Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Rose by Any Other Name

by guest blogger Leslie Wheeler

With all due respect to Shakespeare’s Juliet, who had good reason to proclaim to Romeo that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” I beg to differ. 

What’s in a name?  A lot actually.

For me at least, a character can’t come to life until I’ve found just the right name for him or her.  The naming process is often fun: you start with the vague idea of a character and select a name which seems to fit that character, because of the associations it carries. Sometimes these associations are deeply personal, sometimes not.  When I can’t think of an appropriate name that belongs to someone I know or have known, I find those name-your-baby books helpful. Or if I’m really desperate, I’ll pick up the phone book.  Once I’ve got my name, I can begin the process of fleshing out the character.

In the past, I haven’t had to worry much about dreaming up place names, because my first two books are set at real places: Murder at Plimoth Plantation, at the Pilgrim village of the same name, and Murder at Gettysburg at the town in Pennsylvania.  My third book was supposed to be called Murder at Mystic Seaport, but then both the Seaport and my publisher decided the name needed to be changed “to protect the innocent” (the Seaport and my publisher) from the aspersions that would be cast on the Seaport if it were connected with a murder, albeit fictional.  So I was faced with the daunting prospect of re-naming not only the museum and the village of Mystic, but all the real-life restaurants, bars, and ships I’d mentioned in the book.  

I began my quest for a replacement name for Mystic by jotting several possibilities on a legal pad. But none satisfied me.  Then, on a long drive from Burlington, Vermont back to Boston, I had a “Eureka” moment.  Mystic would become Spouters Point (with no apostrophe, as in Harpers Ferry).  Readers of Moby Dick will know that the name comes from the Spouter’s Inn in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Ishmael spends the night on his way to Nantucket, and where he meets the native harpooner, Queequeg. 

From then on it was smooth sailing: Mystic Seaport became the Spouters Point Maritime Museum, the whaler Charles W. Morgan became the Susan Kilrain (after a woman who’d won the right to have a character named after her in my next book at a charity benefit auction), and so on until I hit another snag.

Mystic Seaport wasn’t the only real place name I’d used in the book.  There was the Mashantucket-Pequot-owned gambling casino of Foxwoods.  An important part of the book is devoted to Foxwoods and to the history of the tribe itself. Anxious to get permission to use the Foxwoods name, I contacted a lawyer for the tribe, who told me he would need to present my request before the tribal council.  I dutifully made my case, and by the time I was done, I’d sent the lawyer copies of every page in the manuscript where Foxwoods and/or the tribe were mentioned. 

Weeks passed and still no answer was forthcoming. “It could happen tomorrow, or it could be months down the road,” the lawyer told me.  Reluctantly, I decided to withdraw my request and change the name.  Foxwoods became Clambanks. I wasn’t finished, however.  When I contacted the “rights” person at my publisher to make sure I had done everything I was supposed to, I was told that I needed to change the name of the tribe as well.  Fortunately, I found a glossary of Algonquin words in the back of a book written by a seventeenth-century visitor to New England, and there found a name for my tribe: the Mashantucket Pequots became the Dottagucks.

The moral of the story: unless you’re a big-name author with a big-name publisher, you may have to fictionalize names of people, places, and institutions, as I did.  Once I got going, the process of re-naming wasn’t as difficult as I’d thought, but I still wish I could have avoided it. 

But back to the question with which I began: Does a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Yes and no. “No,” because I’d seen people’s faces light up when I told them I was writing a mystery set at Mystic Seaport.  Knowing and loving the Seaport, they were excited about the prospect of reading a book that takes place there. Now, of course, this doesn’t happen.  Instead, I get puzzled looks. “Where is Spouters Point?” people ask, assuming it’s a real place. This is the “yes” part, because it shows that at least I’ve managed to pique their curiosity with my new name. And their interest in the location of the village I’ve created gives me a chance to explain that Spouters Point is a fictionalized Mystic Seaport.  So, in a sense, I get to have it both ways.

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Julie Godfrey Miller said...

Interesting post. Sometimes its a struggle, and sometimes inspiration strikes. In looking for an Irish name for my protag, the name Anne Harrington popped into my head. It wasn't until at least a year later that I realized that that was the name of one of my great-grandmothers. Good old sub-conscious at work.

Anonymous said...

I began my manuscript with a character named Rue. She was a dreary sort, not someone I, or a reader, would want to spend much time with. When I changed her name to Molly, she lightened up considerably. In fact, I never know what she's going to say or do next.

Leslie Wheeler said...

Julie, Yes, it's wonderful how the old sub-conscious works! I'm sure it played a role in my coming up with the name Spouters Point, as I had been reading Melville, while working on the book. Glad it helped you remember your grand-grandmother's name as a name for your protag. Curious if your protag's anything like your great-grandmother.

