GETTING THE NAMES RIGHT
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.