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Cathy: Ugh – on a stick

I just spent all morning and some of last night working on a post for the blog that when I went to copy and paste from my Word doc, disappeared completely. This is just an example of the weirdness that happens when i am around computers, or pretty much anything that uses an electro-magnetic field. I was able to go back and find an earlier version of the document that contained approximately half of the unduplicatable post which was about the writing process in progress, as it unfolded. So following is what is still available of all the work I put into the piece . Please note that while I am completely and utterly miffed about all the work lost, I am please that I seem to have the basis of a story including background notes on all characters involved for a future short story, that I hope to keep the engine running on this week and finish a draft of. also please note that Laura is already not Laura but Deirdre, called Dee. and the girl’s name is Dahlia.

What’s in a name

When I write fiction, most of the fun I have is in naming characters. Many times, the story unfolds from the name. Enough time has passed, while I wait for readers to get back to me with their critical thoughts of my children’s novel manuscript, I feel names and characters growing in the back of my mind and wanting to push through to the front and onto paper. I also have a big baby names book which I use in referencing names to be sure I have the right character in the name’s origins and meanings as I want to convey in the character. Names are funny things though, and while a name has a particular etymological meaning, it also has a cultural and personal meaning. An Elizabeth is a ‘gift from God” a Betty, nickname derived from Elizabeth, however is a friendly outgoing older woman, grandma or not. Elizabeth is old fashioned, Libby is sweet, or a can of vegetables. Beth is straightforward or a KISS ballad, Liz is forthcoming, Eliza, artistic, Lizzie might be spastic, or at least energetic and makes me think of the old band, Thin Lizzy. Elizabeth can be dignified or snotty or shy, depending upon associations the public has or personally people I’ve known. Growing up when I did, there were many, and typically they weren’t all alike. But Elizabeth is a special kind of name, so prevalent and so many derivations and nicknames that it becomes very individual depending upon the person bearing it.. So, to start this blog, Elizabeth may not be the best example.

Let’s start from another angle. I have my big fat baby name book out. I have an idea: a boy, a girl, a young woman, an old man and a room. The room is in the grandfather’s house and contains a tatty old sofa, dim amber light emanates from a dark lampshade. There’s a dark window, so it’s night. Otherwise, I have to come up with names to fill in who they are, why they are sitting there and what is the crux of the situation, the story comes from there. but first I need names.

Let’s start with the boy. I flip open my big fat book to the back half, where the boys’ names are, and land in E. I don’t feel Edward, first E name that pops to mind when I notice I’m in E. I look down, peruse a little, nothing makes me pause until I hit Etienne. French name for Stephen which means ‘crowned’. This to me gives a sense of privilege, and maybe a bit of a delicate nature for being privileged, sheltered, and he’s probably blond. Well that doesn’t really fit with the tatty old sofa of the grandfather. What’s the least Etienne name I can think of off the top of my head? Walter comes to mind. Look it up: two origins: from German it means ‘army ruler, general’; from English it means ‘woodsman’ – both very strong meanings a general, a man wielding an axe, but Walter has a cultural connotation probably largely from the Walter Mitty character from James Thurber’s story of the imaginative but put-upon unsuccessful guy. Walter has a bit of a comical appeal, but a bit of sadness attached to it. Maybe the kid is named after his grandfather, as it’s a traditional, older name. You don’t hear Walter in kids much these days when so many Aidens, Michaels, Ethans abound. Although Michael is a perennial much like Elizabeth. But I’m getting offtrack.

