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Ann Kathleen Otto

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Problems with Names in Historical Fiction

March 27, 2016

Yours in a Hurry is at the printers. Those of you who've been following my Yours in a Hurry blogs or Facebook page will notice that some names have been changed. In the final weeks before submitting the manuscript, I had to do some soul searching. Choosing the names of our fictional characters is no easy task, especially when we start with a number of real historical characters whose names we can't change. For instance, Anna is a main character. According to the census, the maid of another real character is also named Anna. As she's German, she became Greta. It's fortunate that we can use "find and replace" in our manuscripts.

Rules for Writers

I noticed some rules on naming characters from a number of sources. I was able to stick with some, others not so much. Here are some examples:

  1.  No two character's names should sound alike; it will confuse the reader.

Two of my actual characters are named Anna and Addison, so that can't change. I borrowed an Ohio neighbor's name from the time to develop a fictional character—Harry. I also found a name from the Los Angeles census of a neighbor in Anna's new home that I liked—Hiram. As the story develops, a historical figure, Harriet Quimby, becomes more important to the plot. Another actual Harry enters briefly later. So, I let go and the hometown Harry becomes Ernie, and Hiram becomes Joseph.

  1.  Be careful. Are there any ancestors who might take offense?

Not in my family (at least in this generation), but the antagonists involved are loosely based on another family. Names were changed and the storyline is fictionalized. I didn't find any leads, but one distant relative of the family found me on Ancestry.com recently. No problem. Evidently the family was dysfunctional, so we shared what we'd found and had a laugh. She's going to be an early reader of the book.

  1.  When writing historical fiction, true researchers may not like your book.

Some nonfiction authors who have worked diligently to read and study all the facts they can find out about your characters might take offense at your creative treatment of their subjects. When this happened around one of my characters, I reminded the author that if a layperson reads my work, there's a chance that more people will look at hers. She didn't rescind her comments, but was kind enough to send me one of her books. I'll reciprocate.

  1.  The name should be appropriate to the time period.

It's easy to Google "names in 1900", but most of us who love history and historical fiction read enough in the genres that we have endless sources.

  1. Don't make the names all short or all long—vary the length.

I must say that I don't understand this one. Most of my friends have short names, and that doesn't bother me at all.

Guidelines Don't Always Mirror Reality

Have you ever met a woman named Toby? I have two friends with that name. Another friend's actual name is De-de. I doubt if these two names will show up as common when someone years from now Google's "names in 2000".

 If you have any other tips or comments for writers, please send them my way by replying to this blog or on the Yours in a Hurry Facebook page.

Next time: Favorite Children's Verses

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