Saturday, November 6, 2010
For my current project I took my conservation efforts one step further by making a conscious change in work habits. In the past, I printed as I wrote, chapter by chapter, taking them through many drafts. This meant the early chapters were rewritten and refined many times by the time the last one saw a first draft. You can see that often in published novels — the early chapters are polished to perfection and the last chapters are thrown together – often with a contrived or cop-out ending. (As when, 400 pages into the investigation, the main suspect/character drops dead so there is no need for resolution of the plot, which has been proving his innocence or guilt. I still haven’t forgiven the author – one of my favourites in the legal/mystery genre – for that one.)
As I began the real work on Current Events I decided that before printing anything I would complete the first draft. I would press on, with minimum editing – and when I did edit, it would be done onscreen. Not only would I save paper, but also the cost of toner/print drum.
It was also my hope that by forcing myself to work mainly on screen I would force myself to mend the disconnect between the me who as a child won two penmanship competitions and the me who is approaching her second childhood determined to keep up with technology. (I’m already huffing and puffing, trying to keep up in that marathon.)
I had already got over a similar disconnect that existed between the writing me and the creative me. I remember sitting in front of that first mechanical box I owned – with its green screen and its dual disk drive – unable to call up an ounce of creativity. So for a long time I continued to write longhand, then input the finished text. (I have a theory on this: I believe it is a left brain/right brain thing – penmanship being close to an artistic expression; typing being a mechanical skill.) Gradually – and I do mean gradually – over a few years – I progressed to a point where I could edit or rewrite on screen. And then the breakthrough – when I realized what a waste of time longhand was. You could say it was laziness that forced my hand. Soon I found I could go direct to the keyboard with the most insignificant notes and – writer’s block and insecurities notwithstanding – get in the “zone,” i.e., lose myself entirely. Now, that is a good day.
There remains another disconnect, however. In the past I printed often and read/edited the hard copy. Somehow I got a better sense of sequence and flow when I could see the type, feel the weight of the pages. I could flip back or forward, have several pages in front of me at the same time to refresh my memory.
Which takes me back to last winter’s work on Current Events. I managed to get through fourteen chapters without printing. But, when I needed to go back and check on something, no matter how much I willed myself to ”just rrrread it, then, why don’t ye?” I invariably got caught up in editing. As if I’d miss a comma or bad phrasing on another day. Not necessarily a waste of time. But it was time I wanted to spend on progressing the story. Over several months – working only on screen – I took those chapters through several drafts and many additional editing passes – more than I would in print – before I printed them for the first time.
In late summer I finally sat down, brimming with optimism, to read through the fourteen chapters I had been so pleased with. I stopped after six, crushed with disappointment.
What is it about the printed page? Reading hard copy text, my perception shifts. The video display is perhaps too ephemeral a medium to hold the full weight of those little black symbols, meaningless in themselves but for an auditory placement of the tongue or an exhalation of air. But with the weight of those same printed symbols in my hands, I gain clarity, perspective. I see that, rather than lead the reader into the plot, I repeatedly digress into the background of secondary characters. This is not back story – only placed too early in the novel. Here it gives them a false sense of importance in the narrative. And, in some cases, I give away information best held back for a later reveal. In the meantime, the plot loses focus; and, I fear, would lose the reader as well.
So it’s not quite back to Square One. I saved whatever files I had into a Draft 1 folder and copied them to Draft 2. The first thing to do is to go through those printed chapters and remove the sections that don’t advance the plot – to my “Removed” file. Nothing will be discarded. Some will be inserted elsewhere; some will contribute to new chapters. Reduce, reuse, recycle.
Thursday, June 17, 2010
In the interim, I’ve been busy with, among other unrelated activities, another writing project - the publication of my first book, a short story collection: Loose Pearls and Other Stories which was launched in April.
Loose Pearls is a group of thirteen unrelated stories. If there is one connecting thread, it is the idea of secrets and things withheld from loved ones.
The life of coal miner Doc MacSween reflects the overburden of the disaster in which he played a part. Katia carries a secret child in her heart while her sister allows her to suffer in silence. Monica returns to her former school as a teacher to relive the pangs of a hopeless crush. An old man shields his wife from her best friend's penchant for walking off with other people's belongings. In the title story, Loose Pearls, Anna tries to pass on a disturbing chapter of family history before it is lost altogether.
