What’s In A Name?

WHAT'S IN A NAMEThis week we have two book birthdays–one for Edith Maxwell, one for Maddie Day. As we prepare to celebrate these books, one has to wonder, how do we all come up with the names of our characters? Is there a rhythm or reason? For multi-series writers, do you ever think about doing crossovers between series? Or wish a character could show up in more than one series?

Edith: I’ll jump in here about the crossover. Today I have a post up on Dru’s Book Musings, where characters talk in their own voices. Dru Ann asked if Robbie Jordan (Country Store Mysteries) and Cam Flaherty (Local Foods Mysteries) could meet. I gave it a little thought, and yeah, they can! Cam heads to Indiana to visit her parents, who are professors
IMG_2093there, and they all go out to breakfast at Pans ‘N Pancakes, Robbie’s country store restaurant. It was a fun scene to write. For my historical series, I like to prowl cemeteries and look for names from the eighteen hundreds. And then there’s the Social Security database of names. I found Orpha and Jotham in there.

Barb: Readers of mysteries often complain that they can’t keep the characters straight. The most important way to avoid confusion is to draw each character clearly and memorably and give him or her a distinct voice. I also like to hedge my bets by giving my characters memorable and distinct names. So recently I have used Imogen and Tallulah and Floradale. I also like alliterative first-last name combinations, like Cuthie Cuthbertson and Paolo Paolini.

Liz: I love trying to think up unique names – despite the fact that I always end up giving my characters names beginning with the same letter. I’m a huge fan of cemeteries too, especially when I’m trying to think of interesting last names. But mostly I try to give my characters names that fit them well as the people I see walking around in my mind.

Jessie: Very often the names of characters just come to me as though I have been introduced to them at a party. They simply pop, fully formed into my mind. One thing I do as soon as I know a character name is that I run a Google search on it to see if it popped easily into my head because it belongs to someone newsworthy and I have not made the connection.

Sherry: I often use names of friends and combine them in different ways. Carol Carson and Stella Wild are named after four of my sorority sisters. Angelo DiNapoli is named after a neighbor of mine in Bedford — the first name changed to protect the guilty. I have no idea where Scott Pellner came from — like what happens to Jessie it popped into my head. And I did the exact same thing — a Google search. And I might have mentioned Emily Diamond (from my unsold gemology series) in A Good Day To Buy, the fourth Sarah Winston book.

Julie: I think about names a lot. I have names pop, but need to start using Jessie’s tool. I have also had names just given to me. The last way I use names is to use real people’s names. Kim Gray, the town manager in my series, is named after our own Detective’s Daughter. She won the naming in a Malice Basket a few years back. It was the first time the Wickeds submitted a basket, and we were just started to get published. I didn’t have a contract yet, but did by the end of that summer, so Kim’s bid ended up helping me name on of the central characters of this series.

Readers: What are some of your favorite names in mystery fiction? Has your real name ever appeared in a book?

12 Thoughts

  1. Since I write about places that have long (and sometimes rigid!) history of naming patterns, I try to go with local names. For New England that’s a lot of my family tree, except that there is so much repetition over the years that I’ve used most of them already. In Ireland there was a pattern (first son named after father’s father, first daughter after mother’s mother, second son after mother’s father, etc.) that was fairly strictly enforced for centuries, which is why you still end up with a lot of Michaels and Patricks everywhere. That’s when you start adding nicknames–Young Mick, Red Paddy (hair, not politics!), and so on.

    Favorite names in books? Yikes. I think I’ve always admired Jo March in Little Women–she was an avowed tomboy, and her name reflected that, even in the 1860s.

  2. Sherry, I use real people names, too. In the Death of an Ambitious Woman, the last names were all people I’d worked with. I changed them all before publication, but one got by me. Fortunately, her namesake finds it amusing!

    1. To anyone who knows the real Historical Society in Philadelphia, the identity of Marty Terwilliger is unmistakable, as is that of the board chair, in the Museum Mysteries. They’re both fine with it.

  3. Jesse – Names pop up to me that way too. Most of my books have started that way–with a random name from who-knows-where! So far Kelly Greene, Shea Tolliver, Ariel Constellation and River North have been the tiny beginnings of plot ideas. Don’t understand it but hope it never goes away!

  4. I think naming names would be the hardest part of writing fiction. The few times I’ve tried it, it certainly was for me.

    I’ve made four appearances in books. In Hide and Snoop by Sue Ann Jaffarian, I was a rival paralegal looking to take over main character Odelia Gray’s job. In Kris Neri’s Revenge on Route 66, I was the mayor of the fictional town where the majority of the book is set. Both of these I knew were coming and made donations to charity for.

    However, I’m also popped up twice unexpectedly. In one of Steven Hockensmith’s Nick and Tesla books, one of their suspects was named Mark Carstairs. And in one of the Key West Food Critic Mysteries by Lucy Burdette, Markus Baker showed up thinking about buying the magazine. Both were huge shocks when I stumbled upon them. And yes, I confirmed with the authors they were me.

    And then there was the accidental one. In Jerrilyn Farmer’s first mystery, Sympathy for the Devil, the murder victim’s lawyer was named Mark Baker. I didn’t start the series until book four was out, and I hadn’t met her until after I started reading the books, but I loved that when I ran across it.

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