Monday, September 10, 2007

what's ON A NAME

Must a name mean something?” Alice asked doubtfully.“Of course it must,” Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: “my name means the shape I am—and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost.”
***Lewis Carroll

HANK: Okay, first things first. My name is Harriet Ann. Mom's idea. We've discussed it, and she's still not sorry.

But in a book, the author is the Mom. So how do we choose? For me, two things happen. One type of character appears with a name already in place. Charlie. Knew her before I typed one word. It's as if I didn't make it up, that was simply her name. Franklin was Franklin Brooks Parrish instantly, it just came out of the computer before I even thought of it.

In real life, no one's name describes them, unless they change it later, or it's a coincidence. But in a book, a name has to work, and somehow make sense with the character. (Without being heavy handed of course. You’re not going to make a bad guy something like Dev Evilman unless it’s comedy or you’re Ian Fleming. And you’re not going to name a bad guy Ace Goodman. I guess.)

Some I struggle with a bit. Penny, for instance. Was instantly Penny. Then I thought no, maybe that’s not a hip enough name for an eight-year-old kid with contemporary parents. So I changed her name in the manuscript to Emma. Then Annie. Then Ella. And all the while, when she showed up in the story, I kept typing Penny. Because, apparently, that’s what her name is—Penny. And so she stayed.

Anyway—the naming of Josh Gelston, the Atticus Finch-looking college professor Charlotte is so interested in—was truly hilarious. My first boyfriend ever, I think when I was about seven years old? Was named Phillip Gelston. I wanted a non-ethnic, sort of strong last name that wouldn’t instantly telegraph anything. Gelston worked.
But he couldn’t be Phillip, because of my own last name. So I started thinking about names that were one syllable, masculine, strong, traditional not trendy, very simple and that someone who is about 48 would logically have been named. So I thought: Luke. Jake. Max. Sam. Ben. Josh. Yes, Josh. Then Joshua Ives Gelston just came out of my brain. Which I loved.

Soon after Prime Time was released, I got an email with the subject line: Hello From Josh Gelston. Can you imagine how weird that was? And turned out, there’s a very cool guy, a caterer to rock stars who lives in New Hampshire, and his name is Josh Gelston! And he says, his brother is Ben.

So how do you choose names? And how much do you notice others? What's your favorite name of a character? I signed a book at Borders recently for a little girl named Maddie Drummond. DIBS.

HALLIE: The protagonist of the novel I'm working on right now is IVY. It's a name I would have named one of my daughters but my husband couldn't be convinced. Names can be really hard. I keep a file of neat names for use when I'm stuck. Did you know Holly Golightly in Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's was originally named Connie Gustafson? And that was before computers and the writers best friend: "Search and Replace."

Place names are tricky, too. There's the foreign country in Evelyn Waugh's "Scoop" - Ishmaelea (sounds like something out of the Marx Brothers). And what about the names authors give their fictional dogs? I always love Mother Theresa - the St. Bernard in Claire Cooke's "Must Love Dogs." Or the dog Bradley in Charles Baxter's "Feast of Love"

JAN: I'm oddly fixated on names. In fact, so are my brothers and both my children. We listen for names, remember, and almost always have strong opinions about them. It's weird. For me, names, especially female names, always have meaning, even if its the wrong meaning. In general, I'm pretty good about remembering names UNLESS I decide, in my wisdom, that you don't look like your name. For example, if your name is Patty, and you are a blonde, I think you are all wrong. In fact, I often think you are a Karen (always blonde) and will call you that. The other error I sometimes make is if you really, really look like a Peggy to me, I'll hesitate before I'll say your name because I'll question whether you really are Peggy or just look like a Peggy to me.

In naming characters, I find male names the hardest to come up with. That's because most men seemed to be named the same thing, depending on the generation, and there are fewer unusual male names that don't have strong connotations. I struggled with my protaganists boyfriend's name for weeks. The funny thing is that I finally decided on Matt Cavanaugh. A prosecutor in RI, I made him the the head of the criminal division. While writing the next book, I met the real head of the criminal division in RI, whose name was Matt and we became friends. In fact, he helps me with the book, and before I thanked him in my acknowledgments, I had to warn him that all my readers in Rhode Island would mistakenly think he's the model for the character.

