WHAT’S IN A NAME?
I have an obsession with finding the right name for my characters. As a child I used to collect them from gravestones in the churchyard. Some of these are still lined up ready to be used one day: Lemody, Melody, Christmas Day, Jerusha, Anchitel and many others, all garnered from crusty lichen headstones.
You would think choosing names for characters would be easy, but so often the name can elude us. At first it’s as if you can hear them whispering faintly from a far. Then a few possibilities appear. Is it Anna or Agnes or Annice or Innes? Then something magical happens and they whisper firmly in your ear…I am Agnes. Sometimes I go for chapters of narrative before I find this happening. Hopefully with the name comes the whole person warts and all.
Reading names off the back of lorries is one good source and the credits from a movie produce some corkers. Uriah Jagger, Archie Tybalt, Miles Fox drive down the A65. Hiram Sorotin, Linzi Krisp etc came from TV film credits. As writers we do steal bits of lives so why not names too?
The best, of course, are those spontaneous eruptions of inspiration. Angelo Bartolini was one such in The Captain’s Daughter, turning up unannounced at the New York Dockside almost fully formed.
Getting the name right for the period is important too. Audrey, Shirley and Beryl will probably be in their seventies now. Vi, Iris, Doris and Mabel even older but names go up and down the social scale with time. Biblical names once given to slaves have come and gone. A new generation of Kittys, Violets and Arthurs are growing up now.
So getting a name just right is worth the effort. It shows you care. If in any doubt look at the wonderful names Dickens gave his characters, Betsey Trotwood, Ebenezer Scrooge, Estella, Magwitch etc.
Enjoy the hunt for the right names of places too or make them up. Take real names and twist them a bit. Sowerthwaite in Orphans of War came from mixing Old Norse place names. A good book on the origins of place names is essential. Check to see if they do exist in the map. That will help you make sure you don’t cause offence. Grimbleton in Mothers and Daughters is Bolton (without the carpets) The Bolton of my childhood memory no longer exists so I don’t feel I’m doing my hometown any disservice. Good name hunting.
Leah Fleming. 2012