Thursday, August 30, 2012

What's in a Name? A Rose..." or Ten Rules to Remember About Creating Character Names

          Anyone in the teaching profession knows the old joke about the pregnant teacher who can't think of a name for the upcoming tiny arrival because each name she considers has a negative association with a former student. "I can't name him 'Ben' because of that teenager I had in class named Ben who was always whispering obscene things under his breath to the girls who sat around him." Names are important and sometimes they have personal connotations.

          As a former teacher making up names for characters in my book, I don't have to worry about past associations. I can go for broke on names. I can also use names I like from my own life, go through a phone directory, or jot down a name I hear in conversations.

          With these thoughts in mind, I'd like to mention ten guidelines to make character names work better for both writers and readers.

          First, as an author who reads, I have to make sure I don't subconsciously use names I have read before in books. One of my favorite sleuths is Spenser in the Robert Parker novels. This character makes sure the reader understands that he has two s's in his name because of the poet, Edmund Spenser. And this detective is quite the poetic philosopher. Perfect name. Taken. I can't use it.

          Second, as an author who has lived many, many, many years, [well maybe only two "many"'s is enough], I need to make sure I don't use a name and location of a real person I've known in my past. I found myself subconsciously doing this with a minor character who had the first name of a long-ago college roommate, and who lived in the roommate's current city. A week later I realized what I had done and changed it.

Grace Kelly
          Third, the main character has to have a name I love because I will be using it a great deal, hopefully in more than one book. My main character, Grace Kimball, has a first name that I love. The religious concept of "grace" has always been an awesome idea to me. Ditto the concept of "grace under pressure" in Hemingway novels. "Grace" is also the name of a beloved granddaughter, and it's a beautiful concept when used as "graceful." Then, of course, Grace Kelly, beautiful American film star, was the epitome of grace. "Kimball" was simply a last name that I conjured up because it went nicely with Grace.

          Fourth, I never introduce too many names or characters at once. Even though I've read books that include a table or genealogy of several generations, I get confused if I read too many character names too quickly. I try to find unique ways to introduce characters.

          Fifth, I try to make names memorable so the reader won't have to page back to figure out who this character is thirty pages later. For example, my detective is TJ Sweeney, a decidedly detective-sounding name. Not until much later in the book does the reader learn that the "TJ" stands for Teresa Johanna. [I always wanted to name my daughter Johanna, but I was vetoed on that one. Good thing, I suppose, since my grown-up daughter tells me she doesn't like that name.] So now I have free reign to use it in my book.

          Sixth, I make sure my main characters have names with different syllable combinations and different first letters. This makes it easier for the reader to remember which character is which. I don't have a Sharon, Susan, Sandy, and Shauna in the same story.

          Seventh, I believe a great way to introduce humor is to use a name to indicate what a character is like or to indicate an opposite. In A Silent Place to Die, my work in progress, the mayor's name is Mayor Blandford. And, yes, he is bland. I also include a character with a slobbering, ugly pet dog like the Bordeaux bulldog in Turner and Hooch. My character/owner named him "Adonis," a name from several mythologies that represents a handsome male. This dribble-mouthed dog is anything but.

          Eighth, since my story takes place in Endurance, Illinois, it's important to have multiple ethnic backgrounds and cultures because even in small town America a person will see various names. Grace discovers that Endurance's past included a huge Swedish population because she researched a story involving Gustav Swensen. In checking out his grave at the cemetery, she discovers Ahlstroms, Olofssons, and other Swedish names. In current Endurance, she drives impatiently along at 10 mph behind Nub Swensen, probably a descendant of Gustav. Nub doesn't get the concept that 35 mph doesn't equal 10 mph, one of this author's pet peeves about small towns.

          Ninth, I describe secondary characters who aren't all that important with just a first or last name or the job they do such as "the janitor" or "the train porter." The reader will not see them more than once or twice so they don't have to waste brain cells remembering them.

