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History Undusted: The Shilling

1 Shilling front

Numismatics is an interesting field, and in doing research for the Northing Trilogy, I wanted to know just what currencies would have been used at the time (1750s, England), and what the value of the currencies were:  How much could be purchased or earned?  Would a Stirling pound have made a pauper a land owner or not?  That brought me to the current book I’m reading, called “The Splendid Shilling” by James O’Donald Mays.  Here are a few bits and bobs:

The Shilling was a form of currency used in Britain up until the 1970s; even after that, the coins continued in circulation as smaller denominations (1 shilling was 5 p, and 2 shilling was 10p) until 1990, when it was demonetized.  I remember using them until they were phased out and replaced by the smaller coins of 5p and 10p values, and I kept a few for my coin collection.  One shilling coins were called “bobs”, and that led to programs such as “bob-a-job” fund raisers by the boyscouts, starting in 1914.  Two shillings were known as Florins, or “two-bob bits”.

1 Shillings reverseThe word shilling most likely comes from a Teutonic word, skel, to resound or ring, or from skel (also skil), meaning to divide.  The Anglo-Saxon poem “Widsith” tells us …”þær me Gotena cyninggodedohte; se me beag forgeaf, burgwarenafruma, on þam siexhund wæs smætes goldes, gescyred sceatta scillingrime...”  “There the king of the Goths granted me treasure: the king of the city gave me a torc made from pure gold coins, worth six hundred pence.”  Another translation says that the gold was an armlet, “scored” and reckoned in shilling.  The “scoring” may refer to an ancient payment method also known as “hack” – they would literally hack off a chunk of silver or gold jewellery to purchase goods, services and land, and the scoring may have been pre-scored gold to make it easier to break in even increments, or “divisions”.  From at least the times of the Saxons, shilling was an accounting term, a “benchmark” value to calculate the values of goods, livestock and property, but did not actually become a coin until the reign of Henry VII in the 1500s, then known as a testoon.  The testoon’s name and design were most likely inspired by the Duke of Milan’s testone.

 

Duke of Milan's Testone

Duke of Milan’s Testone

 

 

Henry VII Testoon

Henry VII Testoon

 

 

 

 

Originally posted on History Undusted, 15
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Square Eyes

word-500x392

How my brain looks at the moment…

 

I’ve been staring at the computer screen so much the past few weeks that everything else in life got put on the back burner (including this blog – my apologies!). I could afford to do this because my husband’s been away on his annual hiking & biking holidays, so I could focus on huge chunks of editing for (10-14) hours at a time. I’ve taken the stereotype of authors as hermits to the limits, I must say! And I enjoy it for the moment. With minimal appointments/classes/students during this period, I’ve gotten a LOT done: I’ve been updating/tweaking/editing the already-published novels because they needed to be uploaded again anyway (due to new releases, and broken links*).

This simple goal opened a pandora’s box of issues – like the fact that I’ve realised that I need to keep an active eye on Amazon; they manage to screw up things on a regular basis with links to books, links to my Author Page, and external links to my blog.  They don’t care that their mistakes cost me readers. And not just Amazon.com – but .de and co.uk… that translates to, ideally (heavy dose of sarcasm) checking 10 book links per website times 3… regularly. Obviously, I have nothing else to do with my time.

That’s one issue; another is something I’ve recently become aware of, and I think anyone publishing e-books using Word as a basis-format needs to be aware of: Start off your manuscript with a “nuclearized” version – NO formatting, and turning off all Word auto-corrects and auto-formats.  Word tends to add hidden bookmarks to help navigate through a manuscript; however, these can also mess up your final version if you’re sending it off as Word to be *converted by the end-publisher. That means, go to “Insert”, click “bookmark”, and unclick / re-click the “hidden bookmarks” checkbox. Anything beginning with _(gibberish) needs to be deleted. The bad news: each one has to be deleted individually (unless you pay for a tool like Kutools for Word)! I just did one of my e-books, and I had 280 superfluous bookmarks… Joy.

Once I get this all done, the next phase begins: Preparing all 5 e-book manuscripts for release on another website, Smashwords. They use what they affectionately call “the Meatgrinder” – a program that converts a nuked document into the various formats through which they distribute.  That means sifting through a 120-page PDF for grains of useful info in a vat of chafe – things I already know (like how to copy/paste!). They leave no stone unturned, but I still need to read through it and prepare my personalized list of editing/formatting points.

