Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Kill me, but don't misspell my name

Sandra Parshall

Mystery fans are the only people I know who will happily pay somebody to murder them. If they can’t find anyone willing to bump them off, they’ll settle for being turned into dogs or hookers.

At every big mystery convention – Bouchercon, Malice Domestic, Left Coast Crime, etc. – an auction of items donated by writers raises thousands of dollars for charity. The biggest chunk of money goes for “items” that cost the authors nothing and can’t be carried home in a suitcase: the chance to have their names given to characters in future novels.

I don’t know whether it’s sheer love of the genre, the desire for a kind of immortality, or latent masochism, but the bidding for this honor can be fierce. At the first Malice Domestic I attended a few years ago, I looked on in open-mouthed wonder as someone paid $800 to have her name in a Donna Andrews novel. At Bouchercon in Baltimore this year, the highest bid of the auction was $1,500 for naming rights in a Laurie R. King book.

Reviewer Andi Shechter and librarian/writer Gary Warren Niebuhr, great friends to the genre, have both bought “appearances” in several books. Short, dark-haired Andi got a kick out of being a tall, blonde hooker in an S.J. Rozan mystery, and Gary got a three-in-one deal in Rozan’s Winter and Night: a major character is named Gary, another character’s last name is Niebuhr, and the setting is a town called Warrenton.

Of course, writers have always enjoyed slipping the names of real friends and relatives – and their pets – into fiction, free of charge. (I don’t think the real Spike paid to be immortalized as the lovably disagreeable terrier in Donna Andrews’s Meg Langslow series.) Everything I write includes at least a couple of characters named for friends. But character-naming isn’t always done out of affection. There’s a lot of truth in the warning that you shouldn’t antagonize a mystery writer because you might end up dead or serving a long prison sentence – in the pages of a book.

Honoring friends and getting even with enemies are private pleasures for the writer, usually not shared with readers, but some writers use the lure of naming rights in future books to promote a current release. Karin Slaughter’s recurring Get Slaughtered contest is always deluged with entries. Lisa Gardner named a murder victim in Gone for a contest winner.

Contest and auction winners usually see their names attached to characters who appear in only one book, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Tess Gerritsen’s medical examiner, Dr. Maura Isles, got her name through an auction and was intended as a one-book character, but the fictional Maura grabbed a permanent role as co-protagonist, with Detective Jane Rizzoli, in a best-selling series.

At Malice Domestic this year, I decided, with some trepidation, to try my luck at raising money for charity by donating naming rights to a character. Because I’m not well-known and haven’t published a lot of books, I was afraid no one would be interested. I crept into the room as the auction started and sat near the door so I could creep out again, mortified, if nobody wanted to be in my book. Angie Hogancamp saved me from disgrace. She’ll be one of the good people in my next novel.

For the Bouchercon auction this year, I donated animal naming rights, figuring people would pay even more to immortalize their pets than they would to see their own names in print. The bidding was under way for the right to name a dog, and I’d already offered to throw in naming rights for a cat to raise the ante, when a woman in the audience said that if I would add a guinea pig, she would pay $900 for all three. Sold! Look for Maggie, Lisa Marie, and Mr. Piggles in my next book. Many thanks to Meg Born for her amazing donation to the Enoch Pratt Free Library and Viva House, a mission for the poor and homeless in Baltimore.

I also came away from Bouchercon a winner, after an incredibly thoughtful friend won naming rights for a character in a Thomas H. Cook novel and gave the prize to me because Cook is my favorite writer. So now I'm going to find out how it feels to see a character on the page bearing my name. I'm pretty sure it will feel fantastic.

Do you enter character naming contests? Do you bid for naming rights at conference auctions? Have you ever won, and were you happy with the character that got your name? (I know one cat owner who was miffed when she paid to have her feline in a novel and his name was given to a human.) Why do you think people enjoy this so much?

Whatever your choices, get out and VOTE on November 4!


Anonymous said...

Already voted! We started early voting yesterday in my state, and the polling station was packed all day long!

caryn said...

I haven't bid on namings yet, but I was tempted. It would be fun to have my name or my pets name in a book-I'm just not sure it would be several hundred dollars fun.

Anonymous said...

I mentioned to someone that I had inadvertantly used her name in one of my books. When I realized it, I changed the last name. She was disappointed, and instead said if I'd use her last name or her husband's name in my next book, she would send a check to my favorite charity.

I did, and she did, too! The charity was to Crackerbox Palace, a farm-animal rescue.

I don't know how much she sent, but her donation was featured in their newsletter, along with the cover of my book.

Talk about a win-win situation. (With the horses, goats, and chickens winning the most.)

Anonymous said...

Having won the right to die painfully in Meg Gardiner's latest book, The Dirty Secrets Club, I can say the experience is a hoot, and a little nerve-wracking, as I turned each page wondering, When will I show up, and how will I die....

Terry Odell said...

I go to SleuthFest annually, and book namings are big sellers at the auction. Too big, I'm afraid, for my budget. I do recall Lee Child saying he LOVES to auction off names because he dreads having to come up with character names himself, and is always grateful for any help.

My daughter did want me to use her name; I compromised, and one of the characters in my next book shares her nickname. I figured she didn't need her friends thinking that the character was modeled after her, not just shared her name.

Anonymous said...

May I add that I am also a Berkeley teenager participating in a live action vampire game in Linda Grant's VAMPIRE BYTES but ahem, I am NOT a hooker but a coke-addicted blond runway model "with attitude". I "bought" that mention when SJ Rozan was still relatively unknown (at Eyecon where I got to see her win the Shamus) and spent the weekend asking folks "good guy or bad?" since she had only a few characters I could be in MANDARIN PLAID. I think Gary (who was co-chair of that event) bought about 8 mentions at that auction. If you look at books published around 1997 or so, you'll see a lot of Gary and a few of Maggie/Mary Mason as well.
I have heard complaints from folks who say it throws them out of a story to see a familiar name. i sympathize but not enough to stop. It's almost always a charity auction deal (we con-runners love doing that, and we've done pretty well, as you note) and i've heard from authors who required releases now because people complain. Oh come on!
This by the way is known (,ostly to those of us who are also s.f. fans) as "Tuckerizing" after Bob/Wilson Tucker, a science fiction fan and author who started the fad ages ago.
Why do i enjoy it? it raises money, it's a giggle to see how "I" end up, it's a giggle when friends notice, and it rewards writers who donate this prize. (my Rozan appearance was ridiculously cheap because at the time, she wasn't well known. That sure changed!)
And I've had the amazing honor also of being acknowledged in some mysteries (oh wow) and of being one of several folks a book was dedicated to, which still takes my breath away.