So the boy’s name is Walter, and now apparently, so is the grandfather, but we’ll call him Walt, he’s a good old guy, probably fought in World War II or Korea. If that’s the case, then I don’t think our young Walter is very young, as more likely his grandfather would have fought in Vietnam, but then, I’m back to Walter is an older name than that generation, so Walter is a later in life grandson to Walt, born to a youngest child of his, later in her life. Aha. Now we have the youngish woman, Walt’s daughter, or daughter-in-law. HHmmm. Ok not there yet. Sorry about al the background, but this is really how I go about knowing what’s happening with this particularly set of characters. Okay, I’m starting to see, a single scene situation developing here, not really a novel, probably a short story, could be a play. Leaning toward short story. Are they gathered in grief? Okay, back to the names, that’ll give me a little more to go on. So the woman, well she’s a bit younger than I am, and maybe Walter is about my son K’s age, or a little younger. Okay he’s 12. Closer to my son S’s age. That seems to fit. So if she’s a little younger than me, but her father, okay, it’s developing, that she is Walt’s daughter, not daughter-in-law, then she wouldn’t likely be one of the overly popular names of my generation like mine, Cathy/Kathy, Debbie, Suzy, Laurie, there was a fixation on cutifying names when I was coming up, but wait, I think she could be a Laura. OK, consult book:

and after posting it then going through a final read through, i realized i had a lot of other editing in there than what you see above. like connotations of Eliza Doolittle from My fair Lady, some grammar corrections, better clarifications…

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Funny how female names, at least in the US, almost always end in “y” or the modernized “i” or “a”. The ones with “y” or “i” seem to be designed to be cute and nonthreatening, while the “a” ones seem to convey a certain power, albeit sexual. No wonder African Americans started making up their own.

    June 30, 2009
  2. That’s really interesting, Cathy.

    First, I’ll just make a comment regarding 1st mate’s observation. I HATE my name. I would love to take a large baby name book and whack my mother repeatedly over the head with it. Brittany Alexis… who the heck did she think she was naming? A new As The World Turns cast member? Brittany does sound cute and nonthreatening. She definetely didn’t give me a power name. I’m doomed to a life of fluffiness.

    I go through a similar process naming my characters. On the book I’m currently working on, I also saw a character–a strong, strangely beautiful mountain girl, with hair the color of a wheat penny, and eyes that were cloudy with greens and greys and blues. I originally liked the name Ivy for her. It evoked images of nature, and it was a small, tidy name that I thought sounded like she looked. But the -y diminutized her, and I wanted her to be strong. So then I started researching Cherokee names and found Ahinawake (Ah-na-wake), which means laughing eyes. I thought I’d call her Ahina for short (Ah-na) but my reader would want to call her A-hee-nuh, and this is a girl who’s an outsider, who has no family left. She’s no “laughing eyes” so I scrapped that. I did further research and found out that the Cherokee word for bear is Yonv or Yona. The bear is both admired and feared by the Cherokee. Now I was getting somewhere. Wouldn’t the whites in my story both admire and fear a girl who could heal, but who kept to herself, was 1/4 Cherokee, and who’d been raised as an indian? Maybe the whites in the area would shorter her Cherokee name into something similar in English… back to Anna. And it ends with -a- which conveys her strength and is an unquestionably traditional name.

    Great post Cathy. Am curious to hear how others go about naming their characters/work?

    June 30, 2009
  3. yep, 1st mate and Brittany. there was a particualrly strong wave of the tendency where and when i was born. i’m Cathy on my birth certificate. hated my whole life, until i reached a point where i could own it in a new way rather than default to the public persona of ‘cute little cathy coley’ which is how i have often been not only referred to, but even addressed. shoot me then! now, i’m okay with it as long as no one takes it there.

    i wish the rest of my post had not been lost. it would be impossible to recreate, but i sure had fun and found it interesting not only going through the naming process, but consciously examing how my stories generally develop from names which form the characters and how it all stemmed for that family from naming the boy walter.

    i don’t think it’s possible to write goog fiction without seriously, and having fun doing so, considering the literary ramifications of all the layers of a name for a character. the actual meaning, the public associations, how the name may be or was perceived on the playground.

    anyone who wants to share their process at least in naming characters, please, i would love to hear how it works for you!

    in my last ms, the main character’s name was a given from the moment the first sentence popped into my head. a couple of other characters were much harder won names, one significant character went through a handful of name changes just in the last months i was writing the book.

