Character names often outshine the titles of novels, lodging in readers’ minds and entering popular culture as nouns, a shorthand way of describing an acquaintance, such as Tarzan, Sherlock, Gandalf, Hermione or The Wicked Witch.
I’m currently reading James Lee Burke’s novel The Jealous Kind, whose protagonist is distinctly named Aaron Holland Broussard. He’s the grandson of Hackberry Holland who featured in four of Burke’s thirty-six novels.
I try to make my fictional character’s names memorable and am blessed that Cornwall, where my detective stories are set, has a rich array of unusual family names from its Celtic roots.
Thus, I called the owner of a chain of massage parlours Caradoc Honeycombe, which suited his gelatinous nature. Gordon Honeycombe was a popular British newsreader in the 1970s and 1980s, who organised a get-together of 160 members of the Honeycombe clan in 1984. There are 350 Honeycombes worldwide, all descended from one man called Matthew Honeycombe, who lived in the Cornish moorland village of Saint Cleer 350 years ago. Caradoc was a Knight of the Round Table during Uther Pendragon’s time.
Other of my character names include:
*Cleaver— for a heavily-scarred bodyguard who favours blades.
*Noah and Nina Shrike—ex-secret agents, who turn out to be cannibals. A shrike is also known as a butcher bird, as it stores dead prey on spiked vegetation.
*Luna Moth—a massage therapist from Vietnam, who has a large tattoo of this green-winged insect on her back.
*The Watcher—the title given to a sniper by his comrades in the Croatian War of Independence. He was turned into a killing machine by his traumatic experiences as a boy soldier, sating his bloodlust in peacetime by playing a real-life murderous role-play game. I didn’t mention his original family name; he’d dissociated from his origins.
*Esau Tregenza—a reclusive farmer whose mummified body is found in the kitchen of his remote farm, where it has been sitting for five years. A staunch Methodist, all of his ancestors were named after characters from the Bible.
*Tabitha Anstock-Struthers—Devon & Cornwall Police Authority’s press officer. More of a spin doctor, she has the soul of a cyborg.
Some of the names I use hint at the personalities of my heroes and villains, and there’s research evidence that how we’re named affects out entire lives:
As I neared the end of writing my fifth Cornish Detective novel last year, I had a rather sardonic thought—that I’m about where I thought I’d be five years after returning to creative writing in 2013. What prompted this bit of reflection was literally a reflection, for the screen of my laptop monetarily darkened, turning it into a mirror, so I had one of those ‘Aargh’ moments when you catch sight of your ageing self going about your business! Here was I, researching a fact about forensic medicine, for a crime novel that had taken me nine months to gestate—that may never be read by any fan of the genre.
It made me wonder how determined or maybe delusional an unknown author, in particular, has to be to keep their nose to the grindstone. Doing writing because you love it is great motivation: anyone who chooses becoming an author as the road to riches, in a J. K. Rowling way, is going to find it’s a rocky track with deep ditches either side.
All of this musing reminded me of something that noted writing guru Noah Lukeman has said several times in his books—that realistically, a new author should plan on it taking several years to get anywhere with their stories—to adopt a mindset that it’s going to be long haul. In answer to a question from a newbie author on how to query a literary agent when you have no proof of your writing ability, Lukeman advises:
You can attain major credentials on your own, but first you must prepare for a sustained effort. Instead of a three or six month plan to attain all the credentials you need, why not give yourself a three or six year plan? With that kind of time, you can attend writing programs, workshops, conferences, colonies; spend extensive time networking and build an endorsement list; get stories published in magazines and online; begin to build a platform; and most importantly, hone your craft extensively. This doesn’t mean you need to refrain from approaching agents before you accomplish all of this; on the contrary, as I said, there is nothing wrong with approaching agents with no credentials whatsoever, and you can work to achieve all of this concurrently with your approaching the industry. But you should always be working to this end, regardless. There are many specific, concrete steps you can take to help get you there (which I explain at length in my book How to Land (and Keep) a Literary Agent), but perhaps the most important step of all is your willingness to devote a sustained, multi-year effort to building your bio on your own.