          Tenth, I use different names for characters only if I make sure the reader understands what I'm doing. Otherwise, confusion reigns. Grace would call her friend "TJ," but others would call her "Detective" or "Detective Sweeney." Her boss, Stephen Lomax, might yell "Sweeney." And just to vary descriptions, "TJ" can sometimes be referred to as "the detective." 

          An additional note: I keep a list of all names of people and places I use in my rough draft. Each time I finish a chapter I add to the list so I'll be consistent throughout.

          These are the guidelines I try to observe for character names. In a future post I will consider author sources for place names for their novels.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Of Boomer Things: "Hair" and an American Hero

          Sometimes when my past and present collide, I feel compelled to write about it.

          Long before the 24-hour news cycle with its nauseating repetition of stories,
          Long before this time when it seems people can't work together to accomplish anything,
          Long before reality television and weird people wanting to cash in on their 15 minutes of fame (unless they can string it out longer)...

          ...there was a strange time of riots on college campuses and in large cities, a war in Viet Nam and its accompanying demonstrations at home, assassinations of political leaders, the Civil Rights Movement, beehive hair styles and Afros, mini-skirts, love beads, and bell bottom pants. [I'm exhausted just describing that much of it.]

          Tonight I get to revisit that time when I see the musical "Hair" at the Corn Stock Theatre in Peoria. I'm sure it will be an amazing production since I know a few of the talented players. When I first saw "Hair" in Chicago in the late 60s, I was living the time. The players tonight have read about it in books. That's fine--education is a beautiful thing. A world of peace and love is hard to find in an increasingly technological world where face-to-face conversations are disappearing.

          Sometimes when my past and present collide, I feel compelled to remind myself that we boomers look at the past nostalgically. We hear the music of Woodstock and forget the mud and garbage; we watch the triumph of Selma and forget the horrible violence of the Civil Rights Movement.

          But every so often a memory surfaces that defies any mud or violence, and, personally, every so often that memory chips away at another piece of my generation's past.

Neil Armstrong
          This week an American hero died, a self-described "nerdy engineer" who never used his celebrity for gain, yet represented the culmination of a dream that can only happen when people work together for a common goal. 

          And it was a monumental task: 154M miles of space traversed over 60 hours in order to walk on the moon. The AP wire was humming as Mission Control in Houston followed the flight. The astronauts landed at 4:18 p.m.(Eastern time) and Neil Armstrong, age 38, stepped on the lunar surface about six hours later. Buzz Aldrin waited in the ship. Walter Cronkite, the anchor we believed, said, "Man on the moon! Whew! Boy." Words seldom escaped Walter so that was quite a quote.

          And that night, in a tiny town in west central Illinois, my husband and I were painting the living room walls in our first apartment. We had no AC and on July 20, 1969, the sweat was dripping off us in the humid Midwest summer. We stopped to watch the grainy black and white pictures, live, and, miraculously, Neil Armstrong stepped on the lunar surface millions of miles away. Some things in life fill you with such a sense of wonder and awe that just remembering them brings tears to your eyes. Such was that night forty-three years ago.

          Rest in Peace, Neil Armstrong, and thank you for bringing us a sense of hope and wonder in such a dark time. You represented the best of courage and heroism.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Writing a Novel: Creating a Setting

          When the main character of my work in progress, Grace Kimball, researches the town history for the local newspaper, she discovers an intriguing and colorful past.

          Creating an imaginary town with a history and geography is part of writing a mystery. The small town of Endurance, Illinois, is now populated by 15,000 people. However, it began in 1836, many years prior to the Civil War. In A Silent Place to Die, (my work in progress), Endurance is celebrating its 175th anniversary, described by a word the mayor can't pronounce: septaquintaquinquecentennial.

          Endurance began as a tract of land created by Congress after the War of 1812. The first settlers came from Ohio and erected crude cabins, a church, a military stockade, and later, a dry goods store. The soil was perfect for planting crops and the prairie was still a vast sea of open land with prairie grass shimmering clear to the horizon. 

