What’s in a Name?

One of the (many) fun activities of being a fiction writer is choosing your characters’ names. I like to select names that are authentic as to time period and background, yet also interesting and evocative. (I try not to stray too far into soap-opera territory. No “Brick”, “Ridge” or “Mallory” for me.) Sometimes my characters’ names are borrowed from real people – relatives, neighbors, celebrities – at other times, I look up lists of popular baby names from the correct period, or even let my fingers do the walking through the phone book for local names. One of my characters in The Pleasure of Your Company was named for my next-door-neighbor, Kat. I just loved that name and it worked so well for the character. I was a little embarrassed though, when she wanted to buy the book and I had to explain what I’d done. Another neighbor, Mary Lou, who had already read my books, said I could use her name whenever I wanted! So I will! 

It’s interesting to note how name popularity changes throughout the decades. I see a distinct difference in the names people chose for their babies before World War II from afterward. It seems to me that before the war, people’s names reflected their ethnic and cultural background a good deal (my mom’s French Canadian ancestors had names like Odile, Cesaire, Marie-Aimee, and Angelique, and my dad’s German ancestors came with names like Olga and Jacob and Rosa). Yet for us Baby-Boomers, after the war, our parents chose All-American names, like Karen and Billy, Susan and Bob. We, in turn, went for something a bit fancier (many of us thinking our own names were too plain-Jane). We named our kids ‘classic’ names like Jennifer and Melissa, Jason and Matthew. Biblical names made a big resurgence – Benjamin, Seth, Hannah and Elizabeth. Then came the many, many Ashleys and Heathers, the jewel-like Tiffanys and Crystals and Ambers, the manly last-name-for-a-first-name Brooks and Tyler and Harrison. Don’t even get me started on the popularity of unusual spellings (Ashleigh? Britnni? Aron? Tzak?) and the completely made-up names – LaToya, Donelia, Kyree, Darvon and Kiara. My head starts spinning. (At one point, I taught a fourth-grade class with three girls named LaKeesha, LaShiqua, and Shaneeka. Sweet girls, but I could never keep their names straight!) 

Lately I’ve been researching names for my oft-mentioned, never-yet-completed book about Camp Meeting. I’m back to work on it again, new ideas in mind, and am determined that THIS will be the summer it gets written. Meanwhile, I’m having fun looking through the two doorstopper-sized volumes of Rock Spring Campground, a history compiled by Terry Brotherton. Rock Spring Campground is just down the road from me and the inspiration for this novel. But I’m LOVING the names mentioned in it – first names like Nolen, Otha, Tyrus, Doyle, Rhyne, Orvie and Eudy for the men, and Vassie, Allene, Arvelle, Hazelean, Leantha, and Lockie for the women (almost all pre-World War II campers).  You can really follow the development of name popularity just in the photos which picture a four-generation family, with grandparents Ruby and S.D., daughter Peggy and her husband David, their children Heather, Ashley, and Jason, and Heather’s twin toddlers, Madison and Bryce. 

I won’t tell you yet what names I’ve selected for my new characters, but maybe in another blog entry, I’ll talk a little about choosing the names used in previous books. By the way, part of my longtime interest in names comes from my father’s family. His parents were big on novelty. Dad’s siblings were named Marvel, Evadena, Teddy Jack, Keith, Olga, Darwin, Courtney, Echo, North, Lorna Lou, Dwight and Conrad. How can you not be interested in names, coming from a line-up like that? Funny thing is, while my siblings and I all admire these names, the owners of the names themselves often changed them to something less original. In my novel, Every Little Step She Takes, two of the characters, a mother and daughter, talk about their names and how they always hated them and wished them different. Our first name is one of the first things we understand as part of our identity. How important it is to carefully select your child’s name, but obviously, we have to choose that name before the child has developed any personality. They’re stuck with our choice.

Well, my fictional characters are gonna be stuck with my choices too. Hey, dem’s de berries. I’m the author.


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