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What’s in a name?

Back at home after a lovely weekend writers’ conference in Shreveport, I’m brainstorming this week on ideas for my next Silhouette Special Edition. With the four book Doctors in Training series completed (click the Books Available Now! tab for details and publication dates), I’m not quite ready to leave the imaginary hospital setting I created for those characters. There are so many stories yet to be told there — so many jobs and lives affected by a large, teaching hospital. I never actually named the hospital in that series, but I’m calling it River City Medical Center (RCMC) for the next series of books, and I have several ideas for potential storylines.

As I sit in front of a blank screen to create a new book, the first challenge I face is choosing names for my two main characters. I can’t even start writing a synopsis or chapter without having those names chosen — nor can I just call them names selected at random. I can spend hours browsing lists of names, choosing just the right ones for the characters nagging at the back of my mind for me to tell their story. I have a general idea of the character type — a profession, perhaps, or a personality trait I want to explore — but until I know the name, I can’t really get to know the person. I’ve even started stories that just wouldn’t work until I changed the character’s name — and suddenly the words started flowing better! Odd, hmm?

I have several well-worn baby name books, and I’ve bookmarked a few favorite baby name sites on-line. I tend to cruise slowly through the names, making a tentative list of possibilities, until one name seems to stand out as the obvious choice. Sometimes it’s the meaning of the name that speaks to me — I love finding out the origin and meaning of names. Sometimes, I just like the way it sounds. For surnames, I turn to phone directories, genealogy sites, newspapers, wherever a list of names might appear. After 97 books, I try not to use the same names too many times, so I keep a master list of all my heroes and heroines, just to double-check whether I’ve used the names before (it’s not always easy to remember after 24 years of writing).

So, this new book, which has no title yet and is still at the earliest stage of plotting, will be about a surgeon, Meagan Baker, and a single-dad attorney, Seth Llewellyn. Why did I choose those names? I like to think the characters led me to the right ones. After all, they have to first become real to me if I hope to make them real for my readers.

I have to confess that I went through pretty much the same process choosing names for my real-life children. My husband and I browsed name books and discussed favorite family names until the right names were simply obvious to both of us. Courtney was a name I had fallen in love with from a book I’d read as a teenager (I didn’t particularly like the character, but I loved her name). Kerry was a slightly changed spelling of my husband’s late grandmother, Carrie. Their middle names were chosen for similar reasons. As for our son, his first name is the same as my husband’s, a 5-generation family name, but we call him by his middle name, David. Courtney begged to name him after the character “David Banner” from the TV program, The Incredible Hulk, which she enjoyed as a small child. And we all love the name, despite its slightly unusual source.

Would our kids be different people if we had chosen different names? It’s an interesting question.

My father’s name is Vernon and my mother was Elizabeth (Beth for short). My paternal grandmother insisted that I should be named Verna Beth, which she thought was a very clever use of both their names. My mother, thank goodness, hated that name and insisted on naming me Gina — hardly a common name in Arkansas at the time. I never even knew another Gina until I was in high school, and her name was actually Regina. I like my name. Would my life have been different had I answered to Verna Beth? I’m not sure, but it’s certainly thought-provoking.

And now, Meagan and Seth are growing impatient for me to bring them to life on my computer screen, so it’s back to work for me. I’ll tell you a little more about them as I develop their story. But at least they have names.

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Award-winning, best-selling author of women's romance fiction.

2 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. sorry but you simply are not a “Verna Beth” Thank goodness for your mother’s common sense.

    And yano, I have changed my characters’ names as the book progressed. “They” (the characters) didn’t like their names and insisted I change them. *shrug* what could I do? I changed them.

    In my current work, the ex-wife started out as Sophia Venetta, but is now Joanna St. Claire, which is SO her. 🙂 AND don’t call her “Jo” or “Ann” or “Anna” She is “Joanna” and don’t you forget it! LOL

  2. Very interesting. Makes one stop and think, doesn’t it? I personally do not believe a name makes a person but, if I had been called Michelle on a daily basis would I have been less of a “tom boy”?

    By the way, never heard the story about “Verna Beth”.

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