While sometimes tinged with humour, the stories often slide into the dark side. A spinster deals with a neighbourhood stalker by trying to put herself inside his head. A well-meaning but slow-witted young man causes injury to those supposedly trying to help him. A boy is preyed upon by the very people in whom his parents place their trust.
But there is hope as well. A wife dealing with her brother's suicide sees her husband's wild schemes in a new light. The neighbour of a mother whose daughter is missing shows her how life goes on.
And sometimes it is up to the reader to decide, as when Susan, a long-suffering housewife, literally finds herself at a crossroads. Here is an excerpt from that one, titled: "Tuesday."
The fairground was soft underfoot from the early morning rain. Overhead, the puffy clouds were splitting apart, revealing snatches of brilliant blue promise. Weaving aimlessly through the bustling flea-market crowd, Susan could see three kites bobbing above the field. She admired the crafts, fingered old china, spent a long time gazing into a glass case of estate jewellery.
She hadn’t thought it through. She had left the laundry in the dryer. By the time Sam thought to look there for his good shirt he’d never be able to iron out the wrinkles. And the grocery money – she’d meant to leave it – honest she did. She didn’t need it, she had enough in her own account. That had been the point of her pinching and scrimping and scratching these past few years. To do it on her own. And now, here she was with the grocery money – his grocery money – in her purse, as if she had stolen it. And the kids. They weren’t kids anymore. Sam Junior and Carla were both married, Sam Junior unhappily, she felt. Benji was nursing a broken heart these days. Not his first. Each of them had enough life experience to understand. But would they?
To be fair, Sam had never struck her before. He raised his hand so often in threat. That was common enough. But somehow this morning he zigged and she zagged, and suddenly he was making contact and she was on the floor. An accident. Susan believed this with all her heart. She wasn’t even sure what it was about. Something trivial. A wet towel in the laundry hamper?
Whatever it was, it didn’t have anything to do with where she was now. Not really.
She paid for her purchase, a tiny crystal angel. Or maybe it was just cheap glass. It didn’t matter. She liked it. She got into the car and pinned it to her lapel, and already she felt protected. She checked her watch. An hour back to the city. An hour to pick up a few groceries – just time for the bare necessities – thank goodness she kept a well-stocked kitchen. Because she would need part of that hour to change back into that person she was when she got up this morning. Whoever that was.
Susan started the car. She had her hand on the gearshift when the kites floated into view. She took the boundary road along the back side of the fairground and parked there. Bending low, slipping through the stiled fence, she was reminded of something. Youth. It wasn’t gone. Not yet. Not all of it. She was still slim as a willow, lithe as a teenager. She hopped up, achieving an easy balance as she sat on the top rail, legs dangling.
A young father spooling a multicoloured butterfly kite was torn between his toy and his toddler. Running in aimless circles in the daisy-strewn field, the little girl was propelled by gravity down the slope.
Sensing Dad’s dilemma, Susan hopped off her perch. “I’ll take it,” she said. “Go after her.”
For just a moment she saw herself through his eyes. A woman his mother’s age, a little angel pinned to her shirt.
He passed off the spool, and then it was hers, the dancing, swaggering kite. Caught off balance, she wrestled joyously with the wind. And then, just as suddenly, the moment of bliss was manoeuvred back into his hands, both of them laughing. In her heart she was eighteen again, blushing roses.
Susan turned the car and backtracked down the rutted lane to the concession road. Same intersection, different approach. She squinted into a sunset trail of long, straight macadam. No traffic in either direction. No reason to turn one way or the other. No reason not to.
So far the collection has received two favourable reviews:
Literary pearls stand for our burdens and our triumphs
“Thanks to Cape Breton University Press, Glace Bay writer D.C.Troicuk’s talent is on display in a collection of short stories entitled Loose Pearls. The volume is a welcome addition to the literature and culture of this island.
Troicuk’s 13 carefully written stories are infused with intelligence, imagination and style ... The title ... has resonance. The loose pearls are like strung natural pearls — many-faceted, valuable, with some pearls of great price. Primarily, these literary pearls in one way or another stand for our burdens and our triumphs ... The writing is economical. Flashbacks are handled extremely well ... Loose Pearls represents a good beginning for an author whose writing career will flourish.”
