Monday, March 30, 2009

What's in a name?

The name is usually one of the first things we learn about a character.

Like it or not, readers are inclined to react differently to a character called Chloe or Saffron than to a Mildred or Ethel. First impressions, in fiction as in real life, can be startlingly accurate or blisteringly unfair. They're also inclined to be hard to shift. So characters' names need to be chosen with some care.

I want my characters to have names that suit them; a part of the word picture that paints them. I'm also constrained by the times in which I set my works. I don't believe there were many Chantelles, or Tiffannie-Krystals, in Victorian New Zealand.

Quite a few names from Victorian times are still in current or near-current use, and I've tended to choose from those for my younger characters. Names that sound old-fashioned (at least in 21st century New Zealand) are fine for older characters.

On checking the most popular names given to babies in New Zealand in 2008, I find I've used five out of the top ten names for girls, and seven of the top ten boys' names. Boys' names tend to keep to the traditional a little more, but babies of both sexes are given more of those traditional names than was the case in the 1950s-60s.

The lists, with the ones I've used marked by an asterisk:

Girls - *Sophie, Olivia, Ella, Isabella, *Charlotte, *Lily, *Emma, *Emily, Jessica, Grace.
Boys - *Jack, *James, *William, *Samuel, Joshua, Riley, *Liam, Oliver, *Benjamin, *Daniel.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Beginning

The longest novel begins with a single word. That word is followed by another, and soon we have a whole sentence. Sentences grow into paragraphs, and after a mere few years of mental anguish, a novel appears.

The books I write are historical novels set in New Zealand, with a strong character focus. New Zealand is a place that's exotic to most of my readers. I want them to be able to picture the settings, and picture my characters within those settings. I like to start with a word picture of the scene, and it's never long before the main character makes her appearance.

Here are the opening paragraphs of the first book, "Sentence of Marriage". The year is 1881.

Beyond the farmhouse the ground fell gradually in a series of low hills and flat paddocks, bright green where they had been planted in grass and darker green where the bush remained. The Waituhi creek wound along the valley floor before it disappeared from sight behind a steep bluff. Amy reached the top of a hill and paused, caught as she always was by the beauty of the view.

And beyond the mouth of the valley was the sea. The wide sweep of the Bay of Plenty stretched to the edge of Amy’s sight in either direction, and straight in front of her ocean met sky all along the horizon, broken only by White Island with its constant puff of smoke. Today she could see the island quite clearly through the crisp winter air. The ocean looked blue and mild. Some days it was grey and threatening; but always to Amy it was fascinating. To her it meant the world outside her valley; it meant excitement and adventure, and the lure of the unknown.