Naming a Place

Monday, March 2, 2015

If you read last week's post, you know I left it with a question. How did I come up with Dewmist as the name of my fictional boarding school?

I’ll tell you in a minute. First, let me explain why I had to make up a name at all.

I got spoiled when writing my last middle grade historical novel. There were plenty of good memoirs with detailed accounts of what happened to the Japanese Americans living on the West Coast during World War II. More importantly, several of them traveled from Berkeley, California to the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, California to the Topaz War Relocation Center in the Utah desert. So it was easy to set my story in real places and know that I would have all but a few minor facts correct.

I can’t do that with the book I’m working on now. I’m setting my story in 1895, but the first boarding school opened in 1879 and some existed until the late 1900s.* Most of the memoirs I have are from the mid-20th century, and the ones that occurred earlier are short on details. I can’t find enough information to set my story in one particular school without the risk that someone will find significant factual errors.

That means I have to create a fictional school using what is universal and making up details consistent with the ones in the memoirs.

Okay. I can do that. But it means I need to make up a name, too. So how did I come up with Dewmist as the name for my boarding school?

I discarded a few choices before deciding to play with the letters in the word “Midwest,” which is where my school will be located. First, I tried reversing the word, but Tsewdim isn’t easy to say or remember. So I switched the first two letters and came up with Stewdim. But that didn’t seem very memorable, either. And Westmid is too obvious.

In the end, it came down to two choices: Mistdew and Dewmist. I chose Dewmist because it flows together better. As you can see, I simply rearranged a word and got a name.

But maybe you want a more fanciful explanation. Here’s one that I came up with after the fact. Dew and mist are temporary, dissolving when the sun comes out. The acculturation process at these boarding schools was also temporary, dissolving when the students went back to their reservations. Actually, some aspects stayed, but the schools couldn’t beat the Native American culture out of their residents.

And that’s a good thing.


* See Education for Extinction by David Wallace Adams.


The picture shows the East Building of the Shawnee Indian Mission boarding school in Fairway, Kansas, which Roland and I saw on vacation in 2013. The building was built in the early 1840s and is probably typical of the dormitory and school buildings at the various Midwest boarding schools.

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