- LeRoy Peach, Cape Breton Post: June 6
Cape Breton’s D.C. Troicuk pens triumphant first book
“This first collection of stories from D.C. Troicuk is quietly understated as life flows gently below the surface of daily life.
Family cold wars are buried deep, and sometimes the glue holding things together, no matter what, is tainted by dislikes and resentments and bound inextricably by duty. The boiling point is not an explosion but rather an understanding that takes hold, a clarity of vision which builds until her characters begin to see the reality of their truths ... Troicuk is an excellent teller of tales. She writes with a clarity of vision that brings focus to her stories ... Troicuk’s first book is triumphant, and surely an indication of things to come. The good news is that her next book, a novel, is
already in progress.”
- Judith Meyrick, The Nova Scotian, June 12
So no longer can I hide under the pseudonym Dana Troy. I am indeed D.C.Troicuk. You can see more background on my website: www.dctroicuk.ca
Sunday, March 28, 2010
Much of this early material will remain as back story. Back story is everything that happens outside the narrative you are telling. It can be a kind of historical background of the place, a deeper characterization of one or more characters, an explanation of the situation, a glimpse into the future, or even secrets that only I, as the writer, will ever know. Most of the back story will never make it into the novel; that is not its purpose. Its purpose is to provide a framework upon which I drape my narrative; and it is an emotional foundation which supports dialogue, motivation and action.
The back story for most of my characters begins with their name, as I wrote earlier. But it should go much deeper. From insignificant details – favourite colour, food, hobbies – which can turn out to be indicative of important personality traits without being pointed or contrived, to factors that influenced their lives, their morals and their attitudes – schooling, religion, where they grew up, what their father did for a living, their income level, family and other relationships, and so on. Because the back story is not written to be part of the final narrative, it may contain relationships with people the reader will never meet, situations and lines of dialogue she will never read. But every item, individually and as a whole, serves the building of a character’s psychological make-up, just as every thought and deed influences our motivations and reactions in real life. The deeper the writer goes, the more well-rounded and sympathetic, the more real, the character will be.
Until I was inputting my notes on this project I would have said I don’t bother with back story. Then I realized this is the purpose of my Ideas file. When the project has been on the back burner for some time, as with Current Events, most of the notes I’ve made are little snippets relating to the main protagonists and secondary characters – not so much physical details as telling scenarios as I mention above. What is that, if not back story?
Here is a sample, copied directly from my Characters file:
MELISSA (Carole's sister)
1. She’s in a lifeless marriage
husband: Doctor (pediatrician) – KYLE is a good guy, basically
From the outside, she makes a show of a happy marriage. But she treats Kyle as if he is not there. (And maybe he isn’t)
2. They have 4 kids, all boys, Kevin – (“leave the cat alone, Kevie” – 4½ ?); one is still in a crib - 20 months?– Corey – at what age do they go to a real bed from crib?; twins – Jordan and Jason, just-turned 3
3. She has a bizarre way of raising the kids
she makes a game of cleaning up so the kids will help;
she doesn’t let them in certain rooms – they hang out at the edge of the carpet like that dog I remember that was trained not to walk on the carpet.
4. She talks in – is it called hyperbole?? Exaggerating?
It’s not enough to say: “What are we doing here?” She has to say: “What are we doing here? Does anyone know?”
5. She is always eliciting compliments. She has two methods: 1) “I’m so ugly” – meant to draw denial; or 2) “Wasn’t I smart to do that?” meant to draw praise.
6. She goes along with her mother on everything – to her face. Lila is unaware of what her daughter does and says behind her back.
7. She’s basically lazy, but she finds a way to get things done so they look good on the surface.
8. she has a group of friends who, though spread across the country, stay in touch by circulating a pair of plastic pink flamingoes on special occasions; they used to have an annual girls’ weekend– in New York one year, at some ritzy spa the next – she feels left out of that now, they still do it, she’s stuck in rural Nova Scotia, not even in a city.
9. she clings to the “image” of herself as a teen model - she did some modelling locally. She wants so badly to be someone others look up to, for others to say “I want to be like her” – but she is aware, or maybe it’s a fear – that she has basically ridden on people’s coattails to get any attention at all. Now, e.g., she is the ”doctor’s wife”.
10. She is a closet alcoholic
This is Melissa’s blueprint. Her back story. Some of it will make it into the novel; most of it will not. Because, as with any new acquaintance, these are only first impressions. As I come to know her better, I expect to find that I misjudged her unfairly in some ways, and that my instinct was spot-on in others. But, like you, the reader, I may not know which is which until the last page.
Thursday, February 11, 2010
Back in the summer I had two first chapters - pick one. Both were written as submissions for grants. When the first application was unsuccessful, I considered the comments – and I do mean that seriously. I consider every comment seriously. Well, nearly. We’ll get into that at another time. And, rather than rewrite it for the next round, I wrote and submitted something new for the next application. The second submission was successful, not only financially. It got me motivated; it wanted to be continued. So I shelved the first attempt and tentatively continued with the second first chapter to see where it would take me. As it turns out, that was a good decision.
At the time of writing each of these, I thought I was writing Chapter 1. The first Chapter 1 as it turns out – and as is usually the case – was really back story. It’s a common mistake for a writer – often picked up by an editor or a workshop buddy – someone who can be subjective. It was about Carole and Joel, how they met, how their relationship began to fall apart when Carole was torn between supporting her gay brother or her religious husband. There was quite a lot of background about the Jehovah’s Witnesses included, because I had decided some time ago that Joel would be one. I didn’t realize until several chapters in that it may well remain as back story. We’ll see.
When the second first chapter was in the mail along with the grant application, I went through the project file again. I had already organized my notes according to character and situation. At this point I opened four new computer files, Character, Outline, Notes and Timeline and began entering the handwritten notes in the relevant files as follows:
Character: This is a bullet-format list of all characters, including the most incidental characters, even those mentioned only once. Each of the main cast includes a list of personality traits, relationships, lines of dialogue she might say, her thoughts about a certain subject, ideas for scenes that can show some aspect of her character, and also my own thoughts on the development of the character - in other words, anything at all relating to the character, whether or not it relates to the plot. If there is a single entry here that takes more than a small paragraph, I move it to a file of its own, or the Notes file.
Notes: This file contains sections of dialogue or narrative that can be copied directly into the work or developed into a scene on its own; larger paragraphs about the characters when it is likely to be worked into the novel; and notes, thoughts, ideas, anything else relevant to anything about the project. Sometimes I include sections here that have been removed from a chapter or scene that I expect to include elsewhere. I sometimes keep a separate notes file on any subject or relationship if the amount of notes in the regular notes file warrants it. As I begin the editing process, I also keep one on any bits deleted if there’s even a remote possibility of using it elsewhere – even in another project.
Outline: This is not a planning outline. I write this after the fact, basically to keep a brief synopsis of what I have written so far – chapter by chapter, scene by scene. I make note here of key turns of the plot, important revelations of character, etc. This method allows me to quickly identify where a scene might be needed, e.g., for continuity or to provide needed information at a critical point. I record it in the appropriate place in the outline as Scene Needed, and use a different coloured text to make it stand out. You’d think the author would remember everything about what she is writing. Not so. Working to 300 pages plus, I lose track very easily – not so much of the plot, but the sequence of telling. For example, I might have a choice of revealing something in sequence in the narrative or letting a character remember it or tell someone else later in the novel. Cut-and-pasting, which I do a lot, is both a blessing and a curse. It’s so effortless I do it without thinking and sometimes I’m not sure whether I’ve already included a scene in the main text, or in a separate scene file, or if I’ve duplicated it somewhere. By keeping an ongoing outline of the work, I only have to check it and not read through a half-dozen files where it might or might not be.
Timeline: I keep track of absolutely everything relating to dates – births, deaths, marriages, graduation, plants in bloom. (No kidding. I just finished reading an Iris Murdoch novel where she had lilacs and roses blooming at the same time. Things can't be that different in England.) Also historical references, if it’s relevant to the story. In the Dairy Novel, for example, I had to know whether the reference to the debate in the House of Commons on conscription during WWII was timely to something in the novel. I have two sections in the Timeline file: one for back story, which generally increments by years. The other, for the actual plot, is in more detail, month by month, or week by week, or even day by day, depending on the time frame of the novel. For example, it is very helpful to keep an ongoing calculation of the ages of the main characters (from their dates of birth), so I know at a glance how old everyone is at any given time. This timeline does not follow the sequence of the plot page by page. A character in 1998 might be remembering something that happened in 1980, but in the timeline everything will appear chronologically regardless of the order in which it appears in the narrative.
I use a spreadsheet format for the timeline, and my usual word processing software for the others. I prefer WordPerfect. It has certain features that others don’t have – or maybe they do, but I certainly can’t find them. Yes, I do know there is software for writers to keep track of projects. I haven’t checked for some time, but when I did look into it, they weren’t worth the expense, and most seemed more trouble than they were worth. I will look into it at some point. But I’m used to what I’ve got. Old cat, new tricks. Don’t correct me; I know the adage. But a female dog is a bitch, whereas a female cat is a queen. Which would you rather be?
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Nomi is a secondary character in the novel, in that she is not central to the plot, but she is important in other ways – in that she provides an opportunity to explore the hearts and minds of Carole and her immediate family through their interactions with her. And there is a subtle subplot built around her. No events are exactly as they occurred between Jamie and me, or me and anyone else for that matter. Though, admittedly, the veil is sheer at times. One point I must stress is that Nomi’s family life in the novel and her difficult past – I have already made reference to that – have no basis in truth whatsoever where Jamie is concerned. What the fictitious Nomi has suffered is not something I would ever touch on had it any resemblance to Jamie. That would be just plain heartless. Ironically, my fictitious back story accounts for Nomi’s personality far more clearly than real life accounts for Jamie’s – which is what makes Jamie so hard to understand, and to warm up to. No one seems to know what’s up with him/her.
It’s not that I like to use real people or real events as a basis for fiction, except in the broadest sense. But – I confess – I have done it before in Lydia, a character from another novel mentioned two postings ago. FYI, rest assured that if you are interested enough to be reading this blog – or anything I’ve written – neither she nor Jamie is you. But one can’t be too careful. So, just in case, more than the names have been changed to protect the innocent. (That would be me.) I would never describe an actual person or circumstance using details that would identify them, not even in a positive light. Not that I’m so ethical, more that I’m non-confrontational. Nor am I dumb enough to invite a lawsuit.
That said, people are basically insecure, and so they read themselves into characters or situations no matter what you write. Back in the days when I worked for consulting engineers I wrote a bit of doggerel for the company newsletter about working as a draftsman/person. (FYI, after all this PC crap started, we were called "technicians.") When the newsletter came out, one by one the engineers in the office sidled up to me – in the lunch room, in the hall – some even ventured into the drafting room to “confront” me openly – but good-naturedly – trying to suss out whether it had been a dig at him. The truth was, I wasn’t targeting any individual at all. The piece was just a cute commentary on the typical frustrations of the job. I don’t think any of them believed me. Guilt is a terrible thing.
When I created Lydia, I commented to my good friend, Wife of Dave, that she was loosely based on someone I had known – a workplace friend. I normally don’t let anyone read my work in progress, but Wife of Dave was, and is, a close friend, so when she asked to read the draft I trusted her to take me at my word that no part of the plot, nor the background story, nor any of the scenarios, were factual. I had spoken of the real Lydia but Wife of Dave had never met her. Still, I stressed, and explained, and repeated yet again that nothing in the novel had ever happened in real life, that the key words were “based on.” I explained how I had merely borrowed aspects of the woman’s personality and applied them to a totally fictitious plot. Yet at every other turn of the page Wife of Dave burst out, “Is this true?” “Did that happen?” To make matters worse, not only did she mistake the fictional character for a real person, she also insisted on reading me into the other protagonist! Wife of Dave was clearly amused. The rest of us (that would be me) were not.
So I have learned my lesson. You’d think it would be: never base a character on a real person. Oh, please. I’m a writer, not a saint. No, the lesson is: people are going to jump to conclusions no matter what. The real lesson, if you ask me, is for people like Jamie. The bitches and scoundrels of this world should steer clear of writers. Because by their behaviour they are begging to be immortalized. They make it just too tempting to the writer to have the last word:
“Oh, yeah? Just for that, I’ll put you in my next novel. Then you’ll be sorry.”
Whether I knowingly base a character on a real person or unwittingly allow a not-quite-fictional personality to slip into my little three-hundred-page universe – either way, I have to be prepared to take one on the chin for art’s sake. Who says being a writer is not risky business?
