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Monday, April 20, 2009

What's in a Name?

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet" - William Shakespeare

Names. What you choose to name your hero and heroine can often make or break a story. It can inspire the writer or inhibit her. If the name is a turn-off to readers, they might not pick up the book to read. Yet, if you choose too modern a name for a historical character, your readers will laugh at your ignorance.

As I mentioned in my last post, I've been a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism since the late 1990s. One of the first choices any newbie makes is to choose their name. The name reflects the culture and personality you hope to project to the world.

It was as I was trying to name myself that I first felt sympathy and empathy for expectant parents. So many names to choose from and the name is so important. The nickname shouldn't be horrible but even though I was careful, people persist in shortening my first name, Francesca. Anyone out there calls me Frannie and you're dead. Seriously. No offense to the Fran and Frannies of the world , but Francesca is my name, not Fran or Frannie. But I digress. Choosing a name. It took me awhile but I found a first name I liked and use it both as my SCA name and my pen name.

I ran into the same issue when choosing character names. Fortunately, I know an SCA herald or two who can recommend good books and Web sites which offer excellent documentation for medieval names. My SCA persona isn't English but when I knew my stories would be set in Medieval England, I asked an SCA herald for books to document names. He suggested two and I swear by them both.

The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names by E.G. Withycombe is WONDERFUL. It documents when specific first names came into common usage in England. So not only is it useful to those of us who write stories set in the Middle Ages, but it provides origin information for later time periods too.

When I was choosing a name for my heroine, I wanted to choose the name Verity because it means "truth." Well, I looked up the name in Withycombe and ran into a brick wall. One line, and I quote "Verity (f.): used as a christian name since 17th C." I thought, "well, crap." Then I contacted the herald that recommended the book and pretty much begged him to offer me a plausible out. Thankfully he did. He said it would have been unusual BUT a parent might have named their child Vérité...maybe. (Which probably meant - no they wouldn't have, but I was desperate cause I wanted her to be named Verity, darn it!!) So Vérité she became. I just love artistic license, don't you?

BUT, I can document my hero's name. Eaduin is an older spelling of Edwin. My hero had an Anglo-Saxon father and a Norman mother. Eaduin is Old English - well Eadwine is. It was also the name of the first Christian king of Northumberland. The spelling "Eaduin" can be found in the Domesday Book, according to Withycombe. So this worked great. Of course, Eaduin was actually the villain in another book (which will never see the light of day). After I created him, he convinced me he was merely misunderstood and NOT a villain. I picked the name Edwin because I was sure it was a name I would NEVER name one of my hero's. Eaduin had the last laugh and he's a hero now. He can be very seductive when he wants to be.

The other book I highly recommend for English name research is: A Dictionary of English Surnames by P.H. Reaney. I have the 3rd edition which was updated by R.M. Wilson. If you're a name geek, this book is fascinating reading. My heroine's last name is - by modern spelling - Savigny. This entry provided variations and de Sauigni was documented to the Domesday Book. Score!

I have to admit, once I'd picked out my first names, I just read through the surnames book and looked for names that sounded good together. I was happy with what I found.

Finding names for other cultures can be a challenge, but you can try searching at the Web site for The Academy of Saint Gabriel which is a group of around 50 volunteers who research medieval names primarily for the SCA. Now, you may not be interested in the SCA (which is fine) but let me tell you SCA researchers are sticklers for authenticity and they are also obsessive about excellent documentation. So chances are if you stumble across an SCA site, you will probably find good information. By all means, cross-check your information so you can find things in more than one resource, but an SCA related Web page isn't a bad place to start your research. Look for bibliography information and you'll have located a gold mine.

Now go forth, and name characters! What are your favorite names for heroes and heroines? What names do you hate? Share your adventures in naming!

Note: Just found out this morning (4/20/09) that Seeking Truth will be released by Ellora's Cave on May 29, 2009. Wooo Hooo!


Paty Jager said...

I use a baby book and old copies of western magazines for names as well as old gravestones and obits in newspapers.

I like short first names because of ease of typing them and they are easier for people to say/read.

Interesting post.

Francesca Hawley said...

Gravestones and obits are excellent ideas for names! You could also try census records. The LDS site at www.familysearch.org has all kinds of info for genealogists. I've considered using some of their family tree sheets to keep track of my characters and their families.

Victoria Janssen said...

Ooh, those are great resources. Thanks!

Crystal Kauffman said...

Trust a librarian to know the best resource. I swear I will never call you Frannie!

Paty, try using auto correct for your character's names. Not only does that make it easier, you guarantee against misspellings. The heroine of my second book is named Cvetelina. I just type cv and space, and it automatically fills in.

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Great post, Francesca! I use a baby naming book, and online sites. I also look at the names of authors on my books..lol, if I am desparate.

I have a hard time with a book if I can't pronounce the names. I love Kathleen Woodiwiss, but she used the hardest names!

My problem is trying to use common names, because they are in the family: James, Robert and Martin. They'd be good names to use, but how can I when they are my brothers-in-law and an ex-son-in-law?

Francesca Hawley said...

Thanks stopping by Victoria! Anna, I try not to name the main characters for people I know well - it would just be weird so I understand your reservations in using those names. :-)
Crystal, I hadn't considered using auto correct for names. I always add them to the dictionary for my word processor. My word processor hated both Vérité and Eaduin until I added them to the dictionary.

Evangeline Collins said...

Hey Francesca - great post!

I'm with you and Anna - I can't name a h/h after someone I know. It just ruins it for the character.

As for resources, I use an online baby namer, and search by origin and scroll until I find something I like. Heroes are actually easier for me to name. I find it difficult to find good Regency heroine names that haven't been overused and which fit a particular character.

Francesca Hawley said...

Thanks for posting Evangeline. Give the Withycombe book a try. You can get it via interlibrary loan if your local library doesn't have a copy. Then if you find the book useful, you can order it online.