Every time I look at my to-do list at the moment, I take a few deep breaths. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, however: When I start work on my next manuscript, it will be nuclearized from the get-go; putting pure practices into effect from the beginning will (hopefully) save me a lot of headaches later on when it comes time to publish again!

In a few days, I hope to emerge from the cave to become a modern, socializing human again – in the meantime, just gimme a cuppasoup and turn off the phone, please.

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The Renaissance Value of Crafts

When you hear the word “crafts”, what comes to mind?  Is it a positive or a negative connotation?  Is it a waste of time, or something only people do who have too much time to kill? Or is it thought of in terms of hourly wage, selling at craft fairs or online at sites like Etsy or Ebay, and otherwise it’s just a hobby? Are crafts merely frivolous decorations, or can they also be practical?

The dictionary actually has a lot to say about the word; here are some of the terms used to describe it: Skill; art; ability; skilfulness – especially in making plans and carrying them into execution; ingenuity in constructing; dexterity; work or product of art; a branch of skilled work or trade, especially one requiring manual dexterity or artistic skill.

In the past decades, there have been many schools that have cut crafts from their curriculum due to budget constraints; such an act reflects society’s general opinion of the activity. But what educators fail to realize is that when they cut out teaching crafts, they cut out a few life skills that cannot be learned in mathematics class or history class or English class: Crafts teach decision-making skills, planning and execution skills, hand-eye coordination, the ability to see or detect possible alternative solutions to a challenge, and above all, the self-confidence that such skills can be learned. Creativity begets creativity – not just for crafts, but those skills translate into life on many levels. With this generation spending an unhealthy amount of time staring at their phone screens (as of 2017, the average was over 4 hours every day), these skills are necessary to be taught during school hours now more than ever.

I also see a vital historical aspect that is quickly disappearing from society: Skills passed from one generation to the next – the wisdom of experience that’s being lost in the mists of time, with even some skills being lost altogether.

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that a global internet crash happens; with it goes online connection, but also online commerce – many businesses rely on the internet for advertisements, sales and networking with suppliers, or buying and selling their component parts from here to Timbuktu. If there were a breakdown of the global market, how many of us know how to plant, tend and harvest a crop to feed our families? How to preserve foods over the winter? How to make something needed out of something on hand, like a basket, or altering clothes, or a meal out of random ingredients that are seasonal? Crafts cover a wide range of both practical and decorative areas that touch every aspect of our lives, whether we realize it or not.

The good news is that we still have the internet (woo-hoo!), and because of it, we live in a global village. If you want to learn a skill, a few clicks on YouTube can find you teachers from Spain to Russia to India to Hawaii to Maine to Timbuktu.  Whether or not you speak their language, chances are they can show you how to do something; they can teach you how to sew, weave, crochet, knit, turn bramble vines into baskets, which wild plants are edible and how to use them, how to make an earthen flooring (whether for a house, or a summer shack) and what advantages that kind of floor has over carpet or wood. You can learn survival skills, cooking skills, life hacks for just about anything, and so much more.

If creativity begets creativity, curiosity begets knowledge, which begets curiosity, which begets skills. That is also known as a renaissance man/woman – someone with an extraordinary broad and comprehensive knowledge.  The fundamental flaw of our modern society is that people have become specialists; they get a degree in law but can’t cook; they become a chef but can’t keep a houseplant alive… you get the idea. But the more we expand our personal knowledge base, the more we will benefit personally, become a benefit to society and eventually the next generation, by passing on our skills – whether we have children or not. And if, God forbid, there ever is a global market crash, such craft skills can be used to barter for the crops you haven’t grown, or the butter, or bread, or whatever it is you’ll need. The more renaissance people, the better off we’ll all be!

“To know how much there is to know is the beginning of learning to live.”

Dorothy West

Da Vinci Vitruvian Man

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The Art of Diatom Microscopy

 

John Quekett.jpg

John Quekett

Recently, I came across an interesting piece of history:  During the Victorian Age, people were fascinated with nature, excursions, and technology.  Microscopes were becoming accessible to the rising middle classes of England, and one man, John Quekett, was fascinated by both microscopes and phytoplankton. He wrote a book called Practical Treastise on the Use of the Microscope, which was a hit among the Victorians, and they began discovering a hidden world of tiny creatures known as plankton and diatoms.