Leslie Wheeler said...

"towriteistowrite," I was interested to hear how your character changed when you changed her name from Rue to Molly--a much lighter, almost bouncy name. Sounds like you're having fun with her. I love it when you don't know what a character is going to do or say next, because I like being surprised when I write.
And the identity"towriteistowrite" came from?

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Hey, Leslie! SO fascinating..and I share your thoughts. It's really an obstacle when a character doesn't have the right name. (Rue/Molly is a perfect example.)

And, strangely, when someone pokes at it. For instance, I have a new character, a newspaper editor, cool and smart, named Alex Oliveri.

I thought it was perfect, until a pal told me she thought "Alex" sounded like a female name.

Huh? SO I disagreed...but now every time I see that name, I wonder.

Anonymous said...

Leslie, enjoyed your topic of picking names. My first rule was being flexible as the character developed and finding a name that 'fit.' :-)

Interesting subject and helpful too - I've even given TN a new fictional county, LOL.

Jackie Griffey

Leslie Wheeler said...

Hank, I think Alex Oliveri is a great name, and suits the character as you describe it. What's interesting is how personal our reactions to names are--ie. what you might think is exactly the right name for a character, someone else might not. Had a similar problem to what you describe with the character names in a book I'm just finishing,
which is set in a backwoods part of the Berkshires. One pre-pub reader complained that names like "Earl" and "Wayne" sounded too southern for that area, but they feel right to me, so I've kept them. Sometimes, you just have to stick with your guns!

Leslie Wheeler said...

Jackie, Interesting that you are able to be flexible with naming and change as the character develops. I'm not sure I could do that, because once I've given a character a name, that's who they are. The only times I've changed character names have been because I realized I had too many names beginning with the same letter, and as a result readers might confuse them.

Marni said...

I agree that names are important and I spend time choosing just the right ones, whether its in the way they sound or in their meaning. One character in The Blue Virgin who is a pompous sort was given the last name of Belcher...

John Achterkirchen said...

I never cease to be amazed at the effort employed by fiction authors -- even in something as seemingly simple as a name. Finding Algonquin words in a book by a 1600's visitor to New England is an enterprising source. It is difficult to imagine the "Dottagucks" located anywhere else in contemporary literature!

Leslie Wheeler said...

Love it that you gave your pompous character the last name of Belcher!
Makes me think of Charles Dickens,who always managed to give his characters wildly appropriate and usually humorous names like Uriah Heep. Don't know where you live, but there actually is a Belchertown in Western Mass, and I've always felt kind of sorry for the residents, as they must be the butt of many jokes. There's also a Blandford, where I swore I'd never live, though we looked at a house there once.

Leslie Wheeler said...

I consider myself very fortunate to have found the book with Algonquin words,because I was having trouble dreaming up a name for the tribe, and didn't want to use one that sounded too much as if I'd made it up. Dottaguck actually means something,and when I find the book, which I've temporarily misplaced, I'll let you know what it is.

Karen said...

Picking up on two points--Leslie's and Julie Miller's: When I was writing my first novel, Fair Weather by Noon, I was advised to change the name of one of the two main characters, but to me, that was the only name for her, so she kept it, or I kept it, I suppose, so Julia she is.

There is a scene in the same novel which is highly reminiscent of my family holiday celebrations, but the names and characters were fictional, or so I thought. I learned for the first time, on a recent trip to Sweden, that my great-grandfather was named "August," so my character "Uncle August," had created himself through that good old sub-conscious!

Leslie Wheeler said...

Since I remember your book,Fair Weather by Noon, you've got me wondering which of the two main characters, your friend suggested a name change for? Cassie or Julia? And who made that suggestion? Hope it wasn't me! Glad to hear you didn't make the change, because the name you'd given the character felt right to you.
Also, interesting to hear that great-grandfather August in the book owed his name to your real-life great-grandfather without your intending it. I remember that Swedish holiday celebration scene in your book, and how much I enjoyed it, it was so vivid!

Anonymous said...

You forgot Andrew Jackson’s Big Block of Cheese with nary a macaroni in sight.

Sheila Connolly said...

Hi, Leslie (I'm coming in late)--

You certainly had some real challenges with your book. So far nobody's commented on my treatments of Northampton, Amherst, or UMass in my series, although I try not to say anything negative about a recognizable institution (and that includes real restaurants!).

But there is always the interesting question: could you spin any obstructions to your benefit? If someone sued to stop you, does that count as publicity? Or would it be unethical and/or crass to take advantage of that?

Pat Marinelli said...

Leslie, it amazes me that you could change all that and still have the story work.

