We begin in the rain.

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain. Time to die.”

Ohhh…that’s good isn’t it? Not least because it’s an ad-lib. Film buffs and quote fans will know it’s from ‘Blade Runner’ and, as well as it being just bloody good, it illustrates perfectly what I’m talking about in this post. The Name Drop.

The Name Drop in fiction is a fine art and, done right, will expand the imaginative borders of your story without you really trying. Be warned though – it’s a thin line between igniting your reader’s imagination and putting together a boring list of names. ‘Blade Runner’ does it right, by obeying the rule of mystery. What are C-beams? Where is the Tannhauser Gate? I have no idea, but it’s more fun imagining in my head than being shown. Because the power of a name can be so potent and so inspiring that it will put images and stories in the mind of your reader more intense than you could ever tell. It will allow them to take that name and conjure up their own notions of it.

Here’s a couple more example to illustrate the point, and they’re all from sci-fi, but that’s because sci-fi (and fantasy) does this so very well. You don’t find this sort of thing in Pride & Prejudice. Plus I’m a big geek. Another occasion when the Name Drop is done well is with Khan’s speech from Star Trek 2 (incidentally, fact fans, this speech is sort of a 23rd century update of Moby Dick)

“He tasks me. He tasks me and I shall have him! I’ll chase him round the moons of Nibia, and round the Antares Maelstrom, and round Perdition’s flames before I give him up!”

The Antares Maelstrom… What does that bring to mind? A tower of boiling nebula gases stretching for Lightyears across the dark and cold? A whirlpool of unstable gravity, flexing and distorting Space and swallowing up stray planets? Something else entirely? That’s the beauty of it. You don’t have to know what it is. It’s not going to affect the plot. But it sounds bloody exciting. And it gives some extra depth to proceedings.

‘Doctor Who’ does it to, and it’s one of my favourites when it comes to sci-fi name-dropping. Planets and places mentioned but never seen include Shalakatom, Woman Wept, Poosh, The Lightning Skies of Cottapalooza’s World, The Celestial Belt of the Winter Queen, The Phosphorus Carousel of the Great Magella-Geshtat, Pyrovillia, Klom, Villenguard, and the inimitable Rexacoricofallipatorius. Aren’t those places you want to go to? Don’t they make your mind wander to the farthest corners of possibility and linger there, revelling in exotic ‘maybes’? The mention of all those things stretches the scope of the universe the story is set in and, more importantly, fleshes it out. It gives it depth in the reader’s head. Be careful not to overdo it though. A few choice names work and pique interest; a great list of them will bore your reader.

And be sure to make any names interesting. They have to have some quality about them that provokes further thought. The Antares Maelstrom sounds dangerous and exciting. The Antares Cloud does not. I can’t tell you what works and what doesn’t – it’s trial and error. You just have to come up with something, say it out loud, and see if you get that thrill of possibility. Don’t inhibit yourself. Put words together you might not think would work. Flick through a dictionary or a book and just pick words that sound fun or evoke a certain thought/feeling, and see if they gel to make something. The crazier the better. Use foreign words too if you feel like it. You might just come up with the next panserbjorn.

It’s a device I’m using here and there in ‘The Invention of Steam’, mostly to fill in the nine year gap between the end of the Victorian Empire and the rise of the Empire of Steam. Events such as the Mineral Siege of Johannesburg, The Sterilisation of Paris, and illusions such as ‘The Charybdis Cord’ and ‘The Crimson Five Million’ all add to the mystery and thrill of the world without me blabbering on about it for pages and pages, slowly draining the mystery from them by explaining them.

So the next time you’re writing your sci-fi or fantasy, or maybe writing in a real world setting but need a good name for a book or game, give the Name Drop a try. Trust your reader to fill in the world for you. Let their imagination do the work. They’ll feel all the more rewarded for it. In just a few words you can give them the building blocks to imagine places more wonderful than your words can describe. Above all, have fun with it. If you do, your readers should certainly have fun with the results.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to see those attack ships…