What’s in a Name? by G.B. Pool

Romeo and JulietWilliam Shakespeare had Juliet utter these famous words: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But as Romeo and Juliet discovered, the entire story revolved around those names and the fact that he was a Montague and she was a Capulet and those two families weren’t destined to get together. The same with the Hatfields and the McCoys. Without the tension between those families, we wouldn’t have the classic story that we know today.

 

My point being: Names Matter.

 

There is a saying credited to Elmore Leonard who was a master at picking names for his marvelous characters. He said he was having trouble with a character until he changed the guy’s name and then he couldn’t shut him up.

There is so much truth in that. Go back to Romeo and Juliet. If Romeo had come from another family that didn’t have a lifetime feud with the Capulets, he and Juliet would have had no problem getting married. But he was a dreaded Montague and there was no peace between the families until half the cast of the play was dead and the survivors saw the error of their ways and had a group hug before the curtain came down. I’m making up the hug part, but you get the drift.

The same plot was used in the musical, West Side Story. Many of the Sharks and the Jets lay dead in the street by the time the credits rolled. But that was the story. The names mattered. So here’s a heads up: Your characters might be begging for a different name if you would just listen.

Hello My Name Is

Are you having trouble getting that guy you introduced on page 24 to fit into the costume you decided he should wear? Maybe the costume doesn’t fit the name you have pinned onto that character. Change the name and see if he looks better in that outfit. I mean really, would a guy named Bruno Lipbuster look right in a Saville Row suit? Or would Maisie Dalrimple look right with a crown on her head as queen of a mythical country in Europe?

Johnny Casino, the main character in my Johnny Casino Casebook Series, got his name when I thought about who he was and what he did for a living. He’s a private detective, so I wanted him to have a detective’s name. I knew his first name was going to be Johnny. But what about his last name?

My first thought was Sam Spade from Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. I loved that movie and Bogie as Sam Spade. Then an old TV series starring David Jansen popped into my head. His name was Richard Diamond in the show.

That’s when I started to see a mental pattern forming. The characters’ last names were the suits on playing cards. The third name would be heart. What about Jonathan Hart in the old TV series Hart to Hart?

Okay, those names were all taken. What about the last suit of cards in the deck? That would be clubs. I couldn’t think of any character in movies or TV that was called Club. BUT, what is another name for a club? Not the wooden object that hits you over the head, but the one where you play cards: a casino. Ah.

Johnny Casino TattoosI had a name: Johnny Casino. I looked up the name on the Internet to see how many times it was used. A character in Grease was named Johnny Casino. There was also a tattoo parlor out here in California, now closed, called Johnny Casino’s Tattoo Parlor. The name wasn’t really over used. I picked that name.

And Johnny liked it, but there was more to his name than I knew at first. Johnny enlightened me. Johnny wasn’t born with the name Johnny Casino. It had been Johnny Cassini. He has a story in the second book, The Johnny Casino Casebook 2 – Looking for Johnny Nobody, that explains how he went from Cassini to Casino. But it all started with Sam Spade and a deck of cards.

And then there was Chance McCoy in my latest detective series. The title of the collection of short stories, Second Chance, and his name hit me like two trains colliding. I had written the first few pages of the first story back in high school. I didn’t know what to do with those pages, so I decided to save them. Sixty years later I looked at that opening and thought that this guy had a second chance in life. Bam! Chance had to be his name. I don’t know where the McCoy came from. Maybe he told me his last name. Nevertheless, I use the word “chance” in every title of every short story in the collection. His first name couldn’t have been anything else.

Minor character’s names seem to come to me when I think about who they are and what their background might be in my story. Elmer and Delmer were two goofy brothers in a short story. The rhyming, old-fashioned names fit the type of people I wanted them to be.

Dale Carr’s moniker was a take-off on actor Glenn Ford’s name. (A glen is another word for a dale; a Ford is a car.) I had my character basically co-opt the life of actor Glenn Ford, but I didn’t feel right using his real name in the story. I did use some parts of his life like a location that was used in one of his movies.

I did sort of the same thing in my spy novels though I did use real historical characters like Eisenhower and Ian Fleming and a few others. They dropped in for a guest appearance. Everybody else was a character that I created like Rhoda Zimmerman and Martha Rose. These two ladies were minor characters in the third spy novel, Star Power. The book dealt with communism in Hollywood starting back in the 30s and 40s. Both ladies were big-time communists. Both names are also a version of the color red. I’m not the first person to use that color to denote a fellow traveler. Communists did it themselves for aliases.

Many people in old Hollywood were Jews. I had a few guys with Jewish names appear like Sidney Berman and Martin Zimmerman. When I wanted a name that sounded like a famous writer I chose William Durack. How about an agent named Peter Roth? The name sounds like a talent agent.

