounced.  The town of Touche, for example, is pronounced Tooshie locally.  In far northeastern Oregon a nice winding river called the Grande Ronde is pronounced something like ground round.  The town at the spectacular Celilo Falls stretch of the Columbia was named The Dalles after the white water.  Across the Columbia from The Dalles lies another place with a story name, Horse Thief Lake.  The park there exhibits many of the petroglyphs and pictograms that were rescued from rising waters when dams were built on the river.

My earlier mystery series was set on the Long Beach Peninsula (a dull enough name) and I invented two place names for that area.  Willapa Bay (good Indian name) was once called Shoalwater Bay because the water is shallow.  I revived that for the bay and a small town on the ocean side.  I like Shoalwater but I’m less happy with my other invented place, Kayport.  My Kayport combines the real towns of Ilwaco and Long Beach.  I think I must have come up with the name because I was using a Kaypro computer at the time.

Farther north in Washington we find Aberdeen (another real place transported westward) and the Olympic Peninsula, which is indeed olympic.  Native American names in this area sound nothing like the ones in the Gorge.  I love Puyallup and Dosewallips and Humptulips, but I wouldn’t dare invent a name of that sort.  Further north we bump into Spanish names, missing since Heceta Head in Oregon.  Spanish names evoke California, understandably, not Washington.  I probably wouldn’t invent a Spanish place name for Washington.  After all, as G.M. Ford famously asked, Who in the Hell is Wanda Fuca?


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