Tag Archives: character

A Rose by Any Other Name…

A Rose by Any Other Name…

I chose the Canadian classic Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery for a visual because Ann hated her name and always wished to be called Cordelia. And if that couldn’t be managed, she would ask they spell Anne with an e. Because…

“…it makes such a difference. It looks so much nicer. When you hear a name pronounced can’t you always see it in your mind, just as if it was printed out? I can; and A-n-n looks dreadful, but A-n-n-e looks so much more distinguished. If you’ll only call me Anne spelled with an e I shall try to reconcile myself to not being called Cordelia.”

Words have two aspects: how they sound and what they mean. When it comes to names, what they mean no longer matters to us, they are chosen for how they sound. But there is a third aspect: what associations do the names carry.

As a writer, I have a number of resource books at hand such as Chambers Slang Dictionary, Medieval Terms and Phrases, and Dictionary of Surnames. One useful resource is The Baby Name Survey Book, by Bruce Lansky and Barry Sinrod. The subtitle reads, “What people think about your baby’s name”. So you’re writing a romance novel and you have a male character who is a sloppy ne’er-do-well and you want to call him Freeman. This reference book tells you “people picture Freeman as a handsome, neat, well-dressed, proud, and wealthy black man.” Several examples are listed: football’s Freeman McNeil, actor Morgan Freeman. Perhaps Freeman should not be your first choice.

Suppose you like the name Ciara and wish to use it for your female protagonist. The Baby Name Survey Book states:

“People see Ciara as a classy, exotic beauty…She’s also smart––some  would call her intellectual––and caring. When people hear the name Ciara, they also picture a bottle of Ciara perfume.”

I won’t dwell on this. The point is to consider associations the reader may have with a name.

I write historical fiction and I enjoy the time I spend choosing character names. One story I am writing has the protagonist wash up on the Falkland Islands in the early nineteenth century. I don’t wish to have him struggle with Spanish speakers, so I make the patriarch of the family who find him Irish––having first researched and discovered many Irish soldiers settled in Argentina after a failed invasion by Britain. My naming process is to google Irish surnames, read through the lists, and pull out several possible choices. I narrow the list down to four or five. They are:

  • MacGuigan
  • MacGrealish
  • MacKigo
  • O’Hehir
  • O’Hagan

Then I do the same with Irish male Christian names. I find so many good ones.

  • Darragh
  • Ciaran
  • Cleary
  • Clooney
  • Murtagh
  • Ruari (Rory)
  • Tierney

What becomes important to me now is the sound and rhythm of when first and last name come together. I come up with one of the most rhythmic names: Clooney MacKigo. Say it aloud a few times. Feel the rhythm? You could probably tap it out on a drum. And I’m getting a sense of the character. Clooney will have a sense of humour, but MacKigo is strong-willed and a force to be reckoned with.

I have used this process with The Swan’s Road, my novel set in eleventh century Europe. I have had to find names for medieval Saxons, Danes, Frisians, Normans, Welshmen, European Jews, and Italians. Usually I have an idea for the character and I search for a suitable name. I named my female protagonist, a determined and confident beauty, Selia Fehr––forgive me the play on Selia the Fair, I just loved the name. One good thing about period and ethnic names is they do not carry the baggage discussed earlier.

Here is an excerpt from The Dane Law, a sequel to The Swan’s Road, and a work in progress. Harald, my protagonist, and his friends are ribbing another Danish friend, Yngvarr, about how the king will reward him.

“…so he may give you gold…”

Yngvarr’s eyes opened wide.

“…or land..”

Yngvarr took on the look of a puffed up grouse in full courtship. He took another swig of ale.

“…or he may do you the ultimate of honor of marrying you to my          ugly cousin Gullborga.”

We three dove aside as Yngvarr sprayed his mouthful of ale across the table.

“I beg of you pardon,” Yngvarr said to Selia as he wiped the table          with his sleeve.

“It is all right,” she told him. “Harald must have his jesting.” She gave a look to me and shook her head slightly.

“You don’t have an ugly cousin Gullborga, do you, Harald?”

“No, Yngvarr. In truth, I do not.”

“Well then, that’s good.”

“No, her name’s Bothilda and she’s twice your size!”

“Ah, you won’t be catching me twice on that one,” said Yngvarr,          “besides, the bigger the woman, the warmer the bed. I’ve always          admired a woman with plenty to hold on to.”

This playful scene only works because of the choice of particularly unflattering names for the imagined cousin. To call her Mary or Sarah would be much less effective. (Please note: I tried to make this piece end on a positive note for bountiful women.)

One other important thing a writer should do is keep track of names and avoid using ones that look similar or are the same. I have read novels where they have two Michaels or a Michael and a Michelle. A fast reader may mix up the names. I keep an alphabetical list and try not to double up on monikers starting with the same letter. One would not have a Terry and a Jerry, even if they were twins.

I’ll end with a few of the fictional character names I used in The Swan’s Road and let you determine what kind of character qualities each conjures up.

  • Alric
  • Bertran deZouche
  • Floriano Roncalli
  • Ravya ben Naaman
  • Urbano Pupo

To see if you are right, you’ll have to read The Swan’s Road. I hope this article gives you a greater appreciation of well-named characters.

And if you were to change your name…

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Researching Historical Fiction

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This is a tricky topic. I check out an historical fiction writers’ forum occasionally and I mostly find very knowledgeable people helping others. But, as is the way on the Internet, sometimes a contributor may be intellectually intolerant and insensitive to the vulnerability of others. Discussions often concern historical accuracy and sources. Where I come in on those discussions is here: the story is everything. Historical fiction is fiction surrounded by non-fiction. Just as science fiction is a genre where the story is enhanced by the technological possibilities and moral choices that arise in an imagined future, historical fiction is made more interesting by the technological and cultural limitations imposed upon the story.

