Meter, language, and culture

In verse, one of the most important parts of the work is its rhythm, the pattern of sounds and syllables and the way they “flow” together. Aesthetically, we perceive a poetic or musical utterance that is out of rhythm as dissonant, like a dancer tripping over his own feet. If you have any ear for music at all, you’ve probably noticed this. Think of when somebody you know tries to fit a bunch of words into the pattern of a familiar song, but he gets them all wrong. The line doesn’t scan, and it sounds awful.

This is one expression of the idea of meter. Now, if you remember English classes in high school, you probably recall those endless lessons about classical meter. You know, iambic pentameter, and…nobody older than sixteen can ever name any of the others. I know I can’t without looking them up.

But meter isn’t just important for reading Shakespeare and pleasing English teachers. (Personally, I didn’t care for either of those activities.) It’s actually an integral part of language as a whole, and verse in particular.

Unit of measurement

Now, I’m not going into a long digression about the kinds of meter and all that. I just don’t want to, and it doesn’t really help the discussion. Instead, this post will focus on the generalities of meter and how they relate to a language and a culture. That, I believe, is more enlightening than trying to memorize the difference between an iamb and a trochee or whatever.

Meter is the rhythm of language, as I said, and each language has its own, even before you start talking about poetry. Some languages, for instance, have a fixed stress position; according to WALS Chapter 14, about 56% are like this. Of these, most have a fixed stress on the penultimate (second to last) or initial syllable of a word, while the final syllable is a fairly distant 3rd place.

Now, if a language requires stress to be in a certain place, then that’s something verse has to work around. It forces a kind of “template” on meter. Initial and penultimate stress, for instance, both imply a stressed-unstressed (trochaic) pattern, while final stress gives the opposite (iambic) pattern. That doesn’t always have to be true, of course, but there’s an obvious pressure to do things that way.

A lot of other languages, however, are like English. Their stress can move around. In English, for example, affixes can and do affect stress: compare nation (stress on first syllable) to nationality (stress on the third from the last).

In such languages, there’s no obvious “default” meter. Now, there can be other factors determining which rhythms are acceptable, but any rules are more along the lines of convention than law. Thus, English has a rich history of different meter types, and these have come to be associated with different authors, styles, and even moods.

If you’re making your own language (and culture), then this knowledge gives you an edge on pursuing more creative aspects of your work. Say you’ve already decided that your conlang has a fixed penultimate stress. Well, the speakers will naturally gravitate towards poetic meters which go well with that.

Length of a meter

Now, that’s only half the problem. For a lot of verse, not only are you worrying about the rhythmic pattern of “heavy” and “light” syllables, but also how many there are. That’s where the “pentameter” part of “iambic pentameter” comes in: one line of that meter is five feet long, each of which is an iamb. (One meter, of course, is about 3.28 feet, but that’s neither here nor there. And so ends your daily dose of puns.)

English, thanks to its startling propensity for muttering, shortening, and just plain ignoring unstressed syllables, gets a lot of leeway in this department, but there’s only so far you can really go. Really, the length of a line is going to be measured in stresses, however a language counts them, and a verse in a consistent meter will have lines containing generally the same number of those stresses. (That’s where the “poor scanning” thing comes in: the words you’re trying to fit into the rhythm don’t line up with the expected stress pattern, so it sounds forced and unnatural.)

In languages without overt stress, the principle is roughly the same. Pitch-accent languages may be able to substitute high pitch or pitch drops for stress. Tonal languages are a bit harder, but there will be patterns there, too. And we can even talk about line length separate from meter, as in Japanese haiku, with their fixed structure of three lines, containing, in order, five, seven, and five morae. (A mora is like a syllable, except that, e.g., long vowels count as two morae instead of one. Some languages use these as the basic constituent of meter, rather than syllables.)

A musical note

Meter carries over from poetry into song, too. After all, they both come from the same foundations. In Western music, for example, 4/4 time is common, and the usual pattern is a heavier “stress” on the first and third beats of a measure. If you consider each beat to be a syllable (or mora, if your language is doing that), then that maps quite naturally onto a trochaic rhythm. Put the emphasis on beats two and four instead, and you’ve got something iambic.

