Sunday, March 1, 2009


I often receive letters from readers asking how I chose Knott as Deborah’s surname, or they’ll mention a character in one of the books and ask why Higgenbottom or Beecham?  Why Upchurch or Trogden?  As a rule, the questioner is either a Higgenbottom or Trogden or had a grandparent by that name.  If my reader is from the South, the question then becomes “Did you know my people?” 

 Sadly, I usually don’t.

 Deborah’s name is easy to explain.  It comes from the Bible:  “And Deborah . . . judged Israel at that time.”  Judges 4:4.  With three syllables in her first name, it sounded better to me to have her last name be one syllable.  Once I hit upon Knott, I thought I’d do titles that played off the puns:  Judge Not or Not as a Stranger.  Unfortunately, by the time I’d decided against puns as titles, Deborah Knott had already appeared in print in a short story that got nominated for a couple of awards.  Were I naming her today, she’d be a Smith or Jones and wouldn’t have to put up with snickers every time someone says “judge not, Judge Knott.”

So where do those other names come from? 

It’s all in the alphabet.

One of the first rules of writing narrative fiction is “Don’t confuse your readers.”  If you’re writing a tricky mystery about three couples, you shouldn’t name them Bill and Barbara Baxter, Beverly and Biff Barnes, and Bert and Brenda Bailey.  If readers are busy keeping track of who saw what when, it confuses them to remember that Brenda and Bill are lovers but not married to each other.  Right away, I have to choose six names that begin with different letters and three surnames that don’t look alike.

I have now written twenty-five novels and four dozen short stories.  That’s a lot of names to come up with.   AND to keep track of.  To keep it all straight, I’ve created a computerized character directory.  Every time a new character appears, I enter the names twice—once by the first name, a simple Mary Smith; then by the last name, Smith, Mary.  Under Smith, Mary,  I enter whatever I know about her:  her relationship to others in the book, her physical appearance, her socio-economic status, her speech oddities, etc.

Using the smallest readable type and the narrowest margins possible, printing out this directory now takes 48 pages.  An average page contains 35 names.  You do the math! 

These days, when I need a new name, I open the directory and check to see if I can use “Emily Stancil.”  No.  Deborah’s mother-in-law is an Emily and I’ve used the Stancil name for a secondary continuing character.  I keep scrolling through my directory until I come to a letter of the alphabet that has no major continuing characters.  If I settle on L, for instance, I will then check out the possibilities in one of those baby naming books.  For the last name, I’ll thumb through the Manhattan white pages until I come to something that “sounds right” with the first name.

So if you’re reading along in one of my books and your own unusual family name jumps out at you, no, I don’t necessarily know your people.  Your name just happened to begin with the right letter of the alphabet!

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