 

When I wrote history papers in university–back in the pre-computer dark ages– all my sources were found in the library. I understand that today students are directed to primary rather than secondary sources. The Internet provides the researcher with a veritable sea of information. I use books as well as on-line sources. Because I bring in historical figures such as King Canute, Robert of Normandy, and Earl Godwin, for example, I try to learn as much as I can about their lives. From their actions, I can speculate on character. I don’t mind stretching historical timelines a bit so some of the players’ appear as contemporaries, while in reality one may still have been a child at the time. My protagonist, Harald, would have been about twelve when his father, King Canute traveled to Rome. At twelve years, a boy was old enough (sources tell me) to swear allegiance. Whether he accompanied his father king on that journey, I don’t know, but I wouldn’t have written an adult novel if I’d kept his age accurate.

 

It is the details along the path of the story that breathe life into historical fiction. Questions constantly arise. How big a city was Rome in the eleventh century? How would a Danish prince of England communicate with Germans and Normans? How Norse were Normans by the year 1027c.e.? What foods would be served at table? What swear words were in vogue? What would the female protagonist be wearing? How far can you sail up the Rhine? What mountain passes would be used to cross the Alps in those times? What covered the windows, if not glass? Finding the answers to these questions is fascinating and time consuming, taking one away from writing the story. But the answers add fuel to the fire and the story progresses.

 

One area I choose to play with is the language. When I’m reading a book, nothing throws me out of it faster than an anachronism–a word or object or an expression that did not exist at the time. You can’t say Claude buttoned up his tunic and put his hands in his pockets if neither button nor pocket had been invented. And you better find a name that would have been common in England in the eleventh century, because Claude is French. When I tried calling one of my characters a “joker,” a member of my writing group suggested it was too modern. Sure enough, the word joker came into use in the nineteenth century. I changed it to “he liked to jest”.

 

I realize that if I wrote the English language just as it was in the Middle Ages no one but scholars could read it, so there are limits to word research. Sometimes my pre-occupation with word origins comes up with some real gems. I was trying to discover what term would have been used to describe a mercenary warrior in the Middle Ages. I found that our modern word “freelance” came from just such a person, whose lance was for hire.

 

I am still too much of the teacher at times and fear that I take too many opportunities to teach readers word origins. How “bye” for example, morphed from “God be with you” to “God be” to “good-bye” before it arrived at today’s brief dismissal. I’m sure an editor–if I should be so lucky–will call me on teachiness.

 

So, those are my thoughts on research: the story is central, timelines are flexible, details breathe life, and language is just plain fun.

 

Garth out.

 

Writing Historical Fiction

63a0e8af496cf3c10dbe9b3249f7820cIn my last blog, I talked about being open to story ideas when they zing by you, and using the what if helper. For me, history releases ideas like a porcupine throws quills. My novel, Blood Moon Road, grew out of a “write-off” session with my friend and writing guru, Michael Hiebert. A “write-off” is where you sit in a room (or a Starbucks), agree on starting point, and both write for three or four hours. Then you critique each other’s work. Though Michael tells of our writing encounter with the theme of how incredibly distracted I am, my version is that I finally found one idea in the book he handed me–a history of the Middle Ages–that ended up as a novel.

The fact that tweaked my interest that day was that King Canute of England in the year 1027 traveled to Rome for the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor (the Church’s secular head of Christendom). I was taken by the idea of this English king who was actually a Dane with Viking roots, arriving in a Rome that was but a remnant of what it had been under the Caesars. I started with Canute’s longships crossing the English channel, and after a bit of digging to find that Canute had three sons, I posed the question: what if one of his sons accompanied him? I chose the middle son, Harald Harefoot (so called because he was fast, not because he had furry feet), and made the point of view his. As his character grew, I knew he must part ways with his father king and woman must be involved. From there I mapped it out (with help from the writing guru).

In writing historical fiction, one can always position fictional characters close to historical figures, or have them tragically affected by enormous historical events: wars, revolutions, plagues, assassinations. What was that film about the woman who ran the boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and his cohorts planned the killing of Abraham Lincoln? Fascinating. Now that wasn’t fiction, but it could have been. What if Guy Fawkes had a sister? How would she have been affected by his arrest and execution?

One of my favourite historical novels is The Eagle of the Ninth, by the wonderful British writer Rosemary Sutcliff. She took two events: in the year A.D. 117, the Roman Ninth Legion marched north from Eburacum (now York) to put down a rising of the Caledonians, and was never heard from again; eighteen hundred years later a Roman eagle, standard of the Roman legions, was unearthed in Hampshire. Sutcliff wove a superb tale of a Roman centurion forced to retire after an injury, who travels north of Hadrian’s Wall in disguise with his slave/friend to find out what became of his father’s legion and to recover its missing eagle. A marvelous read (and now a passable movie: Centurion starring Michael Fassbender.)

Another great use of a minor historical fact is Geraldine Brooks’ book, The Year of Wonders. In 1666, the town of Eyam in England quarantines itself to prevent the spread of plague. Given that one fact, Brooks creates a strong female protagonist in a town that becomes a small microcosm of believable characters dealing with sickness, death, and betrayal. The story really belongs to the protagonist, Anna Frith, whose character arcs superbly. The result is one of those unforgettable stories that celebrate the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.

To successfully spin fact into fiction requires an enormous amount of research, but that is a topic for another blog. Until then, if you want to send me story ideas or interesting historical facts you think might be launch points, please do.

Garth out.