Choosing the Best Common Name

Crayfish.  Crawfish.  Crawdaddies.  Mudbugs.  The little tasty critters have lots of different names, which is why different regions have different names for the same animal.  This is the reason biologists use scientific names, in this case Procambarus clarkii, so that everyone in the biology community can know they are talking about the same creature.

This matters for an author.  You can’t call an animal Felis concolor in your story; most of your audience won’t know what you’re talking about.  The cat has a lot of common names, though, with different regions and cultural groups, so it falls to you to know which one is appropriate for the setting of your story.  In the midwest they are usually called cougars; Californians call them mountain lions, and many of their colorful common names like painter, red cat, and catamount come from different areas of the Appalachians. 

For a fantasy author, there are multiple decisions when it comes to using a wild animal in a story.  Do I use an existing animal or create one?  If I use a real animal, which common name fits better with the story?  Remember if you use a real animal but create a new common name, you’re going to have to spend several sentences describing the animal so your readers will recognize it.

I have a personal example of needing to reconsider an animal choice in my story.  Between the first draft and the second of my novel I made a change to a character’s costume.  I had her dressed as a raccoon for a masquerade ball.  This bothered a couple of my zoology-minded first readers, because the raccoon has a very specific range in the real world: it is only found in North America.  Knowing this, it pulled them out of the created world of the story.  Every other animal I had used for the masquerade was generic enough that the setting wasn’t ruined, but a raccoon was not a good choice.  I ended up changing her costume to that of a squirrel; it worked equally well for the theme of the ball, and squirrels are generic enough that it didn’t interrupt the flow of the story for my friends and readers who are familiar with zoology.