          The mid-1800s railroad construction brought more and more settlers and the town was granted a state charter and became the county seat. While Endurance was largely sustained by the agricultural industry, small businesses--and eventually small factories--dotted the land. The first school came along at the insistence of the women residents, and, according to the Endurance-Register, "the godly Misses Emma and Elizabeth Farley, daughters of the local Presbyterian minister" were the first teachers.

          By the 1850s, Endurance was a station on the Underground Railroad, and Emmeline Folger, a wealthy resident, had a special compartment made in her ornate carriage to move escaped slaves from her home to the next station.Later her son, Nathaniel, owned the first Model-T in town, and, attempting to slow down, he unfortunately sped up and ran through the window of Silas Rountree's hardware store, prompting Silas to remark, "never happened with horses."

          Another interesting episode in the town's history was the spread of the suffragette movement and temperance in the 1920s during Prohibition. One of the floats in the 2011 centennial parade commemorates that time with the ladies holding hatchets over beer kegs and carrying Bibles. The title of the float is, "Lips That Touch Liquor Shall Never Touch Ours," prompting Grace's friend, Jill, to remark, "that lets out 99.9% of the male population in town."

          A small, four-year liberal arts college, Endurance College, started small and later became a leading industry in town. By 2011, it boasted 1300 students.

          Endurance also has a police department with six full time and four part-time officers under the watchful eye of Chief Stephen Lomax. The chief detective is TJ Sweeney, first woman deputy on the force. Very seldom has the town had murders and mostly the police investigate theft, car accidents, meth cookers and sellers, and underage drinking. 

          They have no idea that this is about to change in a big way. 

          Other interesting and colorful names for places in 2011 Endurance include Gimble's Paint and Wallpaper Store, the Endurance Public Library, the Homestretch Funeral Home, the Endurance Historical Society, Tully's Sportsbar, and, of course, the Shady Meadows Cemetery.

          Nice town, ya know what I mean, as long as you don't mind an occasional murder.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Change Is in the Air

          It's the middle of August and already I feel a change in the air. It's both predicted and expected. This change has been a little more difficult to appreciate in nature this year because the trees and grass in our little Midwestern town in America are suffering from the continued drought. The trees may still be green and much of the grass is yellow from the dryness, but in another month all will change and be replaced by the most beautiful hues in nature.

          There is a sense of expectation, a realization that this change is coming. All summer the sports fields at the local college have been lying dormant, waiting. As I drove past these football practice fields and soccer fields during the past month, I noticed the water sprinklers were going full tilt in anticipation. Change is coming.

          And now, little by little, more cars are appearing, parked in lots on the college campus. Students are back for "pre-season" programs and others are trickling in for various jobs and training. Sunday the football field was filled with players, back for the scrimmages and workouts that will lead to the next season of college football. Cars are unloading with student belongings, only a few at a time these days. It isn't yet the chaotic move-in day when they all return at once, packed to the hilt with boxes, rugs, technology, refrigerators, and clothing. Some arrive with U-Hauls. But for now the campus is slowly beginning to hum with life and activity.

          Driving to another town yesterday, I noticed the local high school's Titan cross country team trotting back into town from their long run to the golf course north of town. Funny, they all look so young to me these days. But, in the best of youthful health, they are working out in the pre-season, waiting for the first meet. Eager for the year to begin, they dream about what wonderful events will unfold.

          I remember that feeling--the idea that anything is possible.

          In the stores I visited yesterday, I saw parents and kids packed throughout the school supplies and fall clothing aisles. Armed with their trusty lists of what is needed for each grade, the parents were filling up carts and totaling up the bottom line. I am not sure I miss those shopping excursions from so long ago with my children, but I do hear the similar woes of those children of mine as they march their own children off on shopping trips this fall.

