This time last month, I promised to bring news about novels I had read as part of my creative writing degree. However, I am unable to share my thoughts with you until they have been marked by my tutor – don’t want to be giving my best stuff away – it’s getting serious. As an alternative, I thought, I’ll write about a beautiful book I’ve read recently. The Secret to Happiness by Jessica Redland – then shut the front door! Jessica Redland herself, one of my favourite authors only goes and volunteers to guest post!
Over to Jessica;
I believe that the genre you write very much influences the choice of character names. An author of sci-fi or fantasy stories is very likely to pick unusual, quirky names or, more likely, make them up themselves. An author of historical novels is going to need to do their research and draw on names from that particular era. As an author of contemporary women’s fiction, I’m very much about contemporary names and I confess right here and now that mine don’t tend to be particularly quirky or unusual. But, I do have an approach to creating my character names which I thought I’d share.
The first names of all of my immediate family members (on my side of the family rather than my husband’s) have now appeared in one of my novels, and some surnames have been used too,although never together.
This didn’t start off intentionally. I first had the idea for my debut novel, Searching for Steven, in 2002 and started writing it the following year. I wanted a protagonist who had a very ‘normal’ name and came up with Sarah Peterson. As the story developed, I realised I had a trilogy on my hands, each subsequent part focusing on one of Sarah’s two best friends: Elise Dawson and Clare O’Connell.
In 2004, my younger brother started seeing someone called Clare (now his wife) and, in 2005, my older brother’s first-born was named Sarah. Suddenly there were two new family members named after two of my protagonists. At the time, I toyed with changing Sarah and Clare because the books weren’t finished and were nowhere near ready to be sent out to publishers, but I’d lived with those names for so long that it didn’t feel right to change them. Instead, a trend started.
My parents, Peter and Joyce, make a cameo appearance as regular customers in Christmas at The Chocolate Pot Café. My daughter is called Ashleigh Brooke and I have created an chocolatier apprentice in Charlee and the Chocolate Shop called Ashleigh Brooks. Two of my nieces, Lucy and Erin, also appear in that book as one of the main character’s nieces and my other niece, Lana, helps out in the cupcake shop in Christmas at Carly’s Cupcakes.
The characters are not based on any family members in appearance or personality – it’s just their names – although I do confess that the couple with my parents’ names are very similar in age and personality.
The baddies in my books are usually horrible exes or partners who deserve to become exes and they’re generally just names plucked out of thin air although I am careful not to use names of anyone I know to avoid any offence because I’d already learned my lesson on this. Before I started my trend of using family names, I was a bit mortified to realise that I’d used my cousin’s name – Alan – in Searching for Steven for Sarah’s uncle who was a grumpy old man and died all alone, lying undiscovered for several days. When Alan’s daughters and wife read the book, they thankfully found this hilarious and ribbed my cousin for ages about it! More caution was needed after that!
One of my favourite moments was naming a character after a former horrible boss. I’ve had some very nasty bosses in my time but the worst one was when I was in my mid-thirties. He frequently made me cry, overlooked me for promotion, took my dream job away from me in a restructure and left me hanging for six days with no idea whether I still had a job or not. So when I needed to create a character in Bear With Me who got sacked after some customer complaints and I was looking for a character name, I didn’t have to look far, heehee! I have a sign on my office wall that states “Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel”. So very true!
MIXING IT UP
For each book, I try to pick names that don’t sound similar, aren’t the same length, and don’t begin with the same letter. For example, in the series, the protagonists are Sarah, Elise and Clare so very different names. In my latest novel, The Secret to Happiness, I have Alison, Karen and Danniella; also very different. I did get myself in a pickle with Danniella, though, as I kept switching the spelling of it without realising.
This plan doesn’t always work, though. In Bear With Me, I named the two main males as Scott and Sam, with the brother of the main female character being called Sean. I had a last-minute panic about having 3 x 1-syllable names beginning with S so I changed Sean to Max. It didn’t feel right and, just before the book was uploaded to Amazon, I changed my mind again and got my husband to do a find and replace, returning it to Sean. A friend messaged me to say she’d started reading Bear With Me and had come across a really weird word in the book: cliSean. What? Then I realised what had happened. Hubby hadn’t done a find and replace on whole word only so it had changed every word that contained the letters ‘max’. ‘CliSean’ was meant to be ‘climax’. Oops! You’d think I’d have learned from experience on this as I’d done it once before. In the series, I had doubts that Clare was an Irish enough name and changed her to Siobhan but it didn’t feel right so I changed it back and found the word ‘deSiobhan’ in my MS instead of ‘declare’. Muppet!
SOURCES OF INSPIRATION
A huge baby name dictionary I bought before my daughter was born is invaluable for first name ideas. I also have a print-off of the 100 most common surnames in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales from which I frequently draw inspiration. I regularly Google most popular baby names in a certain year or in a certain country too. And if I’m looking for names for children, I get Ashleigh to name everyone in her class at school to see if any names feel right.
Most of my books have animals in them somewhere. This can be a pet owned by a character or just a mention of an animal. Naming animals is great fun. My favourites are a giant house rabbit called Hercules in Christmas at The Chocolate Pot Café. I’d like to claim a stroke of genius there but it was hubby’s suggestion. Hercules’s predecessors are called Titch and Dinks. I also have cats called Kit and Kat, and dogs called Hobnob and Twix. Nom nom!
It’s a bit geeky but I have an enormous spreadsheet containing tabs for people, businesses, places, street names, animals etc. All my books are set in and around the same place: the fictional North Yorkshire seaside town of Whitsborough Bay. If I didn’t keep track of the place names and businesses, I’d get lost. If I didn’t keep a track of the names I use, I’d discover that pretty much every minor male character is called Bob, which seems to be my go-to name.
I’m conscious I’ve written an essay so better not talk about book titles too! Thank you so much, Sam, for having me as a guest on your blog. Good luck with your studies.
Jessica lives on the stunning North Yorkshire Coast in England – the inspiration for the settings in her books – with her husband, daughter, cat, Sprocker Spaniel puppy, and an ever-growing collection of collectible teddy bears. Although if the puppy has her way, the collection will be reduced to a pile of stuffing and chewed limbs!
She’s an HR Tutor on a freelance basis and tries, often successfully, to fit writing around that.
Jessica is published by Boldwood Books and her most recent release, The Secret to Happiness, came out in September 2019. Her next few books will be re-vamped re-issues of her Welcome to Whitsborough Bay series, starting with Making Wishes at Bay View in January 2020, a full-length novel combining the novella Raving About Rhys with its sequel,Callie’s Christmas Wish.
I need to get me one of those!
Thank you so much Jessica! The Secret to Happiness truly is a beautiful book. Here’s my five star review.
Join me at the end of November when Ahava Trivedi shares how she picks her character names.
Happy reading! Samantha xx