I’ve Got a Name

- by Flo Fitzpatrick

I love names. Well – not mine. Aside from the fact that ‘Florence’ sounds like a Victorian governess, I got very tired of being called “Nightingale” throughout grade school. Worse, though, was the time in junior high when a classmate tried to call me “Flossie.” I calmly explained that unless she wanted to find herself face down on the sidewalk, she’d better just stick to Florence. I went with “Flo” in college when I realized it had that movement feel to it and since I was a dance and drama dance major – no brainer. The funny thing is that now that I could choose a pseudonym, I’ve stuck to Flo Fitzpatrick.

I think one of the things that’s most fun about writing is getting to name characters. Of course, sometimes you can get a little crazy when you’re stuck in the middle of your plotline and you know the reason you’re sinking in the quicksand of “What do I do now?” is simply that you never came up with the perfect name for your hero or heroine. Yeah. They’re that important.

Matching names is an occupation in itself.  Sometimes they fall from the sky and land on your keyboard. Sometimes you have to search, which can involve much growling at the computer and slurping of coffee . The eccentric, ‘stupidly-short witch’ in Melody’s Follies, Mrs. Fiona Belle Donovan Winthorp, was one of the easy ones. The Fiona (heaven help me) came from my nephew’s German Shepherd. Belle is the middle name of a friend in Texas. The Donovan portion came when I heard “Mellow Yellow” (by 60s folk artist Donovan) one afternoon playing on the local Classic Rock station. Winthorp? I’m clueless. (Unless I happened to watch The Music Man one afternoon and the name just stayed in my subconscious?)

I take some pride in coming up with Acacia Jones in A Marvelous Night for a Moondance although I owe part of it to a strange urge that came over me one afternoon – a hankering for root beer. (Must have been fate – I’m normally not much of a soda drinker.) I found ‘Acacia’ on the back of a root beer bottle. It comes from some Australian pod-bearing tree. Enough said. Once I decided that Acacia needed siblings, I grabbed the root beer and started writing down the rest of the ingredients. Carmel, Birch, Careegan. I snuck in youngest brother Emmitt in honor of Emmitt Smith from the Dallas Cowboys just to add a little normality (if that’s possible) to the Jones family.

Secondary characters are easier. Names for bizarre sidekicks or enigmatic witches somehow just print themselves on the page. Lida Rose Worthington from my first book Ghost of a Chance. Seymour Patel in Hot Stuff. Sweet Dreams was great fun because I wanted to keep images of ‘sweets’ in most of the secondary characters’ names. So there’s Cherry Ripe. Vito and Guido Marricino. Gina Giardelli. Nic Toblaroni. (The latter two surnames are different spelling from the chocolates.) The most fun name though (to me) was for Johnny Gerard’s daytime drama alter ego. To be honest, I don’t know how I came up with it – I think I slept one night and woke up the next day yelling, “By George! I’ve got it! Gregory Noble. Soap opera hero.”

I got a thrill a couple of years ago when I learned that the heroine of one of my books was in a Baby names book! There it was on page 16- “Tempe Walsh from Flo Fitzpatrick’s Hot Stuff.” I was a bit disappointed that Brig O’Brien from the same book didn’t get included but Hey!  I’m not going to quibble over it. I’m still too excited that Tempe made it into a book that could be responsible for naming kids for years to come.

When I first wrote Melody’s Follies I considered giving Mel the name of the “ghost” that appeared to be hanging out in my New York apartment. (That’s another story.) For some reason, I called her Julia. But when the time-travel plot led me to send my heroine back to the 1919 Ziegfeld Follies and I discovered that’s when and where Irving Berlin’s classic A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody was first performed, I knew I Julia needed to be Melody.

Briley in Melody’s Follies came from an online obituary site I googled to find names of soldiers from World War One. I loved that name and thought it was a great fit for a handsome young stagehand who finds a 21st Century girl backstage in an early 20th Century theatre.

My heroine, Sybil MacKenzie in A Marvelous Night for a Moondance happens to be the name of the granddaughter of my best friend. And I’d actually written most of the book with a very pretty name, Noelle, for Sybil’s 1940s counterpart, but when I started the revision process I stared at the page where I introduced her and stated, “No way. This girl’s personality screams Clansey.” So Clansey she became. She was a very insistent character. I literally had to rewrite the last half of the book once Clansey took over my brain and computer.

I find names from everywhere – baby name books, a great book called Names Through the Ages, googling for meanings – and the most fun source – screen credits. Not necessarily the actors but the grips and best boys and special effects folks. Especially from films shot in the Czech Republic or in Singapore or in Venice or Siberia. Not only are there terrific, unique names to be found, but if your DVD player doesn’t have a pause feature, you get to listen to the ending credits music over and over again while you furiously scribble and ponder whether Weapons Master and Second Caterer, one Xander Von Edsel Finklestein O’Hara the Fifth should show up in your next book as villain – or hero.

4 comments

  1. Surely there’s no such beast as a DVD player with no pause feature? I’d have to toss that out and get a new one.

    But you forgot to mention my favorite names place: the historical baby names database run by the US Social Security Administration. Great resource for being sure the names match the era, or even just the birth year of your characters.

    http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/babynames/

  2. Thanks for that resource. I immediately bookmarked it.

    As to the DVD? Mine is a combined TV, VCR (yep – one of those) DVD player. The VCR will pause. The DVD refuses to. Occasionally the DVD also refuses to jump forward and skip previews or ads. You nailed it. It’s a beast.

  3. I enjoyed your post. I went to a workshop on developing a hero and the speaker said that detectives should be have names that reflect their occupation, ie. Hunter. I never knew how much a name meant until I started researching them. I had a character named Dorcas Mackenzie and my critique partners said I needed to change her name because it was too old-fashioned, made them think “dork”, unpopular old maid and nothing good. I changed her name to Rae.

  4. It’s always interesting too to think ‘would this character have made the impact they did had they had a different name?” If Rhett Butler had been Herbert Smith? If “Rebecca” had been Norma Desmond? ……. the list is endless.

    the other thing I try to do is keep the character names from being too similar within the same book. Or starting with the same letter of the alphabet. One of my favorite Helen MacInnes novels, “Agent in Place” has a Tony and a Tom. I loved that book but it drove me crazy at times because I’d have to reread paragraphs when I realized that Tony wasn’t ‘stepping out’ with Tom’s wife – Tom was.