The Name Game: How this author goes about selecting people and place names
I recently had the interesting experience of responding to a FB request from a fellow author. She wanted help naming a character. I’ve had trouble with this from time to time, as I suspect most authors have. So I developed a few methods for selecting character and place names. Since I write fiction, I prefer not to use the names of real people and real places if I can avoid it. Occasionally that isn’t possible. For example, Edward I, aka Longshamks, appears briefly in several of my medieval romances. He was a major player in English history, but his role in my fictional work is as a supporting character. Since he was a real person, the least I can do is use his real name. So what methods do I use for selecting fictional setting and character names?
I use research into the history of a country. For example, the heroine in Knight Errant is named Juliana in honor of a real medieval holy woman and mystic named Julian of Norwich. You can find details about her fascinating life and visions here, http://juliancentre.org/about/about-julian-of-norwich.html. As for my heroine’s family name, ‘Verault.’ I needed a name from a French or Norman family that was not too prominent during the late 13th century when Knight Errant is set. I started my search at https://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/4-types-of-french-surnames-which-one-is-yours/. While this site did not give me ‘Verault’ specifically, it led me to search place names and locations from which my fictional Juliana’s family might have come. And you may ask why I wanted a French name for an English heroine? About 200 years prior to the action in Knight Errant, William of Normandy (a Duchy adjacent to France–an which had language traits in common with France) conquered England and became William I of England. He brought with him knights and courtiers from Normandy to whom he gave lands in England as a reward for their loyalty and help. He also imposed a large number of Norman customs and his native language on England. While the Anglo-saxons and the Normans have long since resolved their differences and become one English people, the Norman invasion of England left an indelible mark on English person and place names.
I use the character’s personality. The best example I can give of using a character’s personality to name that character is Talon de Quereste from The Herald’s Heart. Now there may well be some other character or person somewhere or from some era named Talon. However, I’d never before encountered the use of ‘talon’ as a first name. Nonetheless, I knew my hero was sharp-minded and tenacious. A bird’s talons are very sharp and very strong. They have to be, since they are key elements in the survival of most avian species. So I have a fictional man who is both sharp and tenacious. Other words might have worked. Indeed we’ve all encountered characters named things like Hawk, Raven, and Wolf. I wanted something similar, but different enough to stand out, hence, Talon. In addition, this hero’s name had to be period appropriate. Most etymologies of Talon show the ‘origin’ or first appearance of the word in print to be about 1400 AD, https://www.etymonline.com/word/talon. That’s one hundred plus years after my story takes place. Why then did I feel the use of Talon was appropriate? Well, scholars of English language history postulate that any word’s ‘origin’ pre-dates actual usage in print by at least two hundred years or more. Prior to the advent of the printing press (about 1436 in Europe) most records were hand written, and establishing the date of origin for hand written documents is not easy. I chose to follow the scholarly principle for word usage of at least two hundred years prior to the first written record of the word. That puts ‘talon’ well within the era and geography of the setting for The Herald’s Heart.
I use news and information from current events. Most frequently, I use news and information from current events to create events or situations in my books. The Wildfire Love series is a terrific example, because each story involves a major fire. These fires were inspired by the destruction and devastation wrought by recent wildfires in California and the rest of the American west. But certain ‘modern’ or contemporary places information and events creep into my character names as well. One example is Cerise Duval, villainess of One Moment’s Pleasure (Wildfire Love # 1). I knew Cerise was a mulatto from New Orleans who emigrated to San Francisco during the gold rush and made her fortune first as a prostitute and then as a madam. All of that knowledge is based in history. Even her surname, Duval, is based in history, albeit Key West Florida (William Pope Duval was the first civilian governor of Florida Territory), not New Orleans Louisiana. I chose Duval because it is one of my favorite streets, and Cerise was after all a ‘street’ walker. That brings me back to Cerise, and how it was inspired by current events. I used to
live in Michigan where the National Cherry Festival is held every year in Traverse City . I wrote One Moment’s Pleasure during the spring and summer, and of course a lot of talk and advertising about the Cherry Festival was going on. What better name for a prostitute than, Cherry, I thought. However, Madam Duval was no ordinary prostitute. She had a lot of pride and being from New Orleans had a fair number of French connections in her background. Hence, her name became, Cerise. Just to be certain that Cerise was period appropriate, I double-checked the etymology of the name https://www.etymonline.com/word/cherry. Depending on the source, Cerise originated as a word anywhere between the 12th and 19th centuries. You already know my preferences (stated above) for determining first usages. Whether the 12th or the 19th century applies, Cerise is still period appropriate for the mid-19th-century American west.
Are these the only methods for winning the fictional name game? Hardly, but these methods work fairly well for me. One added benefit is that I often find inspiration and story ideas as I search for just the right name for my character. My books are filled with interesting characters whose names are intended to reflect their personalities and fit the settings of their stories. If you’d like to know how I decided on a specific name in one of my books, please feel free to ask me via email at contact@RueAllyn.com.
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ABOUT RUE: When not writing, learning to play new games, (I’m starting to learn Bridge) and working jigsaw puzzles, Rue travels the world and surfs the internet in search of background material and inspiration for her next heart melting romance. She loves to hear from readers, and you may contact her at <a href=”mailto:contact@RueAllyn.com” title=”Contact Rue Allyn” target=”_blank”>contact@RueAllyn.com</a>. She can’t wait to hear from you.