Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Looking for Names

Edith here, always searching for names.

True, I have trouble remembering names. But that's not why I'm searching. Any author can tell you that discovering names for characters isn't always straightforward. The name has to fit the character. If I'm writing a tough strong woman, I'm unlikely to name her Susie or Tiffany, for example. I'm also unlikely to name a male villain after one of my sons.

And then there's keeping names distinct. If I have a continuing character named Kevin, I shouldn't name a new character Keith or Ken. To avoid this I try, within a book, to have only one character whose name begins with the same letter of the alphabet, at least within the gender. I think readers
won't be confused if I include Katie along with Kevin. And thus the importance of the character bible, my list of series characters and their characteristics. When I'm naming a new personality, I scan the list to make sure there isn't overlap.

But with the Quaker Midwife Mysteries, I also have to have period-appropriate names. How do I
know what people were named in 1888 New England? One great resource is the Social Security Administration database of names. Here's what the page I use says:

The following table shows the 200 most popular given names for male and female babies born during 1880 - 1889. For each rank and sex, the table shows the name and the number of occurrences of that name. The 200 most popular names were taken from a universe that includes 1,177,184 male births and 1,399,591 female births.

Edith, which essentially no one is named these days, is number 31 in frequency! Other older-sounding names include Flossie, Matilda, Etta, and Winifred for girls, and Otis, Silas, Tobias, Felix, and Sylvester for boys. I'm gonna bet you won't hear most of these in this year's kindergarten class.

Another great resource is cemeteries. I've found first names like Urania, Jabez, Alpheous, Fanny, Willard, Frelove, and Zilla, just by checking headstones for the 1800s.

In the Union Cemetery here in Amesbury, where the series is set, there is a Quaker section. Members of the Religious Society of Friends name the months and days of the week with numerals instead of the traditional names, so you know you're looking at a Quaker headstone when it says the person died on Fourth Day, Ninth Month, 1873. And from these stones I've learned that some of the Quaker family surnames were Huntington, Breed, Winslow, Latting, Stillwell, and Cartland.

Readers, what's your favorite old-fashioned name? Writers - where do you find inspiration for character names?

15 comments:

Jeanne Adamek said...

I love the name Amalia!

Edith Maxwell said...

That's a good one, Jeanne! Thanks.

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Joan said...

I was thinking of city directories of the time but did they name all members of the family or just the male? DK.

Edith Maxwell said...

Good point, Joan. I doubt they named the wives or children.

Becky Muth said...

I really don't have any favorite old-fashioned names, but love looking through names of my ancestors for inspiration. Esther, Moselle, and Cornelia for women. Able, Merrill, and Eston for men.

And the stories? One year for home school, my boys chose family history as their history of choice. We found a guy who survived his own hanging. Truth really is stranger than fiction!

Edith Maxwell said...

That's amazing, Becky. I love Moselle. Am writing that one down. All of them, actually!

Ruth M McCarty said...

My great grandfather was named Delphis Dupre. I used his name in a short story once. He was on my mother's French side. My father's ancestors were from Scotland. Most of the women on his mother's side had McLeod as a middle name. My grandmother was Jane McLeod Sneddon Soden. I wish they kept up the tradition after coming to America.

kate said...

My favorite old-fashioned name is Dorcas. I love it so much I would have given it to a real life child if it weren't a social life killing combination of Dork and Ass. hee.

My dad's family can be traced in the US back to 1632(ish) and the Bosworth family published a genealogy. My parents ended up with my grandfather's cope of the books, and they are a wealth of names and when they were used. I'm a total name-nerd so I have studied not just my line which is very boring Nathaniel, Benjamin, Daniel and Bellamy in repetition with only the occasional addition with girls few and far between. I love how names have always been a balance of traditional and trendy, and, at least, in my extended, extended family lines that use traditional name tend to keep to family names. While lines that went for more "current" names sways with the trends and likely still do.

Nina Milton said...

I'm the same. I keep an alphabetical list of the names I'm using and also keep an eye on phonetics, which can deceive. It always confuses me as a reader. Worse though, are the books that are streams of, for this poor English-tongued girl, difficult. Reading The lives of Others at the moment, by Neel Mukerjee; than heaven's there's a family tree at the front!

Edith Maxwell said...

Ruth, that's a great name!

Kate, I knew a Dorca about fifteen years ago, who was the same age as me (I'm now 62). I should have mentioned in the post that I had two Maxwell progenitors named Beezleel!

Nina - yes, names can definitely sound similar despite different spellings.

Gigi Pandian said...

I made the mistake of having two characters in a series with similar "M" names. They were never supposed to meet or overlap in anyway, so it was fine -- until my characters took over an insisted in being in the new book together! Argh...

I love so many older names. A couple favorites that spring to mine are Elspeth and Isolde.

Janet Lomba said...

Edith:
Another source for names would be ships registries, which are available on the Ellis Island Site. Or Ancestry sites, when they have their "Free Weekends".

Edith Maxwell said...

Funny how characters do that, Gigi!

Janet - great ideas, thanks.

Karen Salemi said...

Interesting article, Edith. Those are some names I've never heard before. Your research for this book is extensive. I'm looking forward to reading it. As a reader, I have found that authors who choose character names by the first letter of the alphabet can still create confusion by having characters with similar names like Ben and Ken. I think that sometimes the characters themselves are not distinctive enough that I can attach the name I've read with any particular actions or personality, so I'll have to go back a few times until I can separate out the characters.