History Hoydens

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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

14 May 2007

A rose by any other name . . .

One of the things writers always seem to be discussing is names. Especially historical writers, but I think this applies equally across the board. You want your characters to have distinct and appropriate names, but when you’re writing an historical novel you don’t want to have Princess Brandi tramping about. I keep lists of names that I run across in historical documents, in non-fiction books about my period, etc.

Recently, prompted by a question on a discussion loop that I’m on I made a list of all the names in Who's Who in Late Hanoverian Britain and my 1779 edition of the Peerage. Mostly the same names show up over and over and over:

William

John

George

Henry

Thomas

Charles

Then we have a few names, which while no where near as popular as those above, still show up quite a bit:

Frances/Francis

Edward

Samuel

Richard

James

Robert

Frederick

Philip

Then there are a smattering of names that still seem "normal", but show up only once or twice:

David

Adam

Jeremy

Joseph

Edmund

Gilbert

Daniel

Arthur

Harry

Hugh

Hugo

Douglas

Basil

And then there are the fun ones, many of which seem like surnames used as first names to me:

Cuthbert

Horatio

Theobald

Granville

Richmal

Sydney

Spencer

Rowland

Peregrine

Heneage

Washington

Vere

Willoughby

Anne-Holles (!) yes, first name for a man

Sackville

Brownlow

Spencer

I’d guess that the vast majority of the writers I know are choosing names from this third set. As readers how do you feel about names? Do you care if half the heroes are named Henry or Thomas (as they probably would have been in real life), or do you like our penchant for the unusual?

Which of these two statements sums up your feeling:

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet?

A rose by any other name would wither and die?

9 Comments:

Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Love this, Kalen. Yup, I pay a lot of attention to names and try to make them as distinctive as possible. In my first book -- a contemp -- I had a Kathy and a Catherine -- because that is, as you said, the way it is in the real world.

It does not work in fiction. Despite the fact that these two minor characters were as different as night and day, some readers still were confused. I swore I would never do that again.

Also one other caveat is spelling. I guess I am the only one who knows that the Welsh name Rhys is pronounced Reese and not Rice. Will try not to do that again either.

Here is a related question. In the Regency when male friends called each other by their last name -- ie Lord Richard Milton -- "How are you doing, Milton." What if Lord Richard Milton had three brothers. Would they all be called Milton by their cronies?

I've come up with a device for my next family -- the books I am writing for Bantam. A family tradition that makes naming easy -- of course I have to come up with those names first!

9:39 AM  
Blogger Susan Wilbanks said...

So far I've tended to give my characters period-appropriate ordinary names. My first manuscript starred a James and a Lucy, and my second featured a Jack and an Anna. But I'm also fond of quirky names that I could never dream of giving to a present-day child--Horatio, India, Jemima, etc. Though when I tried to name a heroine Jemima, one of my CPs told me the pancake syrup associations were FAR too strong, and she became Miriam instead.

My current manuscript is an alternate history, with a mix of real and invented characters. The real historical figures have names ranging from the ordinary to the wildly obscure, but the two most important to the story happen to be of very high birth, with perfectly ordinary first names and straightforward last names that wouldn't necessarily scream "important aristocrat!" if their owners hadn't made them famous. So I've tried to keep my invented characters' names realistic and restrained so they don't stick out like sore thumbs.

What I don't like are over-the-top romancey names, particularly heroes whose surnames and titles are dripping with references to darkness and wild animals. It's just been overdone, and I'd rather see something a little more subtle. I know I'm comparing genre apples and oranges here, but give me a Jack Aubrey or a Richard Sharpe over a Sebastian Blackheath, Duke of Ravenwolfmoor, any day.

9:52 AM  
Anonymous Tracy Grant said...

Great topic. It's hard in 18th/19th century historicals becauseof the limited number of names in common use. Somtimes a name that was commonly used seems just right (Charles, Henry, Robert). Sometimes I've branchd out into names that while less common were/couuld have been used (Adam, Gideon, Guy). Often I can't get the character until I settle on the right name. I had a hard time getting a handle on Charles's sister in "Beneath a Silent Moon" both as a character and her name. She went from Beth to Diana and then I realized that her half-French mother would have given her a French name. She became "Gisèle" and her character came into focus.

10:37 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I admit to cracking up when I read a name that would be so inappropriate to the 18th or 19th century. Frankly, it takes me right out of the book. Okay, not everyone needs to be named Mary or John, but it seems to me that some contemporary authors think that it will make their character memorable (or more so) if they bestow upon them an unforgettable name that is often so silly it verges on ludicrous. To me it reads like they didn't do their research. So then I begin to wonder what else might not be thoroughly researched.

1:56 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I can't stop laughing at the Duke of Ravenwolfmoor. That's just so funny, and so true.

As for Mary's question, if you're dealing with multiple people with the same last name, all of whom have the same circle of friends, it would be likely that they'd all of been given different nicknames, and in a formal situation they would likely be addressed as Mr. LASTNAME and introduced as Mr. FIRSTNAME LASTNAME. If they don't share the same circle of friends, then it is likely they'd all be called by their last name in informal settings.

4:19 PM  
Blogger VAfriend said...

As a reader and not a writer, I tend to like my heroes to be a bit more unusual. Heroes aren't run of the mill otherwise they wouldn't be heroes, right? So choosing a name from the third group to me, make a hero more believable. Antagonists, suitors who would be more "family appropriate" I would think would have a more "normal" (Henry John etc)name.
Just my opinion

6:13 PM  
Blogger Camilla said...

It depends--an unusual name can be a great character in and of itself(doesn't the absence of the name of Rebecca's narrator show the larger-than-life quality of her husband's dead first wife?), but I do have a weak spot for historical heroes named George, Henry, etc because they do sound so...solid and dependable, the sort of qualities I admire in men and the heroes of my favorite romance novels.

I also like "ethnic" names and always look up the meaning of names when they pop in my head for a character to kick-start their characterization.

6:25 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I loved doing a heroine named Mary, and I gave the name a little backstory, most of which is tacit.

Her older sisters are Jessica and Julia, which I imagine her parents enjoying as pretty, rather "poetical" names for girls, when the parents were younger, more energetic, more optimistic about having a son. Mary's about 8 years younger than Julia; there have been stillbirths, difficult births, whatever, in the intervening years (I think I mention dead twin boys, and I imagine that her mother's health has suffered). When Mary's born they give her a somewhat generic name; they're disappointed she isn't a boy and they're beginning to give up hope for an heir to Papa's brewery. Mary's a loved child, but a little bit superfluous -- which is why she has space to disappear into her imagination, to wander about the property (and to find Kit), aggressiveness to spare (she tries harder to get attention), and a bit of confusion (as a much younger third daughter, she's been alternatively indulged and savaged by her older sisters).

A bit guiltily, perhaps, her parents snuck a bit of (perhaps excessive) poetry into her middle name: she's Mary Artemis Elizabeth Penley.

After she's eloped with Kit, his horrible snob of a father the Marquess throws a hissy fit about the "Artemis." Just like the (middle-class, liberal) Penleys, he says, not to give the girl a good English name.

And yes, I gave just as much thought to how I named Kit and his 4 sibs.

7:44 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I love names, and I have a lot of fun coming up with them. One of the naming conventions that I adore is giving a girl the feminine version of a man's name (hence Georgianna). But I'm also a great lover of old, traditional, ethnic names (and I'd better be with sibs named Siobhan [sha-von] and Niall [like the river Nile or Neil, depending on where you’re from]).

8:45 AM  

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