Hank, one of my critique partner's complained she thoght my character name was male not female. Of course it I could remember the name if would help, but Alex to me is guy.

If I find my story isn't working, the first thing I look at is the name of my protagonist. Usually, I'm okay but once I did have to change a character's name three times before the story worked.

To make matters worse, I'm a short story writer so I need lots of new names, often. Fortunately I make a list of name from my SPAM mail a few years ago. It comes in so handy. I figured those spammers took the time to make a name that sounded good, so why not use them. I marke the list each time I use a name. Works for me.

I just finished naming my NaNoWriMo characters yesterday.

Leslie Wheeler said...

Glad you haven't run into trouble by using real places like Northampton, Amherst, or UMass, but then as these are secondary locales in your books, you're not likely to. By secondary locales, I mean they're not places where the main action, especially the murder takes place, which in your Apple Orchard series is a fictionalized town. I mention real places like Cambridge, where my protagonist lives, and New London, and Greenwich, but again they're secondary locales.

As for spinning obstruction to my benefit, I couldn't even try to do that, because my publisher wouldn't publish the book if they thought there were going to be legal problems. Interesting question, though

Leslie Wheeler said...

I was worried that the story wouldn't work if I had to make all those changes, but surprisingly, I think it does. Even though I had to change the name of the maritime museum and the town where it's located, the history of whaling that's presented there remains the same.

As for the tribe, it did feel a bit weird creating a fictional tribe,but I was still able to use more or less the same history as I had for the Mashantucket Pequots by
changing dates, modifying certain incidents.

Interesting that you had to change your protagonist's name three times to make a story work. I had to do that with one of my books, which began as a sequel to my first series mystery, MURDER AT PLIMOTH PLANTATION, but then, 100 pages into the book, I realized that it wasn't my series protagonist's story, but someone else's. So Miranda became Kathryn. I also had to shift from first person to third, because the first person voice was too much Miranda's.

I write short stories in addition to novels, but confess I don't spend as much time worrying about getting just the right name for my protagonist, because I know I'm not going to be with that person for the long haul of a novel. Like your idea of getting character names from spammers. Will have to try that myself!

Pauline Alldred said...

I changed the name of a small town because one of the murders happens there and because I wanted to rearrange some of the streets and diners. While I wrote, flashes of real scenes I noted from the car window came to mind and I included them.

The name of the first murder victim can't be negotiated. Zoe is the name of a classmate I haven't seen for years and her main claim to fame was being the smallest kid in the school. I hope she's happy and thriving and never finds out I used her name. I also wanted a Greek name. It means life-giving and seems ironic.

Leslie Wheeler said...

You point out a real advantage to using a fictional small town, in that it leaves you free to re-arrange things to your liking. Like you, I find it helpful to have a real place in mind, if not in actual sight, as I write. While it's fun to make things up, there are times when my imagination fails me, and I have to look to the real world for inspiration. Or maybe I'm just being lazy!

Interesting that you feel the name of the first murder victim can't be negotiated. What about the name of the second one? Sounds like you have good reasons for using the name, Zoe, and I suspect your classmate won't find out, unless you get back in touch and tell her. This happened to me with my protagonist's last name, Lewis. It was a nickname given me by my old college boyfriend. Recently, when we got back in touch, I told him this. He said the thought had occurred to him, but it seemed too much of a stretch. Wrong!

Carolyn J. Rose said...

Sometimes I'm conscious of the names I select--Hemlock Lake, for example, because the atmosphere is poisonous to the protagonist and several characters will die. But when I named that protagonist Dan Stone, my subconscious was at work. It was only much later that I realized the last name was symbolic of his family's nature, and his first name that of the man who was cast into the lions' den. Thanks, subconscious.

Leslie Wheeler said...

Love the name Hemlock Lake! Very sinister. I chose the name, Rattlesnake Hill, for the title (and locale) of a book I'm just putting the finishing touches on for that reason. But what about "playing against type"? By that I mean, giving a place a nice-sounding name, but then having something awful happen in it? I'm trying that with a place name in a book I'm just starting. My fictional NE town is called Winterberry, and for the moment, I'm sticking with it, despite advice from a fellow mystery writer to give the town a creepier name.
Thanks for providing yet another example of the subconscious at work with your Dan Stone name. It's fascinating to me how the subconscious shapes what we put into our books without realizing it until later on.

Sandra Parshall said...

Leslie, you've been a terrific guest this weekend! Thanks so much for visiting PDD.

Leslie Wheeler said...

Thank you and the other PDD bloggers for having me as a guest this weekend. Also, thanks to everyone who left a comment. I've had a lot of fun doing this, and feel we've had a great conversation about the naming process!