When I read that the optional theme for this month at A Good Blog was “covers or characters,” I knew right away what I would write about. Since my post on March 30,"A Novel Idea," I’ve been researching and outlining a novel, and I even have a few pages of the first draft done. It’s been a slow start. The problem isn’t the plot—I’ve pretty much got that in my head and notes. I’ve even got a “story board” of sorts—a bulletin board by my computer with sticky note cards and a few pieces of art printed off the internet. And the characters aren’t slowing me down—I know who they are—but it’s their names. And the name of the book itself.
Joshilyn Jackson (who did an excellent post on “covers” a couple of weeks ago), told me once that she can’t get a new novel started until she settles on the title, and a killer first line. I get that. Even though it might be changed in the end, by editors or agents or publishers. I just have to know the characters I’m writing about, and for me that includes being comfortable with their names.
(My first published essay, “myPod,” was about naming an iPod Nano.)
I’ve added a third main character since the inception of the novel. She’s based on an artist who was part of the “New York School” of abstract expressionism in the 1940s and ’50s. But now I’m struggling with whether or not to change her name, or just write her as “historical fiction” the way Michael Cunningham did with Virginia Woolf in The Hours. (I love how he structured the book, weaving together the lives of the author, one of her characters, and one of her readers. How cool it was, the way he wrote about a fictional day in the life of a real person, and then a real day in the life of two fictional characters.) So, if I leave the artist’s real name in, will I have to be concerned about how much stuff I make up about her? If I change her name, will the character be as strong? And should the fictional name resemble the real one? Hmmmm.
And then there’s the completely fictional character in the book. I’ve already changed her name several times, and I just can’t move forward until I settle on something. She might be the love child of a couple of hippies, born in 1965, so I Googled popular names from that movement, but I’m just not happy with “Star” or “Sun” or “Serenity Dawn.” Or she might be an orphan who runs away from a cult and grows up in a foster home.
Anyway, I’ve been writing her as “Mare,” (I’ve always loved Mare Winningham) but I’m considering “Meg” or “Emma,” or maybe “Maggie,” or “Kate.” She grows up in the South (small town in Georgia, actually) so the name needs to feel right for the geographical area.
Names were on my brain Sunday afternoon when I went to the ballet. It was a children’s ballet theater recital that my seven-year-old Goddaughter, Sophie, was performing in. She was a swan in “Swan Lake.” While I was waiting for the show to begin, I read the names of the children in the program, and I was amazed at the trends in this fairly small group of little girls:
Maddie, Madeleine, Meghana, Maya, Mara, Maggie, Mary Madeline and 3 Madisons
Isabelle, Isabella, Emerson Belle and Bella
Addison, Ava, Anna, Alyssa and Avery
Emma, Emily, Erin, and Emme
Kasha, Kylie, Katherine and Kate
No wonder I’m so confused! When I was growing up in Mississippi in the 1950s and ’60s, most of my friends had names like Carol or Jan or Peggy or Nancy. And while many of these little contemporary ballerinas’ names are lyrical, I’m not sure any of them would fit a small town Georgia girl born in the 1960s. Any suggestions? Seriously, leave them as a comment here—I’d love some ideas! Meanwhile, I’ll just be here inside what’s-her-name’s head, working on interior monologue.
As this post goes to press, I’ve gotten a good start on chapter one. Each chapter will have one of the three main characters' names as its heading, and will be written in that character’s voice. For now, the first chapter says, “Kate,” but I’m still open to changing it to one of your brilliant suggestions. Please leave a comment!
And now for a title….hmmmm...
Susan Cushman lives in Memphis with her husband of 40 years. She has three grown adopted “kids,” a ten-month-old granddaughter (and another on the way), and thirteen Godchildren. Her essays have been published in First Things: The Journal of Religion, Culture and Public Life, The Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Journal, skirt! Magazine, Southern Women’s Review, Mom Writers Literary Journal, and Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal. Later this year, her essay, “Jesus Freaks, Belly Dancers and Nuns,” will appear in the second volume of All Out of Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality, published by the University of Alabama Press. Read Susan’s blog posts at Pen and Palette.