What’s In A Name – And What Isn’t
Volume XXIII, Issue Four | Sept 2023
Open a book, and see the names Megan and Justin, and you can be sure the story is about a contemporary couple, probably young. What if the characters are Gladys and Elmer? There’s a good chance the time period is early 1900s, or else the couple is really old. You’ll encounter Hagar and Abraham in a Biblical setting. Suzie and Davey are less serious than Susan and David. Beth is sweet (thank you Little Women), Spike not so much.
You see where I’m going with this.
Names matter. They matter when you name your characters in a novel just as much as they do when you name your kids. I love names. I have three pages of them in my computer. Whenever I see an unusual name, I include it. Of course, most of them, like Cy Guy and Jesus Horowitz, I’ll never use, but still, when I’m stumped for a name, I know where to go.
I’m intrigued with nicknames and where they came from. I met a school principal in Butte, Mont., years ago, whose name was William but his nickname was Oakie. He proudly told me was fifth generation Butte. “Wait,” I said, how did you get your nickname if you’re not from Oklahoma?” A priest gave it to him, he said. When he was a kid, he was small and complained about his size. “That’s okay, Bill,” the priest said. “Mighty oaks from little acorns grown.” He was Oakie ever after.
Oakie gave me list of Butte names he’d collected, and I used many of them in my first novel, Buster Midnight’s Café, which is set in Butte. I overdid it, and in later books, I had to cut back the use of weird names because they were almost disruptive.
Most nicknames are derived from actually names—Billy for William, Mike from Michael, Charlie from Charles. For some reason, I’ve used Charlie for more than one of the men in my books, but never Charles. The Bride’s House and Where Coyotes Howl come to mind. The names just seem to come with the characters. In fact, I tried to find another name for Charlie in Where Coyotes Howl, but nothing seemed right. I wasn’t so crazy about Ellen for my heroine, but I never could come up with a name I liked better.
Often a character arrives with name intact. I think of the character, and the name is right there. But not always. My toughest time finding a name was for the character of Susan in The Bride’s House. I wanted something that was typical of the 1930s, when Susan was born. The most common name for that era, it seemed to me, was Sandra, but that wouldn’t do. And the other names—Barbara, Shirley, Judy, Patricia--didn’t work because I had grown up with too many girls with those names. Every time I used one of them, that person would pop into my mind and shove out the character. I knew Susans, too, but I decided that was the best name of the bunch.
Not all the names are a perfect fit, but that’s okay. When he was just learning to talk, Forrest, my grandson, called me Sissy, a corruption of Sandra, I suppose. I’d never liked cute grandparents’ names, but that was before I had a grandchild, of course. I gave the name Sissy to my main character in Tenmile. And made the dedication “To Forrest, from Sissy.”
I’d been a finalist for the Colorado Book Award eight or nine times, going back more than 20 years to Alice’s Tulips. So I considered myself the Susan Lucci of the Colorado Book Awards.
I was named a finalist this year, but with my record, I wasn’t expecting anything. I almost didn’t attend the awards ceremony in Colorado Springs. I’d fallen and broken two ribs that week, and then I’d put the wrong address into Mapquest and ended up five miles away from where I should have been. So surprised doesn’t begin to cover it when my name and Little Souls were called as the winners in the historical fiction category. All the other times, I’d composed these moving acceptance speeches, but this time, I thought, forget it. So all I could say was, “Thank You.” And to add that my birthday was the next day, and this was the best birthday present I’d ever received.
An Award For A Friend
If you live in Colorado, you know the name Thomas J. Noel. He has written so many books about the state—40 some—and given so many lectures and tours that he’s known as Dr. Colorado. Tom is a wonderful person and an old friend. So I was delighted when he was chosen to be inducted into the Colorado Authors Hall of Fame.
Bob and I are honored we’ll be sitting at his table on Sept. 11 when he receives the award.
Since I write a column for The Denver Post on books of regional interest, I read a lot of novels written by Colorado authors. Here are a few that have just been issued:
By Logan Steiner William Morrow
Logan Steiner writes that as a girl, she loved “Anne of Green Gables.” So later, after she learned about the life of its author, Lucy Maud Montgomery, she decided the children’s book author was ripe for a novel.
Maud, as the author was known to her friends, was extraordinarily successful as a writer, but she lived a sad and difficult life. Her closest friend and only confidante died as a young woman. Her minister-husband became mentally ill early in their marriage and never recovered, leaving Maud to support the family. One son was a bounder. Maud, herself, was far from happy and committed suicide. Not exactly the life led by Anne of Green Gables.
As a young woman, Maud knew she would be a writer. She considered her writing as important as her marriage. That was hardly acceptable in the early 20th century, and Maud’s husband was not supportive of her career. In fact, his inability to accept his wife’s success might have contributed to his mental illness. That was a heavy burden for the author to carry, with less sympathy than she would have drawn from today’s readers.
In After Anne, Steiner draws heavily on Maud’s 11 journals, which Maud rewrote and sometimes razored out pages. Much of the book centers on Maud’s 1907 birthday, a happy time in a story that is not always pretty.
To Die Beautiful
By Buzzy Jackson Dutton
To Die Beautiful is a stunning novel, based on the life of World War II Dutch Resistance fighter Hannie Schaft. The book tells of a young Dutch woman who begins her opposition to the Nazis by stealing identification cards and delivering underground newspapers.
When Hannie’s two Jewish friends fear they’ll be arrested and sent to a concentration camp, Hannie ups her opposition to the Nazis by hiding her friends in a bedroom of her parents’ home, then joining the Resistance. She becomes an assassin, sometimes wearing mascara and lipstick to attract victims who she kills at point-blank range. Known as “The Girl With Red Hair,” Hannie becomes a prime target of the Nazis.
To Die Beautiful is a compelling novel that turns a national hero into a flesh-and-blood woman who smokes cigarettes, adores her parents, falls in love—and murders Nazi pigs.
A Bakery in Paris
By Aimie K. Runyan William Morrow
Mention French food, and you can’t help but think of bread. Today, nutritionists may take a dim view of bread, but following the Franco-Prussian War and World War II, it was the staff of life to the French.
In dual tales set some 75 years apart, Colorado author Aimie K. Runyan, author of The School for German Brides, tells the love stories of two French women, who operate a bakery in war-torn France.
Lisette is a wealthy young woman whose domineering mother betroths her to an upper-class dolt. Unbeknown to the mother, Lisette has fallen in love with Theo, a French revolutionary. Lisette runs off and marries Theo. When times turn tough, Lisette opens a bakery, using recipes taught to her by the family cook.
Following WWII, Micheline, Lisette’s great-granddaughter, is caught up in the aftermath of the war. Her parents gone, Micheline is left to raise her two young sisters. With the encouragement of a family friend, she decides to reopen the bakery.
Intertwined stories tell of the two women’s struggles as they fight temptation and starvation. These are love stories, with Lisette fighting for the right to marry the man she loves and Micheline trying to understand what love really is.