I love welcoming back Catriona McPherson who has a brand new book out–In Place of Fear! Here’s a bit about the book: Helen leaned close enough to fog the mirror with her breath and whispered, ‘You, my girl, are a qualified medical almoner and at eight o’clock tomorrow morning you will be on the front line of the National Health Service of Scotland.’ Her eyes looked huge and scared. ‘So take a shake to yourself!”
Edinburgh, 1948. Helen Crowther leaves a crowded tenement home for her very own office in a doctor’s surgery. Upstart, ungrateful, out of your depth – the words of disapproval come at her from everywhere but she’s determined to take her chance and play her part.
She’s barely begun when she stumbles over a murder and learns that, in this most respectable of cities, no one will fight for justice at the risk of scandal. As Helen resolves to find a killer, she’s propelled into a darker world than she knew existed, hardscrabble as her own can be. Disapproval is the least of her worries now.
Catriona: I feel like I might have griped here before about the problem of naming a book. So, for a change today, I’m going to gripe about the problem of naming the characters in a book.
(Apart from anything else, naming IN PLACE OF FEAR was a breeze. I only went through three discarded working titles before I hit on the keeper.)
The first problem for anyone writing a novel set in Scotland is that in real life everyone would be called McSomething or MacSomeone but, in a book, you can’t have Mcs and Macs all over every page. It’s distracting to the eye as well as a challenge to the memory, as you try not to mix up the Macs when you’ve maxxed out on Mcs.
So I tend to keep them to walk-ons and cameos. Here, Bessie McNulty’s cousin gets spoken of once or twice and Mrs McIrnie’s daughter has two pivotal scenes. Other than that, the book is populated by Sutties, Downies, and Crowthers in the tenements, by Dr Strasser and Dr Deuchar at the surgery, and by the Sinclairs in the big house. All good Scots names and not a superscript c amongst them.
The Downies were a late substitution, mind you. I had called my heroine’s birth family “Begbie” but my editor said the long tail of Trainspotting meant that “Begbie” still resonated with the air of a scary hardman who might set about you with a broken bottle. And, while the Edinburgh tenements in the book are hardly St Mary Mead, that wasn’t what we were going for. I’m still not sure I agree, but it wasn’t much trouble to think up a different name, so “Downies” it is.
I had already caved on my heroine’s first name. I called her Nessie. My editor responded with a ‘LOL’. I responded to the LOL with a ‘?’. That got another ‘?’ and we had a phone call. A phone call in which I learned that “Nessie” is a funny name to non-Scottish people. It means “green monster” and could only be the name of the heroine in a humorous cozy, where the plight of being called Nessie was a running gag.
Hmph. I know people called Nessie. My sister’s got a friend called Nessie. It doesn’t strike me as a comedy name at all. The most interesting thing about it is that it’s short for Agnes, even though it’s longer. I think Agnes is a beautiful name, but in Scotland it’s shortened as a matter of emergency by pretty much everyone who bears it. My mother-in-law is Nan, short for Agnes, and other Agneses become Aggie, Netta, and even Senga (Agnes backwards). I think that’s the only case of a whole name being flipped to make a nickname out of it.
Anyway, Nessie Begbie as was is now Helen Downie, Nelly for short, Crowther once she marries, and everyone’s happy.
And, since I gave in on these two points, I got to keep Helen’s mammy, daddy and wee sister as Greet, Mack and Teen even though my editor reckoned they sounded like something out of Old Norse poetry. I think of their names as being: Greet short for Marguerite (my granny’s name; she got Greta), Mack short for a middle name based on a mother’s Mc/Mac maiden name (like my dad’s got), and Teen short for Christine and sometimes lengthened again to Teenie-bash (a frequent alternative to Catriona when I was wee).
Strangely enough the name that I made bothersome all on my own, with not a peep out of my editor, was Helen’s husband, Sandy, Billy, no wait – Sandy, hang on – Billy. Sandy. Billy. I have no idea why I kept changing it back and forth or what factors were in play. It wasn’t to make it less similar to someone else’s name, or to change the sociological echoes of age, class, religion or anything. Sandy and Billy were both plausible young Protestant working-class men in the 1940s. I annoyed myself with my indecisiveness before I finally settled on one.
Readers: I’d be interested to know if anyone can find any meaningful difference between the two names. Also, what names – besides Nessie – do you think are unusable for characters because of a single association? I’ll start: Kermit. But what say you?
Bio: National-bestselling and multi-award-winning author, Catriona McPherson (she/her), was born in Scotland and lived there until immigrating to the US in 2010.
She writes historical detective stories set in the old country in the 1930s, featuring gently-born lady sleuth, Dandy Gilver. The latest of these is 2021’s THE MIRROR DANCE. After eight years in the new country, she kicked off the comic Last Ditch Motel series, which takes a wry but affectionate look at California life from the POV of a displaced Scot (where do we get our ideas, eh?). Book 4, SCOT MIST, came out in January. She also writes a strand of contemporary psychological thrillers. The latest of these is last year’s A GINGERBREAD HOUSE.
Catriona is a member of MWA, CWA, Society of Authors, and a proud lifetime member and former national president of Sisters in Crime. www.catrionamcpherson.com