There are a few easy ways you can use that to your advantage. One, you can assume that the off beats are unstressed syllables, making each measure two metrical feet, if we’re using 4/4 time. (Something like, say, 6/4 would be different, but the math should be easy.) Another option is to take one beat as the primary stress, turning each measure into a single foot.

Once you get outside the Western musical tradition, this pattern tends to break down, but not the basic idea of it. Beats match up with stresses, pitch changes, or whatever a language uses. That’s not even a cultural thing, really. It’s pretty much hardwired into our brains. The cultural aspect is all in deciding what patterns we want to hear.


Writing verse is hard. I can’t do it—that’s why I’m writing about it instead. Setting it to music is even more difficult. But the basics aren’t impossible to understand. Verse, whether in poetry or song, comes down to following (and knowing when not to follow) simple patterns in language. Meter is one of those patterns, an imprint upon our poetry, a kind of paint-by-numbers outline. If you’ve ever tapped your foot to a song or been entranced by a chant or speech, you know how powerful those patterns can be.

Pandoc filter for books

Pandoc is a great tool, as I’ve already stated, but it can’t do everything. And some of the things it dies aren’t exactly what you’d want when creating a book. This is especially true when working on a print-ready PDF, as I’ve been doing.

Fortunately, there is a solution. Unfortunately, it’s not a pretty one. The way Pandoc works internally—I’m simplifying a lot here, so bear with me—is by turning your input document (Markdown, in my case) into an AST, then building your output from that. That’s basically the same thing a compiler does, so you could think of Pandoc as something like a Markdown compiler that can output PDF, EPUB, HTML, or whatever.

In addition to the usual “compiler” niceties, you’re also given access to an intermediate stage. If you tell Pandoc to let you, you can use filters to modify the AST before it’s sent off to the output stage. That lets you do a lot of modifications and effects that aren’t possible with plain Markdown or LaTeX or even HTML. It’s great, but…

Cruel and unusual

But Pandoc is written in Haskell. Haskell, if you’re not familiar with programming languages, is the tenth circle Dante didn’t tell you about. It’s awful, if you’ve ever written code in any other language, because it’s designed around a philosophy that doesn’t really match anything else in the programming world. (Seriously, go look up “monads” if you’re bored.) For us mere mortals, it’s sheer torture trying to understand a Haskell program, much less write one. And Pandoc’s default language for writing filters, alas, is this monstrosity.

If I had to do that, I’d have given up months ago. But I’m in luck, because Pandoc’s developer recognizes that we’re not all masochists, and he gave us the option to write filters in Python instead. Now that I can use. It’s not pretty. It’s not nice. But it gets the job done, and it does so without needing to install extra libraries or anything like that.

So, I’ve written a few filters that take care of some of the drudgery of converting Markdown into a decent-looking PDF. You can find them in this Gist if you want to see the gory details, and I’ll describe each of them below.

Fancy breaks

In Pandoc’s version of Markdown, you can get a horizontal rule (the HTML hr element) by making a line containing only asterisks with spaces between them: * * * is what I use these days. It’s simple enough, and you can use CSS to make it not appear as an actual line across the page, but as a nice vertical blank space that serves as a scene break. It even carries over into MOBI format when you use Kindlegen.

But it doesn’t work for PDFs. Well, it does, but there’s an even better way. Since I’m using Memoir, I get what are called “fancy” breaks. In print, they’re nothing more than a centered set of asterisks, stars, or any other icon you’d like to use. Those can be a bit tacky if they show up after every seen, though, so there’s another option that only shows the “fancy” breaks when they’d be at the end of a page, but instead puts in a “plain” blank otherwise. In Memoir, this is the \pfbreak command, and it’s smart enough to choose the right style every time.

So all the filter does is swap out Pandoc’s HorizontalRule AST element, replacing it with the raw LaTeX code for Memoir’s “plain fancy break”. Take out the boilerplate, and it’s literally only three lines of code. Simple, even for me.