RO: First and foremost, I love Dev Evilman! Can I use that? I had a hard time with names in Pushing Up Daisies and used placeholders most of the time I was writing it. Everything sounded boring, or obviously, stereotypically ethnic. My friends kids names are in there (of course nothing bad happens to any of them..)old colleagues, the fireman I lift weights one was safe. And most of them stuck. One name I really liked my editor made me change, because she thought people wouldn't know how to pronounce it - Van Outryve. Is that hard? Whatever.

My protagonist's name is Paula, same as my sister's, who is no longer with us, but will be around as long as there's a copy of Daisies somewhere (someone's tag sale in 2016?)

HANK: I also offer a "your-name-in-my-next-book as an auction item for charity fund-raisiers. And that's just terrific. It's worked, perfectly, every time! Even, in the upcoming Air Time, where I'll be using the name Urszula Mazny-Latos to benefit the National Lawyer's Guild.
(And of course, Ro, Dev is yours.)


  1. Since I'm in the process of reconsidering, once again, the names of several key characters, this discussion is reassuring. Some names just fall into place, like the two cops in my "Still Waters" story, Beth Frobish and Lon DiAngelo, or my zoo security officer, Janet Farmer. Others, like Farmer's Italian-Irish cop love interest or a former bad boy turned true crime novelist, keep shifting on me.

    There is a temptation to give your favorite characters the names you wanted for yourself or couldn't give your kids. (I like "Paul" but it sounds funny with Walsh, and I axed all the names with "ar" syllables that Bostonians pronounce "ah." Good-bye Martin, Charles, Margaret, etc.) I'd love to do something nasty with the names of our remodeling contractor and a couple of my former bosses. That last could be a double-whammy, since their last names combine to form Martin Bogar or, as the Bostonians would say, Mahtin Bogah.

    Funny note on the "name auction" trend: I picked up the first two books in a new series by Zoe Sharp, in part because the front cover blurb on #2 is by Lee Child. In that book, a former cop turned private investigator is named Frances Neagley, the same name as a former MP turned security consultant in Lee Child's "Without Fail" and "Bad Luck and Trouble." I went back to the acknowledgements (which I never read in advance, in case they tip me off to a plot twist) and found out Frances Neagley placed the winning bid to be in the book at Bouchercon. Child's "BL&T" is dedicated to "the real Frances L. Neagley." So somehow two similar but different characters in books by two different but connected authors are named after the same woman! She must be something.

    Last of these rambling comments: My favorite all-time real name belonged to an elderly farmer who was my dad's patient--Lovelace Kitchen.


  2. Oh--that is the most interesting thing. The MOST.
    I just finished Bad Luck and Trouble--and loved it. Of course. I'm addicted to Lee Child.
    But let me say I did notice-- strongly and with some curiosity--the name Frances Neagley.
    Because, no spoilers here, but if I had been naming that character, that's not what I would have named her. (Not that that means anything. I'm just saying.)

    But I had seen, right off the bat, that the book was dedicated to her, so I figured it was someone he --loved. Respected, cared about in some way. Something good. It was just--such an unpredictable choice for a name.

    So that's fascinating to have an explanation.

    And perfect timing, too.

    (Does anyone know who she really is?)

    If you want to have a contest here to name the former bad boy turned true crime novelist, let us know. Were here to help. Or, to make everyting more complicated. Marcus Shaw?

    Thanks, Aliasmo!

  3. I have a question for Rosemary. When you finally settled on names for characters who previously had 'placeholders' -- did you find your perception of those characters and personalities changed at all, once they were finally named? Did those final names cause personality changes in late drafts?

    I've heard a few people speak not only how how characters affect the choice of their names, but also the inverse -- how naming affects the characters. Even Margaret Mitchell said something about the revisions to character that followed after 'Pansy' O'Hara was renamed Storm, then Scarlett.

