Catriona writes: The only decision easier than "Will I have the author of PICKED OFF (Henery Press, 5 June) as my guest at Femmes Fatales, when her new book comes out?" was the choice of topic. Linda Lovely (yes, really) writes about a character called Brie Hooker (yes, really) and so the first question on everyone's lips is . . . . What's in a name? Right?
Now, if I had known the story I might have hesitated. But Linda is as lovely as advertised, and as funny as she's wise as she's helpful. Writers and fans of mystery fiction, read on . . .
When I start reading a book, it takes a while for me to “know” characters and how they fit in a story, especially if a novel features a large cast. Unfortunately poor character naming strategies (or lack thereof) can make it even tougher for readers to get up to speed. As an avid reader, my “research” tells me many authors assign characters the first names that pop into their minds. And what’s wrong with that? It’s fiction, after all, shouldn’t authors pick names on a whim?
Not if the result is reader confusion and/or irritation. For starters, I with authors wouldn’t throw out names that look and/or sound alike—Dan and Don, Don and Ron, Elsie and Ella. The English alphabet gives us 26 choices for the first letter in a name so why do some authors insist on giving main characters names starting with say “A.” Anna…Alice…Alex…Andy…Alecia… and so forth. (Belatedly, I sympathize with my mother who invariably called Don by the name Ron and vice versa when I made the mistake of simultaneously dating two young men with similar-sounding names.)
My reading progress also can be stymied by names that appear out-of-synch with a novel’s time period or culture. What are the odds a woman in medieval Europe would be named Madison or Zoey?
Sometimes an author’s choice of names may be fine, but then he haphazardly jumps between the hero’s given name and his nickname. Say the hero is named John but he was stuck with the nickname Barney because he used to hide in a barn whenever he wanted solitude. If he’s Barney in one sentence and John a paragraph later, my response is probably, “Huh?”
Then there’s the adoption of long unpronouncable names that make me stumble and stutter even when my reading doesn’t entail moving my lips. Naturally I give a pass to authors who live in other countries where the names that seem “foreign” to me are akin to Smith in America. [Catriona: I loved The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, but every character (in my head) was called Muhhhh and lived on Muhhhh Strasse]. Still tongue-twisters make my head hurt and slow my reading.
So how can authors choose character names wisely? There are tons of resources on the web to set authors on a make-it-easy-on-the-reader path. For instance, the Social Security administration lists the most popular names chosen for male and female babies by decade from the 1880s to the 2010s. So it’s a piece of cake to make sure the name of your 1890s heroine is appropriate. Other sites let authors browse names associated with different countries or cultures. If you do a Google search of say African-American baby names or Irish baby names, you’ll be rewarded with dozens of optional resources.
Need to name an animal in a book? You can find top-notch ideas for that on the internet, too. For example, The Seeing Eye and other website offers suggestions on the best names for pooches. (One or two-syllable names are best, and the names shouldn’t sound like commands. E.g. Dogs can get confused, too, by rhymes such as Bo and No and Kit and Sit.)
I must confess I didn’t look for any advice for animal names when I realized I’d need to name occupants of a veritable Noah’s Arc—goats, horses, mules, pigs, coyotes, peacocks, etc.—for my new cozy mystery series set on a goat farm. For fun, I gave family members a chance to select the animals they wanted named for them. My attractive niece Tammy gave her name to a pot-bellied pig, while my sister Rita awarded her name to a mule (no comment).
So have fun naming your characters—animal and people. Just keep a lookout for potential reader confusion. For my Brie Hooker Mystery Series, I created an Excel Spreadsheet that lists every character of consequence. It can be sorted by first or last name. That helps me avoid getting into a starting letter rut. I also keep a lot of other details on the spreadsheet with columns for age, hair and eye color, height, distinguishing characteristics, and relationship—including if I’ve killed them off or sent them to jail in an earlier book. It’s a big help when my mind goes blank.
Guess I shouldn’t sign off without saying a word or two about my own Nom de Plume since people often ask me if Linda Lovely is my “real” name. It is. Legal and everything. I was born Linda Mae Willis. Not too bad except every third girl in my grade school was named Linda. Of course, that also tells you I was born in the 1940s or 1950s when Social Security records list Linda as second only to Mary as parents’ top choice for a girl’s name.
When I married Dan Lovely in college, Lovely became my legal last name and also my pen name. (I worked part time for Plymouth Traveler Magazine while in school.) A few years later, when we divorced, I had loads of Linda Lovely bylines, and I’d learned to deal with the Lovely surname side-effects. Back when Deep Throat came out, leaving phone messages was a real pain. Men often heard Linda Lovelace was ringing them up no matter how carefully I pronounced my name. That meant I either got immediate call backs or silence from men who figured it was a joke.
When Tom Hooker and I married, I kept Linda Lovely as my legal and pen name. I mean Linda Lovely Hooker was not an option. The hassle of a legal and a pen name change weighed in, too. However, to make amends to my Hooker relatives, my new heroine is named Brie Hooker. She suffers a bit of kidding as a result, but as the heroine of a humorous cozy mystery she good-naturedly shrugs it off.
Catriona: Guilty as charged in every first draft I've ever written, Linda. I had a Lola, Lloyd, Lovatt, Louis pile-up in one book, and a character called Lavinia Ross, Lavinia Dunnoch, Lady Lavinia, Lady Love and LL in another I was writing at the same time!
Over the past five years, hundreds of mystery/thriller writers have met Linda Lovely at check-in for the annual Writers’ Police Academy, which she helps organize. Lovely finds writing pure fiction isn’t a huge stretch given the years she’s spent penning PR and ad copy. She writes a blend of mystery and humor, chuckling as she plots to “disappear” the types of characters who most annoy her. Quite satisfying plus there’s no need to pester relatives for bail. Henery Press just released PICKED OFF on June 5. It’s the second humorous installment in her new Brie Hooker Mystery series set on a goat farm in Upstate South Carolina. An active member of Sisters in Crime, Lovely served as her local chapter’s president for five years. She also belongs to International Thriller Writers and Romance Writers of America.