We all have to give names to our characters. I’ve just read Nicole Simms’ latest blog (http://www.nicole-j-simms.co.uk/6-ways-i-find-names-for-my-characters/) which shows how systematically she sets about this task. It’s good of her to share these trade secrets!
Particularly helpful is the suggestion of going to baby name websites for names that were popular in the decade your story is set. And I like too the idea of noting the names of the cashier on receipts you get at the checkout. Thanks, Nicole.
I think the nearest I’ve got to being that systematic is poring over an atlas of Britain looking for suitable place names to use for my characters. Place names and occupation names are good sources: look at the traditional practice of TV soaps of using the latter for working-class characters – think of Butcher or Slater in ‘Eastenders’, or (I’m showing my age here) Elsie Tanner in ‘Coronation Street’.
The British class system can make this a minefield. You’d think that centuries of social movement would have muddled it all up more than it has, but you wouldn’t call your dustman character Piers Devereux or your son of an earl Gary Thackenthwaite.
One option is to go the Dickens route, and make up absurd names that actually are just right: Mr Bumble, Wackford Squeers, Ebenezer Scrooge!
And then there’s the whole world of names of overseas origin to choose from. Patel and Singh have been common English names for at least two generations. Poniatowski, Novotny, Fontanelli, van Dijk, Schmidt, Papadopoulos, Gomez, Le Blanc – take your pick when thinking about arrivals from the EU.
In my last story I came up with Freckleton Jessop as the name of a firm of solicitors: Freckleton from the Lancashire home village of a college friend and Jessop from the high street store (other camera shops are available).
I enjoy the search for a good name. It can take time, but it’s worth it if you get it right.
How do you set about it?
Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Colin Dexter, Dashiell Hammett, Detectives, Dorothy L Sayers, Ellery Queen, G K Chesterton, Georges Simenon, Golden Age, Ian Rankin, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, PD James, Raymond Chandler, Ruth Rendell
A chance conversation in Waterstone’s the other day* showed me that my knowledge of Golden Age detectives wasn’t as good as I thought it was. Either that, or time’s wingèd chariot is taking its toll of my little grey cells …
So here’s a quiz so you can reassure yourself that your memory is fine. Just match the detectives with the authors, some from the Golden Age and a few beyond.
Roderick Alleyn Margery Allingham
Tom Barnaby Raymond Chandler
Father Brown G K Chesterton
Albert Campion Agatha Christie
Adam Dalgliesh Colin Dexter
Alan Grant Caroline Graham
Jules Maigret Dashiell Hammett
Philip Marlowe P D James
Miss Marple Ngaio Marsh
Inspector Morse Ellery Queen
Hercule Poirot Ian Rankin
Ellery Queen Ruth Rendell
John Rebus Dorothy L Sayers
Sam Spade Georges Simenon
Tommy & Tuppence Josephine Tey
Chief Inspector Wexford
Lord Peter Wimsey
I’ll post the answers in a day or two.
*I couldn’t remember the name of Margery Allingham’s detective. The kind man at the till very politely reminded me. He’s in the list above (the detective, not the kind man in Waterstone’s).
What would you call your own detective?
A writing competition with a Central European twist! Exercise your imagination in a Slavic dimension in the British Czech and Slovak Association’s 2018 International Writing Competition, now open. If you win, £400 could be yours, presented at the Association’s annual dinner (so you and a companion would get a free meal as well), and your entry would be published in the British Czech & Slovak Review.
Anniversary – this year is the centenary of the creation of Czechoslovakia in 1918, but there are many other anniversaries to choose from in the history of the Slovak and Czech peoples: 1618 (the Defenestration of Prague and the outbreak of the Thirty Years War), 1848 (the Year of Revolutions), 1938 (Munich), 1948 (the Communist takeover) and 1968 (the Prague Spring and the Warsaw Pact invasion). (1989 was a year out!) You may know of others. So ‘Anniversary’ is the suggested theme in the 2018 BCSA writing competition.
Fiction or fact – either is welcome. The first prize of £400 and the second prize of £150 will be awarded to the best 1,500 to 2,000-word pieces of original writing in English which must be on (1) the links between Britain and the lands now comprising the Slovak and Czech Republics, or (2) describing society in transition in the Republics since 1989. Topics can include, for example, history, politics, the sciences, economics, the arts or literature. ‘Anniversary’ is this year’s suggested theme, but is not compulsory.
