I’m an unapologetic name collector. Usually I find them in phonebooks, but I’ve been known to eavesdrop on conversations at Wal-Mart and a few other places, wander off an aisle or two, and quickly scribble down stolen names from snippets of conversation. Sometimes I thieve entire conversations, but that’s a story for another day.
When I travel, which isn’t terribly often, I’ve been known to snag entire phonebooks so I may, once safely home, flip hungrily through foreign books and update my list. It’s a long list, but you can bet I’ve never been stuck for a character’s name. Not once. For me, nothing makes the writing go faster. There are actors who can’t get into character until they find the right pillbox hat or slip on the perfect pair of wingtips. When I’m writing fiction, it’s the name.
There’s a lot of mojo in the perfect name. That’s why all these uptight new parents now spend an extravagance on naming services for their bouncing baby whatevers. It makes me laugh, especially since a generation or so ago people were having too many kids to even care. There was a formula: name the first boy after his dad, and all ensuing boys after various uncles or near-relations. John. Robert. William. Girls were named after grandmothers and aunts , or flowers, as long as the name wasn’t too ugly or the female relative too morally loose. My ex-father-in-law’s name is LD. No periods. It’s not short for anything nor does it represent his initials. Granny Fason just had too many damn kids and very little creativity. He has a brother named JD. You see what I mean.
Not many couples have seven or eight kids anymore unless they’re a Duggar. At least they have a whole Bible full of names to choose from. Now there’s research into meanings, hidden, obvious, and historic in a name. It has to stand out, give the child a head start in an ugly, competitive, eat-‘em-alive world. Forget the fat books full of baby names, over-pay some opportunist to name your kid Apple.
Actually, that’s good advice when naming characters – forget the baby name books. Otherwise everyone in your stories will sound like soap stars. Chance. Trace. Skye. Unless you’re actually writing soaps…or those bodice-rippers I used to read in junior high with Fabio (there’s another one) on the cover.
I like the phonebooks because those names are real and they cross several generations of naming trends. A good small-town, southern phonebook can take you to naming places you never thought possible. Twanette. Loyce. Crescentia. Eulid. Vernadean. Eightha. Thurl. And those are my throw-aways. I have hundreds of others I’d use in second. Names like Portia, Sulie, Ever, Warfield, and Rueben just write their own stories.
Some are just too unbelievable to use. For example, I went to school with a girl named Listerine Piggee, bless her heart. Another gal who sweated on the first day of school was Vagina (pronounced va-geena) Sumpter. Luckily, calling roll on the first day of school the teachers always lilted, “Miss Sumpter?” giving poor Va-geena the benefit of the pause. I’ve used this roll-calling trick myself when face-to-rollbook with an unfortunately named student. I do appreciate an unusual name, but not when it victimizes. No character – living or created – should have to answer to Listerine.