 

Plankton is what makes the ocean waters green, or aqua-blue – the differences are not only the sand or rock colour of a particular region, but also the density of microscopic life in the water. The denser the population, the lower the visibility. A teaspoon of seawater can contain a million living creatures. Regardless of their size, they underpin the marine foodchain, and indeed, all life on earth: Diatoms, which is the most common type of plankton, number in the trillions (there are over 100,000 known species to date), produce more than 20% of all oxygen on earth, and contribute nearly half of the organic life in the oceans. The shells of dead diatoms can cover the ocean bed as deep as half a mile in places, and they fertilize the Amazon basin to a tune of 27 million tons annually.

The Victorians knew very little of all that; they were at the dawn of discovery, and modern sciences owe a lot to those early intrepid explorers – women and men who braved the weather, cliffs and oceans in (heavy skirts and) leather shoes to discover, explore, and appreciate nature.  Not only did they discover it, but they began making beautiful arrangements from the various shapes – they would display their microscopic artwork to friends, much like we might look through someone’s holiday photos today.  These were known as Rosette Slides, and there is still one famous artist keeping this art form alive today: Klaus Kemp, known as the Diatomist. Here are just a few of his masterpieces; to see more, just google his name. The two links in this article will take you to two short videos on the topic.  Enjoy!

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Postcard from Lugano IV

Greetings from Lugano!  Between my last postcard to you and this one, we’ve managed to emerge from the Dark Ages here and get internet in the flat.  We’re here for another week, and are being spoilt with perfect skies, crystal blue waters on the lake, and sunshine.

Before I let photos speak for themselves, I’d like to share an interesting story that happened today: My husband and I took a ferry to a small town on the lake, called Morcote, and we happened to sit next to an older couple the same ages as my in-laws. I find people fascinating, and so we started talking; before long, I learned the origins of their family names, about accidents when the husband was a small boy, their children and grandchildren, their careers, and a lot more. When they told me their first names, I mentioned that my husband had an older cousin with the same name, whose father was killed in a train accident in 1948 in Einsiedeln. It turned out that the woman’s cousin and uncle were on that same train, one car back from my husband’s uncle; they were severely injured, but both survived.  What are the odds of someone else from Zurich being on the same boat on Lake Lugano today, sitting next to us, whose family had also been affected by the same accident 70 years ago? It just goes to prove how small the world is, and that we just might have something (or a lot) in common with the person sitting next to us on a ship, or in a train, or on a subway, or in a concert, or in a classroom – we just have to break out of our own little bubbles and reach out. And it also reminded me that sometimes the smallest actions can change lives forever: Joseph Hüsler had wanted to bring his children (2 and 4 at the time) candy after visiting his aunts in Einsiedeln; he forgot, got off the first train he’d been on, and spent more time with the aunts after he’d purchased the candy, until the next train departed. That was the train that crashed. Curious, I found a couple archive photos from the time of the accident; here they are (both images, credit – http://www.waedenswil.ch):

1948 Zugunglück Wädenswil-Einsiedeln - 22 Februar 1948, 22 Starb - waedenswil.ch1948 Zugunglück - Wädenswil-Einsiedeln - 22 Starb - waedenswil.ch

We had a wonderful visit with the couple, and then waved goodbye as we went our separate ways. So, as promised, here are a few images of Lugano, Morcote, and surrounding towns:

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Life & all that Jazz: Flash Flood

LimmattalerZeitung May 2018

Credit: © KEYSTONE/EPA MTI/PETER KOMKA

For weeks, my husband and I had marked in our agendas this past Friday as the evening to do a bit of cleaning in our cellar – getting rid of bits & bobs we no longer use.  Nature gave us a helping hand in the decision process (you know the sort: Do we really need this? Should we chuck that?) when our town was hit by a flash flood last Wednesday.  To have a (muddy) tour of our area, just click here. A waterfall came pouring in around the frame of our cellar window, flooding the entire level; every neighbour had the same problem, so we’ve seen a lot of each other this week! Fortunately, our micro-geography kept us from getting a mudslide from the nearby (higher) agricultural and forest areas, and the water only reached 4-5 cm.  Others were not so well-situated, and several underground parking garages were buried in mud baths up to the car roofs; some people had hurried home to avoid hail damage to their cars, only to have them totalled as they were parked inside…

