Tuesday, September 15, 2009


I’m nearing the end of a Christmas story (for 2010, I hope). Its working title is Mystery, Marriage and Mistletoe and it’s landed me with all sorts of issues of detail about people and places. I find myself wondering how other writers do names and whether they find it as challenging as I do.

First — character names. There are some names which, with the best will in the world, I could never give to my hero or heroine. Some just sound wrong to me, though I shan’t offend my readers by saying what they are! My characters’ names have to feel right and that’s something deep in my bones, I’m afraid. Sometimes the characters object, even if the name seemed right to me. I remember that my hero in A Regency Invitation started out as Will but ended up as Marcus because he flatly refused to answer to Will! Since William was the name we finally chose for the villain, it’s probably just as well. At that stage in my career, William definitely sounded villainous. Maybe that will change one day and I’ll have a hero of that name? Still too early to say.

I have a long list of names (culled from baby-naming books) that I might like to use one day. When I start a new book, I look down that list, and see whether anything jumps out at me. For the Christmas book, the name I chose for the hero was Jon/Jonathan. I didn’t intend to pick that one. It just felt right. The heroine’s name was much easier. She insisted on being Beth from the very first page. I had no choice in the matter!

And then there are place names. Georgette Heyer used to pore over maps for place names, both for towns and villages, and give them to her characters. Anyone remember the beautiful Augustus Fownhope from The Grand Sophy? Well, Fownhope is a Herefordshire village, not far from where I live.

I have sometimes used real place names or variants on them. For example, my hero in Marrying the Major was Hugo Stratton with a country seat at Stratton Magna. There’s no such place, though there are various places with Stratton in the name, like Stratton St Margaret’s. My secret — which I’m happy to share — is to take an existing place name and modify it, either by adding something like Magna, or by changing the odd letter. So one of the key villages in the story I’m now writing is called Little Fratcombe. As far as I know, there’s no place called Fratcombe. I arrived at that by taking the name Batcombe and changing B to Fr. Fratcombe may not really exist, but I reckon it sounds as if it should.

Having given the village a name, I then found that I had not the slightest idea what it looked like. That really did cause me problems. In the end, I had to draw a detailed map of it, complete with houses, shops, trees, a stream, a church with a graveyard, and rather a lot of sheep. You’ll be relieved to know I’m not planning to include it with the manuscript, so you will be spared the sight of my very unrealistic drawing.

Anyone else have a better way of deciding on names? I'd love to know.

Best wishes



Carol Townend said...

Hi Joanna,
I agree, getting the names right is very important. I love choosing the names, for the characters as well as the places. And maps, simple things like knowing in which direction the sun will rise helps too. One book I use a lot (although I appreciate we write in different time periods), is 'The Origins of English Surnames' by PH Reaney. Like you I have a baby names book, and always look at the list of popular names in the papers. Apparently names like Thomas weren't used in the eleventh century! I don't think Jack was either, but am not sure about that. It is a pity because I do like the name Jack. Am looking forward to reading about your Jack's forbidden liaison!
All the best

Jan Jones said...

Yup, I have to have the names exactly right - and I always need to know what they are before I write the book. If I get one of the names wrong, the work doesn't flow until it's right.

To ease reader confusion, I do generally have the name of the main residences the same as the surname of the family - eg Kydd Court, Penfold Lodge, Fortune House. Apart from anything else, it saves my own brain cells

Jane Odiwe said...

I love finding place names particularly - the idea of leaving little clues by only changing them a little really appeals!

Anonymous said...

Sorry to be so late in replying. Was in London all last week and out at the weekend on, I have to admit, non-writerly stuff.

I don't know that book, Carol. Shall look out for it. I'm always keen to find new sources.

I agree with Jan about having the name of the house the same as the name of the family. It's bad enough that the family name of aristocrats is usually not the same as the peerage name. And of course, higher peers tend to have several different titles. My current hero's name is Jonathan Foxe-Garway, but he's Earl of Portbury and Baron Fratcombe as well!!! His properties are at King's Portbury and Fratcombe Manor, so you can see that I use the same wheeze as Jan does. But when I introduce his brother and cousins, I have to find a way of explaining to the reader who they are. Still, it's a challenge, isn't it?

Best wishes

Anonymous said...

I'm new to this historical game, but I've just finished the second draft of my first one...and now I'm trying to figure out if I need to change my names. I wasn't sure if there was a set way of doing these things!

Thanks so much for the blog!