Writing links

Another difference between print and digital editions of a book comes from the formatting available. E-books are interactive in a way paper can’t be. They can use hyperlinks, and I do exactly that. But it’s impossible to click on a link in a paperback, and blue doesn’t show up in a black and white book, so I need to get rid of the link part. Ideally, I’d like to keep the address, though.

For this, I wrote the filter. This one’s a little bit harder to explain from a code point of view. From the reader’s perspective, though it’s easy: every link is removed, but its address is added to the text in parentheses instead. It comes out as preformatted (or verbatim) text, in whatever monospaced font I’m using. (I actually don’t remember which one.)

The guts of this filter are only 5 lines, and the hardest part was working out exactly what I had to do to get the link address. Pandoc’s API documentation isn’t very helpful in this regard, and it gets even worse in a moment.

Drop caps and raised initials

Here’s where I was ready to gouge my own eyeballs out. If you look at the code for and, you’ll probably see why. Let’s back up just a second, though, so we can ask a simple question: What was I thinking? (Don’t answer that.)

I like the “raised initial” style for books. With this, the first letter of a chapter is printed bigger than the rest, and the rest of the first word is printed in regular-sized small caps. Other people like “drop caps”, where the initial letter hangs down into the first paragraph. Either way, one LaTeX package, lettrine, takes care of your needs. Using it with Memoir is a matter of importing it and adding a bit of markup at the beginning of each chapter.

Using it with Pandoc, on the other hand, takes more work. Since I don’t want to sprinkle LaTeX code all over my source documents, I made these filters to inject that code later in the process. And that was…not fun at all. After a lot of trial and error (going from Haskell to Python and back doesn’t give you a lot of useful diagnostics), I settled on the process I used in these filters. They’re the same thing, by the way. The only real difference is their output.

Well, and has to break up a Quoted element so it doesn’t blow up the opening quotation mark instead of the first letter. Doing that required some trickery. If you’d like to try it for yourself, I suggest drinking heavily. If you don’t drink, well, you’ll want to by the time you’re done.

Limitations and future expansion

Anyway, after I finished this herculean task, I had a set of filters that would let me use my original source files but produce something much more suited to Memoir and the paperback format. Now I’ve got fancy scene breaks, links that write themselves out when they’re in a PDF, and those wonderfully enormous initial letters starting each chapter.

Can I do more? Of course I can. The last two filters don’t take into account “front matter” chapters. For my current novels, that’s not a problem, as I don’t use those. But if you need something with, say, an extended foreword, then you’d need to hack on the scripts to fix that.

There’s also nothing at all I can do for the opening pages of the book, the parts that come before the text. Here, the formats are too different even for filters. I’m talking about the title page, copyright page, dedication, and things like that. (These, in fact, are considered front matter, but they’re not part of a chapter, so the last paragraph doesn’t apply.) I still need to maintain two versions of those, and I don’t see any real way around that.

Still, what I’ve got so far is good. It was a lot of work, but it’s work I only have to do once. That’s the beauty of programming in a nutshell. It’s automation. Sure, I could have done the editing by hand instead of writing scripts to do it for me, and I probably would have been done sooner, but now I won’t have to do it all over again for Nocturne or any other book I write in the future.

To close out this miniseries, I have one more post in mind. This one will look at some of the additional LaTeX packages I used, like the lettrine one I mentioned above. By the time that comes out, maybe I’ll even have another book ready.

Release: Either Side of Night

At long last, after months of writing, rewriting, editing, and “beta” testing, the Linear Cycle has begun. This set of 6 stories (call them novelettes if you wish) tells the tale of the Valtian Empire and its fall to the Touched, a horde of supernaturally animated dead that feeds off magical energies. The story opens with “Either Side of Night”, the tale of Dusk, a boy caught in the midst of this unfolding disaster.

