Thursday, April 29, 2010

What's in a name? Part 2

So, I’m going to start out this post with an analogy borrowed from Arthur C. Clarke. In his great essay on dialogue, Clarke illustrates the importance of character-consistent dialogue with the two following examples:

In the early 20th Century, several MLB players were accused of tampering with the World Series. “Shoeless Joe” Jackson was one of the players accused of intentionally throwing the Series. “Legend has it that as Jackson was leaving the courthouse during the trial, a young boy begged of him, "Say it ain't so, Joe," and that Joe did not respond.”

In Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, one character (I can’t remember who, having never read it) exclaims in the face of an accusation, “Refute these calumnies, Nicholas!”

Clarke points out that it would be as inappropriate for the young boy to say “Refute these calumnies, Nicholas” as the Dickens character to shout “Say it ain’t so, Nick!” It is of tantamount importance to maintain consistency in all aspects of characterization.

So, that brings me to my gentle ramble/rant on naming conventions. I was born in Texas, lived in Oregon and was raised for the most part in the Boston area. It was not until I started college in Utah that I really came into contact with peculiar naming dialects. After having grown up surrounded by saints’ names, African-American naming conventions and historical names, I was introduced to girls named Ryan, white girls named LaTisha and boys who were named everything from Ammon to Zoram. If you remember that friend who started this whole thing about naming in the last post, she is a Utahn who named her daughter Asya. (For more on the weirdness of Utah names, see this awesome site, There’s no doubt that there are lovely names that come out of Utah and Mormonism in general (with the exception of Renesmee. *shudder*), but they are unheard-of on the East Coast.

I personally hold the conviction that names for characters should be as consistent with their backgrounds and upbringings as their dialogue. I also believe that unless it’s terribly important for the reader to know the origin of the parents, there should not be a character name that is clearly foreign to their area of residence. Yes, I could write about the love triangle between LaVell, Ammon and LaWayne, set in Philadelphia, but it would be all-too-clear that the parents were born and raised in Utah and had been inhaling too much Jell-O powder over the years. It also reminds me of Miss Congeniality and Sandra Bullock’s horror at being stuffed into the identity of Gracie Lou Freebush. In “Twenty Pageants Later” by Carolyn Keene, Dane comments that in order to win Miss America, there are only two imperatives: You have to be Texan and therefore have a two-part name. She laments having been stuck with a horrible name like Dane McKane while her sister, who couldn’t care less about pageants, gets the great name of Scottie-Anne.

So, therefore, how do I go about naming my characters? Step 1 is to listen to them as I’m writing them. That’s how Lindsey Morgan from Philadelphia turned into Leticia Serrano from San Salvador, El Salvador. Lynn Barrett appeared in my head as a redhead named Lynn and I found Barrett through a surname search.

Step 2 is to look at the respective birthdates of the characters and common names in that year. Census reports are invaluable for this task. Yes, my friend has a friend whose daughter was named Asia on the East Coast in 2004, but in 1991, Michael was #1 most popular name and Anthony was #15. Giving Michael a geographically inconsistent name would mean that his parents are imports.

Step 3, consider religious or political affiliations that could have an impact. I must admit to being bad in this sense. I came upon the name Ella by researching possible names for a queen in another story. I wanted her name to be Helene and another variation on that was Ella. The problem was that I had to look up rules of christenings in Catholicism, since Ella is a lapsed Catholic, but her parents were more religious. Luckily, I found that it was perfectly normal for her to have a saint’s name for her middle name. So Ella Theresa Mack stayed where she was. Also, would die-hard Republicans in the ’80’s name a kid Ronald after Reagan? That sort of thing.

Step 4, if there’s ethnicity involved, look at the degree of separation from the motherland. For example, someone who just immigrated might have a Maria Dolores name and their kid might still have the name of Guadalupe after la Virgen. Skip a couple of generations and you might get a Jeff Martinez, as with a friend of mine. It was very common for immigrants with children who were born in the States to mix the two and name them Yonni or Yessica. I also have friends from Korea who were named things like Soo-Kyong Pak or friends who went by Grace Park. You get the idea.

Step 5, make sure that you have a good balance of ethnically realistic characters. This is like trying to write a story set in Boston and needing to take into consideration that the city is half-Italian and half-Irish, but has a large percentage of Armenians, the suburbs are heavy on Jewish families and there are other racial boundaries to consider. In looking for an apartment for Leticia, Josue and their daughters Carolina and Sarah, I found that Philadelphia has the second-highest concentration of Latinos in the Northeast, so it was appropriate to add in a set of characters from Central America.

Step 6, when all else fails, go with gut instinct. If you need a character named Lavinia, go for it. Just make sure that there’s a reason for it.

Friday, April 23, 2010

What's in a name?

So, why the poll? Here’s some information on the options you have to the left:

I’ve got a good friend that we shall call R. for now. She’s an avid fan of many things, a great artist and a fun coworker as well. So, when she told me that Michael Anthony was too commonplace a name, I was hesitant to roll my eyes at her. I politely said that it would take an act of God to get me to change the name.