 

The company that handles our property’s administration organized de-humidifiers and large fans for each cellar room, but we had a busy few days trying to assess damage, getting things dried off or off the floor to let it dry out; the only things potentially disasterous were the small freezer we had there (fortunately, we didn’t have much in there at the time!), and boxes of one of our music CDs (ironically, titled “Plausch im Räge” – “Fun in the Rain”!); only the bottom boxes were affected, so I only had to hand-towel-dry 300.  When Friday rolled around, it was quick and easy to downsize our storage! It’s liberating to simplify; we tend to collect things over the years – large plant pots, picture frames that we used to have hanging in our old flat but which have had no wall space here (because of odd-shaped walls in every room), an assortment of hardshell suitcases that weigh more than half of today’s luggage allowance when empty, and so on and so forth. What we could, we gave to a charity shop, and the rest was quickly disposed of at a nearby collection service.  There’s still more to sort out, but we’ll have to wait for the floor to dry completely before we can move things back into place to get to the other half.

I was reminded once again what great neighbours we have; everyone pitched in together, and asked if they could help, or were concerned if others had suffered loss; all of our cellars have been open and drying, and everyone trusts each other with that; everyone is in and out of the other cellars, emptying the dehumidifiers’ tanks when they need them, checking window seals, etc. I’ve lived in areas (e.g. in Paisley, Scotland) where that would simply not have been possible – a nearby neighbourhood, Ferguslie Park, was one of the roughest in the UK, and if you left a bike outside of your flat inside your building, even with a lock, it would be gone within a few hours – or sometimes even minutes.  I hadn’t realised how used to the sound of gunfire I’d become until I moved to Switzerland; when the first national holiday approached and people started setting off fireworks a few days early, I’d just assumed they were gunshots.  Here, neighbours pull together; people greet each other, even strangers, in the streets; and though modern society tends to isolate each of us in our own, busy little bubbles, sometimes it’s a good thing that those bubbles of self-sufficiency, routine and agendas get popped.

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Thoughts about Props

The past fortnight I’ve been doing something that requires occasional brain-power but mostly just time, hands and space:  I’ve been making props (see below) – to be precise, a stage-prop sized crown (that will serve as a piñata, and then an offering basket), and a life-sized helmet, shield, and sword (the latter is still in progress).  In between those times of brain-work, I started to wonder where the word prop came from, and where it’s gone over its lifetime in English. And when did props become another word for congratulations, good job? It’s a noun, a verb, and an entire phrase or concept.

As an object used in a play, it came into English as properties and was in use in that theatrical context from the early 15th century; it became props around 1840 (we’re not the only generation to shorten words for convenience). In German, the word is “das Requisit” which is related to the English word “requisite” (indispensable, required, essential) which is kinda the point of theatre props.  Prop can also be used to mean support, both literally (for plants and the like) and figuratively (e.g. when a person is in a position of either authority or notoriety for no reason – yet not quite the same as a goldbrick, shirker, malingerer, or tool).  It can be the shortened term for a propeller (e.g. prop plane or turboprop), or proposal (e.g. a political issue up for vote). Props as a shortened slang for proper respect due for (a job well done) started popping up around 1999. In that context, it’s closely related to kudos (an uncountable noun meaning praise or accolades), which entered English as university slang in 1799, and comes from the Greek kydos meaning glory or fame (in battle).

That’s what I love about English – a simple word can have quite a pedigree!

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History Undusted: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks, Immortal HeLa CellsIf you’ve ever taken any medication stronger than an aspirin and benefited from it, chances are that you owe your thanks to an African American woman who never lived to hear your tale.

Born in 1920 as Loretta Pleasant, when her mother died giving birth to her 10th child and the father could not support the family, the children were divided among relatives to be raised.  Loretta, who became known as Henrietta, was sent to live with her grandfather, Tommy Lacks, who lived in a two-storey log cabin (former slave quarters) on the tobacco plantation of her white great-grandfather.  After having five children with her first cousin, whom she married after their first two children were born, she died at the age of 31 of cervix cancer.

What is most remarkable about her life is something she never knew:  During the diagnosis of her cancer, done at Johns Hopkins (the only hospital near her home that would treat black patients), her doctor, George Gey, was given samples of her cervix for biopsies. Before this time, any cells cultured from other cells would die within days.  Dr Gey discovered that her cells were remarkably durable and prolific.  A selection of her cells was isolated and cultured (without her knowledge – back then, permission wasn’t necessary for what was considered tissue waste) into the immortal cell line that became known as HeLa Cells; they are still in use today worldwide, being the first human cells to be cloned successfully, in 1955.

HeLa cells are so prolific that if they land in a petri dish, they will take over; they have been used to create the vaccine against Polio, in research for AIDS, gene mapping, cancers and countless other projects; to date, scientists have grown over 50 million metric tonnes of her cells*, and there are nearly 11,000 patents involving these cells.  Her name should be known, and as the godmother of biotechnology, her history deserves to be undusted!

For a fascinating book on this topic, see The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. I’ve read it, and had trouble putting it down!

*For a more detailed article in the New York Times, click here.

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Life & All that Jazz

I’ve been silent awhile; sometimes I just need a change of pace from daily writing, and blogging, to retank creative energy.  Life has been full in that time, so it’s not as if I’ve been sitting around in a toga eating grapes and reading a book… the whole time.  I’ve been doing crafts; I do a lot of all kinds of crafts, and my craft room has a bit of a reputation – it’s packed neatly with more supplies than any craft store I know of in Switzerland, literally.  People come to me when they need things repaired, or when they don’t know how to make something, or when e.g. their school class needs party decorations on a large scale, or large paper maché stage props. Here’s a small corner of my craft room… (just click on any of the images below to enlarge and have a snoop!) – everything you see is practical; the bear on the shelf is a ratchet screwdriver with 6 heads tucked into the belly; the grass blades are pens; the wooden bowls are great for sorting bits & bobs… you get the idea!

  Craft room, April 2018

And here’s our front door sign; the sign itself is decoupaged with the inside of security envelopes, and the large beads are made of paper.  This is our current sign, though the straps and dangles are interchangeable, as I have several sets (dangling from the metal ring in the photo above), depending on the season and my mood.

Spring 2018 Welcome Sign

I do a lot of practical crafts for our home – from coasters to tea caddies to curtains; here are a few images of things I’ve made from paper and cardboard:

Tea Caddy 1 - SmallCraft Cupboard, April 2018 1 - SmallCraft Cupboard, April 2018 3 - SmallLibrary Shade 1

Electrical Plug Prop, April 2018 - Small

The colourful doors are on my craft room book shelf; each cubby holds a world of crafts supplies! The giant electrical plug & socket are stage props for an upcoming musical production based on my husband’s first CD; that week, I’ll be busy as well, vocal coaching the soloists as well as the choir.  On the final evening, the plug will reveal that it is actually a piñata, stuffed with bags of toys and chocolates. Peeking out from behind the socket is the neck of a paper maché ukelele case I made and then doodled, as well as a bouquet of paper rolls ready for another project similar to the library’s round window shade…

Besides crafts, we’ve had a party and a few evenings with guests; the party was for part of my husband’s work gang and their partners, and I made a Mexican fiesta (here’s my menu, for those interested).

Kitchen Sign.JPG

This magnetic sign is now on my stove; I found it in a quaint little vintage café in Bremgarten, when my husband took me out for a day of surprises for our 25th wedding anniversary!  He’s good at keeping secrets… he’d invited two couples to celebrate with us: One for lunch in Bremgarten in a restaurant along the river, and one for dinner, at the Wörth Schlössli Restaurant at the base of Rhein Falls. We had a great day together, as always! In between, we went to downtown Zürich to spend a gift certificate I’d received from friends on my birthday; it was, of course, in an art shop!

So, that’s just a glimpse of some of the things I’ve been doing (when not in my toga eating grapes and reading).  Now that my mini hiatus is over, I’m tucking back into writing and all the bits and bobs that turn “writing” into novels!

 

 

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What’s in a Name?