This is probably one of the darkest stories I’ve written. It has a horror aspect in the zombie horde (though I specifically avoid both the term “zombie” and the phrase “walking dead”), and a kind of epic feel in later parts. I do focus a lot on the “negative” emotional aspects, probably more than in any of my other works. Pathos, drama, despair…they’re all here, and I don’t shy away from depicting some truly heartbreaking scenes. (Seriously. Reading the ending of the series without crying was actually harder than I thought.) But there’s a lot of hope buried in there, too. Yes, it’s the end of the world as we know it, but that doesn’t mean it’s the end of everything.

You can click the link above to get to the main page for the story here on Prose Poetry Code, or you can pick it up on the Kindle store for 99 cents. If you like, you can also get it from Patreon for about the same price; if you keep up your pledge over there, though, you’ll get access to my other works, including future installments of the Linear Cycle.

Keep watching for the second part of the series, “The Last Captain”, coming May 22.

Nocturne on Patreon

Today, April 21, 2017, marks the release of my latest novel, Nocturne, to supporters of my Patreon. For a pledge of only $3/month, you can download a copy in EPUB or MOBI formats, readable on your desktop, mobile device, or e-reader. (You can cancel the backing at any time, of course, but I’d prefer that you didn’t.)

What is Nocturne, you may ask? Here’s the blurb I wrote for it:

He is the Nocturne, and this is his story.

In a world where children are marked for life by the hour of their birth, one man breaks the rules. In Velin, those born in the dark, moonless night are perceived as treacherous thieves, while their brethren of the day are lifted up, glorified. But Shade entered the world in a brief window of darkness within the day, a phenomenon seen once a generation.

He is neither, yet he is both. Now, he must use the combination of day and night to solve the riddle of his past, but also to save the future of a people. Hunted by church and crown alike, the road he walks is long and lonely, yet he knows there is no one else. Only Shade. Only the Nocturne.

One of those searching for him is Kellis Matene, an inspector in training. Her superiors gave her the case of a man born in the night, calling on his fellows, urging action. A rebel, a traitor. As a king dies, a pretender emerges, and Kellis must solve a mystery. All she has to go on is a single name: the Nocturne.

It’s a fantasy novel set in a world of racial tensions, magic, and religion. At the intersection stands the Nocturne, an outcast who wields a power beyond any other man. I’ll be talking a lot more about the book in the coming weeks, because it’s definitely something I’m proud of. And I do plan on releasing it onto the Kindle Store in July, but we’ll see how that pans out.

On idioms

One of the hardest things about creating a realistic, naturalistic language of your own is capturing some of the ways real-world languages create meaning. Some of those ways are less than obvious, as anyone who’s tried to translate metaphors well knows. And idioms might be the worst of all.


Idioms, in essence, are phrases with meanings that are not obvious, that can’t be determined by looking at their constituent parts. They’re figures of speech. They often grow out of slang or colloquialisms, they may be highly dialectal, and many are simply untranslatable. An idiom’s meaning will often be figurative, not literal (though this isn’t always the case), and there can often be significant cultural associations involved.

Now, idioms aren’t the same thing as metaphors and similes. Those are comparisons. Equations, if you will. An idiom, on the other hand, is simply a fixed phrase with a specific meaning, one that substitutes for the “real thing”. And they’re also not necessarily euphemisms, because there doesn’t have to be any hiding involved. Everything can be out in the open, but it may be harder to put together, especially if you’re not a native speaker.

English, of course, is full of idioms. We talk about jokes or lies as “pulling one’s leg”, for instance, and a sad person might be described as “feeling blue”, a familiar one as “ringing a bell”. Neither of these phrases makes any literal sense, as (unless you have synaesthesia) you can’t really “feel” blue. Some others, like “knock on wood” and “cross my heart” may have grown out of actual practices, but they’ve since become idiomatic.


The problem with idioms is that, because they’re so very culture-specific, they’re exceedingly difficult to translate. In some cases, they may even be impossible to render into another language while still preserving some semblance of meaning. Literal, word-by-word translation fails utterly, because of the figurative nature of the idiom; it may be a phrase made up of words, but it’s an indivisible unit.

Many languages, especially those closely related, may have idioms with similar meanings, which helps. But a conlang, by definition, doesn’t have that luxury. Again, literal translations won’t work, so what do we do?

