By Piper Huguley
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.
Piper 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.
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