    This is posed to all of you, actually. If you've had a character nicknamed 'Tiddles' who previously lived for spiked iced coffee and Milano cookies, then got renamed 'Barb' and suddenly wanted straight gin -- please share! }:>

  4. I think the placeholders I used were all, generally speaking, on the right track, character-wise. For example I eventually changed a Lola to a Wanda - she's a former backup singer who now owns a diner, most people call her Babe anyway. But I decided on Lucy as another character's name and thought Lola and Lucy sounded...goofy! This may be weird but I didn't want too many characters names to start with the same letters or have the same feel to them.
    Jan, I love the fact that all Karens are supposed to be blonde. You're right! BTW, I didn't know about search and replace and I suffered changing names.

  5. Hey Susannah,
    I had to do the ultimate name change. In Final Copy, my protaganist was Addy McNeil. My publisher folded just as I finished the sequel. Since it was a different locale and slightly later time period, my agent suggested changing her name so a new publisher could launch it as first in a series. It was like hell trying to envision this character as anything other than Addy (Short of Adelaide). I spent weeks on this, toyed with several different names, including Tish. This was axed by the publisher who bought it -- because it was too close to Laura Lippman's Tess. (which I hadn't read at the time). Finally, Hallie Ephron, graciously allowed me to steal her name. And viola, she became Hallie. But it was like renaming your child. Really, really hard.

  6. Not to compare either incomparable Hallie to a pooch, but when I rescued my first golden he was named Sprawl - a ridiculous name for a dog. So we renamed him Patrick (after Patrick Ewing, I might add.)Either he was dissing us, or the new name never really took. When we rescued our second golden he was called Max and we kept it that way. Sometimes ya gotta stop editing.

  7. One of my favorite authors is a Dartmouth professor named, Ernest Hebert. The characters in his books (set in NH) have some of the greatest names I've ever read. Here's a sample list of names from his book, The Dogs of March:

    Howard Elman, Zoe Cutter, Everett Swett, Cooty Patterson, Ira Lodge, Ollie Jordan, Willow Jordan, Pegeen Elman, Ann Rae Swett, Harold Flagg, Russell Pegasus, Arch Sawyer, Fralla Pratt, Turtle Jordan, Bert Reason...

  8. I'm working on a short story and came up with a name easily. I set it in a "fictional" town that used to exist but doesn't anymore. I found an old map of the town, with residents' names where they lived. Not only did my characters last name appear on the map, it showed up next to a pond where I'd set her home in the story.

  9. Kira,
    That's Twilight zone stuff! But it sure makes you wonder......

  10. I got one character's name from a map of Sicily. Taking a page from Mario Puzo (who got the name Corleone from the same place) I named an old Italian guy, Chiaramonte. One of my fave names.

  11. Kira--that's amazing. And must have been quite a moment for you. Hallie quotes E. B. White as saying, "I know when something is right because bells begin ringing and lights flash." And it's also good if you find your "made up" character's name on a real map!

    Lisa--you're so right. Those names are perfect. Now--why? Because they're real sounding--but just a couple of twists off normal?

    I found photos of Frances Neagley on the web, by the way. When Lee Child comes to Crime Bake, I'm going to get the scoop.

  12. Guess we both have OCD, Hank, or way too much time. Was there life before Google? How about we all try to use a character named Frances L. Neagley in a story this year? See what kind of variety we get? Bet she'd get a kick out of it.

  13. Oh, Mo.That's such a genius idea.
    I'm SO tempted.

    I once had this little plastic alligator in my office, I have no idea where it came from. About a foot long. Since we're the investigative unit, my producer and I used to call it the
    Investi-gator. (We're a laugh a minute.)

    I really really wanted to put it someplace in the background video of every story we did, just to see if anyone would notice.

    We didn't do it.

    I also always wanted to get a family photo, in a frame, and then just put in the the shot behind everyone we interviewed. Just to see if anyone would notice.

    I guess we had all been working too many hours.

    We never did that either, of course.

    But the Frances idea--I like it.

  14. Sorry, Hank. My March book News Blues has a heroine name Maddy. :)

    I usually can't start a book until I am settled on the character's names.

  15. And Marianne is the queen of names--once you venture into building other worlds, as she has--you also get to build the names they'd use.

    Which would have to be an entire world-design, wouldn't it? Actually creating that world's structure of what names mean and how they are and which gender gets what.

    Especially if there are more than two genders.

  16. Harry Bosch has a daughter named Maddie.

    Ian Rankin has a character named Francis Nealy in The Naming of the Dead.