For auxiliary languages, the best option might be to ignore idioms altogether. The whole point of an auxlang is to foster communication, and figures of speech actively work against clarity. So, we can just distill English (or whatever) idioms to their core meaning, and translate that instead. Simple, right? (Well, wrong, but it’s close enough for now.)

More artistic conlangs are worse off when they need to translate idioms. When you’re first starting with a new language, the “distill” approach might be your best bet, but as your creation gets more involved, more complex, you’re going to have to come up with something better.


Eventually, you may need to start creating your own idioms. Either you want to use them in your conlang, or you’ve come to the conclusion that the best method of translating out of English (or your native tongue) is to swap like for like. Here’s one of the more creative areas of language construction, which naturally means that it’s one of the hardest to generalize.

Idioms are figures of speech. If you’re making a conlang that has any sort of culture behind it, then you’ll need to think about what figures into that culture. History, art, religion, science, politics, mythology, and almost anything else can come into play here. For example, a lot of our English idioms derive from medieval or early modern Christian beliefs (“the devil’s in the details”) or culture (“the proof is in the pudding”), but the past few decades have brought an increasing number of modern creations referring to technology (“information superhighway”; fortunately, that one finally died out) or media (“Netflix and chill”).

For a conlang, then, idioms require a cultural backdrop. It doesn’t have to be perfect, and you only have to go into as much detail as the work requires, but if you want to make something natural-looking, you might need to do a lot more thinking than you originally anticipated. Borrowing (which you might think is the easiest way to go) doesn’t really work, though you might be able to get away with importing a few English modernisms into a near-future conlang—you could always blame the Internet. Everybody else does.

Finally, if you want to make idioms for aliens, well, have fun with that. Seriously, those will require even more careful thought, and you’ll likely end up with a lot of phrases that simply do not translate at all. Come to think of it, that may be a good thing…


I know there’s not a lot here. As I said before, idioms, being figurative and not easily “buildable” in the same sense as the rest of a language, don’t lend themselves well to generalizations. We use them all the time, but it turns out to be really hard to define them precisely enough for cross-language purposes. They’re one of the hardest parts of a language to learn, because they don’t fit in, and that also makes them nearly (if not entirely) impossible to translate. Not really a winning combination for artificial languages. Hence, idiom creation is an art, not a science. The best advice I can think of? Follow your heart. (Oh, and there’s an idiom for you. What a way to end a post, right?)

Playing with Memoir

Last time, I talked a little about how I used Pandoc to create a paperback book. Well, since I wrote that, I’ve not only posted the thing, but I have a copy of my own. Seriously. That’s a strange feeling, as I wrote about on Patreon.

Anyway, I promised I’d talk about how I did it, so that’s what I’ll do. First off, we’ll look at Memoir, one of the greatest inventions in the history of computer-aided authorship.

Optional text

Memoir is a LaTeX class; essentially, it’s a software package that gives you a framework for creating beautiful books with less painstaking effort than you would expect. (Not none, mind you. If you don’t know what you’re doing—I can’t say I do—then it can be…unwieldy.)

It’s not perfect, and the documentation is lacking in some respects (the package’s author actively refuses to tell you how to do some things that upset his aesthetic sensibilities), but it’s far superior to anything you’d get out of a word processor. Oh, and it’s like code, too, which is great for logical, left-brain types like me.

So, let’s assume you know how to use LaTeX and include classes and all that, because this isn’t a tutorial. Instead, I’ll talk about what I did to beat this beast into shape.

First off, we’ve got the class options. Like most LaTeX packages, Memoir is customizable in the extreme. It’s not meant only for books; you can do a journal article with it, or a thesis, or just about anything that could appear in print. So it has to be ready for all those different printing formats. Want to make everything print only on one side of the page? You can do that. Multicolumn output, like in a newspaper? Sure, why not?

The list goes on, but I only need a few options. “Real” books are single-column and double-sided, so I’ll be using the appropriate class options, onecolumn and twosided. Books in English start on the right-hand page, so add in openright. But wait! Since most books use these options anyway, Memoir simply makes them the default, so I don’t have to do anything! (Now, if you’re making manga or something, you might need to use openleft instead, but that’s the exception, not the rule.)