Sunday, December 20, 2009
As I guide Carole through each scenario, I come to know her better, which means I can show more of her. That doesn’t mean I know everything about her. She surprises me sometimes. I can tweak her personality, fine tune her actions, but I certainly don’t know her well enough to control her. She is what she is.
Youngest of three siblings, Carole has a good relationship with her brother, Ben. They were a pair often joined in opposition to their eldest sister Melissa, and remain close. She is a disappointment to her mother, Lila, who believed her daughter to be a musical prodigy and still thinks Carole turned her back on a promising career as – maybe a pianist; I’m not sure yet. Maybe the instrument she plays will never matter. In my head, just now, it came to me that Lila has taken to referring to Diana Krall, as if to remind Carole of what she might have become. Carole was closer to her father than her siblings were – she was more like him in nature, and though she did not share his passion for clocks and cameras she pretended an interest as a way of being close to him. Last of the main characters is cousin Nomi with whom Carole has a rocky relationship. The basis of Nomi’s difficult, even toxic, personality came as another shock to me recently. It seems Nomi was molested. Ssh. Carole doesn’t know anything about this yet.
As you can see, Carole has an extensive back story with a different relationship with each of her family members. (More on back story later.)
The older sister, Melissa, was at odds with Carole from the moment she was born. As a teenager she maintained the image of the “perfect” child thanks to little sister Carole who was always covering for her. She is still maintaining an image, married to a doctor, living the “perfect” life of a stay-at-home mom of four little boys. Fulfilling Lila’s expectations of the perfect daughter. Except for the alcohol.
Ben, the middle child, developed more slowly as a character. He and Carole were always close. But it was a long time before I realized he was gay. And out of that came one of the key plot points.
Lila their mother, is the wife of a famous photojournalist. She is currently writing a memoir which describes a life that barely resembles what her children remember. Because what do children ever know of their parents’ personal hopes and dreams and disappointments?
A writer has to understand every one of her characters. Sometimes it is the action of a secondary character that creates problems for the main protagonist. If the situation is to be believable, his motives must be believable as well. So he must be just as well thought out as other characters.
Such is Joel, Carole’s soon-to-be ex-husband. He figures only in the first chapter or two, but is an important character in that something in their relationship had to fulfil two requirements: 1) It had to warrant Carole’s actions, and 2) it had to precipitate divorce in what had seemed a solid marriage. I have some familiarity with the Jehovah’s Witnesses through a close friend. The little I’ve ever seen about them – in movies, never in a book – was both misinformed and cliche. And I’ve always wanted to factor some of the truth about their beliefs and lifestyle into my fiction. Nothing distasteful (why is it everyone always wants to make fun without even trying to understand?), but simply to put an unusual twist on an already shocking reason for divorce. I let a number of possibilities simmer on the back burner until I decided it would have to do with something between Joel and Ben. Perhaps Joel’s inability to accept Carole’s continued closeness with her gay brother? But I wasn’t happy with this either. So I left it alone, worked around it – not real writing at this point, only notes. Then just last year, when I got to work in earnest, I turned out the lights one night – I wasn’t thinking about the novel at all – and the solution popped up from – well, who knows where these things come from. What I found scribbled on my notepad in the morning not only made sense in the clear light of day, but solidified a crucial element of the plot and helped clarify these two male characters.
The whole exercise of Joel’s back story would have been easy to avoid. I could have settled for a typical divorce story. It is a small point, and would not have affected the main plot. But if I had let it go, if I hadn’t stuck with Joel, working to give him more depth even though we would hardly see him, I wouldn’t have come up with something that is going to be (I hope) unique. Maybe even daring.
Dalton is a secondary character, even though he is dead before we meet him. That choice was very personal. He was to have been alive, but after my dad passed away there were things I needed to write about – part of the grieving process, I guess. But with just a little reworking of the original idea, Dalton does come to life in family memories.
And then there is Nomi. But this character deserves a page all her own.
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Can I drop a name? Please let me drop a name. Alistair MacLeod (No Great Mischief) once complimented me on my ability to draw completely different characters in the same story with psychological insight.
For me, this begins with the name. I can’t just hang a name on a character because I like it. It has to suit them – in my mind. To have the action and dialogue remain true to that individual character it helps to keep in mind an image of a whole person as I write.
I have my own theory on names. I’ve noticed that you can often find a commonality between people with the same first name. “Name” in this case meaning not the name on a birth certificate, necessarily, but the name s/he is commonly called. So David is different from Dave is different from Davie, etc.
