What’s In A Name?

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Highlighting Historical Romance with Michelle Jean Marie and thoughts about names.

From the time we are born, others are making decisions for us. Our parents name us, decide what we should wear, choose the school we attend, and take us on their ideal family vacations. When we’re young, we don’t know any better, and we often agree with their choices. But as we grow older, and are given the freedom of making our own decisions (some to our detriment,) we don’t always like what others decide for us.

Suddenly, we want to change our hair style, wear the latest fads, and wish we’d been named something else. It seems there’s always somebody somewhere with a prettier dress, a better cell phone, and a more romantic name.

If you want to know the truth, I’d never liked my name. It’s grown on me over the last years, though. In fact, I’ve used it on the cover of my book. But when I started writing almost 30 years ago, one of the most enjoyable parts of writing a book was naming my characters. It was freedom beyond imagining for me – someone who didn’t like her name.

I don’t just grab names off a list. It’s a process. The three questions I keep in mind when naming my characters are – the character’s personality, his/her ethnicity, and the century in which they were born. For example, how many medieval knights would be named Bobby Joe? And how many Englishmen do you know named Aleksy?

Names make impressions. That’s why I think long and hard over them. I want my readers to remember my characters’ names long after they’ve finished reading the book. Who doesn’t remember Scarlett and Rhett after watching Gone With the Wind? Would you remember them if they’d been named Annabelle and Jimmy?  I get to know my characters inside and out. I analyze what motivates them, what makes them think and what in the past makes them who they are today.

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Take my hero, Marcus Clayton, in TEMPTING PASSION. I named Marcus in TEMPTING FATE as a secondary character. When I developed him as the hero for TEMPTING PASSION, I gave him a reason to renounce all passion and adopt the Stoic credo. That’s when he became Marcus Aurelius Clayton. In the book, Marcus studies and recites passages from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations.

I follow this process for all my characters. Is the hero strong? Powerful? Wealthy? Muscular? Would I convey that impression with a name like Robin Tibbles? It’s a traditional English name, and my heroes are English. Or would Garrick Maxwell Atwater III better suit him? The longer a man’s name, the more likely he will be considered honest and accomplished. What about my heroine? Is she confident and adventurous? Or is she sedate and well-mannered? Would the name Clover Darling be better for the former or latter? How about Elizabeth Knight?

I say the names aloud as I’m selecting them. Hard sounds like “t” or “s” will strengthen my characters, while softer sounds like “d” or “b” will have a pleasanter ring. I think about the image I wish to convey. Ending the name on a hard sound–Kent or Brooke–would be stronger than Hugh or Ella.

I also consider the setting/era of my novels. Ashley and Madison were once exclusively male names. Now, both are associated with females. I like to scour my local library’s genealogy section and read through old birth/death/marriage records. I get a feel for the era by skimming through the files.

English surnames are fairly recent. They didn’t exist until the 12th century. They derived chiefly from local or place names. Clifford, Oakman and Ellwood are all examples of this. Surnames of relationship could use either the father or mother’s name as the root. The suffix -son was popular in the North of England, as in Johnson or Williamson. Surnames of occupation began with holders of the actual office, but eventually became hereditary. Steward, Dean and Sergeant were all occupations as well as surnames.

As for titles, rather than use a real title, like the Earl of Spenser, I create my own with an imaginary county/manor house/family name, etc..

I put as much thought into my secondary characters as I do my hero/heroine. I use the same rules here regarding country of origin and historical era, but names for secondary characters can be more colorful. Consider the eccentric Aunt Poppy and the non-descript Mr. Brown.

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Above all, I try not to confuse the reader. I don’t have surnames of Johnson, Whitson, Fredrickson and Smithson all in one book just because the characters are all from Northern England. And while Mary, Maggie, Millie and Maisie are cute names for siblings, unless each of the girls has a distinct personality trait, or they have very small parts in the book, the reader could get lost. When naming unrelated characters, if the hero’s name is Winston, I don’t have another character named Winthrop. And if the heroine’s name is cross-gender (Jamie) I don’t give the hero a cross-gender (Chris) name. I want my readers to enjoy the book, not labor over it.

Readers of a specific genre have certain expectations when they pick up a book. As the author, I have to fulfill those expectations. Cactus Jack and One-eyed Bill might suit a Western, but would certainly be out of place in my British romances. When choosing a name, I think of an image that name conjures up. Rafe implies a very different type of personality than, say, Gimp. Just as Raven or Honey would for a heroine.

And as much as I search for the perfect name, there’s always someone who tells me they liked everything about the book except the hero or heroine’s name. We all come to a book with past experiences, and those experiences may have included some not so pleasant memories of someone who bears the same name as my hero/heroine. I don’t take it personally, just like I don’t take my own name personally. 

About the Book

A Man Shattered

Marcus Clayton, Earl of Norbourne, has it all: power, wealth, respect, the freedom of bachelorhood, a woman’s companionship. Then, in the space of seconds, his world is shattered and a life is lost. Blaming himself for the tragedy, he adopts the Stoic credo as his new way of life and vows to never again allow a woman to rule his passions.

A Woman Shaken

Miss Christel Fitzwilliam lives life with passion despite her simple life. Her father dotes on her, and her mother despises her because of it. After Christel’s father dies, the very foundation of her life is shaken. Christel’s mother spurns her, and over the years, the scathing words wear down her resolve, causing Christel to question her own chance at ever finding happiness.

A Goal Shared

When Christel learns of her mother’s plan to trap Marcus into an unwanted marriage with her younger sister, Christel vows to save the earl from a fate he doesn’t deserve. Marcus appreciates her concern, but having renounced all passion, is confident he can defeat the plan on his own. A determined and passionate Christel sets out to help him.

But in trying to save the earl, will her own passion be her undoing?

About the Author

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After years of working in the Health Information Management field, Michelle became a stay-at-home mom to raise two adorable daughters and took advantage of her time at home to pursue a life-long passion—writing.

While attending a romance writing workshop at a local library, Michelle was hooked. She cracked open the research books, turned on the computer, and started cranking out historical romances. In her early efforts, she was an RWA Golden Heart finalist with TEMPTING FATE, and a winner/finalist in many RWA sponsored contests.

After ending one marriage, seeing her daughters through college, opening her own business, and finally happily marrying her soul mate, she opened those old computer files and did some serious editing. She signed her first publishing contract for TEMPTING FATE with Soul Mate Publishing, more than twenty years after writing it. Perseverance does pay off!

Michelle lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband, Steve, and their three insane pups – Raven, Belde and Juno. By day, she runs a professional organizing business (primabydesign.com), a virtual assistant business (virtual-liaisons.com), and a research web site (literary-liaisons.com). Her favorite clients are authors! 

By night, she writes. She self-published Researching the British Historical: The Victorian Era, 101 Organizing Tips for Writers, I’m Moving!! Now What? and Nine Journeys: Stories of Women Who Found Their Own Paths to Success

For more information about Michelle and her endeavors, find her online:

Website: www.michellejeanmarie.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MichJeanMarie/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/MichJeanMarie

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