Language and Meaning

dictionaryIn the third book of my Empire’s Legacy trilogy, my protagonist Lena is thinking about language:

I tried to sort out the inchoate ideas forming in my mind. About language, and meaning, and if all concepts were universal, and could be translated. About the gap between intent and comprehension, between what was meant and what was understood, and the assumptions and shared experience encompassed—or not—in any exchange.’

While this is a theme in the Empire’s Legacy trilogy, and the sequel currently in progress, it’s also recently become of immediate personal interest to me. Exactly how to categorize the series for Amazon’s keywords and classifications is very far from simple, because of that gap between what is meant, and what is understood.

I’ve always called the series ‘historical fantasy’. But that has resulted in some vocal protest: it’s not fantasy, because there is no magic. But the world is not real, I would counter, so doesn’t that make it fantasy?  Not in everyone’s mind. I tried ‘alternative history’. Again, disagreement, because there is no historical event being mirrored, only an echo of the Roman Empire and its provinces. Speculative fiction? Perhaps, but a term misunderstood or not familiar to too many.

This is minor, of course: I’m marketing books, not trying to create a shared understanding of world-changing issues. But in Book III, Empire’s Exile, and more so in the work-in-progress, Empire’s Reckoning, that’s exactly what my characters are doing, trying to negotiate treaties that change the world. Which makes me think about Lena’s question, and its applicability to both my fictional world and our real one. How do you reach a shared understanding when simple words like ‘fantasy’ – or ‘equality’ or ‘citizen’ – mean such different things to different people? When a word like ‘immigrant’ conjures up positives in one mind and only negatives in another?

As writers we often strive for clarity (unless perhaps you are a poet, or James Joyce), but there will always be a gap between what is meant by the writer and what is understood by the reader. That is good, because it makes the world the reader enters theirs alone: shared by others, but always comprehended slightly differently. As long as we recognize that, and recognize too that another reader’s experience may different from yours. A starting place to discuss assumptions and shared experience, not a reason to end a conversation that might enlighten, illuminate and surprise.

As for the series?  How about ‘imaginative fiction’?

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