I spent a bunch of hours driving around Texas a few weeks ago. It didn’t take long for my initial fascination with looking at tumbleweeds and rusted windmills to wear off, and I ran out of things to do. So I took out my notebook, and started making lists of names.
One of my writing pet peeves is getting stuck on a name. Some writers can put in a placeholder name, keep writing, and circle back to change it later. That’s not me. Without the name, I have trouble thinking of the character as a full-bodied person with a distinct voice.
That isn’t to say that the name has to be deeply meaningful. I don’t need my heroes to be named Manly and my heroines to be Virginia. Names may evoke a sense of how old a character is (Lavinia vs. Caitlyn, for example) or their socioeconomic status (Buffy vs. Flo), but I don’t typically use names that have a symbolic meaning It’s more like picking a name for your baby. You just know when it’s right.
First names aren’t even the problem. They’re easy enough to find. Baby books are great. So are Social Security records of the popular baby names by decade. (Google it. It’s fun.) It’s last names and place names that stymie me. Sometimes they give me fits. And sometimes not having a name stops me cold, and I have to pick one to move on.
Finding last names isn’t trivial. When I open my local phone book, or stroll through my local cemeteries, I get a multitude of Germanic and Eastern European names, that are long on syllables and consonants. What I usually want are names that won’t trip up the reader, something easily spelled and easily pronounced. When the name doesn’t matter much, when it isn’t part of the story, I don’t want it to be disruptive. I also prefer that my friends, families, and colleagues don’t find their own last names in my work, because I don’t want them imagining me imagining them in these roles. Especially some roles. Yikes.
But there in Texas, there were names everywhere. For Sale signs, political billboards, street names, bumper stickers, city names, school names, park names, river names, and car dealerships. There were Beckers and Beldens and Bernards. Watsons and Wolvertons and Wurzbachs. It was a goldmine. My list goes on for pages.
And it worked for place names too. I have a friend who discovered that in one book, half of her characters, and the small town they lived in, all had names starting with “G”. They were all good names, but altogether, it was potentially confusing. I’m that way with the letters “J” and “K”. But now I have a list with “Bluffton Oaks,” Mill Creek,” and “Shavano Falls.” Not a “J” or “K” name in there.
There are plenty of other reasons to visit Texas, Mexican Food being at the top of my list. But if you find yourself zoning out in the passenger seat on a long drive, I recommend taking out your notebook, and making a list of names. My list from a single long drive will keep me going for at least a dozen projects. And as an added bonus, it made me notice details, and I enjoyed the trip more thanks to working on the list.
I’m curious. Other writers – how do you come up with names?
Picture source: Open Clipart