Submissions are invited from individuals of any age, nationality or educational background. Entrants do not need to be members of the BCSA. Entry is free. Entries must be received by 30 June 2018. An author may submit any number of entries. The competition will be judged by a panel of experts.
Entries should be submitted by post to the BCSA Prize Administrator, 24 Ferndale, Tunbridge Wells, Kent, TN2 3NS, England, or by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For full Submission Guidelines and the Rules of the competition apply to the Prize Administrator at the addresses given above. Details are also shown at http://www.bcsa.co.uk/2018-bcsa-international-writing-competition/ .
Administrator’s tip: If I could pass on one lesson from recent years, it is to read the instructions: in 2016 and 2017 several entries were disallowed (no matter how well written) because they did not deal with the prescribed subjects. Enjoy the writing!
Another case of fame in a writer’s lifetime, but absence from the bookshop shelves today, is Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970). I loved his books when a schoolboy. I had quite a collection, now shrunk to the three pictured (following the domestic mishap mentioned in my post about John Creasey at https://ninevoices.wordpress.com/2018/02/19/no-longer-on-the-bookshop-shelves/).
In the 1960s he was in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s most prolific author, as I recall. Wikipedia lists over 150 of his novels, plus short stories. American editions of his books alone sold 170 million copies, and he was America’s best-selling novelist for a chunk of the 20th century. He wrote by dictating, and sometimes had more than one book on the go at a time. Given the successful and repeated formulas of his books this might have caused confusion, but if it did I never noticed. According to his obituary in the New York Times he liked being called “the fiction factory” and even “the Henry Ford of detective novelists.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erle_Stanley_Gardner_bibliography)
I can’t find him in first-run bookshops now – though I can still come across Perry Mason films late at night in the upper reaches of my cable channels.
The ever-present characters: Perry Mason, the intrepid and skilful defence lawyer, who always unmasks the real villain in a courtroom climax, to the relief of his unjustly accused client; Della Street, his loyal and efficient secretary; Paul Drake, the private detective who has an apparently inexhaustible number of employees able to drop everything to help Perry, with hardly ever a mention of a bill being presented; and Hamilton Burger, the hapless District Attorney who loses to Perry Mason almost every time. I came to feel sorry for Hamilton Burger. My own image of Perry Mason wasn’t the Raymond Burr of the TV series: my Mason was more, er, youthful, and slimmer. However, I read now that Raymond Burr actually auditioned for the part of Hamilton Burger, but when ESG saw him he said he was just how he imagined Mason.
ESG wrote other characters as well as Perry Mason, including his ‘DA’ series, possibly as a change from the victorious defender Mason, or to show that he could sympathise with the prosecution too?
His titles are great come-ons: to take some at random from the list, The Case of the Daring Divorcee, The Case of the Phantom Fortune, The Case of the Horrified Heirs, The Case of the Troubled Trustee.
And we all love a courtroom drama, don’t we?
ESG never claimed to be a great literary novelist. But he brought pleasure to millions. Thanks, Erle.
What would a writer prefer? Great success in his or her lifetime, but then dropping out of sight? Or obscurity while she or he lives, but immortal fame afterwards? Chance would be a fine thing, many of us would answer, and we’d be delighted with ‘Local Writer Writes Interesting Story’ on page 4 of the entertainment section of our local newspaper, but we can always dream …
I muse on this because of the mention of John Creasey in my last post (on very valuable commas). How fame can pass. When I was at school he was one of Britain’s most prolific and successful crime writers, under his own name and his several pseudonyms such as JJ Marric and Antony Morton. He sold over 80 million books. His dates? 1908-1973.
On my shelf I have tales of his heroes Inspector West, Commander Gideon and the Toff. These are pictured. I used to have many more, but when I was a teenager my collection fell victim to a domestic misunderstanding and in my absence was given away for sale at the local village fete. (The Gideon book pictured is actually not one he wrote himself, but was written after his death ‘in his footsteps’ by William Vivian Butler. There’s a better picture of covers of John Creasey’s novels at http://www.johncreasey.co.uk/.)
I loved his work. His name is retained in the John Creasey New Blood Dagger Award, but apart from that he is largely overlooked. Perhaps his books are too rooted in their time: Inspector West and Commander Gideon are incorruptible, and don’t have damaged back stories. It wouldn’t be overly unlikely in his 1950s novels for a criminal to mutter “It’s a fair cop, guv”. Tethered Camel Publishing recently reprinted some of John Creasey’s titles, but if you look on the shelves in Waterstones you won’t find him.