Besides those, I only need to specify two other options. One is ebook, which sets the page to a nice 6″ x 9″—exactly the same as Amazon’s default paperback size. If you want something else, it can get…nontrivial, but let’s stick to the basics. Oh, and I want american, because I am one; this changes some of the typography rules, though I’ll confess I don’t know which ones.

Set it up

The remainder of the LaTeX “coding” is mostly a series of markup commands, which work a bit like HTML tags. The primary “content” ones are \frontmatter, \mainmatter, and \backmatter, which are common to Memoir and other packages; they tell the system where in the book you are. A preface, for instance, is in the front matter, and you can configure things so it gets its pages numbered in Roman numerals. Pretty much the usual, really, and not Memoir-specific.

For typography, some of the things I did include:

  • Changing margins. Amazon is finicky when it comes to these. It actually rejected my original design, because Memoir’s 0.5″ is apparently less than their 0.5″. So I’m using 0.75″ on the left and right for Before I Wake, and I suspect Nocturne will need something even bigger on the inside edge. Top and bottom get 1″ each, which seems comfortable.

  • Adding subtitle support. I don’t need this for either of the two novels I mentioned, but I might later on. Pandoc passes the subtitle part of its metadata through to LaTeX, but Memoir doesn’t support it. So I fixed that.

  • Creating a new title page. This was fun, for varying values of “fun”. Mostly, I just needed something functional. Then I had to do it again, to make the “half-title” page that professional books have.

  • Fixed headers and footers. This was mostly just configuration: page numbers in the outer corner of the header, author and title alternately in the middle, and footers left blank. Not too bad.

  • Changing the chapter style. Here’s where I almost gave up. By default, Pandoc tells LaTeX to create numbered chapters. Well, I did that myself. Rather than go back and change that (it would screw up the EPUB creation), I told Memoir to ignore the pre-made numbering completely. This is especially important when I get to Nocturne, because it has a prologue and epilogue. Having it put “Chapter 1: Prologue” would just be stupid.

  • Add blank pages. Now, you might be wondering about this one. Trust me, it’s for a good cause. Memoir is smart enough to add blank pages to make a chapter start on the right side (that openright thing I mentioned earlier), but it won’t do that at the end of the book, or if you go and manually make a title page, like I did. Oh, and if you’re doing a print book, remember that it ends on the left page.

The whole thing was almost a hundred lines of code, including the text for, e.g., the copyright and dedication pages. All in all, it took about three or four hours of work, but I really only have to do it once. Next time around, I just tweak a few values here and there, and that’s it. Automation. It’ll eventually take everybody’s job.

Coming up

So that’s enough to get something that looks like a book, but I’m still not done. Next up, you’ll get to see the bane of my existence: Pandoc filters. And then I’ll throw in a little bit about some interesting LaTeX packages I use, because I need Code posts. See you then!

Magic and tech: privacy

Privacy is a major topic in today’s world. We hear about surveillance, privacy rights, wiretapping, and so much else that it’s hard not to have at least some knowledge of the subject. Whether it’s privacy in the real world, on the Internet, or wherever, it’s really a big deal.

Although we may talk about privacy in strictly modern terms, that doesn’t mean it’s a modern invention. Previous generations had privacy, and they had the attacks on it, the dangers to it, and the need for it. It’s only in recent times that “bad” actors (e.g., foreign—or domestic—government agents) have such a capacity for invading our privacy so effortlessly, so imperceptibly.

Private eyes

The easiest way to keep something private, of course, is to never make it public in the first place. If you’re putting every detail of your life on Facebook, then you really only have yourself to blame when it’s used against you. In general, that applies in any era, with the caveat that what’s considered “public” now might not have been so, say, a century ago. Now, this isn’t to say that not posting something guarantees it’ll never be seen in public (look at, for example, FBI-made spyware or NSA-developed cryptography algorithms), but it’s a good start.

