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I'm in planning stages of a war fantasy story that is based on specific historical events in Burma, and I've kind of hit a wall when thinking about how close to make the fantasy world to the real world, especially in terms of naming places/objects.

Random example: a 'longyi' is a standard form of dress for men - a piece of material that wraps around their lower half.

So, in my fantasy world, can I use this word 'longyi'? (While also giving some description of it for readers who wouldn't know the term). Does it make sense to have a Burmese word in a fantasy world where there is no Burma in existence? If not, what would be the best alternative: creating a completely new name for a similar item, or just using a generic name (such as 'wrap')?

A similar question goes for place names, although of course the real names will not be used; but should the fantasy nation have a completely invented name that separates it from its real name; or should it be some iteration of its real name - like Birmania, for example?

I'm especially interested in asking these questions because this is not my history or my culture; though I have lived in the country for a few years and know about it quite well, I have seen a lot of criticisms lately for some works that deal with other cultures (cough cough JK Rowling). I kind of don't like to ask this question because I think, its fantasy, its fiction...but I do think its worth asking the question at least.

Even appropriation-related issues aside, which option is best for bringing realism to the work while also setting it apart as a fantasy? I realise the answers are probably quite subjective but I'm interested in hearing your thoughts!

A couple of edits - thanks for the suggestion of a similar question, though that one refers more to using real people's names, which I don't intend to do; I will have characters who reflect certain groups and maybe individuals but not explicitly.

Second edit is another example of the 'kukri', I curved knife that was used at the time. Again would using the word kukri make sense in the fantasy world? I suppose it wouldn't make much sense not to use it, it is a very specific object, but it may also pull people too far out of the fantasy.

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    Does this answer your question? Using real names in fiction
    – Chenmunka
    Sep 30 at 19:49
  • I say borrow shamelessly. One person's appropriation is another's attempt to reveal another culture to people who haven't been exposed to it. Lots of fantasy cultures are based on lots of ancient civilizations. No one owns history, and it doesn't sound like you plan to be disrespectful. This isn't a separate answer from JRE, so I'm leaving it as a comment.
    – DWKraus
    Oct 1 at 20:14
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Go ahead and use the Burmese words. How many English speaking readers do you think will recognize the Burmese words for what they are? They look "fantastical" enough as they are.

Some (few) may know the words as they are - any one in Burma who happens to read to story in English.

Some may realize that you've borrowed words. They might look them up and gain a better understanding of the appearance and use of the items.

Most readers will just think "Oh. Fantasy words," and get on with reading your story.

Place names are a little trickier. When you use real place names, you might mix events in that place with real events that took place there at some time. There's a possibility of aggravating people who were on one side or another of the real events. You could take a stand on one side or the other (and possibly alienate the supporters of the other side,) or take the stand that both sides were in the wrong (alienating supporters of both sides,) or take the stance that both sides reacted as well as possible in a bad situation (that also stands a chance of alienating both sides.)


I have read novels from authors who do both of those things.

David Drake routinely writes novels set either in fantasy worlds or science fiction worlds where the setting is taken from real countries and incidents in history. The place names in the stories are often taken directly from the historical incident that inspired the novel. I just re-read Drake's What Distant Deeps. The political situation involved is based on events in the Roman Empire in about 300AD. Rome used other countries to fight wars by proxy, and found difficulties in managing just what those proxies did.

One such proxy was Palmyra. In What Distant Deeps, there is a planet by the name of Palmyra - a relatively backwater place. There are two major powers, one of which makes use of the fictional Palmyra to control the region around it. As in the real world, Palmyra had other plans than the major power did, so that things didn't work out like the major players planned. The real Palmyra took over a part of the Roman Empire. The fictional Palmyra tried something similar, but was stymied by the good guys to prevent an all out war between the two major powers.

If you don't know the sources of the names, they just sound made up. If you know Drake's tendency to use real places and events, you can look them up and find the real history behind them.

Reality has a tendency to produce things that are at once stranger than and more believable than fantasy. Take the templates provided by history, and use them to write better stories.

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