Tag Archives: characters

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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The Distracted Writer and His Demons

avatar3The Distracted Writer and His Demons

So I managed to get up by alarm this morning at eight, then wasted a whack of time reading the newspaper, fed the horses, and got to my computer by 10:10. This was to be a back-on-track writing morning. I started off by reading a chapter of a Bird on Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott, to get me in the mood as it were. To be honest, it’s a dodge. An avoidance. A distraction.

I love writing when I’m doing it, but when I’m not, I’m running scared–away from imminent disaster. Sometimes I think I should be a drunk or an addict, so the millions who read my books–in the future–can say how I suffered for my art. “Maybe it was his demons that made him great,” you will say, thinking of me wistfully, giving your head a few such-a-shame passes back and forth.

I am writing this blog to keep me away from working on my novel. I’m afraid the novel’s dreck. I’m afraid it will be too short. I’m afraid I’ll change course too many times and none of my sub-plots will untangle. I’m afraid…that I can’t do it.

I wonder if other self-employed workers have this problem with distraction, avoidance, and self-doubt. Does Fred the plumber decide to check facebook for an hour before he goes on a job? Does Dave the drywaller doubt whether he can hang gyproc straight?

I compare myself to other writers I know. One gets up before the dawn and writes for hours, totally committed and focused–a much different personality type from me. My friend M. can write marathons. “I wrote 10,000 words today,” he says. But he’s bi-polar and incredibly prolific in the manic phase–the blessing, not the curse of his condition.

So to help me write, I have a list of guidelines, just for me. And they do help. Here are a few of them:

  1. Write at a particular time, not when you feel like it.
  2. Write or work at writing every day to improve and to build momentum.
  3. Don’t follow distractions such as e-mail.
  4. Don’t give in to doubts about your ability to write. You have a voice unique to you. Use it.
  5. Writing is a right brain activity. Thinking about writing and why you can’t is not. Start writing and get in the zone.
  6. Don’t lose contact with the enjoyment of writing and the desire to write well.
  7. Don’t worry so much about the First Draft. Only be concerned with the words stopping, not what they are. You can take out whole chapters later if you have to (Second Draft), but by persevering with production you may be taken down pathways you never expected or planned for.
  8. Be flexible with your novel or short story plan. Let the characters tell their story. Write to discover what happens. Enjoy.

 

That’s it. Notice that the word “enjoy” comes up more than once? Now I’ve got to get down to my writing.

Period Language in Historical Novels?

I now have my second medieval novel underway, but I’m still not sure if I have perfected medieval-speak.  I do however, have my own particular take on it. Here are some thoughts:

  1. Balance is everything. Do not over-do the period jargon and do not under-do it. Speech has to be natural and just modern enough that the reader is comfortable with it. Words or constructions that “throw the reader out” must not be used.
  2. Whatever historical period you choose, some form of parody has been set there or the seeds of stereotypes have been planted–

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.”

“What do you have there?”

“A sackful of ears.” (Wayne and Shuster)

For the Middle Ages, I’m recalling Monty Python’s The Holy Grail, and Robin Hood: Men in Tights. So unless you’re spoofing the genre, avoid all the “forsooths,” “zounds,” “fair maidens,” and “gadzooks.”

  1. Avoid anachronisms. Make sure what you are talking about actually existed at that time. I had lovely descriptions of my female protagonist’s golden tresses and words of appreciation on the lips of her suitors, until I discovered that only young girls and prostitutes wore their hair exposed. So proper research is necessary, but does that relate to language? Sure it does. How can you call someone a sadist if the Marquis deSade never lived until the nineteenth century? How can a character “turn a blind eye” when Admiral Nelson had yet to raise a telescope to his eye patch and ignore the semaphored orders not to pursue the Danish fleet?
  2. You are watching Game of Thrones and someone is called a “fuckin’ bastard” and it seems to fit. But Game of Thrones is historical fantasy (and bloody good in my opinion); the language works because we think the characters would speak that way. Good writing. I have characters that are eleventh century Danes and Saxons; the “f-word” was not yet in vogue, and though “bastard” meant illegitimate offspring, it did not have the negative connotations the word enjoyed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. So what would you call a scoundrel in the eleventh? Well, you could compare him to an animal–pig, goat, dog–or you might use a word like “dastard,” meaning a stupid person. Am I being too meticulous? Maybe, but an ounce of fun has just been added to the writing.
  3. I resurrect lovely archaic words that are sadly out of use. The moon waxes and wanes. Misgivings are quelled. Wagons once again become wains. Vikings sail in drakkars. Old occupations are dusted off and brought out into the light: cordwainers, fletchers, fullers, spooners, proctors, and horners.
  4. I find old place names: England was Engla-lond when the Danes came; Southampton was South Hamtun (or Hamwic earlier).
  5. I pull words apart to reveal their original meanings–before they got taken for granted. Farewell becomes the instruction “fare well”; welcome returns to the statement “well come”; tomorrow reappears as “to the morrow;” awe-full might re-emerge as a positive descriptor. Nurse goes back to its base: nurturer, nourisher–and is called that.
  6. And then I take a lesson from Shakespeare–or Edward deVere if you remove the mask–who added 10,000 or more words to the English language, and I play with the language and make up words. So, the man who takes the nobles’ horses to the stable is the “stabler.” The players who don disguises for their roles are “guisers.” And now I’m really having fun.

