Friday, February 18, 2011

The Name's the Game

One of the many common questions people ask authors is, “Where do you get your ideas from?” Actually, the correct question should be, “From where do you get your ideas?”

Anyway, many authors will answer, “From everyday life.” Just walking around looking at things and people and listening to news stories. At the Killer Nashville writers' conference last August, guest Jeffrey Deaver told how he came up with the idea for The Burning Wire. He had an electrician over one day who did some wiring. During a delicate operation, the electrician told Deaver he had to be careful because a minor slip in either direction could kill him (the electrician, not Deaver). Well, of course being a devilish, murder plot-minded guy, Deaver said, “Cool, tell me more.”

I conceived the idea for Night Shadows after listening to a radio show about supposedly real encounters with shadow creatures and thought, “What if the shadows came from another dimension and killed people?”

When a writer develops his or her plot, one of the most important parts is names for the characters. As any good wizard knows, names have power. Names mean recognition. For instance when you hear the name Sherlock Holmes, you know the character being discussed. Same with Hercule Poirot. Sam Spade. Hamlet. Mike Hammer. After many novels fans begin to recognize names like Stone Barrington, Stephanie Plum, Joe Gunther, Jack Ryan, Ellery Queen, Elvis Cole.

But how do authors choose character names? Some have some good stories behind them but I think it's as interesting to know how authors come up with character names as how musical groups come up with theirs. Level 42, The Platters, Spandau Ballet, The Byrds, The Dead Kennedys (yes, that's a real name of a musical group), Ratt, Genesis. I could go on and on, but you get the point.

Mike Manno, fellow author and friend of mine, picks his characters' names from the list of past Iowa lieutenant governors. It's a list, I'm fairly certain, of which only Mike and the actual LG's themselves are familiar. I mean, can you name five past LG's? Do you care if you can? Anyway, I thought Mike's list for choosing names is interesting.

When I started writing, the name Sam Petersen just popped into my head for my detective. He lived in the Quad Cities and solved mysteries. As the years went by, I changed Sam to Mallory and moved her to Des Moines. In Beta (coming July 15th to fine Internet stores near you), I had originally named Mallory's assistant Jamie and her cop friend Laurel. Then I had a couple of friends tell me those names were a little, uh, well, effeminate for the characters portrayed and they wondered about their, uh, well, sexual inclinations. After thinking about their comments, I changed the names to Darren and Lawrence, respectively. (More manly sounding? Well, Biff and Duke just didn't fit.) Originally, I had most of the Beta's character's surnames begin with the letter C. After re-reading the story, I thought that idea pretty dumb.

I used to scan the phone book for names, but more often than not, settled for one I didn't think quite correct. Then I stumbled onto another source for names that has worked magnificently and, so far, hasn’t failed me yet. When I wrote Night Shadows, Harry Reznik, like the long ago Sam Petersen, just popped into my head and just worked for me. When choosing his partner's moniker, I knew her first name, but chose the surname from my other source. Most of the rest Night Shadows’ characters' surnames (as well as some of the first names) are taken from this source.

So, here's the contest. Tell me where I get the majority of the Night Shadows character names from. Or more accurately (so my editor and former English teacher don't take turns smacking me upside the head), from what list do I get my Night Shadows character names? A little homework and a couple Internet clicks should tell you the answer in pretty quick fashion. The trick is to be the first one to give me the correct answer. There are many ways of doing this. Email, telephone, snail mail, knocking on my door and letting me know in person (after three in the afternoon please since I work most nights), carrier pigeon, sky writing, smoke signals, or even Morse code. (You might have a little trouble with the latter two since I don't understand either. I'd probably call the fire department on the first and wonder how you managed to get a telegraph system in my apartment on the second.)

Of course, all good contests have a prize. The winner will receive a free copy of Beta when it is released in July. (Where you'll find more names from the same source.)

So, happy reading and good luck!

No comments: