Friday, August 21, 2015

In My Defense, The Baby Name Wizard Only Includes First Names

By Art Taylor

This week's question—"Where do you get character names, and how important are they?"—has already prompted both Meredith and Alan to mention using the social security website as a resource (a good one), but I have to admit that I'm surprised to have gotten to the end of the week without someone focusing intently on baby name books, which is my own first resource of choice for this purpose.

There's actually one specific book that I'd recommend in this regard—The Baby Name Wizard—and my wife Tara and I picked it up long before we were even thinking of a child of our own (though it surely was useful for that purpose too, of course). Many baby name books are just lists of names (one touts "100,000+" names—overwhelming) and others go into what the name means, its country of origin, etc. What I like best about The Baby Name Wizard is how it charts the popularity of names over time and cross-references names based on type and likeness. For example, the listing for "Louise"—the narrator of my upcoming book On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories—notes that the name is rare for children these days. A line chart traces the popularity over the course of the 1900s to the present, showing a big hump at the start of the previous century (Louise peaked as a name in the 1910s, when it was 18th in popularity for girls) and then a rapid decline toward mid-century, flat-lining after a point. There's a write-up about the name, of course: "During the long and dignified life of Louise, the name lost its continental elegance and settled into a cozy matronliness. It still has an old-fashioned charm but would be a retro choice today. See Louisa and Eloise for likelier versions of the name." Beyond that other variants are listed (Luise, Louisa) as well as nicknames: Lou, Lulu. Even better: Want to know what Louise's brothers and sisters might be named? Cross-referencing popularity by time and by "style families" ("American naming traditions," the book explains, "identified through analysis of name usage, structure and origin"), the book suggests that Louise's brothers might have names like Claude, Herman, Ernest, Arthur or Walter, and her sisters might well be Marion, Lucille, Beatrice, Harriet, and Estelle. (Those style families are listed too here: "French" and "Ladies and Gentlemen"—sending you back to an appendix that offers bundles of names in each category, terrific for browsing.)

My Louise is far from old-fashioned—but I liked the incongruity of that with who she is and the time she's in, and I also liked matching the "Ladies and Gentlemen" feel with someone who's from a more modest background but is also aspirational toward a life of luxury (hence some of her and Del's crimes). Plus, the name felt right when I wrote about her. The name fit, and she grew into it even more the more as the stories unfolded.

That said, two stumbles here:
  • First (stupidly), I'm apparently the only one who didn't put "road trip" and "Louise" together and immediately come up with the movie Thelma and Louise—though now that the book's coming out, NO ONE who hears about it doesn't immediately make the comparison. I apologize now to anyone who's disappointed that my book and that movie ultimately have little in common.
  • Second (also stupidly), I evidently don't think much of last names. Del has one (it's Grayson) only because I had to have a name pop up on the Caller ID when he phones Louise the first time—a brave move since he'd recently robbed the 7-Eleven where she worked and she could've simply turned his name over to the police. However, when it comes to Louise's last name...well, I'll admit it: I have no idea what it is because for most of the book she never needed one. I only realized that I needed one when the time came (spoiler alert!) for them to get married. "Wait," I thought. "What is her last name? Surely she must have one and yet...." And yet, even then I just decided to bypass the question completely by not having them say their vows in scene. 

Louise she is, Louise she will always be—no last name needed.


In another direction, I want to thank my compadre Paul D. Marks here for hosting all of us Macavity finalists for Best Short Story last week—a terrific experience. Folks who enjoyed that post should stay tuned for my next column here on Friday, September 4, when I'll be hosting this year's Anthony finalists for Best Short Story in a discussion of how they edit their work.

And a final bit of personal news: I was so pleased to learn earlier this week that another of my stories, "Precision" from last summer's issue of Gargoyle, has been named among "Other Distinguished Mysteries" of the year in the forthcoming Best American Mystery Stories 2015 anthology, edited by James Patterson and Otto Penzler. Such an honor to be among that honorable mention group, which includes so many other fine writers and fine friends.


Kristopher said...

The Baby Name Wizard sounds like a book I could spend hours browsing. Thanks a lot, Art! Like I have time for that. ;)

Congrats on Precision!

As for Louise and her last name, I never even noticed, but this is going to bug me now. Again, thanks ;P

Art Taylor said...

Yeah, I probably shouldn't have called attention to it, should I?

But yeah, the baby name wizard is fascinating--and I think they have an online site too which is similar. Haven't looked at it, but....


Paul D. Marks said...

Hey, Art, if Emma can make a comeback and be popular today, mark my words, Louise isn't far behind. And I wasn't familiar with the Baby Name Wizard book either, but it sounds like a good one.

Congratulations on your story making the list and thanks for the shoutout.


Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Paul. I actually am fascinated by how naming trends shift and rise and fall. In the same book, Dashiell is listed as rare (no graph at all!) and yet after we named out son that, I found out that TWO of the guys from my first-year dorm at college had also named their sons Dashiell. So... on the upswing? at least in this very small focus group?

I'm bad with last names, but I love charting out first ones, relatives, friends, relationships. Fun!

Laura Ellen Scott said...

As you know, Taylor and Laskowski are the last names of two police officers turned cat burglars in my next book. There's inspiration everywhere!

Art Taylor said...

Oh, yes! I actually love when people incorporate friends into books. I appeared in Margaret Maron's book Sand Sharks--as a student from George Mason who picked up a summer job waiting tables down in Wrightsville Beach, NC. Fun!

Susan C Shea said...

I could use the Baby Name Wizard book, not even for specific suggestions but as a way to think more about names so I don't fall back on the Dick and Jane variety so often. Thanks for the tip and the post, Art.

RJ Harlick said...

A great tip, Art. I've never thought to consult a baby name book. Now I will when I run out of relatives...:)

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Susan and RJ! Hope that my suggestions turns out to be a good one for you down the line. :-)

Melissa Sugar said...

Just what I need - another addictive distraction to keep me from writing- LOL. I could spend hours with this book.
What do you do when you are midway through revisions and you no longer like the name you'd chosen for your protagonist? It worked well in the beginning and matches her personality, age, birth place and heritage. I can't tell if I really hate the name or I have just grown tired of it. The problem is - this stand alone legal thriller could become a series and I don't want to be stuck with a name I've grown to despise.
Thanks for sharing the Baby Name Wizard. I love baby name books, probably because we never looked at any when naming our five kids. All of their names are family names and preselected either by my husband and me or our families.

Art Taylor said...

I know, Melissa! This book, sadly, can fall under that whole category of getting lost in the research and avoiding the writing... Though I'll admit, I had fun using it to name the characters in the manuscript I'm working on now, and the names are such a good fit with their personalities that I couldn't be happier. (Now, though, gotta finish the writing.)

And yes, I can imagine the pressure you're talking about--especially with a series. If you don't get it right the first time... well, no second chances on that. What do others say about it? Beta readers? I tested out the names in the manuscript I'm working on--giving options to my wife and to another friend with a few key descriptors, and they were universally all in favor. So if you're the sole hesitation while others love, maybe you are just tired of it? Hard to gauge, I'd imagine. I always lose perspective, so always feel like some objective input is key.

Wish you luck with the names--and with the book itself!