Despite this salutary advice, I still harboured the hope that I could earn a few quid from self-publishing my early writing as e-books on Smashwords and Amazon. I was right—I made a small amount—about $40!
After foolishly querying about 350 agents with my first Cornish Detective novel, that was an unfeasibly long 179,000 words, I edited it down by 40,000 words. I also wrote a new opening story at the acceptable length of 80,000 words. I queried another 100 literary agents and publishers with open submission windows, getting more favourable responses and learning how to target specific agents, stalking them on social media to find their likes and dislikes. One large agency, that handles writers, musicians, television programme-makers and actors, asked me if my first novel was part of a series—as it would be easier to pitch to a publisher or television production company.
That had always been my intention anyway, to write a series of crime novels, with a view to them being adapted into a television drama, along the lines of Inspector Wycliffe—which is also set in Cornwall, though it pre-dates the computer age, making it rather creaky.
This sounds ambitious of me, but why not aim for the stars? As Michelangelo said:
The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short, but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.
Accordingly, I’ve now built a solid body of work, but in all honesty, how can I know whether it will appeal to anyone? Writing is full of uncertainty: no one knows what will work until it does!
Pride is an emotion I don’t exactly trust, as I’m more stoical in my approach to life, but I am proud of my Cornish Detective stories—and also of my bloody-minded determination to get them written—sacrificing most of what normal people consider essential, such as a social life and a love life. It’s helpful that I’m a reclusive old geezer!
The writing has been joyful to me, but what I’m not looking forward to is returning to the self-promotion trail. Navigating the world of publishing is like stumbling through thick fog with only a candle for illumination, banging the instruments of my one-man-band hoping to attract attention. That’s the feeling I get whether I’m chasing a traditional publishing contract or if I go back to self-publishing. No one else much cares what I’ve created—a hard fact of life every author should quickly realise—so it’s up to me to big myself up.
I’ve sometimes thought, that the best preparation for becoming a writer is to get everyone that you know to say “No” to you, when you ask them something, as it’s a word you’ll be hearing a lot when it comes to trying to sell your book. At least 500 times would be good preparation for growing a hide as thick as a rhinoceros!
How long have you been writing?
How thick is your hide?
Does being an oft-refused author help you cope with rejection is other parts of your life?
Do friends and family admire your determination—or think you’re just a bit mad?!
While fantasy shopping for property in Cornwall, where I live, I came across this house in Zennor, in the west of the county.
Hmm, thinks I, D.H. Lawrence lived there for a while: sure enough, it turns out to be the same place.
The house name RANANIM comes from the utopian artistic community that he dreamed of establishing in Taos, New Mexico. Lawrence and his German wife Frieda lived in Cornwall from 1916-1917, during which time he worked on Women in Love, which may have been influenced by a homosexual affair he was rumoured to have had with a local farmer. The couple were forced to leave the county, after accusations that they were signalling German submarines by semaphore system using their curtains at night.
Perhaps, it isn’t surprising that there was suspicion about them, for, amazingly enough, Frieda was the fifth cousin, once removed, of Baron Manfred Von Richthofen—the Red Baron—who’d already shot down scores of British planes over the trenches.
I’ve only visited one famous author’s home, which is George Bernard Shaw’s house Shaw’s Corner, located in the small village of Ayot Saint Lawrence in the county of Hertfordshire. Shaw was known for his ascetic ways, and his home reflects this, for though the garden is beautiful, the rooms have a strictly functional sparseness. My favourite feature is his revolving work hut at the bottom of the lawn, which he could turn away from the house to face the hedge, blocking the world out.
Have any of you visited houses with a literary connection, or lived somewhere famed for a well-known writer?