The topic of names could cover quite a wide variety of areas, such as naming babies, place names, collective names of animal groups, or translations of names into languages such as Elvish or Runes; but I’d like to focus on the naming of characters for fiction writers.

Choosing character names can be fairly straightforward if you’re writing contemporary fiction; having said that, be sure to choose names that are not too similar from one character to the next. Unless there is a reason for close names, such as Sandy and Brandi for twins, the names need to stand apart to help readers keep straight who’s who, especially if there are multiple characters in a scene.  In Lord of the Rings, however, JRR Tolkien uses names to comical effect when naming the dwarves: Bifur, Bofur & Bombur; Dori, Nori & Ori; Kili & Fili; Balin & Dwalin; Gloin & Oin; only Thorin stands out as leader and king with a unique name.

When choosing names for modern characters, consider their place, time and age:  If you’re writing a grandfatherly character, he can have a name that was popular in the ‘30s or ‘40s; but if your character is in their 20s, then don’t name them Mildred or Frank.  If you are writing children’s fiction, keep the names modern and simple to pronounce when reading aloud.

If you’re writing historical fiction, consider the era and country in which you’ve set your characters.  For my 18th century trilogy, I compiled a list of names from parish records in southern England from the early-to-mid 18th century, and then condensed it down according to frequency; that gave me a list of the top 20 male names and top 20 females names from which to choose.  Back then, children could only be christened with Christian names approved of by the church; names of kings and queens were popular, such as James, William, Charles, Anne, Charlotte, or Elizabeth.  Biblical names from the New Testament such as Timothy or Mary were also popular, but Old Testament names, such as Jacob or Rachel, were only given to Jewish children.  If you’re setting your story in the ancient Middle East, then find out what names were common then and there; just make sure that whatever you name your characters, they’re easy to read.  Combinations of consonants that are difficult to read will be skipped over – a pity, if your main character is saddled with a forgettable name, such as Cthulhu (Lovecraft), or Tylwyth or Tleilax (Dune).  In my 18th century trilogy, I also had a few characters’ names which emphasized their general character:  Mrs Stacklesprat was a prickly, withered, gossiping, sour woman, while Mrs Huddlepoke was a cuddly, motherly, soft & jolly woman.

For Science Fiction and Fantasy genres, names can be drawn from sources such as planets, galaxies or stars (Andromeda, Galaxus, Draco), or objects such as trees or flowers, or natural occurrences (Vortex, Sparkle, Wave, etc.)

There are so many resources available for choosing names these days:  Online you’ll find dozens of sites for baby names and what they mean; a great place to find names is in film credits – I watch those with pen in hand, and when I find an interesting first or last name, I jot them down; you can combine them randomly and come up with some great fictional names.

Things to consider when choosing your names:

  • Culture: Don’t assume a name is Japanese when it might be Chinese – research!
  • Era: Don’t choose a modern name for a character set in the 1920’s, and vice versa.
  • Age of character: Give age-appropriate names to each character, especially for modern fiction.
  • Combinations with other characters’ names: Unless you’re going for the comical effect of JRR Tolkien and have the language chops to carry it off, choose names that differ from the others in your story.
  • Occupation: Don’t name your murderer Fluffy…
  • Ensure it’s fictional: Don’t name a character and publish your book, only to find out it’s a real name (unless it’s John Doe – then I’d say, go back to the drawing board with choosing a good name)! Google it to see if it exists…
  • Be cautious: If a character is closely based on someone you know, choose a name unrelated to your (soon-to-be-ex) friend or relative…!  Also, there are certain names that are taboo due to historical events; I’d never recommend naming your character Adolf, or Hitler, or Stalin.
  • Personality: If your character is a sturdy, reliable, powerful personality, don’t give them a wimpy name!  And if a character is a wimp by nature, don’t give them a powerful-sounding name – unless they’re going to grow into the name over the arc of the story.
  • Meaning: A name’s meaning might have bearing on your character; it could also add a double meaning.  In the story I’m currently writing, a character is called Janus; this was the name of a Roman god who was two-faced – one looking to the past and the other to the future; it is also the name of one of Saturn’s moons.  As the story is Science Fiction, either meaning applies to my character.

I hope these thoughts help you on your way to choosing memorable character names for your own projects.  Whatever you do, keep writing!

Names 1Names 2Names 3Names 4Frank

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