Throughout history, privacy has also been a fight against those who are deliberately trying to invade your personal space. Today, it’s governments and corporations. Years ago, it was governments and neighborhood activist groups (is your neighbor a Communist?). In earlier times, it was governments and rival merchants. All of them would employ spies, informants, private detectives, and the like in their efforts to expose your secrets. And if you were important enough, you were almost obliged to do the same in retaliation.

Those things we need to keep private haven’t really changed, either. We still want to cover up our earlier transgressions, possibly illegal deeds, and all those things we wouldn’t be comfortable having “out there”. Yesterday’s scarlet letter is today’s racist tweet, a reminder of what happens when privacy fails. And the lengths we go to, the things we do to keep such parts of our past out of the public eye, those are becoming more important every day, because our world is getting more connected, but also less forgetful.

Today, we might use a VPN to hide our browsing history. We’ll clear cookies and block tracking scripts. Some people go even farther outside the Internet, avoiding entire city blocks because of surveillance, using burner phones, paying with cash wherever possible, and so on. Those are modern methods of protecting our privacy, but they have their roots in older ways. Hired runners, safe houses, ciphers—it’s all the same, just under a different name.

Magic-eye puzzles

Now, if you add magic, that breaks some of those methods. First off, if you’re in a D&D-style fantasy world, where any hedge wizard has access to the entire Player’s Handbook, you’ve got serious problems. A wizard who can use a scrying spell to see anywhere makes the NSA look like amateur hour. If he can pick up more senses—hearing, specifically—then privacy is essentially dead on arrival. Unless scry-blocking spells and enchantments are available, cheap, and useful, there’s nothing stopping such a setting from becoming the Panopticon.

But let’s take a step back, because the magical realm we’ve been discussing so far isn’t like that. No, it’s a bit more…down to earth. So let’s see what tools it has to protect privacy. While we’re at it, we’ll also take a look at the other side, because that’s always so much easier.

First, there aren’t any invisibility cloaks or disguise spells, unfortunately. However, we do have, thanks to the greater advances in the sciences that magic has created, a lot more options for mundane disguises. Clothing is cheaper, for example, so it’s easier to procure a sizable wardrobe. And travel is not nearly as time-consuming as in pre-modern Earth, meaning that hopping over to the next town to do your dirty work isn’t impossible; you may be suspicious, but not if enough people are moving around.

Privacy in our magical setting, then, is going to be mostly a matter of hiding and deflection, just like it used to be here. It’s not so much a technical problem as a way of thinking about a problem. It faces the same obstacles as in the Industrial era, and the people will most likely develop the same kinds of responses as our ancestors then. To take another example, think back to our magical pseudo-telegraph. These can’t easily be wiretapped—the telegraph (and later telephone) is where the term comes from—because there aren’t any wires. But that doesn’t mean our equivalent to the operator can’t be bought or even replaced. So, if sensitive information has to be sent over the magical lines, it’ll need to be encrypted.

On the flip side, once we’ve established that there are ways of recording or transmitting images and sounds, there’s an obvious kind of surveillance that comes about naturally: the hidden camera. Although they’d be magical in nature, the principle would be the same as in any spy movie. Visiting dignitaries would be wise to bring in their own mages to inspect their lodgings. (Although our actions in real life can’t be encrypted, our communications can, and a good cipher wouldn’t get any easier to crack with magic. Not until computers come around, at least.)

Hiding in plain sight

To remain private in our low-magic setting, therefore, we have to be cautious, but not overly so. The availability of recording devices and other such subterfuge won’t be high; the devices are expensive to create, and they take mages away from other tasks. But that doesn’t mean vigilance isn’t needed. Like in today’s world, how far you need to go to ensure your privacy is directly proportional to the damage your secrets would cause if they got out. If you’re carrying around national secrets, then you’d be stupid not to use the best encryption available. You’d be a fool if you didn’t inspect every room you entered for hidden microphones, magical or mundane.

For most of us, though, it’s a matter of being careful. Don’t give out sensitive information, because you never know who might be listening. Unlike today, our magical kingdom doesn’t have government supercomputers listening to everything we say. It doesn’t have corporations scanning every word we write. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to keep private matters private. There are always people snooping around. Magic won’t make them go away.

