Furry Writers' Guild Forum

Fictionalized Country Names

What’s your opinion on using fictionalized country names? I’m changing a story’s setting and picture it now taking place in a specific nation (Nicaragua), but am tempted to make up a fake name like “El Picador” just so nobody calls me on how I didn’t get the economics of the real country right. I can and should do research but won’t be an expert on the real place, and may need to make up details and geography anyway. The setting will likely be like the real country but different wherever convenient.

In my case the story’s set in the near future so I could mention there was a revolution renaming the place. If I do that, I need a name that doesn’t sound idiotic. Cibola, maybe?

I vote rename. People are always looking for an excuse to get their panties in a twist and if you give them any little mistake, they’ll make it their mission to harass you over it.

I’ve always reckoned that you can get away with anything in writing-- so long as you’re both credible enough and ballsy enough. It takes both, mind you; in this sort of thing either ingredient applied alone is merely asking for literary disaster. It’s also wise to choose your battles-- in this instance, it sounds to me like you’re probably choosing well.

Rename has a long tradition. The 1890s Kingdom of Ruritania in Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda (excellent 1937 movie with Ronald Colman, Madeleine Carroll, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., C. Aubrey Smith, David Niven, and Raymond Massey – in 1975 Niven wrote a memoir, Bring on the Empty Horses, in which he hilariously savaged the reputations of his Zenda co-stars) and 1900s Principality of Graustark in George Barr McCutcheon’s Graustark: The Story of a Love Behind a Throne were Gold Standards for fictional countries. Edgar Rice Burroughs had the Kingdom of Lutha in The Mad King. Andre Norton’s first novel, published when she was 22, was The Prince Commands, set in the Kingdom of Morvania.

Fictional Latin American countries go back to the Republic of Olancho in Richard Harding Davis’ 1897 Soldiers of Fortune. I first read it in the Classics Illustrated comic-book version when I was 14 or 15. During the 1960s & 1970s I scoured all the used bookshops in Los Angeles, mostly for science fiction. Many of them included the 1927 Right Off the Map by C. E. Montague as s-f because it was about a war between the fictional South American countries of Ria and Porta (clearly inspired by the Boer War).

I also read a lot of these in Belgian/French bandes dessinées. The best-known are the Republic of San Theodoros in Herge’s Tintin albums, and Andre Franquin’s Republic of Palombia (where the Marsupilamis come from) in the Spirou and Fantasio albums.

Anyhow, either creating a fictional country vaguely like one in Central Europe or the Balkans or Latin America, or more recently Southeast Asia (The Ugly American), or taking a specific country as your model and changing its name, have long and respectable histories.

The name Cibola has echoes of California in that they were both 16th-century Spanish New World references. California (what is today Baja California in México) was named in 1540 by the explorer Hernando de Alarcón after the fictional Queen Calafia of the Amazons in the novel Las Sergas de Esplandián (earliest known edition published in 1510, but supposedly reprinted from a lost first edition in 1496) by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo. (I tried reading it in college. Horrible; horrible! It was specifically named by Cervantes as one of the fantastic novels that had rotted Don Quixote’s brain.) Cibola, from the legendary Seven Cities of Gold in the land of Cibola, was a supposed country far to the north that the Aztecs and other Mesoamericans told Cortez’s Spanish invaders about during the 1520s. Some modern scholars believe it was just an attempt by the North American natives to send the Spaniards on a wild goose chase and leave them alone. Francisco Vázquez de Coronado led an expedition during the 1530s to find Cibola, but the best that he discovered was the adobe towns of New Mexico, also in 1540.

So: Cibola might be too North American/U.S. a reference for a Central American country, especially for Nicaraguans who would remember William Walker’s attempt during the 1850s to make himself President of Nicaragua and make Louisiana-style slavery legal. On the other hand, if your fictional revolutionaries wanted a name promising a golden future, they might pick Cibola; especially if they were more interested in international press releases. But I’d pick a name based closer to Nicaragua’s pre-Spanish past like Anahuac. The first Spanish explorers to reach Nicaragua in the 1520s found a city named Quauhcapolca, ruled by a chieftan named Macuilmiquiztli – both probably too much of a mouthful for a modern country’s name.

On the third hand, the “Beverly Hills” upscale district of Ciudad México is named Xochimilco (“flower field” in Nahuatl) and everyone is happy with that, so who knows? The Republic of Quauhcapolca? It’s not much more difficult to say than Nicaragua.

A modern example of real renaming is when Army Captain Thomas Sankara seized power in the West African Republic of Upper Volta in 1983. He renamed the country Burkina Faso, or “The Land of Upright Men” in the local Mossi language, on the grounds that the Upper Volta name had been imposed by the French colonialists and was meaningless to the inhabitants. Sankara was killed in 1987, but the Burkina Faso name has lasted.

I been writing for years and ironically I sometimes use Latin names of the species I am writing about for the name of the country. I say have fun with it, writing is suppose to be enjoyable and not a chore.