I did have to consider the era in which the majority of the book takes place. No Tiffany’s, Amber’s or Kanisha’s welcome. I used Lillian and Estelle instead. And a maid called Hilda Brown. Back in that era many gals who went into domestic work were right off the boat from Germany or England, so they got the gig.

In the second book in the spy series called Dry Bones, I have Oriental characters. The Internet has places you can check to see what various Oriental names mean. One of the main characters in the book is Trang van Quang – Trang means intelligent, beautiful/ Van means cloud/Quang means clear. I liked what that name meant. Quang’s adopted daughter was called Su Linh – Linh means spring, soul. That totally fit her.

Dad in Japan 1945A recurring character in all three of the spy novels is an Air Force pilot named Major Ralph M. Barton. It’s no coincidence that the guy flew C-47s and was stationed in Okinawa, Memphis, France, and Florida. And that he had a daughter named Elaine who ended up being a writer who, in the first book, wrote a very similar book in order to catch a traitor. That was part of the plot. You see, my late dad’s name was Major Ralph M. Bartos, USAF retired. My middle name is Elaine. I knew these characters really well and the names had to be that close to the original people so I could tell the story. (Not everything in my spy novels is fiction, by the way.)

So my point in this piece is to mention how important names are to you and to the reader. Play with the names you have chosen. If those characters don’t speak to you, think about changing them until they won’t shut up. (Thanks Mr. Leonard for your quote.) The right name will help you write your story.

Who Am I

The Importance of Setting

By Patricia Smiley*

michael-discenza-331452-unsplashYears ago I bought a novel written by a well-known author because it took place in Seattle, a city where I’d lived, went to school, and worked for many years. A few chapters in, I was dismayed that the descriptions of setting were so generic that the story could have taken place anywhere. It was almost as if that the author had never set foot in the city.

Setting matters. The place of your novel includes the broader vistas into which you set the story, such as the culture and customs of the people who live there, history, land, floral and fauna, and even the shape of the clouds. It’s also where each scene takes place, be it the backseat of a Mini Cooper, an English garden, a Federal prison cell, or a home kitchen.

We were given five senses for a reason. Detail specificity enriches your writing. Don’t just say the kitchen was messy; describe the smell of spaghetti sauce oozing down the wall, the feel of that sticky green substance puddled on the floor next to the baby highchair, and the tick tock of the antique grandfather clock in an otherwise silent room. Descriptions should not just be an inventory of the space. Each one must illuminate an element of plot, theme, or character and, in the case of this kitchen, raise a myriad of dramatic questions about what happened there and to whom.

Description as fine sauce. Descriptions need not be long and rambling, but a writer must persuade the reader that the story is real. Even people who’ve never been to a location should feel as though they’re experiencing it firsthand. This also applies to imaginary settings. To prevent long passages of boring prose, take Elmore Leonard’s advice, ”Don’t write the parts people skip.” Instead, distill the essence of a place into a fine sauce. Below is an example of reporter Jeffrey Fleishman’s brilliant and evocative description of Port Said, Egypt, from the Los Angeles Times:

“This shipping city of factory men, with its whispers of colonial-era architecture, was once a crossroads for intellectuals, spies and wanderers who conspired in cafes while the Suez Canal was dug and Egypt’s storied cotton was exported around the globe. Rising on a slender cusp in the Mediterranean Sea, the town exuded cosmopolitan allure amid the slap of fishing nets and the creak of trawlers.”

Don’t trust your memory—verify. Get the specifics right. Nothing takes a reader out of the story faster than getting hung up on inaccurate details. If you can’t visit the location, read travel blogs, talk to friends with knowledge of the area, consult Google Maps, online photos, and YouTube videos.

People like to “travel” when they read. Effective use of description creates atmosphere and mood, and stimulates emotions. Anyone who is familiar with the cold, bleak settings in Scandinavian crime novels or films knows how integral “place” is to every part of those stories. So, give your readers a compelling setting and then wish them a bon voyage.

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Patricia Smiley is the author of four novels featuring amateur sleuth Tucker Sinclair. Her new Pacific Homicide series profiles LAPD homicide detective Davie Richards and is based on her fifteen years as a volunteer and a Specialist Reserve Officer for the Los Angeles Police Department.

The third in that series, The Second Goodbye, is set for release on December 8, 2018.

Patty’s short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Two of the Deadliest, an anthology edited by Elizabeth George. She has taught writing at various conferences in the U.S. and Canada and also served as vice president for the Southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America and as president of Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles.

PatriciaSmiley.com

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Photo by Michael Discenza on Unsplash
*This blog article is posted for Patricia Smiley by The Writers In Residence member, Jackie Houchin