The choosing of names is a tricky thing. How much does a person’s name affect the bearer? How important is the name of the people we write into stories?
I was reminded of this again the other day when I read Richard Ford, author of ‘Canada’ recently published, commenting on finding himself ‘seated on a park bench on a glorious spring afternoon going fruitlessly through the alphabet, hoping to pluck up a letter – like a leaf under which there might be the right name.’ So many times I have started a story with a character progressing happily forward only to find that his or her name has to change and as a result find that the whole character changes too. A little boy who started off as Jos has now become Josh and suddenly he’s also rather good at noticing small details.
In the book I am working on at present although I was fairly confident about everybody’s individual name, I simply couldn’t find the right family name. It is rarely likely to be mentioned, but I needed it; I needed to know who they were en masse. I’d tried short names and long ones, ones with foreign roots and ones with strong English roots – they live in the south downs in the 17th century. I was getting nowhere.
Research was coming along well. I had no problems with the principles of the story, where I am aiming, the back story etc. All that was falling into place, but still I couldn’t find the right surname. I had churned through all the family names of people I knew, friends, children I had taught. Still nothing worked.
Sitting on the train, rattling back down to Dorset after a day in Surrey, I had reached the stage where most of the commuters had off loaded. Basingstoke had taken its fair share, and more had gone at Andover. The train splits at Salisbury and we were down to the last remnants, waiting to be shaken into the west country night. The woman sitting opposite me had heaped her shopping bags onto the seat beside her. Hoover was curled up beside me and I had my laptop out – I find trains are good places to work. I was still tearing at my brain, trying to find this missing name.
I looked out of the window – blank darkness rushed by. I stroked Hoover – the Curly family? The Darke family? Mr and Mrs Hound? I looked over at my fellow passenger as she read her book. She had a lovely face; one that showed plenty of experience, yet remained beautiful. There was something in her that spoke of kindness, compassion and yet she would never be pushed around. In a few years time she would be just like the grandmother, a key character in my story.
“Excuse me,” I began. She looked up. “Would you mind me asking your name?” A slight frown creased her forehead as she put her book on the table between us. Hoover popped her head up to see if there were any biscuits on offer.
“Why?” she asked, very reasonably. “I don’t think I know you.”
“No! Not at all!” I exclaimed, before explaining my dilemma. She laughed.
“Milborne,” she said. Perfect.
I never did find out her first name, but that wasn’t a problem, I already knew it – Patience.