Wednesday, April 27, 2011

What's in a Name? by Deborah Crombie

New York Times bestselling author Deborah Crombie is a native Texan who writes crime novels set in the United Kingdom. Her Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James series has received numerous awards, including Edgar, Macavity, and Agatha nominations, and is published in more than a dozen countries to international acclaim.

Crombie lives in North Texas with her husband, German shepherds, and cats, and divides her time between Texas and Great Britain. Her latest novel, No Mark Upon Her, will be published by William Morrow in 2012.  She is currently working on her fifteenth Kincaid/James novel.

She's also a regular blogging member of Jungle Red, a salon of eight terrific mystery writing women, found here:

UK Cover

What’s in a Name?
by Deborah Crombie

“… That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
It may be contrary of me, but I think I have to disagree with our William on this one.

Wading my way into a new book, still naming characters as I go, I’m amazed, as I always am, at the difficulty of it.  First, there’s the matter of repetition.  Since this is my fifteenth book, this is becoming a real ISSUE.  While in real life we may have an abundance of friends and family with the same name (How many Johns, Davids, Kate/Katie/Katharine/Catherines, Lindsey/Lindsays, Steves, Ann/Anne/Annies, etc., in your daily circle?) and while in life we usually manage to keep them straight, this isn’t acceptable in series novels.  Very confusing for the writer as well as the reader.

So: my general rule is that I can re-use a name for a minor character, but not for a major player (although variants may be acceptable.  A previous book had an Andrew as a main character; the book-in-progress has an Andy.)  But after fifteen books, I find I have trouble keeping the teeming population straight.

Too late, I discovered that I should have done what organized writers do:  I should have kept what’s called a “bible” for every book.  These bibles would have listed not only the names of all the major and minor and series characters, but also their physical descriptions, their relationships, their back stories.  And then I’d just have to flip back through each particular bible to find that, oh, yeah, there was an Alex in Book #7, a Lydia in Book #5 …
But, alas, I didn’t make bibles, which now leaves me at the beginning of every new book, flipping frantically through previous volumes, scribbling lists of characters.  And I still miss things:  I’ve given completely unrelated characters the same last name two fairly recent books; Duncan’s sister’s name changed somewhere early on in the series with no explanation (maybe the first version was her middle name?  A childhood nickname?); and I can’t for the life of me remember if I’ve ever given Gemma’s sister Cyn and her odious husband a last name . . .
I did recently make a list in my novel journal of all the names of the continuing characters in the series, along with their families, friends, and connections.  It made a very pretty chart but I was a little horrified to total over a hundred people!  And that’s just the continuing cast, mind you, not the characters that only appear in a specific novel.

And there’s more to the naming game than avoiding repetition.  Names have to be age appropriate.  I have an old copy of the Guinness Book of Names, which gives the most popular girls and boys names in the US and the UK from the 1850s to the 1980s (although I now have characters who were born later than the mid-eighties so I use the Internet to check the more recent favorites.)  Names are always cyclical, but while some old-fashioned names are popular again—Oliver, Mary, Jacob, Isabella, for instance—readers might find it hard to buy a young girl called Mildred or a teenaged boy named Ebeneezer.  Conversely, you’re not likely to have a Jayden or Tashika who are over twenty-five.

(“Deborah” peaked around 1955 in both the US and UK top five, by the way, and hasn’t made it back into the top ranks since.  My mom always swore she picked it because it was a biblical name, as was my brother’s, Stephen, and that she didn’t name me after Debbie Reynolds.  But as she wasn’t a churchgoer…hmm.)
Then there’s the celebrity factor.  “Brad” and “Pitt” are both fairly common names, but you can’t put them together.  I made a mistake in the latest book, NO MARK UPON HER, when I gave a character the same name as a quite well known British actor and comedian.  Um, he just didn’t happen to be well known to me.

When my English friends read the manuscript, they said, “Oh, no, you can’t call him THAT!”  Fortunately, it only took a one letter replacement, and it didn’t change the way I saw the character.  (And no, I’m not admitting who it was!)
Nor am I comfortable using names from my immediately family, or close friends, at least for major characters, so that rules out quite a few. (Although in many of the books I’ve given a minor character my husband’s last name, and there are a few other little personal jokes lurking in the pages.)
So if we avoid repetition, and familiarity, pick something age-appropriate, then add in ethnicity and geography, it seems as if it would be easy enough to come up with pretty good lists of first and last names for your characters.  But—
Here’s where we get back to my disagreement with old Bill.  A name should just be a name, right?  Except it’s not.
We all have ingrained personal perceptions—and prejudices--about names.  We like “Jennifer” because that was our best friend’s name in primary school.  We can’t stand “Josh” because of an old boyfriend who did us wrong . . .
But for writers, at least in my experience, it’s more complicated than that.  Sometimes characters name themselves instantly.  They pop into your head fully formed—bang!—and there they stay.  If you absolutely have to make a change for one of the above-named reasons, they will fight you over it, and you have to come to a compromise.
And then sometimes, sometimes, they are inexplicably slippery and difficult.  You try every formula and you just can’t get a name to stick.  There are characters in my books I’ve renamed a dozen times and was still never really happy with the final choice. 
What’s a writer to do?
You keep trying.  You look for names everywhere. 
Books, magazines, newspapers, cereal boxes… I watch the credits on movies and TV shows, especially British ones.  I make lists and juggle different combinations of first and last.  I use the name in a scene, in dialogue.  I read it aloud (hopefully where no one can hear me.) In the winter, when I work in my cozy upstairs office, I have lots of books to inspire me.  