On neologisms

If you’re a writer of fiction that isn’t set wholly in Earth’s past or present, you’ve more than likely come across a situation requiring a word that simply does not exist. Science fiction has alien or future human technology; fantasy has magic and elves and the like. Sure, English has about a million words (depending on who’s counting) available for you to use, but sometimes that’s just not enough.

We’ve got a few ways we can fill this void. Which one is best depends on a lot of factors. For fantasy and aliens, you might need to come up with a fictional word from a fictional language. (If you do, well, maybe you should look at the Friday posts around here.) Established authors do this all the time, and not only to write epic conlang poetry. Tolkien casually dropped Elvish words like lembas into dialogue. Larry Niven’s Ringworld is constructed around a skeleton of scrith, an alien material stronger than anything humans could dream of making. And those are but two examples among many.

Technically, however, those are loanwords, linguistic borrowings that aren’t necessarily from any real language. For stories revolving around the interactions of disparate cultures, that might be exactly what you need. More human-focused writings, however, might want something else. This is especially true for, e.g., near-future sci-fi, where everything is mostly as it is today, apart from a few oddities. For these, we need to delve into the world of neologisms.

The making of a word

If you look at a dictionary of the English language, it’s obvious that no one sat down and came up with all of those hundreds of thousands of words in isolation. No, there are rules for most of them. Building blocks. Our language has a wide array of prefixes and suffixes, mostly borrowed from Latin and Greek in ages past, that allow us to create new terms with predictable meanings. (Linguists call this agglutination.) For example, we’ve got prefixes like un-, ex-, or over-, and then suffixes such as -ation, -ism, and -ness; Wikipedia, among others, has a whole list you can use.

Many of the new entries in the language—the more “technical” ones, at least—are fashioned by this process of agglutination: Internet, transgender, exoplanet, etc. All you have to do is snap the right pieces together to get the desired meaning, and there you go. In futuristic science fiction revolving around technological advancement, this may be all you really need.

Another option is even simpler: just use an existing word, but in a new context. We’re seeing that one a lot today, with terms like cast or stream or even tweet being reinterpreted to fit our modern world. Here, though, you have to be careful, because even if your characters understand the new meaning you’ve given these words, your readers might not. If you’re going this route, then, be sure to work in an explanation somewhere.

Compounding is another good option. Unlike agglutination, this sticks whole words together into a single, cohesive unit: swordmage, dragonborn. This process, in my opinion, is more suited to fantasy and such; it sounds less “scientific” to my ears. Your mileage may vary, however.

A kind of “opposite” of compounding and agglutination can be made by abbreviation. Different fields use this for jargon nowadays; in sci-fi, especially of the military or paramilitary varieties, this can make the narrator seem to “fit in” better. Shortened words like tac for tactical, vac for vacuum, and mag for magazine are mainly what I’m talking about here. They work best in dialogue, but putting them in narration is fine, as long as you make sure the reader is on board.

Last is the option of pure coinage—making a word from scratch. Unless you really know what you’re doing (or you’re not opposed to some serious linguistic construction), you might want to steer clear of this one. Here, you’re making a word that doesn’t actually exist, in whole or in part, and that’s a lot harder than you might think. When it’s not intended to be an “alien” word, whatever that may mean for your story, it’s actually quite difficult to come up with something that doesn’t sound corny and forced. For this one, I can’t really give much advice beyond “Play it by ear.”

In conclusion

However you choose to do it, adding new words (or new meanings for old words) really can help set the “otherness” of a world. An unfamiliar or nonexistent term is a sure sign that we’re not dealing with the ordinary anymore, whether it’s in there because you’re talking about aliens, elves, assault weapons, or the mysteries of the universe. (On a personal note, my forthcoming novel Nocturne uses neologisms to describe its magic; they’re all compounds.) Now, if you want to make a whole language, then check the “conlang” section of the site. And if you’re simply looking for technobabble that would make a Trekkie proud, well, that’s a different post. Maybe I’ll write it soon.