Every boy or man I’ve ever known called Dave, for example, has been affable, easy-going, quick to smile. Now there is no psychological insight involved here – there might be other mean Daves in prison for armed robbery just as likely as celebate Daves who will one day qualify for sainthood. I’m just saying the Daves I, personally, have known have those personality traits in common. And so, if I had a character named Dave, even if he was a convict or a priest, you can pretty much bet he would use his charm -- whether for good or ill.
What do you call someone, when it’s up to you to name them? Usually, it’s more obvious what not to call them. You’re not going to name a big burly chef at a lumber camp “Tiffany?” (Although that does make for interesting possibilities ...)
Sometimes the character has a name when s/he introduces him/herself. Sometimes it’s so long since I had the idea for the story or met the character that I don’t remember how I came up with their name in the first place.
I’d forgotten until the other day when I came upon the original short story,Current Events, that Carole was first called Caitlin. I do remember I was working at the time with a guy whose wife was named Carole, spelled with an e, and I liked that. In spite of many changes in her character development that have occurred through my notes, she has kept that name.
Melissa was always Melissa. Ben started out as Bernie. But I later used Bernie in a different short story, so I had to change it. Well, I guess I didn’t have to – but I am trying to use different names across my body of work (that sounds so pretentious!) for the more prominent characters. In part it's so as not to confuse myself.
Matti is Ben's significant other. He is rather a latecomer to the novel and is still in development. His name came from a website where I was looking for ethnic variations on "Matthew." But then his background and occupation began to seem too close to a friend's and I didn't want a comparison drawn, so I'm thinking I will make him Euorpean, maybe Czech. And I may yet change the name.
I had some trouble with Joel. To tell the truth, I didn’t want to waste a name I thought I might want to use at another time. I’m not sure what that was about. A reflection on the character, or on the name itself? But then Melissa’s husband is pretty much a throw-away character, hardly figures in the story, even as a background character, yet I gave him the name “Kyle," which I like, and could see myself using for a key character in some other project. He is such a minor figure here, maybe that wouldn’t keep me from using it again.
Carole’s parents’ names – Lila and Dalton – were sourced from applications for seniors’ housing that I happened to be reviewing as part of my job. Some of the names struck me as lovely, old-fashioned pairings. I jotted down a few of them for future reference, without any specific project in mind. If you had relatives, Lila and Dalton Kemp, who had applied to a seniors’ co-op near Ottawa in the mid-eighties, they may very well be the namesakes of these characters. I never met the real couple, and knew absolutely nothing about them except a few vital statistics and their current living situation at the time – all long forgotten. (You’ll read later why I make this disclaimer.)
Quite often in my notes I will come across a half-dozen names for the same character, trying them on like shoes. Nomi was like that. There is a real Nomi – let’s call her Mary. I started by calling the character by Mary’s middle name, which would have suited her just fine, but I knew that was temporary. Mary, much like her fictional alter-ego, would be exceedingly upset, not to mention vengeful, at having been represented in a negative light. (Mary is, after all, perfect.) She was Heather for a time, then Wendy – both of these I have since used in other projects. And then – in an attempt to soften her a bit – I looked for something childlike, an adolescent nickname, kind of ridiculous or pathetic. “Nomi” is, in my mind, what her two little brothers called her when they could not quite enunciate her real name, Naomi. I don’t know (yet) why Nomi kept this nickname into adulthood, but it does seems to be rather telling. Nor have I decided whether I will reveal her actual name or let it remain back story.
In one of my shelved novels I have a character named “Lydia.” My friend Mary-Louise (wife of one of the affable Daves) nagged me to change it because she didn’t like it. I tried to explain – unsuccessfully – that I didn’t particularly like it either. What mattered was that the name suited the character in my own mind. “Lydia,” for some reason, reminded me of the real person on whom Lydia was based. (Mary-Louise had never met her.)
When do I know a name is right? When it brings up certain impressions of the character as I write, impressions that are consistent, and strong enough to be sustained through months – even years – of a project’s life. Whether anyone else gets the same vibe from the name is irrelevant. It is merely a device – albeit an important one – to help me guide the character through decisions, actions and dialogue so as to remain true to the heart and soul of . . . well, of herself.