One of the things I loved the most about BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER was the way that the characters used words. I mean, every TV show and book uses words, but the BUFFY crew managed to do something really cool. Without inventing words or borrowing from other languages (both of which Whedon would do later), the show managed to be linguistically interesting. I could imagine real people talking the way the characters did, because it was such a natural extension of English.
Well, mostly natural.
Anyway, that’s what I wanted to do with my books. I was adding dragons to the world, and I wanted to think about any of the ways that dragons might have changed the way we talk, without changing the way we talk entirely. The key is that you have to know the rules to break them, and I do know the rules. That’s part of what makes it so much fun.
I batted around a bunch of ideas, but ended up deciding on one small change. Since dying, or at least the threat of dying, was so central to the idea of dragon slaying, the words I ended up fiddling with were two verbs: “to kill” and “to slay”.
I set them up as two entirely different words. If a dragons died, it was never, ever, ever “killed”. That word was reserved for humans entirely. I wanted a hard opposite for dragons, which was a problem, because “to slay” has a different form. You have slayed the dragon, but the dragon has been slain.
I didn’t want that. I wanted the word to always be the same. I decided to go with “slayed”, even though it was not entirely grammatically sound, because it was a good mirror for “killed”. Unfortunately “kiln” is not a word that I can use in this context, so it had to be “killed” and “slayed” right from the get go.
Now, I ran approximately a hundred million Ctrl F searches on “killed” and “slain” just to be sure I hadn’t made an oversight while I writing. The only thing I checked more obsessively was the number of syllables in the haiku at the end of the St. George chapter. My point here is that “slayed” is not a mistake. Ever. In the text, in the world of Owen and Siobhan, it is the only word that means you have ended the life of a dragon.
I fought with at least one test reader over this from the very beginning, but I was determined to leave it as it was written. During revisions, I explained the world building to my editor, and got to keep it. A couple of reviewers have mentioned using “slayed” as a criticism, which is one of the reasons I’m writing this post. I’m very glad I got to keep my somewhat awkward word choice, though, and that it stayed as subtle as it is, because most of the world building I got to do was very subtle (well, as subtle as a dragon can be), and much of it was word based.
The other place I got to world build was, of course, with the dragons themselves. Here, it was mostly with the dragon’s names, thought obviously their historical impact also came into play.
In OWEN, the dragons are mostly referred to by their Latin (or scientific) names. The corn dragon is my exception, because it’s also my joke: there is no word in Latin for corn, because corn is a North American crop. Accordingly, the dragon is actually called the wheat dragon, which is why it is stupid, and sometimes cannot tell corn from beans.
PRAIRIE FIRE has my favourite dragon name word joke, by far, and also my favourite dragon. But you will have to wait for that.