Friday, February 19, 2010

The Name Game

I posted a few entries back about the swirling craziness of one's writing process when one is bringing so many different research sources to bear on the act of fictionalization. I have to move regularly and fluidly between computer screen, fold out map, dictionary, book of biography, big fat coffee table art book, volumes of Van Gogh's letters, Van Gogh CD-ROM, etc. Well, of course, the handiest, and most frequently used research source of all is the internet. Some days I feel like I am doing nothing but trolling the web as I write. But such expeditions can be fun, which I discovered as I came to name the several dozen characters in my book. Because I'm writing about Van Gogh, my novel is set in four countries: Holland, England, Belgium, and France. Characters from every one of those nations appear in the book, most of which are characters invented by me, not figures out of history.

I've relied heavily on "Most Popular Names" web sites (e.g., "Popular Boys Name in Holland," "Flemish Last Names," etc.) And I've had a ball with them. Maybe it has something to do with that godliness of the power to name things, the favor the Almighty bestowed on Adam after all, or maybe it's because I'm a writer who cannot stick with a character for more than a few sentences without needing to naming him or her. A big blank space in your notebook, or a ________, or a ***, accompanied by a scrawled "Remember to stick name here," just doesn't cut it. That is an unworkable situation. I need to know what to call somebody. And it goes without saying that names matter, even if you don't name in the overly prescribed, too obvious style of Dickens. As I look (and look and look and look) at these sites I have to be careful to choose names that feel right for the age. After all, most of the sites do not distinguish between past and present--they simply give names. So I have to work from intuition and from my background reading to make sure the choices fit. At one point last fall I had to simply stop writing and start a log on my computer as to what names I'd already selected. Over the course of four years--or even four months--you can easily forget you already named somebody Gaston or Jaap or Hendrick. I certainly did! So I had to make sure to keep these things straight. Because while in the real world plenty of people in a given community might share the same first or last name, it becomes confusing for a reader if in the community of your novel there are two Pieters or two Emiles or two Bills. There's enough going on in my book already, I don't need to confuse matters with my naming. On a last note, I should point out that Belgium is an especially fascinating case, with the southern part of the country being occupied mostly by Walloons--French speakers--and the northern being predominantly Flemish--Dutch speakers--and the capital Brussels being at the center of a bilingual territory. (There is also a population of German speakers.) I have to know exactly which of these groups are likely to be around for a given scene and go from there. Did I say "fascinating"? I mean it's a kick.


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