In my last post, I neglected to thank SAVE Animal Shelter in Montgomery, New Jersey for bringing Vida, my new dog, into my life. They are wonderful! If you love animals, I strongly suggest that you donate either some money or time or both to your local animal shelter. Or better yet, adopt a furry friend.
In last Friday’s post, I revealed that I am terrible at naming my dogs. So, you may wonder, given this obvious shortcoming, how on earth I name my characters.
The truth is, for me, it is much easier than naming a pupster! Over the years I have tended to name my characters based on several criteria.
Character or function.
For my leading female, I wanted an old fashioned, steady name and “Maggie” came to mind. She had to be relatable, an everyday kind of woman but one who has an extraordinary dedication to living by the law of love, something which includes kindness, generosity, mercy, and justice.
For my leading male, I wanted to juxtapose Maggie’s qualities with humor and edginess. I also saw that her paramour needed to be a harbinger – a prophet who points to the 20th century. Eli Smith’s full name “Elijah Amos” combines two prophets from the Hebrew scriptures: the great prophet Elijah, and the minor prophet Amos, who was concerned with social justice. Wow! It’s quite a load to put on a guy like Eli, but as his story goes, his mother saw that her baby boy was capable of great things.
Frances, or “Frankie,” is Maggie’s youngest daughter with her first husband, John Blaine. I named this young woman after Frances Willard, president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union during the last 1800’s. Willard also fought tirelessly to better the lives of women. Her nickname was Frankie, and it fit my feisty, redheaded young woman who also is called to become a pastor.
As for Lydia, Maggie’s oldest daughter with John Blaine, I wanted a name that indicated a steady, serious, young woman with an interest in medicine. Interestingly, while I was writing Walk by Faith, Lydia suddenly acquired a nickname, “Liddy.” My characters did that, not me. It happens in a scene where aspiring doctor Lydia is examining Nate, who has been beaten by thugs. “My left side hurts when I breathe, Liddy.” Actually, as I was checking this out in my novels, this came as a revelation, as I thought Frankie gave her that nickname. Nate, in his moment of pain, told me something I didn’t know! (This kind of thing isn’t unusual. Anyone who writes fiction will tell you that characters, once developed, can and will do things on their own according to their own natures.)
I called Maggie’s best friend “Emily” because the name felt a bit old-fashioned, loyal, and had a touch of a smile in it. As you may or may not have noticed, Emily is stern (especially when it comes to manners and things religious), a devoted but honest friend, and surprisingly humorous.
Emily’s husband ended up as “Nathaniel,” or “Nate” for short. Nathaniel is a variant of Nathanael, one of Jesus’ followers in the Greek Scriptures (or New Testament) who in the Gospel of John recognizes Jesus as the “Son of God.” Biblical names were common in the 19th century and I have plenty of them in my books. But I also liked “Nate,” which is a solid and no-nonsense moniker. It fit a man who is a carpenter and wheelwright by trade, not to mention honest and dedicated to making the USA a better place for his children.
Another thing that influences a character’s name is ethnicity. The predominant European immigrants to New Jersey tended to be English, Scots, Dutch, Swedes, Germans, and Finns. In Warren County in western New Jersey, Dutch and English tended to predominate, although other groups moved west, too. In my books, therefore, are English, Dutch, or Scots names such as Blaine, Beatty, Moore, Morrison, Opdyke, Coopernall, Van Curen, and so on. When the story shifts in the second and third books to Gettysburg, we see characters with German names because that is a group that settled there in large numbers: Augustus Schultz, Beate Schultz, and Adela Edler.
But times are changing in the 1860s, and other people from other places are entering Maggie’s world, people like James “Grandpa” O’Reilly and the Brennan sisters, all from Ireland.
I often will go online to peruse lists of ethnic names, both surnames and first names, to give my characters, but I also have plundered my own family’s surnames. My family tree has people in it named Coopernall, Morrison, Lape, and Frost. I had my DNA tested about a year ago. I’m so European (mainly from Ireland and the British Isles) that it’s ridiculous.
While most of the African American characters in the series have English-sounding names, there is one character who chose a last name of her own, and that is Matilda. She is a freedom seeker from Virginia, who emancipated herself and her daughter Chloe from a plantation. Rather than take the name of the plantation or the man who owned it, Matilda gave herself her own name: “Strong.” It suits her. She is a strong woman, escaping to the North, making a new life for herself and her daughter, and hoping that someday she will be reunited with her husband and sons.
There is another dynamic when it comes to naming. Some religious groups tend to have particular surnames. An example of this is the Society of Friends (Quakers). Since Eli comes from the Friends, people in his family are named Smith and Millhouse, common Quaker surnames.
So that’s it. I may struggle to find a name for my pets but ask me to name a character and I go forth and conquer. Actually… maybe my Vida is lucky. I mean, I could have named her “Lady Long-Legs of Tennessee,” or “Lady Houdini Hound,” or something much worse!
See you Friday!
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder