Monday, July 27, 2009

One consideration when naming fictional characters is their ethnicity and what you want to communicate about their relationship to it. Every human has some kind of ethnic background, even John and Jane Doe, who would certainly couldn't just melt into the background were they walking the streets of Tashkent or Yaoundé. There's no such thing as an unethnic name, unless you call your characters X or H or V like values in an algebraic formula. And sure, that lends a certain mystery that could work for you, depending on the genre. But if you write contemporary, realistic fiction, you'll have to tangle with the ethnicity question.

In American contexts, the names of your characters can communicate a sense of place as much as describing a setting in detail. A mill town peopled with characters named Tony diFrancesco and Lucia Vincenzo will be a palpably different place than one peopled with characters named Gordon MacElroy and Bonnie Fergus. Urban settings reflect their diversity most convincingly when peopled with folks from a variety of backgrounds. Of course, your character may very well live in an urban setting that's ethnically insular. The character names should reflect that reality. Likewise, you say a lot about a character when his closest allies have names reflecting an ethnic diversity that isn't the norm for the broader community.

In contexts where a character goes to a different environment, names of the people she meets there will help ground the setting. Much of Bring to Light occurs in England, so it was important that the British characters be distinguishable from the Americans. I tried to steer toward names more fashionable across the pond, including Graham, Oliver, Reggie, Gemma, Elliott, Hugh, Cecily, Eliza, Jane and Philip (never simply Phil). Some of the surnames I use include Deane, Pemberton, Mawbry, Clewes and Neville.

My protagonist Danielle Renee, however, has a name that reflects French ancestry on her mother's side of the family. Here, the ethnic name says something about the name-giver as much as the name bearer. It speaks of Dani's mother Grace's desire to connect with her French relatives, especially her own mother.

Characters that attempt to suppress their ethnicity communicate an ambivalent relationship with their heritage, or even an outright rejection of it. Dani's French Nana, who had been born Madgalene Marie Miroux, becomes the Anglo-sounding Maggie Tilman in her adult life. The reasons for that transformation are something I'll be exploring in my work-in-progress sequel.
Monday, July 27, 2009 Laurel Garver
One consideration when naming fictional characters is their ethnicity and what you want to communicate about their relationship to it. Every human has some kind of ethnic background, even John and Jane Doe, who would certainly couldn't just melt into the background were they walking the streets of Tashkent or Yaoundé. There's no such thing as an unethnic name, unless you call your characters X or H or V like values in an algebraic formula. And sure, that lends a certain mystery that could work for you, depending on the genre. But if you write contemporary, realistic fiction, you'll have to tangle with the ethnicity question.

In American contexts, the names of your characters can communicate a sense of place as much as describing a setting in detail. A mill town peopled with characters named Tony diFrancesco and Lucia Vincenzo will be a palpably different place than one peopled with characters named Gordon MacElroy and Bonnie Fergus. Urban settings reflect their diversity most convincingly when peopled with folks from a variety of backgrounds. Of course, your character may very well live in an urban setting that's ethnically insular. The character names should reflect that reality. Likewise, you say a lot about a character when his closest allies have names reflecting an ethnic diversity that isn't the norm for the broader community.

In contexts where a character goes to a different environment, names of the people she meets there will help ground the setting. Much of Bring to Light occurs in England, so it was important that the British characters be distinguishable from the Americans. I tried to steer toward names more fashionable across the pond, including Graham, Oliver, Reggie, Gemma, Elliott, Hugh, Cecily, Eliza, Jane and Philip (never simply Phil). Some of the surnames I use include Deane, Pemberton, Mawbry, Clewes and Neville.

My protagonist Danielle Renee, however, has a name that reflects French ancestry on her mother's side of the family. Here, the ethnic name says something about the name-giver as much as the name bearer. It speaks of Dani's mother Grace's desire to connect with her French relatives, especially her own mother.

Characters that attempt to suppress their ethnicity communicate an ambivalent relationship with their heritage, or even an outright rejection of it. Dani's French Nana, who had been born Madgalene Marie Miroux, becomes the Anglo-sounding Maggie Tilman in her adult life. The reasons for that transformation are something I'll be exploring in my work-in-progress sequel.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


Finding the right balance of touching and witty is tough when dealing with a subject like death of a parent. Rabb leans toward the touching end of the spectrum, giving a poignantly told tale with a little humor sprinkled in. This sweet coming-of-age story gives a realistic picture of the often messy business of grieving. I tend to prefer sassier narrators, and Mia felt like a very young 15 (especially since she's a city kid), but I think Mia's youthful vulnerability is a large part of her appeal and makes you invest emotionally in her.


BTW, Rabb has one of the best blogs out there on YA literature. Go check it out!
Thursday, July 23, 2009 Laurel Garver

Finding the right balance of touching and witty is tough when dealing with a subject like death of a parent. Rabb leans toward the touching end of the spectrum, giving a poignantly told tale with a little humor sprinkled in. This sweet coming-of-age story gives a realistic picture of the often messy business of grieving. I tend to prefer sassier narrators, and Mia felt like a very young 15 (especially since she's a city kid), but I think Mia's youthful vulnerability is a large part of her appeal and makes you invest emotionally in her.


BTW, Rabb has one of the best blogs out there on YA literature. Go check it out!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Talkin bout my generation...

One of the first steps I take when picking character names is determining their ages and birth years. There's a bit of number crunching involved. When researching Bring to Light, I knew I wanted my protagonist to be 15. That put her birth year at the time of writing to be in the early 1990s. From there I also calculated the ages of her parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.

Next, I hit my go-to resource for looking at name trends: the Social Security Administration's name database. They track each year's 500 most popular names, and their data goes back all the way back to 1880. This provides me with a pretty good starter list. Any name I choose off the top of the list will communicate trendiness or "typical specimen of this generation." Names in the middle of the top 100 both fit in and stand out. They seem like individuals, but not of the extreme oddball variety.

Most of my teen characters have midlist names for 1992: Danielle #17, Heather #23, Amy #43, Mark #47, Jesse #51. Annelise's name sticks out as foreign, something I wanted to communicate without having to give major backstory. (I'll talk more about ethnicity in my next post, "The name game, part 3".) Theo's name, which is way down the list at #251, sticks out a bit too. You expect him to be a little different from the average Tyler, Brandon or Zach of the same age.

Occasionally, I pick a name that's totally out of synch generationally. My protagonist's mother is named Grace, which seems odd for someone born in the mid-1960s. Deborah (#12 in 1964) would have been a more logical choice to go with her sibling David--it's alliterative and also Hebrew. The old-timey name makes Grace seem out of place, a contrary force. It draws attention to itself, especially when Grace's grace seems mostly to reside in her outer, physical beauty and not her inner self. As a reader, you wonder what her parents were thinking, which is good. I intend her name to communicate something about the name-giver as much as about Grace herself (more about that in "The name game, part 5").
Monday, July 20, 2009 Laurel Garver
Talkin bout my generation...

One of the first steps I take when picking character names is determining their ages and birth years. There's a bit of number crunching involved. When researching Bring to Light, I knew I wanted my protagonist to be 15. That put her birth year at the time of writing to be in the early 1990s. From there I also calculated the ages of her parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.

Next, I hit my go-to resource for looking at name trends: the Social Security Administration's name database. They track each year's 500 most popular names, and their data goes back all the way back to 1880. This provides me with a pretty good starter list. Any name I choose off the top of the list will communicate trendiness or "typical specimen of this generation." Names in the middle of the top 100 both fit in and stand out. They seem like individuals, but not of the extreme oddball variety.

Most of my teen characters have midlist names for 1992: Danielle #17, Heather #23, Amy #43, Mark #47, Jesse #51. Annelise's name sticks out as foreign, something I wanted to communicate without having to give major backstory. (I'll talk more about ethnicity in my next post, "The name game, part 3".) Theo's name, which is way down the list at #251, sticks out a bit too. You expect him to be a little different from the average Tyler, Brandon or Zach of the same age.

Occasionally, I pick a name that's totally out of synch generationally. My protagonist's mother is named Grace, which seems odd for someone born in the mid-1960s. Deborah (#12 in 1964) would have been a more logical choice to go with her sibling David--it's alliterative and also Hebrew. The old-timey name makes Grace seem out of place, a contrary force. It draws attention to itself, especially when Grace's grace seems mostly to reside in her outer, physical beauty and not her inner self. As a reader, you wonder what her parents were thinking, which is good. I intend her name to communicate something about the name-giver as much as about Grace herself (more about that in "The name game, part 5").

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Naming characters is one of my great joys as a writer. Finding the right name can happen almost instinctively, though I enjoy deliberating about it as part of the character develoment process.

While your real-life name is something you inherit and have to live into, up to or out of, a fictional character's name is a tool for its creator to communicate something about the person. Juliet's contention that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet" has not been borne out by the research. Names shape our perception. They form mental pictures for readers.

Here are some of the questions I ponder when deciding upon a character's name:

How old is the character? Does his name fit in as contemporary within his peer group or stand out as either old-timey or fashion-forward?

What ethnicity is the character? Does her name reflect it or suppress it?

To whom or to what is this character linked? Who is he most like (or unlike) in my fictional universe? What myths, stories, literature resonate with her story arc?

What do I want to communicate about the name-giver (parent, family of origin)?

What is the character's relationship to his name? Like it? Hate it? What nicknames does he choose for himself?

I'll address each of these questions individually in future posts.
Saturday, July 18, 2009 Laurel Garver
Naming characters is one of my great joys as a writer. Finding the right name can happen almost instinctively, though I enjoy deliberating about it as part of the character develoment process.

While your real-life name is something you inherit and have to live into, up to or out of, a fictional character's name is a tool for its creator to communicate something about the person. Juliet's contention that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet" has not been borne out by the research. Names shape our perception. They form mental pictures for readers.

Here are some of the questions I ponder when deciding upon a character's name:

How old is the character? Does his name fit in as contemporary within his peer group or stand out as either old-timey or fashion-forward?

What ethnicity is the character? Does her name reflect it or suppress it?

To whom or to what is this character linked? Who is he most like (or unlike) in my fictional universe? What myths, stories, literature resonate with her story arc?

What do I want to communicate about the name-giver (parent, family of origin)?

What is the character's relationship to his name? Like it? Hate it? What nicknames does he choose for himself?

I'll address each of these questions individually in future posts.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Quirk Books, publisher of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, will be releasing its next edition in the series, Sense and Sensibility and Seamonsters. Take a look at this "trailer" for the book. Absolutely brilliant!

Here's my bid for the next volume in the series:

Mansfield Park and Mutants

Fanny Price looks like a normal girl, but her family sends her away to live with rich relatives because of her distrubing power of X-ray vision. She and her cousin Edmund (future clergyman who can put opponents to sleep with his sonorous voice) will fight the evil Mr. Yates, Mr. Rushworth, and the Crawfords for control of Mansfield.
Friday, July 17, 2009 Laurel Garver
Quirk Books, publisher of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, will be releasing its next edition in the series, Sense and Sensibility and Seamonsters. Take a look at this "trailer" for the book. Absolutely brilliant!

Here's my bid for the next volume in the series:

Mansfield Park and Mutants

Fanny Price looks like a normal girl, but her family sends her away to live with rich relatives because of her distrubing power of X-ray vision. She and her cousin Edmund (future clergyman who can put opponents to sleep with his sonorous voice) will fight the evil Mr. Yates, Mr. Rushworth, and the Crawfords for control of Mansfield.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Where do you get your ideas?

It's the Grand FAQ we writers face nearly every time we meet someone new. Some writers will tell you they write from life. They're trying to process their experiences, find some closure, warn others off their path of folly. My hats off to them. Autobiographical writing scares the snot out of me. Maybe when I'm 60 I'll be gutsy and wise enough to open myself up in that way.

Other writers are escapists like me, who write to enter fully into another life, another story. To shape it and be shaped by it. Writers like this will often give the quick and easy answer that "stories are everywhere, you just have to look." They make it sound so nice, like we non-autobiographical writers are the plucky pirate heroes who know how to walk 20 paces east and 3 paces north, dig a spade into the soft dirt and unearth a treasure.

Here's a dirty secret: realizing that stories are everywhere makes you feel somewhat insane. Unweeded gardens talk to you, tell you of despondency and pain. Your neighbor's bulging recycling bin sweeps you away to a party where one-time friends snub each other and the host pukes on his dream girl's shoes. Random strangers on the train captivate you, make you start stalking them so you can capture how they walk, swirl coffee in a travel mug, high-five a classmate.

I've yet to formulate an honest response about the source of my ideas that doesn't send my new acquaintance running for the DSM-IV. Due to the curse of an overactive imagination, I can actually imagine this happening to me at a party--three pages of dialogue sprinkled with action and description. And four other alternate scenarios as well, one of which involves a dog licking the canape in my acquaintance's hand when she's not looking. That's just how my brain works. I'd invite you for a tour, but it would probably scare you.
Wednesday, July 15, 2009 Laurel Garver
Where do you get your ideas?

It's the Grand FAQ we writers face nearly every time we meet someone new. Some writers will tell you they write from life. They're trying to process their experiences, find some closure, warn others off their path of folly. My hats off to them. Autobiographical writing scares the snot out of me. Maybe when I'm 60 I'll be gutsy and wise enough to open myself up in that way.

Other writers are escapists like me, who write to enter fully into another life, another story. To shape it and be shaped by it. Writers like this will often give the quick and easy answer that "stories are everywhere, you just have to look." They make it sound so nice, like we non-autobiographical writers are the plucky pirate heroes who know how to walk 20 paces east and 3 paces north, dig a spade into the soft dirt and unearth a treasure.

Here's a dirty secret: realizing that stories are everywhere makes you feel somewhat insane. Unweeded gardens talk to you, tell you of despondency and pain. Your neighbor's bulging recycling bin sweeps you away to a party where one-time friends snub each other and the host pukes on his dream girl's shoes. Random strangers on the train captivate you, make you start stalking them so you can capture how they walk, swirl coffee in a travel mug, high-five a classmate.

I've yet to formulate an honest response about the source of my ideas that doesn't send my new acquaintance running for the DSM-IV. Due to the curse of an overactive imagination, I can actually imagine this happening to me at a party--three pages of dialogue sprinkled with action and description. And four other alternate scenarios as well, one of which involves a dog licking the canape in my acquaintance's hand when she's not looking. That's just how my brain works. I'd invite you for a tour, but it would probably scare you.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


The premise of a spoiled suburbanite having to make it on her own when her mother disappears definitely caught my attention. Watching Ashley hold up under the suspicions and rejections of her hometown friends then struggle to survive made for very good reading. It's a thought-provoking story sprinkled with humor and wisdom.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009 Laurel Garver

The premise of a spoiled suburbanite having to make it on her own when her mother disappears definitely caught my attention. Watching Ashley hold up under the suspicions and rejections of her hometown friends then struggle to survive made for very good reading. It's a thought-provoking story sprinkled with humor and wisdom.

Monday, July 13, 2009


I like Deb Caletti's narrative voice in this one very much. The theme of risk was handled well overall--some risks are stupid and some very much worth taking. Your relationship to risk (on the coward to lunatic spectrum) is a big piece of what one has to sort out during adolescence--something boys seem more conscious of than girls.

Caletti turns some very lovely phrases full of fresh images in the narrative and action scenes. I also liked the fact that while secular, the book portrays people of faith positively. The intergenerational and family relationships, as well as the non-feel-good romance, really add something new to the YA genre.
Monday, July 13, 2009 Laurel Garver

I like Deb Caletti's narrative voice in this one very much. The theme of risk was handled well overall--some risks are stupid and some very much worth taking. Your relationship to risk (on the coward to lunatic spectrum) is a big piece of what one has to sort out during adolescence--something boys seem more conscious of than girls.

Caletti turns some very lovely phrases full of fresh images in the narrative and action scenes. I also liked the fact that while secular, the book portrays people of faith positively. The intergenerational and family relationships, as well as the non-feel-good romance, really add something new to the YA genre.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

After leaving the blog world for three years to write and revise my first novel, Bring to Light, I'm back, this time with a purpose. I hope to create a space to connect with readers and writers of YA fiction. My plan to is to post regularly on books and films I love, progress on my writing projects, thoughts on the writing life and fun tidbits about my characters, settings and research.
Sunday, July 12, 2009 Laurel Garver
After leaving the blog world for three years to write and revise my first novel, Bring to Light, I'm back, this time with a purpose. I hope to create a space to connect with readers and writers of YA fiction. My plan to is to post regularly on books and films I love, progress on my writing projects, thoughts on the writing life and fun tidbits about my characters, settings and research.