Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Name Game by Donna Andrews

Donna Andrews was born in Yorktown, Virginia and now lives in Reston, Virginia.  The Real Macaw, (July 2011, Minotaur), is the thirteenth book in her Agatha and Anthony winning Meg Langslow series. She has also written four books in the Turing Hopper series from Berkley Prime Crime. For more information:

Donna is participating in "The 365 Project," which is a photography project where you document a year of your life by taking a daily photo.  Here's one of her recent pieces:

You can see more of her work for this year here:

The Name Game
by Donna Andrews

I once heard an anecdote about Bruce Springsteen. Possibly apocryphal, but who cares? The audience is waiting for him to come on stage, and a couple of rock journalists are listening to the crowd chanting "Broooooooce! Brooooooce!"  One of the journalists turns to the other and asks, "What would they do if Bruce's parents had named him Irving?"

Names matter.  Especially character names.  Sometimes I find that a character doesn't really take shape in my mind until he or she has the right name. In the book I'm working on now--provisionally titled SOME LIKE IT HAWK--there is a falconer.  Right now, he's going by the name of Mr. Falconer.  I've had him try on a couple of real names for size, but so far none have really fit.  Maybe I'll ask Andy Straka, who has provided some of the hawk information I needed, if he wants to suggest a name.  That might be easier than trying to think of a good name myself.

My last several books have usually contained a couple of characters named by people who won the naming rights in a mystery convention auction.  I know some writers resist donating character names because they fear they'll get stuck with a name that they feel doesn't fit into their fictional world.  In fact, I thought that way myself for a while. 

But I liked the fact that the money raised went to a good cause--usually a literacy organization.  Like most writers, I'm big on literacy--I figure it's job security for all of us.  And I came to realize that figuring out how to use the names I was given was an interesting technical challenge.

Take the Blankes, who appear in COCKATIELS AT SEVEN.  Their daughter, Annette, who won a character name in an auction, would have been satisfied with my including only her father, Dr. Henry Blanke, but asked if there was any possibility that I could also include her mother, Phyllis.  I didn't tell her at first that I wasn't at all sure I could possibly include her father--because the book already contained the character of Dr. Montgomery Blake, Meg's grandfather.  I couldn't change his name--he had already appeared in the previous book.  And having two people named Dr. Blake and Dr. Blanke would be too confusing for the reader.

But that kind of confusion happens all the time in life. So I decided to embrace the similarity, and have some visiting FBI agents interrogate Dr. Blanke, under the mistaken impression that he was Dr. Blake.  It actually helped me figure out how Meg could uncover a bit of the information she needed to solve the crime. And several times since the book came out, I've heard from old friends of the Blankes who are surprised and pleased to find that they have made their way into a mystery book.

At one Bouchercon auction, Chris Grabenstein was auctioning off a character in SWAN FOR THE MONEY.  "Tell them what they can be if they buy this character," he ordered.  I mentally surveyed the characters who weren't recurring ones who already had names.  "Well," I said.  "The winner could be a rose grower . . . or a rose grower . . . or rose grower . . . or a grower of roses . . . or a belted Tennessee Fainting Goat."  One bidder was charmed by the notion of being a goat.  She bid aggressively and won the bid, and would hear nothing of being anything but a goat. I was a little worried, because most people don't give their goats first and last names and I didn't want my use of her name to sound stilted.  She assured me I could just use her first name--she'd know it was her.  But I believe in giving good value to someone who has donated a nice chunk of money to literacy in return for naming rights, so I found a way to use her full name.  After all, when do we as parents or pet owners use our darlings' full, formal names?  When they misbehave.  I found an opportunity where her namesake could do something that would cause her owner to exclaim, "Marguerite Johnson!  You naughty goat!"

Marguerite reported that she was delighted, although her husband found the whole thing passing strange, and now refuses to let her go alone to auctions, lest she be inspired to buy another character name.

Of course, I wouldn't have given Marguerite's name to a goat if she hadn’t liked the idea.  I try never to kill off my namesake characters, or make them the bad guys . . . unless the person who bought the naming rights WANTS it that way.  So when you see regular Malice attendee Sandy Sechrest shuffling off this mortal coil in SWAN FOR THE MONEY--I hasten to mention that she liked the idea.  And unlike so many of the victims in my books, her namesake wasn't a creep--I almost felt sorry at not being able to revive her at the last moment.

SinC newsletter maven Molly Weston appears in the same book not because she bought a character at auction but because she had a disappointing experience when another writer whose auction she won hung her name on a character who was not only unpleasant but morally objectionable and, well, downright icky. And by the time Molly found out about it, the book was in print. "Would it make you feel any better if I name a character after you?" I asked. "I'll make it someone you'll like."  I think Molly liked the rosegrower to whom I gave her name. Before deciding to name her after Molly, I was referring to her as Sensible Rosegrower, which gives you an idea what some of the other rosegrowers were like.

One of my favorite people, both in Meg's world and in my own is Caroline Willner.  I met her when one of my friends, her daughter Dina, brought her to the first Mayhem in the Midlands in 2001, and Caroline and I became friends.  I always looked forward to celebrating her birthday each year at Mayhem.

Caroline was rather put out that one of her friends at home didn't believe she knew me. Dina and I were trying to arrange a suitable form of proof, and I suggested, "Hey, what if I put her in one of my books."  So the fictional Caroline Willner, proprietor of a wildlife refuge, made her first appearance in WE'LL ALWAYS HAVE PARROTS--she brought the tiger.

A few years later, while I was working on SIX GEESE A-SLAYING, I heard the sad news from Dina that Caroline had been diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer.  I asked Dina if she thought her mother would mind if I brought her character back.  "Mind?  She'd love it."  I was imagining a walk-on part--in the book, Meg is organizing a holiday parade, and Caroline was going to show up just long enough to deliver the elephant for the Diwali float.  Heck, I was even going to give her a few lines of dialogue. But as soon as she showed up, I realized that the fictional Caroline Willner had much of the charm and feistiness of her real life model, and instead of a bit part she became a featured player.   In fact, a recurring character.  She won't be in every book, but she does tend to show up from time to time.  In THE REAL MACAW, which comes out this month (July 2011), Meg's father and grandfather burgle the local animal shelter to protest the county's decision to change the shelter.

Of course Caroline shows up to help out with the animals--and with the ensuing murder investigation.  And in SOME LIKE IT HAWK--

But that would be a spoiler.  Let's just say that Dina and I like to think the real Caroline Willner is looking on from somewhere and applauding her namesake.



Wendy said...

Donna, I love your July 9th photo! That's gorgeous!!

Neil Plakcy said...

What a great idea, Donna. While I'm waiting for name inspiration I think I'll have First Killer, Stupid Victim and so on.

Meredith Cole said...

I'm so glad Molly got to be a rose grower, Donna! It's absolutely perfect for her.

At first I thought using real names for characters would be hard, but so far I've really enjoyed incorporating them into my books. They give the characters new and unexpected dimensions. Fun post!

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Hi Donna - Welcome!!!! thanks so much for being here.

I'm with Meredith - Molly as a rose grower is perfect!

And you've inspired me with your 365 project photos, they're wonderful!