Well, today, she came over with a lovely post-it note full of suggestions based on the search term “of god” in a baby names site. I had considered making a compromise in making Anthony the first name because I am immovable on having that as part of the name.

Meanwhile, here are the meanings of the names:

Gabrian--God’s able-bodied one
Mitchell—variation on Michael
Nahtaniel—God has given
Oswald—Power of God
Tobin—Goodness of God

I added in Anthony, who is the patron saint of missing persons. Anthony’s last name would be Llwellyn, Welsh for “leader.”

So, vote if you even look at this blog once in a while. I’ll seriously consider whatever wins.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


So, I'm a big believer in rewarding milestones. In 2000, I got published for the first time and was paid $20 for that. To celebrate, I bought my brother a copy of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Since then, I've celebrated that sort of thing with various methods.

When I hit 40,000 words, I went to my favorite Mexican restaurant. When I finish my manuscript, I will be taking my sister-in-law to PF Chang's for dinner because that's what we did when she finished hers. When I get an agent, I'm going to treat myself to a night in a hotel.

When I find a publisher for my book, I've decided to reward myself significantly. If you go to, you will see a gorgeous necklace. I've lusted after it for a while and figure that, even though it's $275, I can save up a little at a time through the process of getting a contract.

So, that's my random contribution for the week. Sorry I've been ignoring this, but the new Doctor Who season started and I started a blog just to deal with my thoughts on it. It can be found, if you're interested, at

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Hometown Blues

I occasionally get very, very homesick for Boston. No, I wasn't born there, but I moved there early enough that I don't really have much of an identity that doesn't stem somehow from the Bay State. I watch the Red Sox. I have the T maps memorized by experience. I occasionally have a good, strong accent that is mostly the fault of my best friends in high school. I've sung a concert at Faneuil Hall (and know how to spell it). I spent my weekends at New England Conservatory and a lot of my weekdays near Storrow Drive. I still use wicked as a noun, adjective AND adverb. I pronounce properly places like Worcester (Woostah), Gloucester (Glostah), Medford (Mefah) and Leominster (Lehmister).

So, when I decided to write a contemporary urban fantasy, it was a strong temptation to set it in Boston. I could have easily had Ella wander the Park Street district or hang out at my favorite store, Commonwealth Books on Tremont Street. She could have had pizza at Pizzeria Uno at Kenmore Square, picked up a gift for her dad from Sox Appeal and gotten romantic flowers from Fleurtacious. Special occasions could have been at the Rainbow Cafe in Copley Plaza and if she didn't mind the puddles of grease in the middle of the pizza, she could have eaten at The Garage in Harvard Square.

But no, I felt instinctively that I wanted this story to have its roots in Philadelphia, a city that I've visited a few times, but have never lived in. I bought a guidebook that taught me things like what you call a cheesesteak if you're from Philadelphia. I obsessively looked for real estate listings in certain areas of the city and then figured out, based on the mortgage calculator and salary information, if Mr. Mack could afford to live in those houses as a high school math teacher. I discovered that I created a fictional teacher who shares a name and discipline with a real teacher at that high school. I figured out the weather based on newspapers and personal experience. I am indebted to photo galleries on blogs for pictures of places that I wanted to be important to the story. Heck, I even learned how to pronounce Schuykill.

Somewhere after the middle of the book, Ella and Michael find it necessary to create a diversion by going to Boston. I got to write that scene two days ago. It was a tremendous relief to know exactly what she would see in Logan Airport, what types of seats she'd be using on the Blue Line and what the bookstore she goes to in South Station looks like. I restrained myself by having her stop at the Au Bon Pain that I used to frequent or get lunch in the Burger King near Copley that plays opera over the loudspeakers. But it was so nice to spend a whole chapter in familiar territory.

Except now, between that and opening day at Fenway yesterday, I'm homesick again.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Love/hate relationships

So, a while ago, I amused and frustrated myself. Ella is a very strong-willed character. She has been from the start. And a while ago, I realized that I really didn't like her. Not hate dislike her, but she bugged the crap out of me. Really, truly. There are about three chapters so far where I want to smack her upside the head for her stubbornness.

On the other hand, I recently made myself proud because I have a very interesting antagonist that you're not SUPPOSED to dislike until a very specific point. I finally wrote the scene where I give myself permission to think of him as an official scumbag from this point forward. Which only makes me like him more, because I really love a good villain.

So, in the first case, I was reminded of my feelings about Harry in Order of the Phoenix. For much of that book, I really wanted to call him a git and side against him because he was very irrational in a lot of situations. I think every character, realistically, has to pass through that phase or they're not worth reading. Odysseus is a git when he taunts the Cyclops. Bella's a git through a lot of New Moon for being a codependent idiot who needs to get a life. The Count of Monte Cristo is DEFINITELY a vengeful git. Heck, even Peter is a git in the New Testament for denying the Christ. But the point is, they come out as better figures of humanity for that.

So there's my theory. Every great character must pass through the valley of the shadow of git in order to be someone we can relate to.

As for liking villains, I'm just weird that way.