Wednesday, October 24, 2012


And when it's time to ring them down.

When I got a publication deal for the first book in a detective series - or rather when I got a publication deal for a detective novel and was asked whether it was a series (see below) - my agent told me loud and clear that I had to write at least six. 

(Below.  When an interested publisher asks you if you see it becoming a series, it's the crimewriter equivalent of a Hollywood casting director asking if you can ride horses.  You say yes without missing a beat and work out how later.)

Why six?  Because, my agent told me, that's how many episodes there are in a serving of BBC Sunday night telly.  (Do US agents tell new American writers to shoot for twenty two?)

It was a bit of a joke to my friends and family, but then fan me flat if, just after No. 6 came out, the BBC didn't go and option it.  I'd mess that neat bit of plotting up with a problem or two if I was in charge.  I'm glad I'm not.

So the first half of my answer to the question of when to retire a series character is not until you've written six (if it's British and/or has any kind of bonnets or shawls about it anyway.)

How about the other end?  How long can you rumble on? 

I wouldn't want to end up like Agatha Christie.  In Dead Man's Folly (1956), thirty six years after she introduced her Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, she introduced the character of Ariadne Oliver, a writer of detective stories, who is pig sick of her Finnish detective, Sven Hjerson and wishes he was dead or at least not Finnish anyway.

I started Dandy Gilver off in 1922 and I'm just editing the 1930 story now.  I've got a great idea for 1936, which looked a hilarious distance off when I started and now seems like it might be just round the corner.  I've got a cracker for 1972 too.  Dandy would be eighty six.  Just a spring chicken compared to Poirot.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Dandelion by one particular other name . . .

. . . is "pee-the-bed".  Something that didn't occur to me until after I'd called my new series detective Dandelion (aka Dandy) Gilver, because her parents were devotees of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, the type who'd think a wildflower was a wonderful thing.

Gilver, Dandy's name since she married Hugh Murdoch Cathellen Gilver, is believably Scottish (I know McGilvers and Gilverys) but not actionable, since I made it up out of GIL (Scots for servant) and VER (Latin for truth).  So she's a dandy servant of truth i.e. good detective.

Be assured I don't go into that much depth and cunning for everyone.  Ordinarily, I love naming characters precisely because flashy results for little effort are the best bit of writing.

So for the first names - what Dandy in Scotland in the 1920s would call Christian names - I use Naming Baby by Eugene Stone, a fine little volume inherited from my grandmother after she used it (presumably) to come up with James,Walter, Peter, Annie and Minnie.

For what I call second names, US speakers call last names and Dandy would call surnames, I used to flip through the weekly Galloway News.  There was much fun to be had with McSporrans and McHaggises, McGurks and McGoggs and McGilihooleys.  I couldn't use them all, obviously; that many micks and macks would send readers cross-eyed, so the second names in the books are never an accurate reflection of what a batch of Scottish names would actually be.  (Think California towns starting with San or Santa and you'll get the idea). 

A related - if irrelevant - problem is that if I buy an address book outside Scotland it never has enough space under the Ms and I have to steal some of the N pages to cram in clan McPherson, clan-in-law McRoberts and all my McKenzie, McKie, McLean, MacDougall, MacKay and McKinnon pals.  It must be the same in Ireland with Os.

These days I do it online.  There are no fewer daft Scottish names but there is always the danger of finding yourself, two hours later, deep in the bowels of Youtube, watching a cat stuck in an urn.

The most fun I ever had naming characters was in a circus setting for The Winter Ground: Topsy Turvey the acrobat, Tiny Truman the dwarf clown and the flying Prebrezhenskys, a Risley act. 
Tiny Truman was named after what was called, at the head of a paragraph on the Finger Lakes in the Rough Guide to New York State, Tiny Trumansburg.  I know the town was named after the president and the guide was commenting on its size, but I loved the idea of a big town named after someone called Tiny.

The most frustrating bit of naming characters is that, in being realistic, you have to ignore endless real-life examples just too outlandish to appear in fiction: I used to have a colleague called Zip Dominion; a mature student whose parents, in the 1950s, saw no reason not to call her Gay Cocks (but get these feminist credentials - she didn't change it when she married!); the local indie bookshop in Davis is run by the magnificently monikered Alzeda Knickerbocker; or what about Madison Bumgarner of the Giants?  (I'll tell you what about him - Go, As!)  And I'll never forget the day I learned of Diana Ross's decision to grace her beautiful little girl with the fragrant . . . Chudney.  Oy.

Let's finish off back in fiction; Chudney couldn't happen there.

My favourite fictional name of recent times is the hero of Daniel Friedman's stellar debut Don't Ever Get Old.  He's a curmudgeonly octogenerian Memphis Jewish ex-detective and his name is Buck Shatz, which makes me laugh every time I see it.  I'm just sophisticated that way.