Historical fiction, languages, names, naming characters, research, spelling, Tom Walsingham Mysteries, writing
Yesterday I spent a good deal of time perusing lists of names of Guild members in 16th century Bruges. It’s one of the many wonders of the Internet that you can find this sort of thing for the asking… and, as I said, I ended up spending a good chunk of the afternoon going through list after list, copying the promising ones in my notebook – one column for given names, one for family names – trying them out for size, and even involving a Dutch-speaking friend for a sense of how a few of them would be pronounced…
What can I say? I’m fascinated by names to the point of obsession. Lists of names, wherever they are to be found, make me ridiculously happy. Give me film credits, 16th century tax rolls, Wikipedia lists, orchestras, author’s acknowledgments, ancient baptismal records, family trees, graveyards… and I’m lost. Once, on a very rainy London afternoon, a friend had to drag me and my notebook away from the placards listing lawyer’s names at the doors of Temple chambers. “What will they think,” she hissed, “if they see you copying names like that?” I said they’d likely assume I was in need of legal advice – but… yes, well.
So you see why name-hunting is both a favourite facet of research, and that most insidious form of procrastination – the sort that still feels like working. I haven’t done much of it, so far, for my current work in progress, because most of my cast is made up of historical characters, all complete with a given name and a surname… So far, I’ve only had to name a very small handful of imaginary people. What makes it still interesting is that a variety of different nationalities and languages are involved. English spelling was a haphazard affair back then, and people often were quite casual in how they spelled their own name – never mind those of other people. Add a number of French, Spanish, Italian, Flemish and Scottish characters, and a general tendency to adapt foreign names to one’s own language, and you have either utter chaos or the stuff plot points are made of – or perhaps both.
It was one of the first things I noticed in the documents that sparked off this particular story. It was just there – so why not use it? Which resulted in a nice twist, so far, and a few especially intricate name-hunting sessions, like the one that so absorbed me yesterday afternoon.
And no, I haven’t quite decided yet – but there are a few combinations that I like, and that might serve the purpose. Then again, the character is still a bit of a blank: once I know a little more about him, he will be easier to name. And vice versa, as well: did you ever struggle with a character, until the perfect name dawned on you, and then he or she just… came to life? Well, I have every hope that my Fleming and his name will happily meet each other half way.
And what about you, o Readers? How do you like your names – when you write and when you read?