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Names matter: How I name my historical charaters

By Piper Huguley

One of my many name books, but it

One of my many name books, but it’s time to get a new one–the pages are starting to come out of this one.

Sometimes, authors will run contests or maybe put up a prize in the Brenda Novak auction—if you win, they’ll name a character in their next book after you. I write historical novels and I will probably never run such a contest because with my luck—the person that would win might have a name like mine—a name that would not be appropriate in a historical novel. For me, the name is the place to start when I create a character.

I have had quite a collection of name books since I started writing when I was 12 years old. I used to have a silly rule– I wouldn’t buy a name book unless it had my name in it, but now I know better. As an avowed onomastics (the branch of linguistics about naming) fiend, I’m looking for depth of explanation or origin and meaning. The book featured in my picture by Elza Dinwiddle-Boyd, is a text I’ve had for about 20 years, and this text has been of great help in naming my African American characters. She drew names from a list developed by Dr. Newell Puckett, who researched names of African Americans over hundreds of years and complied a list. He died before he could publish this work but she was able to continue his project by compiling this name book. Given that this text is now twenty years old, it has become somewhat of a historical relic itself. I also use nameberry.com (where I look at the old people’s name lists for historicals) as well as the Social Security name lists that date back to the 1880’s.

It always surprises me that some authors don’t tap into these resources. Maybe as someone with an unusual name, I’ve always been aware that the name of a character tells you a great deal about the character as well as her family. Was she named with care? Maybe she’s a firstborn. Unusual name? Maybe the parents wanted to make a statement. Did the family have special status? They may go with a less unusual name. African Americans were not allowed to express themselves in the historical past. Their children’s names, especially difficult or hard to pronounce names, represented a time when the person who addressed the child had to stop and acknowledge the child’s humanity for a moment. A triumph, however brief. An interesting  sub category of African American name that I draw upon for my characters are those I call “Born to Win” names. Some of these names may strike some people as laughable or ridiculous, but these names were a way that hopeful parents tried to elevate their African American child into a space of dignity. This is where names like Prince, Earl, Duke or Mister come from. Names matter.

My name was meant to express my parents love of music. However, at the height of the crack epidemic about 20 years ago, I would be asked if my name was about the fondness that either my parents or I must had for “the crack pipe.” Really? Still, changes in language always mean risk in naming children, but that’s part of the history, and the make up of the character as well. Names are language as well.

 

headshot bwPiper G Huguley is the author of “Migrations of the Heart,” a five-book series of inspirational historical romances set in the early 20th century featuring African American characters. Book one in the series, A Virtuous Ruby won the Golden Rose contest in Historical Romance in 2013 and is a Golden Heart finalist in 2014. Book four in the series, A Champion’s Heart, was a Golden Heart finalist in 2013. Book one in her new 19th century historical series, The Preacher’s Promise, in the “Home to Milford College” series was a semi-finalist in Harlequin’s So You Think You Can Write contest and will be self-published in summer 2014.

She blogs about the history behind her novels at http://piperhuguley.com. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her husband and son.

 

Twitter: @writerpiper

Facebook: Piper Huguley

Jess Mahler - June 10, 2014 - 7:21 am

Most of my fiction is set in fantasy worlds, so I cheat and use made-up names. When I write something historical I love the Social Security names list. Hadn’t heard of nameberry.com before. I’ll have to check it out–thanks!

Piper Huguley - June 10, 2014 - 7:34 am

Hi Jess,

Yes, when you would write fantasy, making up things would be what to do. I wouldn’t call it cheating–I call it part of the world building process for that genre. However in historical….to me having a wrong name is as if the writer used an anachronistic word or phrase. Thank you for stopping by!

Ally Broadfield - June 10, 2014 - 7:51 am

Excellent post, Piper. I take great care when naming my characters as well. There were surprisingly few names used in Regency England.. The nobility tended to use family names, many of which were named after royalty, and everyone else mostly used bible names or occupational names. My parents named me after a sailboat.

Piper Huguley - June 10, 2014 - 7:54 am

Thank you Ally! And yes, you have to take great care in that time period as well. There were far fewer sources for names then and it would have to be the same for your characters. It might be “boring”–as I’ve heard before– but “boring” is accurate. Authors might have an outlet to be more creative if the child had a nickname over time that stuck, but those are the only resources. Thank you sharing your naming story and for stopping by Ally!

Julie - June 10, 2014 - 8:24 am

It’s amazing how names trend. I was named after a little redheaded girl in one of my mom’s classes. My folks named me Julie rather than Julia because they figured everyone would truncate the name to Julie anyway.

Guess what? All the little old ladies around insisted on calling me JuliA. That was the name of their generation. With an A and not to be messed with. So I never corrected them. Who wants to mess with a little old lady?

Louise B - June 10, 2014 - 9:31 am

I also write historicals set in Georgian/Regency England, and the lack of name variety can cause issues. I’ve used Mary as the hero’s little sister. In the next book, Mary is a servant girl and then in the following book she’s another servant. Never the same character but trying to prevent a lot of the same character names in a book.
My current WIP has a hero named Jericho, set in 1775 England. His given name is John, but he was such a troublemaker, his mother used to wish him a Jericho. So he took the name.

Debbie Kaufman - June 10, 2014 - 9:42 am

Piper, I use similar resources for my American characters. Then, I delve into historical documents from adventurers, scientists, missionaries, etc., to find names for my Liberian characters that are authentic to the time period, the people group, etc. Although you can find Liberian names on line, they don’t always help me with the accuracy I need. And, frankly, I obsess about choosing the right names. :)

Connie Gillam - June 10, 2014 - 10:12 am

Thanks for the new resource. I have to check out Nameberry.com

Another good resource for historical names is the census. I used it extensively when doing research on my family tree. The problem with using that resource is most people were illiterate (including the census takers), so you get creative misspellings of names.

Interesting post, Piper. Thanks.

Ursula Renee - June 10, 2014 - 10:25 am

Thanks for the recommendations. I can send days searching for the right name for my characters. Sometimes, when I get stuck, I delve into my family tree and census records for names.

Piper Huguley - June 10, 2014 - 1:48 pm

No one Julie, to be sure. And Julia is my girl’s name because I determined if there would be any more little ones coming down the pike, they would carry a family name. Oh well…I can use it for a character….:) Thanks for stopping by!

Piper Huguley - June 10, 2014 - 1:52 pm

Yes, Louise, I know you must use that writerly creativity to get nicknames so that you can have some naming variety in the Regency days. I love that Jerico story. There are Johns all over the place back then. Imagining that variety in is a great way to create backstory and family lives for the characters, just as you did! Thanks for stopping by!

Piper Huguley - June 10, 2014 - 1:54 pm

Debbie, that’s a wonderful idea of using primary documents to get names. Ms. Beverly Jenkins herself put that suggestion in on FB. So glad to hear that you take care with your name selection as well. It’s so important. Thank you for stopping by!!

Piper Huguley - June 10, 2014 - 1:55 pm

No problem Connie! I love looking at those old census records myself. They spelled every thing in every which way don’t they? Thank you for stopping by!

Piper Huguley - June 10, 2014 - 1:57 pm

Ursula,

Family trees are a great resource aren’t they? What a great idea. I just felt compelled to write this post because I don’t think some writers care enough about this step in the process–so crucial in historicals. Glad to see you do. Thank you for stopping by!

Marilyn Baron - June 10, 2014 - 2:41 pm

I’ve never used those resources, so thanks. I do use the Internet to find common names in a particular time period. Names are really important to me, too. I can’t start a book unless I have the title and the names.

Mxine Davis - June 10, 2014 - 5:00 pm

Piper, I love your name. Thanks for the resources. I’ve always said I’m not the best at selecting names or book titles. I end up changing them until it “sounds right.”

Piper Huguley - June 10, 2014 - 5:21 pm

Thank you Maxine! And you are right–you just sound them out for days and there’s a certain feeling about getting it right. I know what you mean. Thanks for stopping by!

Piper Huguley - June 10, 2014 - 5:29 pm

Names kind of speak to you about the character, don’t they Marilyn? Interesting how that happens–Thank you for stopping by!

Evangeline Holland - June 10, 2014 - 6:04 pm

Behind the Name is my favorite resource–and they even have a Behind the Surnames sub-website. Since I mostly write British-set historicals, I pour through ThePeerage.com for names of aristocrats. Luckily, the Victorians and Edwardians were very creative, though I can always fall back on nicknames if there are too many Williams, Georges, and Victorias.

Walt Mussell - June 10, 2014 - 8:25 pm

I have a different problem with names. My problem is that Japanese names are so atypical, that I have to shoot for simplistic ones or ones that can be shortened to a nickname. For example, I have a character that is named Tsuneomi in one book. However, I shorten that to Tomi. (Though the pronunciation is different, I assume readers will refer to my character as “Tommy.” However, substituting an “m” for an “n” in the girl’s name “Toni” would yield the proper pronunciation.)

Piper - June 10, 2014 - 8:36 pm

I knew you knew where to look Evangeline! Good to hear people in Britain got creative later on. It reminds me of current naming practices here. People are now being more creative now in America than they’ve ever been. People want their children to have unusual names now–quite a change in the past few years. Thank you for stopping by!

Piper - June 10, 2014 - 8:40 pm

I can relate Walt. You want characters to have names that are meaningful, but you don’t want readers to be distanced . I think now though, so many people are relying on so many phonetic combinations when they name their children, you can play around with spelling so that the readers will say it correctly in their heads as they read.

And I don’t know about anyone else, but I read Tomi correctly when I saw it. I think the missing second m helps it not to be Tommy… :) Thank you for stopping by!

sandra Elzie - June 11, 2014 - 6:17 am

Hi Piper,
Sorry I’m late…again. I also use name books. There are some great resourses out there that people don’t tap. I want to know what a name is supposed to imply about the person and then try to keep that in mind…although my characters don’t always listen.

Piper - June 11, 2014 - 7:31 am

Those are the characters we hope for–the ones who don’t listen. :) Thank you for stopping by! Have a Happy Birthday!

Pam Asberry - June 11, 2014 - 7:03 pm

Great post, Piper! You have inspired me to be a bit more creative when it comes to naming my characters!

Susan Carlisle - June 11, 2014 - 7:11 pm

Piper,
Mostly I take my characters names from student rolls when I substitute teach. Graduation programs are a good place too. I also write down unusual ones or names I like when I hear them.

Piper Huguley - June 11, 2014 - 7:55 pm

Susan,

Yes graduation programs are a name bonanza for sure. However, if I see anything interesting (and trust me there are many) I have to save it for a more contemporary setting. Thanks for stopping by Susan!

Piper Huguley - June 11, 2014 - 7:56 pm

Pam,

I’m so glad! I think being more creative is becoming the norm these days! Thank you for stopping by!

Sia Huff - June 14, 2014 - 2:59 pm

So thought provoking, Piper. I use behindthename.com the most, but also have a naming book and I use church directories.
Great advice on the SS.

Piper Huguley - June 16, 2014 - 12:52 pm

Ahh, a new website and source! Thank you for that Sia, and for stopping by! :)

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