In the spring and summer, when I move downstairs into my sun porch, or sit out on my deck to work, I mostly stare into the garden.  (There have been a number of flower names, come to think of it…)

Eventually, if I’m lucky, magic happens.  The name and the character gel, and suddenly I know that person absolutely couldn’t be called anything else.  Imagine—it’s like naming your child, only I get to do it dozens of times in every book.  Daunting, maybe, but fun.
And wouldn’t you like to ask Shakespeare where he came up with a few of his?
Maybe I should consider Cymbeline for this woman who’s been giving me trouble…


Vicki Lane said...

Oh, yes, Deb! Great post and all so true. I did the inadvertent well-known person mistake myself -- of course, my editor caught it. What made it worse is that it was a mystery author whose name I used ... an author I should have known.

Jody said...

Interesting post. I love the Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James series.

Tracy Grant said...

What a great post and very timely for me. I'm starting a new book and struggling with naming characters. Two characters named themselves and it's working great. But for others I have a few "placeholder" names (which is tricky because it's often hard to get used to a new name later). In historical books if often seems even fewer names were in vogue (if you look at 1ate 18th/early 19th century family trees there are so many Edwards, Jameses, Johns, Charleses, Georges, Marys, Carolines, and Georgianas). And as you say not only can't one repeat within a book, one can't repeat major character names from book to book. I too jot down notes during film and tv credits and when I'm doing research. With the book I just turned in, I can to change a major characters name fairly late because I had given him the same name as a real historical person who ended up playing a larger role than I anticipated. Sometimes a character doesn't quite "gell" until I have the right name. Charles's sister was Beth and then Diana and didn't really come together as a character until I decided her mother would have chosen a French name and named her Gisèle.

Julie Gerber said...

Love the post AND the photos, Deb.

Deb said...

Tracy, I shudder to contemplate naming characters in an historical novel! I have enough trouble with the back-story sections of my own books.

And about the gelling. Isn't it funny how characters don't come to life until they have a name that sticks?

And Vicki, I sympathize :-)

Nan said...

Wonderful, wonderful post! I'm currently reading Water Like A Stone. I love this series, and its characters no matter what their names are. :<)

Unknown said...

I never knew so much work went into the names in a book. It seems to be just as long and hard as trying to name a child, or a corgi.

Bonnie said...

Deborah! First, I am a huge fan and am sad to have to wait until next year for the next book. I really love the series, and also the beautiful maps.

To keep track of your characters, you might think about hiring a high school or college kid to build a wiki in a subfolder on your website. J.D. Robb's fans have created one on their own initiative (and yes, it contains references to mistakes in continuity Nora has made in the course of 30+ novels); I doubt she consults it, but it seems a handy thing to have and use.

Thanks for all the reading pleasure, and may your hard drive always be good to you!

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Hi guys, Welcome!!

Deborah Crombie. At Meanderings and Muses. I could die.

Deborah - there is no reason for you to remember this, but the first time I met you was in Baltimore at B'Con. A buddy and I were walking down the street on the way back from the Harbor and I spotted Marcia Talley and said hey. I looked again and there you were. And Kate Charles. I wanted to melt. (I hope I didn't squeal really loudly). You guys were gracious enough to stop and allow me to have my photo taken with you. One of my favorite photos EVER, with one of my favorite writers EVER and I am having a major fan girl moment.

Thanks for being here, sincerely.

And welcome to everyone else. I'm so glad you see you all!

Vicki - I noticed Deborah had blogged one of your wonderful books, which made me over the moon happy. Well deserved!!!!!

Do I spy a corgi owner here?! Love it!

Julie D said...

Well, shoot, Deb! Now you've given me something to think about. My only book out is a first in a series, so I have some time to follow your very sound advice and keep lists. But, I'm with Tracy. So far, my characters have named themselves. Again, I'm a freshman, so we'll talk again when I've got 15 books out! Ha!

Best to you, and great post.


Deb said...

Kaye, of course I remember meeting you, and that is also one of my favorite photos! It seems strange to me now to think that I didn't know you before Baltimore . . .

jenny milchman said...

Love the cat in your workspace, Deborah :) With 15 novels, I can well imagine this becoming an issue! Glad the British actor snafu was caught!