Let me find a passage from my finished novel as a sample. Gwyn is a sometimes (oft times) humorous sidekick to my protagonist, Harald, son of King Cnute. Here he tells a tale while lying back, gazing at the night sky after a night of drinking. Gwyn is Welsh.

“I had this girl once. Agga was her name. By the saints she were a beauty. Oh, I loved that lass and I think she loved me. The two of us, we could make the hay fly, true enough. I’d be with her still, but she couldn’t take a jape. What a temper had the woman. What finally ended it for me was this day she were gathering eggs. Agga goes into the henhouse with her basket, didn’t she? And there were this clutch of eggs in the nest. She were reaching for an egg and it crushes flat in her hand, dry as an autumn leaf. She picks up a second one, didn’t she? Same thing. Crushed, nothing inside at all. And they were all the same. I’d gone and pinpricked ’em and blown the guts out into a bowl. Angry? You should ‘ave seen that girl. Chased me around the yard with a hayfork, didn’t she? Mind you I were laughing so hard, I could hardly snatch a breath. I think that were the lark that finished it ‘tween Agga and me. She married some dolt of a ploughman and was birthin’ a bearn a year the last I heard tell. Lord, I miss that girl, don’t I?”

So, looking past the attempt at colourful dialect in this piece, you should only find words that had ancestors in Danish-influenced Anglo/Saxon English, for example “lark” and “jape” are used instead of prank and joke. I use the archaic form “birthing” and often reverse sentence structure into Yoda-speak, such as “…a temper had the woman.” “Dolt” only came into use in the sixteenth century, but it sounded too good so I kept it.

There you have it, my in-process formula for medieval-speak. Works for me. Or does it? Comments?

Garth out.

Separation Anxiety

coat of armsI’m suffering from separation anxiety.

No, my wife hasn’t left me, and empty-nest syndrome hasn’t kicked in, though my three sons have gone. The loved ones who are now far away have names like Harald, Selia, Gwyn, Gudrun, and Cnute. Then there is Yngvarr, Ravya, Xaviero, and Floriano. All are precious to my grieving heart, for they are all my creations. I finished my historical novel, Blood Moon Road, a month ago. My main characters headed home to northern Europe and left me in Italy, spinning my eleventh century cart wheels.

Not having been left as a babe in a basket on the steps of St. Agatha’s, abandonment is a new experience. When the novel first began to take shape, I awoke one morning to find that Harald Cnuteson, my protagonist, was making decisions for himself–drinking too much ale and pursuing a beautiful woman. I reacted to his Pinocchio-like transformation by running about the room crying, “It’s alive! It’s alive!” (my apologies to Victor Frankenstein).

When I calmed at last and sat down at my computer, I discovered that I was unable to keep my Anglo-Danish hero from continually running headlong into danger (I refuse to say “in harm’s way”). What proceeded was a half-year chronicling the trials and tribs of myfriend and his companions as we explored Europe in the Middle Ages.

The great British novelist Graham Greene said, “The moment comes when a character does or says something you hadn’t thought about. At that moment he’s alive and you leave him to it.” I suppose that is the most exhilarating aspect of the writing process. Though you are the prime mover in your book’s universe, developing characters act in keeping with the truth of themselves. For the writer–at least for this writer–it is the experience of a reader losing him/her self in a great book, taken to the next level.

Years ago, I set out to learn the craft of acting. I advanced far enough to get paid a pittance for my work, and managed to learn a few things in the process. I learned–or used the concept–that to become a character you had to reach down deep to find where that character’s anger or bitterness or joy lay either realized or in potentiality inside you. From that place you spoke and moved and reacted.

Creating characters on the page is much the same. They all exist within your psyche, layered in life experience. I don’t recall who said that all characters are but different reflections of yourself, but I wouldn’t disagree. Even the evil that befalls you becomes a part of you.

I have always enjoyed flawed but heroic characters, for when they soar, so do I, whether as reader or writer. And creating a love interest for my hero is to put the ideal of perfect union within my own reach. So do I live life vicariously through my characters? Shit, ya.

My friend, Mary, the wise-woman and seer-ess of The Chilliwack Writers Group, told me she had been advised by a prof to expect sadness and a sense of loss to follow the completion of a major writing project. So what I am feeling is normal. I guess I’ll have to toss ideas around for a sequel and try to track down my lost characters. Blog writing is okay. But I do miss the swords.