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Saturday, 4 May 2013

Registration Call

Names, our own personal keywords, the labels that pick us out from the crowd and are almost never chosen by ourselves, even the characters in books are chosen by me, and getting it right can be difficult. Tagging a first name on to a surname sounds easy but when you say it for the first time it can feel strange, artificial even. It doesn't ring true. (If you're really stuck, wander around an old graveyard or church and read the monuments).

I haven't done that yet, but I do find myself reading names on memorials and monuments. My characters draw their names from a variety of sources, even down to snippets of conversation. Take the feisty auburn haired female in the Grange stories, Josie Burke, her first name is diminutive, shortened from Josephine (she would call that her best name, a Sunday name, only used formally) Josie is the name she lives and works with and Burke, that came from a number of suggestions. Burke and Hare were the infamous body-snatchers supplying the Edinburgh medical schools with cadavers, James Burke was a presenter of science and technology programmes in the Seventies (Do you remember Connections?) and someone is a Berk when they do something daft. Josie refers to Burke and Hare in Control Escape, and she expresses something about how names influence our character and development. Names can become nicknames, and a source of humour for other people, and discomfort for the carrier.

Steel carries that baggage, Don Steel, what on earth was I thinking about, a character who reportedly grew up in Sheffield called Don Steel. Sheffield steel has been known about since the days of Geoffrey Chaucer. In the Canterbury Tales he mentions a simple working blade called the thwitel, made in Sheffield, and the earliest literary reference in fiction to knife making in the area.

The River that Sheffield straddles is the Don, can you see where this is going, his name caused trouble for him, and if you call him by his full name, Donald, it doesn't seem to be getting any better does it, but that was part of the selection process, the thinking behind his insistence that people use his surname, an expression of character. The inner circle who know his full name are people he can trust, and because of the trust he can accept the banter, but the banter is absent because of the trust. The logic is circular, but it works.

His first name is used, usually by Josie and only in specific circumstances, whereas Kurt Langhers uses and is referred to by both names on an almos casual basis. Kurt's name originated with the Commando comics I read as a young boy, given to a German officer in one of the stories, I liked the name and remembered it, and the character grew out of that. A German name, but with a Yorkshire accent? Unlikely, but not impossible perhaps a German grandfather, POW, who stayed behind after the war because the part of Germany he grew up in was on the other side of the wire. Did it happen, could it happen, turn the parts around, a National Serviceman from England posted to Germany after the war returns with a German bride, and they ran a local shop for years just down the road from where I grew up.

Fiction, isn't part of that taking what is real and making something novel out of it, recreating it with the imagination as another reality? Then we come to Bill Jardine; Jardine is a Scottish town, in one part of Sheffield it's one of a cluster of street names with a Scottish connection. Bill, is a name with many connotations, Dicken's Bill Sykes the thuggish criminal, Bruce Bairnsfather's World War One cartoon character Old Bill,  a world weary soldier with his distinctive walrus moustache (the cadet pub "Bill and Alphie's" at the Royal Military College of Canada is named after him) and the Metropolitan Police are  "The Bill"  Richmal Cromptom created Just William, mischief incarnate, but William grows up and somewhere along the line becomes Bill, and that was the transition I saw as Bill Jardine developed, a poacher turned gamekeeper, his wilder younger days a precursor to the activities and operations he would oversee at The Grange, and the place itself, a grange, historically a farm, a working place with an air of its own identity planted by time in the ground on which it stands. Not pretending to be something it isn't. Grand enough, but not too much. It's about playing with words, turning them around and seeing what happens and I'll leave the last word to Wally Barnes. Here again Wally can mean someone a bit daft or stupid, but he used his own name and the way the school register was called, especially when answering the phone. He wrong-footed people, and catches Steel in What You Ask For (currently a work in progress at smashwords.com), with "Barnes, Wally speaking."

Formally he is Wallace Barnes, a bit of a mouthful, the school register called him out as Barnes, Wallace. Now there's a name to play with, and if you think fiction is strange, imagine trying to sell the idea that a 500lb bomb will bounce along the water like a skimming stone. We can look back and see how it works, Wallace couldn't,  I could not resist that homage in one of the technical crew of the Grange.

Some names work well, others are more difficult to find a character for, and the most challenging one, Azubah, I found it on a gravestone, it means Desolation, Biblically, she was the wife of Caleb.
But then, hmm, maybe there is something...I am going to think about that one!

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