I was thrown by that because I’d just assumed they, like everyone else in the book, would have wanted their identities hidden. After all, it was just a name, right? Wrong. I learned a very valuable lesson that day. It’s not just a name. It is an identity, the one thing that makes you who you are, and it means much more than you’d think.
Of course, things are different now because my last two books have been fiction, but the premise remains: names are important, possibly one of the most important elements of any novel. Imagine, if you will, that Dr Zhivago had been called some more pedestrian. What then of Holly Golightly, James Bond, Miss Havisham, Anna Karenina and Harry Potter? The character becomes the name, and wears it much like Harry and his invisibility cloak. I was thinking about this very thing when it came to naming my own characters in The Bay of Shadows. Admittedly, that’s the really fun bit about fiction – the making-up part – but also the hardest. What names would I give them and, more importantly, why? So I’ve had to rack my brain a bit because I started the first draft back in 2014, and it seems that Elena, Daniel, Peter, Tommy and Rafi have always had the names they now inhabit so wholly that I have had trouble remembering even how I thought of them in the first place.
My main protagonist, Elena Jameson, is a thirty-five-year-old woman, a former mine administrator in the Western Australian Pilbara region, recently divorced and temporary guardian to a six-year-old foster child, Daniel. Well, that’s who she is in the novel, but her name actually started out some 70 years earlier on the other side of the world. Way back in 1948, on a farm on the outskirts of Mexico City, my mother lived with her entire extended family, including the family matriarch, her husband, their 22 children and spouses, grandkids, horses, goats, ducks, geese and a bunch of chickens. During the breeding season, Elena, the favourite aunt, felt sorry for the chicks, featherless and defenceless against the cold mornings, and so one evening knitted tiny woollen jumpers – complete with holes for wings and a teeny button at the neck – for every single chick in the brood. How she managed to get them on was another story entirely, but that part went down in family folklore, and impressed me on dual counts of compassion and practicality. Hence, my Elena was named! It was a name like a sigh, sweet and pretty, and one that just seemed to fit my character.
And what of the others? In no particular order of importance. Peter Jameson? Oh, dear. I’ve been thinking all morning about this one, and even went back to all my notebooks to see if I’d written anything down that might give me a clue to his origins. Nope. Nothing. Indeed, up until a few years ago I didn’t know any Peters – hello, Peter, my neighbour who came into the picture far too late to take credit for his literary namesake – and suspect that neither did I go to primary/high school/university with any either. So I’m stumped. Jameson, however, was the last name of a desk chief back in the days when I worked in a newsroom. Not half as exciting, or interesting, as Elena’s backstory but that is the way of fiction – some of it is magic, other bits not so much…
Then there’s Tommy Walker, Elena’s love interest. What mysterious quirk of fate allowed him to come into being? Well, in a similar fashion to Elena, he had a special significance for me. You see, Tom was my dad’s best friend. They came to Australia back in the ‘60s as part of the 10-pound migration scheme, and remained friends for life. Tommy also had a story that went down in infamy from back in the days when he was a hard-drinking young man in Scotland. One afternoon while making a delivery outside of Glasgow he lost control of his van and was flung out the open driver’s side window at the exact moment the back doors swung open and disgorged the mattress in there. In a you-wouldn’t-believe-it-but-for-the-witnesses scene, he landed on top of the mattress in a field, dazed, and completely unharmed. He gave up drinking that day. So there you have it – a great name for a great Scot. The Walker part was plucked out of thin air, and it was only a few months later that I saw an episode of Law and Order with a character called Tom Walker, which prompted me to soften his name to ‘Tommy’ lest anyone confuse my character with this nefarious type.
Finally, Daniel and his little dog Rafi, possibly my two favourite characters because tiny humans and tiny fur-covered creatures are my favourite things in the whole world. Rafi was named as an ode to my Spanish background – short for Rafael – and as any self-respecting dog owner will tell you a short name ending in a syllable is always preferable, mainly for recall purposes because nothing is more time consuming, and slightly embarrassing, than calling, “Here, Peppercorn, Maximus the Destroyer, Wilson Bark-it” when you’re at the beach. * Last but not least, Daniel. Inspired by all the great Daniels in history, men who had been pilots and explorers, activists, surgeons and educators, a name I thought beautiful and powerful at once, a name that might convey some of the love I have for this character and, by extension, the love Elena had for her child.
I have my French friends to thank for getting me to think about the importance of names, and how they define who we really are. I’m still not at the point where I will use the actual names of people I know and love in my stories, unless they specifically ask me. But if one of my loved ones – or my readers for that matter – see themselves in a future novel as a chain-smoking private eye/mountain climber/cattle baron/secret agent called (insert name here) then I'm perfectly fine with that. All you need to do is ask.
*Actual names from my old dog beach so I’m hoping the dog parents in question don’t read that bit!
The Bay of Shadows is available now.
BACK IN 2003 when my first book was published, my French friends who had been my flatmates in Mexico City came to me with an unusual complaint.
“You didn’t name us.”
“You didn’t use our real names in the book.”
“That was the idea, though. I was trying to protect your privacy.”
“But nobody will know it was us!”
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