    June 30, 2009
  4. I had the same issue with the best friend character in How Home Improvement Saved My Marriage. Initially her name was Katrina (which I still contend is a better name for her than Jillian–it sounds strong, well-heeled, and a little wild) but after Hurricane Katrina, the name took on all new connotations and I knew it would just be distracting to my reader. *sigh* Finally I tried Jillian, after many many other names, and it stuck.

    June 30, 2009
  5. Very interesting topic. Thanks for this post, Cathy.

    I tend to sit back and let the names pop up, and then work with them rather than trying to edit. In the fiction piece I’m working on right now, a daughter is Lisa, which is not a name that has particular significance for me, although it’s interesting given that she was an apparently “average” girl who is suddenly discovered to have prodigal talent. Works. Another primary character’s name is David. David is my father’s name, and I hope I’m not heading into any strange subconscious territory there, but this character is simply a David (never a Dave) and it suits him perfectly. I definitely avoid names that are difficult to pronounce or are otherwise distracting. I don’t care for odd spellings of otherwise common names, like Alix. Just annoys me, unless there is some important justification.

    The piece I’m currently writing is in the first person, and the narrator has not revealed her name to me yet. In a short fiction piece I wrote that was published by Carve Magazine, also written in the first person, the narrator’s name was NEVER revealed. That piece was all about identity, and while the narrator had a job in which she was required to wear a name tag, and ended up as an artist’s model in which she had nothing at all to hide behind — the fact that we never learn her name seemed to work.

    I sort of feel like if I get stuck working with a name that I’m not crazy about, that can be a good thing. Just as in real life, where the only names we get a shot at selecting are those of our children, I like having to make peace with a character’s name, much like the process that Cathy described.

    Brittany, do you go by Britt, or always Brittany? Personally I like the name Brittany, but Britt does have a strong and unapologetic ring to it, perhaps?

    I have to confess that I have pretty much always been very happy with my name. I have only met a handful of other Mirandas in my life (although the name has gained in popularity since Sex and the City). My parents were working on The Tempest when I was born, and I appreciate the literary root. Makes me feel like I have something to live up to — “Oh brave new world” and all that 😉 Many people have no idea how to spell it, or they think I’m Brenda or Melinda. Routinely, customer service people assume that it’s my last name — especially since my actual last name, since marrying, is Helin, pronounced Hell-EEN — so people routinely get annoyed thinking that I’m reversing the order in which they want to note my name, which must be “Helene Miranda” or “Helen Miranda.” But all of these annoyances are OK, because I really do like my name.

    In addition to a character’s primary name, there is always the last name to consider. Do all the same sensibilities apply? I do often look at name reference books for last names. Without the reference books, the last names that I pick either fall into the Jones-type category or otherwise sound totally made-up!

    On the personal front, I confess to a strong preference for my maiden name — although I moved my maiden name to the middle spot and use all three for anything formal or work-related. For my fiction work, I use just my maiden name, Miranda Hersey. It just feels like my true creative self. No offense to my husband, but HIS family name doesn’t have anything to do with my life’s work. Anyone else feel that way too?

    July 1, 2009
  6. ha! i won’t even begin to go into what i went through when i took spouse #1’s name and attached it to mine. because of the true creative self, as you said, miranda, i didn’t do it this time at all, much to honey’s chagrin. i also am now called mrs M re: my sons, Mrs T re: husband and daughter, and rarely by my own name until i make it an issue, hopefully as humorously as i think i do, but i do get a lot of eye rolls over the phone and in person. it’s amazing how an eye roll can be heard on the phone.

    it’s funny, when i was responding above, i was thinking of the whole issue of last names which i avoided so far in this story’s machinations. but you bring up an interesting point miranda. in my ms, i definitely fiddled with a few sub-character last names, but the main character’s whole name came in an instant in the original inspiration line i wrote, which is one of the few sentences that has not changed throughout the 5-6years, or 4-5, i don’t know anymore, i worked on it. and that last name is most definitely made up. i even tried to look it up just in case it would give any particular reference i wasn’t going for, and it’s nowhere that i’ve found. i think that’s pretty neat. this character’s sense of self is so important to the story.