So fame can be fleeting. Maybe, if I were selling 80 million copies, I’d say “Let it fleet.”
What would be your choice? Lifetime success or posthumous fame?
At school, like many others I was told that when writing a list you did not put a comma after the penultimate item and before the ‘and’ or ‘or’ preceding the final item. So a grammatical shopping list (are there people who write grammatical shopping lists?) could read ‘apples, pears, blackberries and caviare’, or my favourite crime authors as a schoolboy might be ‘Erle Stanley Gardner, John Creasey, Agatha Christie and Edgar Wallace’. My dear wife, who learned English as a foreign language, was taught likewise.
It wasn’t till much later that I learned about the Oxford Comma. The comma that would come after ‘blackberries’ and ‘Agatha Christie’ in the previous paragraph. The last comma in ‘He went into Rymans to get notebooks, ink cartridges, paperclips, and inspiration.’
Its proponents say that it can avoid ambiguity: eg the sentence “I love my sisters, Claudia Cardinale and Jane Austen” could mean that Claudia and Jane are my sisters. Interesting as that would be, I doubt that many people would come to that conclusion: Claudia’s not the kind of name my parents would have chosen.
People can get exercised about this. But, you might think, it does not have any real consequences, other than whether you think your sentence does or doesn’t flow more smoothly without the comma.
You would be wrong. The Oxford comma (or rather the lack of it) is worth $5 million to the drivers who recently brought a court case against their employers, a dairy in Maine in the USA. The details of the case can be found in the New York Times article at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/09/us/oxford-comma-maine.html. In short, the case hinged on the meaning in a state law governing overtime of the following list of exceptions:
‘The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: 1. Agricultural produce …’
Was ‘packing for shipment’ separate from ‘distribution’, or was ‘distribution’ only involved insofar as ‘packing’ was concerned? The old ambiguity argument. The drivers won. The statute has now been reworded, and semi-colons replace commas in the list: and there’s what you might call an Oxford semi-colon after ‘shipment’, in case you were asking.
The NYT’s attitude to the Oxford comma debate may perhaps be inferred from its description of people interested in it as “punctuation pedants, grammar goons and comma connoisseurs.”
Who’d have thought that a few drops of ink could be worth so much?
Ninevoices have warned in the past of the dangers of being in Oxford if you’re a fictional character, and we’ve also extolled the works of other writers’ groups. The two come together in The Bodleian Murders and other Oxford stories, produced by the OxPens group in 2016.
This is the third of five collections of short stories OxPens have produced. It was a gift from my daughter and I’ve much enjoyed its variety. Some of the stories are University-based – such as of course the title story – but others are set elsewhere in the city or in the Oxfordshire countryside. Rural Bliss (set in a village near Chipping Norton) is a warning to husbands of the risks of not taking seriously enough your wife’s delight in rearing sheep. Oggi (set largely near Henley-on-Thames) is about bodgers, craftsmen who make chairs to order from wood they have, er, liberated from woods nearby.
History is well served. Burning Words takes us back to 1555, when the mere ownership of a book inscribed by a burned heretic could bring great danger. In The Stunner from Holywell we see the creation in 1857 of a beautiful painting by Rossetti and what happens to it a century later. Colin Dexter appears in Just Keep Going, with encouraging word for uncertain writers.
A Visit from Social Services describes just that, and shows us the perils social workers face making house calls on the elderly. In Time for the Wake mysteriously links Oxford with a funeral in Nigeria. The Festival of International Art and Scholarly Culture, Oxford farcically takes us back to the excitement of Olympic year in 2012, when the local Arts Committee decide to join in the festivities in ways that may mean that the dreaming spires won’t get back to sleep for a long, long time. The death count in The Bodleian Murders rivals that in an episode in Midsomer Murders, and that in only ten pages.
There are 15 stories in all. Lack of mention of the other 6 here shouldn’t be taken as any form of criticism at all! Thanks, OxPens. (http://www.oxpens.co.uk/)
ISBN 978-1-904623-24-3 RRP £7-99 Available from Blackwells post free http://bookshop.blackwell.co.uk/bookshop/home Profits from the book are shared with Oxford Homeless Pathways (formerly Oxford Night Shelter).
https://ninevoices.wordpress.com/2015/12/26/stay-away-from-oxford/ speaks for itself.
Other writers’ groups that have featured on this site:
https://ninevoices.wordpress.com/2016/01/26/delayed-reaction/ (the Just Write group in Amersham)