Etymology Meets Lord of the Rings – the story behind Word Hunters

Okay, I can’t say Word Hunters is exactly ‘etymology meets Lord of the Rings’ – is anything? – but a while ago that seemed like a great line to open a pitch with. (It is young people on a challenging quest going to weird places, facing enemies and aided by a wise old man, so you can see how we got there …) Anyway, something worked. We snagged a publisher and today book one of the trilogy is out in the world.

Like everything else, it started a while before the pitch. I’d spent a day climbing a smallish mountain with friends and we were getting dinner ready when someone said something was ‘okay’. And someone else – I think it was Terry Whidborne – said ‘What does okay mean anyway? Were does it come from?’

For me, it was one of those once-in-a-generation moments of nerd glory. For the next who knows how long, I stopped the cooking, I stopped all other talk, I redefined my partially willing friends as my audience and I blurted out the story of ‘okay’. Or at least what I knew of it at the time – I know more now. Martin Van Buren, Old Kinderhoek (‘OK’) and the US presidential campaign of 1840.

It’s a great story and I like great stories. Most words don’t have them in their etymologies, but some do. I knew a few of them and occasionally I’d find myself nosing around for more. Was there a story behind ‘hello’, and how far back might it go? What’s that ‘y’ about in ‘ye olde’? It was an amateur fascination, and I never thought it’d cross over to my professional life with words.

Then it occurred to me that I might tell a few small stories, sending a couple of characters back to the various steps in the etymologies of some of the more interesting words. But I stopped myself. That’s not the kind of book I write. It sounded like it might involve, um, time travel. Which I don’t do. And I don’t do etymology and I don’t do books for kids (which is what it looked like they might be).

But I couldn’t talk the idea out of my head. And I knew that my friend Terry, who had been there for the big blurt-out of the ‘okay’ story, wanted to illustrate children’s books. He’s not alone there. Plenty of people want to illustrate children’s books or write them and it’s notoriously hard to break into, but I had enough of Terry’s art on my walls and I’d seen enough of his work online and elsewhere to think he could be the next Shaun Tan. Take a look at his website and you’ll see what I mean.

So I put my idea to him and he got on board right away. Time travel was fine by him. Big Doctor Who fan.

I called my agent and she said she was keen for us to give it a go as long as it wasn’t too much like The Word Spy. I didn’t know The Word Spy. As soon as I’d put down the phone I went and got myself a copy. All was okay. It was non fiction and I was planning some kind of adventure with fictional characters and the stories of words woven in.

Not as much of an adventure at that stage, it has to be said, but that’s certainly changed. We started asking the usual questions I’d ask of a nascent idea. Who are these characters? Why are they pursuing words into the past? (Okay, that’s not exactly a usual question – try and see it in terms of ‘Why are they doing what they’re doing?’, which is a very usual question.) How are they doing it? And what happens when they get there?

This time, we had two brains on the job. I chased down the stories of some words – lots of words – looking for those with maximum potential. Terry created the devices we came to refer to as pegs, which allow the characters to move from one phase of a word’s evolution to another. The whole thing became more elaborate.

Normally, I’d keep everything to myself until I’d seen it through all the way to a presentable draft. I don’t like letting publishers in too early. Sometimes it’s best just to serve the meal rather than let your guests into the kitchen in time to chop the parsley, stir the pot and ever so subtly and with the best of intentions change what it is you’re making.

But this was new territory and called for a different approach. Hence the pitch. We talked to a few publishers, but it was a meeting with UQP that clinched it. They got what we were doing and had ideas for making more of it. ‘Ramp up the adventure,’ Kristina Schulz (now our publisher) said. ‘What about a bad guy?’ Terry said.

Over the course of a couple of hours, our idea of five 6000-word books for 7-8 year olds, each with a single word quest, became three 20,000-word books for 9-12 year olds, each with three word quests. There would be story arcs across each book and across the trilogy.

Then it was time to get to work, and to learn over months that they weren’t 20,000-word books at all. They were 45-50,000-word books. We’d pitched 30,000 words in total, and the finish line is ending up closer to 150,000. It’s been a busy year and a half. Sometimes a crazy year and a half. But we’ve ended up with something that’s actually much better than the concept I had in mind in the first place.

Fleshed-out characters, big stories, huge adventures, intricate illustrations, bizarre and fascinating details from the past and, yes, mindblowing etymology. There is such a thing. Some words fought long and hard to get here, and it’s very interesting to see where they’ve been.

Word Hunters sees Lexi and Al, twelve-year-old twins, plunged into a quest to pin down the stages in the evolution of each word triggered in the Curious Dictionary in order to keep it alive in the present. It sees them facing battles, meeting inventors and kings and ancient librarians, and ending up in curious places it took me 48 years to learn about myself. And then the quest gets bigger, and takes on other dimensions …

Not that I’m going to spill the beans on the whole trilogy here and now. I’ll leave the books themselves to do that job. Well, the books, the tour, the website and the board game. All right, don’t get too excited – it’s not that kind of board game, not yet. But we will be touring with a game featuring corflute sign boards and there will be prizes …

15 books in 20 years and I’ve never had the chance to do that before. Like writing for kids. Like time travel. But here’s book 16 and now I have.

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12 Responses to Etymology Meets Lord of the Rings – the story behind Word Hunters

  1. Joe Wallace says:

    This sounds just wonderful, Nick. Now I just have to go on a treasure hunt to find a copy over here….

    • nickearls says:

      Thanks Joe. Wouldn’t it be nice if it didn’t require a treasure hunt? We have agents talking to publishers in New York and London, so here’s hoping. That process has just started though. If it wasn’t a tough time in publishing, I’d think the concept at least would be a much easier sell than some of the books of mine that have actually made it to the US. It’s the country that features second-most in the Word Hunters word quests, after England. Book one even starts in New Jersey in 1877. Anyway, we’ll see …

      • Joe Wallace says:

        It seems like an obvious step for this book–not even to mention the huge potential readership of that age here. Good luck!

        (Though I do think your previous books are pretty universal in their themes, and shouldn’t be such a hard sell here. And I’ve read most of them.)

  2. Good luck with it, Nick. It’s always interesting to work outside the usual range, I think.

  3. Maybe Book Depository will pick it up? Or are they only US & UK titles? Because shipping from Australia would be absolutely ruinous.

    • nickearls says:

      They might pick it up. Amazon and Book Depository seem to find ways to sell copies of almost anything. My preference would be to find the right children’s publisher in your part of the world though, so that purchasing there was made much easier. (The right publisher: one who thinks the idea is unadulterated genius, showers me with cash and takes all the necessary steps to ensure that the series is a big enough hit that soon I’m buying my own Bahama – you still have publishers like that, don’t you?)

  4. I’m so excited about this! I’ve been a fan of your work for years, and am also a massive word nerd, with a particular fondness for etymology. I recently read and loved Mark Forsyth’s book The Etymologicon and l’ve been in mourning since finishing it.

  5. This book came across my desk during book selection yesterday. I have now purchased a copy for our library – can’t wait to read it!!

  6. Karen Collum says:

    Sounds fabulous! And I have twin niece & nephew who might just be the perfect recipients of the book. After I’ve read it of course. Congrats!

  7. This sounds excellent. Perfect for my younger cousins! Must be fun to step outside the comfort zone a bit! 🙂

  8. Pingback: On choosing books by lucky dip « 1001 Children's Books

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