          On Facebook, I gaze at the pictures of my "friends," whose children are starting off to school for the first time. Their faces are filled with joy as they look washed and scrubbed and ready to start on that great adventure that is "school, finally." And, oh yes, the parents are eager and filled with joy too. I can almost hear the collective sigh throughout the country.

          I remember quite clearly the first day my oldest headed out for preschool the first time. We walked there with his sister in her stroller. He was primed and prepped to like school and he willingly let me leave. Unlike him, I cried most of the way home. He was the first. There would be two more first days with his siblings. And when he left for college, I was fine until I locked the door that first night and knew he wasn't coming home. Such deeply emotional times for a parent, and so very long ago for this one!

          And now, with the anticipation of a new fall, a new school year, I will be watching as others go off to school, books in backpacks and lunches packed. In my own life that has happened forty-two times as I left that first day to teach. This year, however, will be different and, like nature, I'm ready for the change. No wistful glances at "first day of school photos" and no sadness that I'm being left behind. It feels right.

And now despite being left behind, I still have that feeling of anticipation, that thought that, yes, anything can happen. It's a new year.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Author Research: Warming Up Cold Cases

          In my work in progress, A Silent Place to Die, my main character, Grace Kimball, is researching cold cases in her little town of Endurance, Illinois. Because the town is having a centennial, Grace is writing several pieces for the Endurance Register about the history of the town and some of its cold cases.
          Since I need to have Grace investigate a particular case, I felt it would be wise to find out what would be in such a file. I also need to know what kinds of information and pieces of evidence might be found in a cold case file, typically a cardboard, sealed carton.

          My amazing detective-consultant, Suzy Owens, who works for the police department in Ames, Iowa, put me on the track of a cold case that appears to have a number of resources on the internet. The victim was an ISU freshman named Sheila Jean Collins who was murdered on January 26, 1968. Her killer was never found. She had advertised in the student union for a ride to DeKalb because she was going over the weekend to see her boyfriend. Students wanting to share the gas payment would post their destination and date on the "ride board" in the student union.
Sheila Jean Collins

She never made it home. The assumption is that whoever picked her up in a blue Volkswagen was her killer. Her body was found, unclothed, in a ditch. The actual murder weapons in the case are missing--a rope and a piece of pipe. One of the websites that describes this case and has extensive references is here.

          To further gain more information about cold case files and reopening them, I visited a website called Defrosting Cold Cases. The author of this site investigates cold cases in conjunction with police departments. This is an intriguing internet site, and it also gave me some great information about how to go about researching the contents of cold case boxes.

          I decided to get some corroboration from a living source, the local Monmouth police chief, Bill Feithen, who was extremely professional and could answer anything I asked. I had made a list of things I would expect to find in a 1968 cold case box. I must have done my work well because he was able to add a few things and corroborate the choices I already made: black and white photos and some Polaroids that might have deteriorated, lab tests, evidence in paper bags, handwritten notes, a ME report, witness interviews, task force meeting notes, detective reports, newspaper articles, and objects from the scene of the crime.

          How well the evidence is preserved is another story. Particularly in a small town police department, officers in 1968 might not have been trained so well in preserving evidence over the long haul. Sometimes evidence boxes are moved, roofs and basements have leaks, mold gets in, mildew and dust take their toll, and just plain moving evidence can result in its loss.

          What would NOT be in there from 1968? Missing would be computer files/notes--replaced by hunt and peck typing of detectives on typewriters or writing by hand--DNA lab reports, although the evidence might still be there for modern tests; Xerox copies; color photographs, videotapes or audio tapes of interrogations and interviews; and high grade paper. I still remember the onionskin paper and carbon paper we used back then to type multiple copies.

          I'm afraid Grace has her work cut out for her because she has two boxes full of evidence from the 1968 cold case she is researching.

          Does this cold case have a connection to the present day murders in her little town of Endurance? Only time will tell.