    July 1, 2009
  7. Kristine #

    Interesting. I have to admit that I haven’t given a lot of thought to character names. But then again, once I name a character, I have a hard time thinking of them as anything but that name I have given them. I also use a baby book sometimes, but mostly I just use whatever name pops into my head. Last names are difficult for me.

    As for my own name, I like my name, especially since it’s spelled a little differently, with a “K” instead of a “C.” The only thing I HATE, HATE, HATE about it is that my entire family and all of my parents’ friends call me “Krissy.” Fine for when I was a little girl but now that I’m in my mid-30’s? Not so cute. It’s a habit I have been unable to break with them, despite my endless efforts to try.

    July 1, 2009
  8. Miranda, to answer your question about my name… My mother’s name is Brenda, and when she got to college, she was the third or fourth Brenda on her hall, and all the Brendas gave themselves a nickname. Mom’s was Britt. My father wanted to name me after my mother, but Mom hated Brenda (I am so not a Brenda), and felt calling me Britt would be too confusing. One day they passed an apartment complex called The Brittany, and Dad said, “That’s her name!” Lucky me.

    I do not go by Britt because my mother uses the name. And although some of my friends do call me Britt occasionally, it never feels like my name. When I lived in Holland, my friends there nicknamed me Britje (pronounced Britch-uh), and I’ve always liked that. But it’s not like it would occur to an English speaker to shorten my name in that way. Plus, it’s a pet name for me, and I like the fact that there are only a handful of people who’ve ever used it…

    Maybe it could catch on here. It’s never occurred to me to introduce myself that way.

    July 1, 2009
  9. i can tell you, i certainly never thought of you as a cute brittany or britney – godforbid, i always associated your name with your euro travels as the more ‘from great britain’ meaning. not that i think of you as from gb, but, oh you know, not a cutsey britney type at all.

    July 1, 2009
  10. very interesting discussion. short of one short fiction writing class in grad school, all my writing has been in the non-fiction realm so i’ve never had to think of characters’ name. i am a voracious reader and i must admit that i never give characters’ names a second thought when reading. i don’t think of their origins, their current meanings, how they were treated on the playground…nothing. is that unusual?

    as for my -y name, i don’t think the cutesy connotation has every really come into play with me and i’ve always been happy with my name and the various nicknames that have come along with it…kel-belle from my father; kel-nel from my friends (the majority of whom still call me that). i never cared much for my middle name (denise), so when i married i kept my maiden name (nelson) as my middle name. growing up and all through college, even though i got the majority of my spending money in college from modeling gigs, i still was a tomboy at heart, always involved in sports and always hanging out with the guys. to this day, my closest friends are male and i can talk sports with the best of them (just took the girls to their first jacksonville suns game last night!). in that sense, i’ve felt like i had a little bit of power because most men don’t expect that. maybe that knowledge (coupled with my 5’10” frame) knocks the cutesy factor down.

    July 1, 2009
  11. oh, kelly you’re adorable!

    in all seriousness, kelly is kind of unusual in that it’s a unisex and a surname, too, so not as nicknamey cutesy as say cathy. most of my friends are guys, too. maybe that’s how i got around some the cute in my self-assessment of myself as an adult with a girlie name.

    July 1, 2009
  12. oops, went to the redundant school of redundancy there!

    July 1, 2009
  13. why, thank you, cathy! funny you mention the unisex nature of kelly. when i was in college, one of my best guy friends was also named kelly. all our friends wanted us to get married so they could call us kel-squared. though we obviously never married (much to his parents chagrin), we’re still great friends. he lives here in town and married a jennifer. he’s also my mortgage banker! 🙂

    July 2, 2009

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