Category Archives: Nuts & Bolts

The nitty gritty of the English language and then some.

Cutting Room Floor

I’ve been squirrelled away, editing. Editing. Editing. Once in a while, I come up for air or a tea. Then back to it. Then take a walk. Cook dinner. Back to it.

Everyone has their own writing techniques, and over the course of my career, I’ve tried most of them: I’ve outlined a plot and characters to a T; I’ve written out scene cards on post-its and rearranged them until I had the story down. But my tried-and-true method is to open a Word document and make use of their post-it function (that’s what I call their review/comment function), then type out 10 scenes that cover the arc of the story. After that, I toss my characters into the room (parameters of the scene) and let ’em loose. That comment function is worth its weight in gold, as I can slice out something and pop it in a comment off to the side, move it, scrap it, or take out the core and put it somewhere else. I can put reminders to check continuity in there, along with plot development thoughts, what-ifs, alternatives, etc. and try them out whenever it’s time, then delete them and move on. I tried the popular Scrivener program once, and it ate a manuscript for lunch (fortunately, I’d saved a Word version!)! Besides, I’m more organized than that program will ever be!

In my current manuscript, which is science fiction, I tossed the characters on an alien planet (a character in its own right) and let them figure it out. As they talk and move through the scenes and through time, they ripen and develop into full characters with a deeper story as a result. But that can also result in a chunky manuscript, that then needs to go through the toning process – cutting away the excess fat of characters, scenes, and dialogues and making them lean… in the film industry, it’s called the “cutting room floor” process. And that’s the current stage I’m in. When I started out, I had no idea how I’d reach my goal: My starting point, which was the completed manuscript in December last year, was a whopping 148K! My end goal, with a marketable science-fiction range of 100-115K, was over a few hills. But every journey begins and ends with small steps. I started going through my usual edit/proofing list, and I’m now in sight of the goal, just under 117K, and I’m not done yet. The trick is taking off my writer’s cap and putting on my editor’s hat; that means letting go of favourite scenes, plot points, and even characters when necessary. If it doesn’t serve the main- and sub-plots and character development, then out it goes. My husband, who was once a black belt in Lean Six Sigma, has called it my “lean sigma process”.

Sometimes I feel like this squirrel… and that’s where that comment function comes in handy again!

So… I’m off to make myself lunch, then dive back into the editing. I’ll reach my goal, with a comfortable margin, within the next week!

If you’re a writer, what is your approach? Copious amounts of pre-notes and hundreds of questions to develop characters and plot in your mind, or winging it? Please spill the beans in the comments below!

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Filed under Articles, How It's Made, Musings, Nuts & Bolts, Plot Thots & Profiles

Rabbit Holes

These past few weeks have flown by so quickly, I’ve hardly had time to look up from my keyboard! Except when I went to the optometrist for new glasses (there might have been a slight connection between the two). I’ve been editing my final sci-fi draft. When I need a break from editing, I’ve been reading into articles by the new ebook company I’ll be working with, Draft2Digital, which has recently merged with Smashwords (my current and former platform). And in the context of editing, I’ve been down several rabbit holes:

Dashes

Back when I learned English, we had the good ol’ hyphen and the dash. Somewhere along the way the en-dash and the em-dash moved in, and they turned out to be worthy additions to the conversation. Now to make things confusing, 2em-dashes and 3em-dashes have elbowed their way into the punctuation party. I’m not sure how I feel about them yet, but their definitions seem to have squeezed the others so close that they often overlap or exchange places on the definition and usage dance floor. Until I need them to fix me a drink, I’ll probably ignore the party crashers.

Strunk and White’s The Element of Style is a cornerstone of grammar and writing style and is widely considered timeless; in fact, it was listed by TIME in 2011 as one of the 100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923. The irony of this cartoon is that when I recently pulled out my copy to find out the nitty-gritty of using en- and em-dashes in dialogue, I found not a jot or tittle about them in the entire book. It covers hyphens and dashes, both briefly, but nary a word beyond. Every website that I looked at had contradictory definitions and usages of all types of dashes; so until an authoritative source comes up with a defined set of rules, I will continue to use them the way I’ve learned them, and just be consistent in my punctuation within my current manuscript.

Dialogue Tags vs. Action Tags

Another rabbit hole I went down was a learning curve on the two types of tags. On one hand, I’d never honestly thought about the fact that there could a difference in punctuation between the two; on the other hand, for the most part, I’ve intuitively done it right, though not always, which is why I’ve added it to my checklist of edits – and something I will keep a closer eye on in the future. Here’s an example:

He said, “Oh, the irony of ignorance!” – This is a dialogue tag with its attending punctuation. Dialogue tags are any verb that can be spoken – said, cheered, whispered, etc.

He nodded. “I hadn’t thought about it, but that makes sense.” – Nodding is something done, and this is, therefore, an action tag. Notice that its attending punctuation is a period separating the action tag from the dialogue.

Two things make less logical sense to me; if you have insight on them or experience using them or reading them in novels, please comment! [Keep in mind that these are American English rules; I am writing my current novel in American English, though until now, I’ve written in Commonwealth English (I use that term rather than British English because it is used beyond Britain).]

  • How often have you spoken and laughed, chuckled, or smiled simultaneously? These are, for me, nuances in spoken vocabulary, and not action tags. Would you rather write: He smiled, “I thought you might say that.” or He smiled. “I thought you might say that.” ? In this particular instance both would work, but there are times when it has the potential to break up the rhythm of a sentence or scene too much. Which do you prefer?
  • When an action interrupts dialogue, it needs to be separated with (IMHO) rather odd punctuation, for example: “From what I’ve read about these dwellings” –he looked at the woman kindly– “they’re far from mud huts.” My years as an English teacher mean that missing commas and attached en-dashes hurt my eyes; maybe that’s why I needed new glasses!

Euphemisms

Another tangent this week has been looking for creative swear words. Nothing irritates me more, when reading a book, for the author to fall back on standard F-bombs. That just says too lazy to be creative to me. It’s unimaginative. It doesn’t make a character stand out from the rest of the lazy crowd. There are so many fun alternatives, there really is no excuse! Here are a few I’ve come across and found myself smiling:

  • People cussing in a foreign language; it sounds better to them.
  • Fart knocker (e.g. “you little fart knocker”)
  • Sun of a nutcracker! Sun of a biscuit!
  • Cheese n’ crackers!
  • Shoot a monkey!
  • Shiitake mushrooms!
  • Well, butter my bum!
  • Clusterfluff!
  • In a type of Chinese Whispers, “Hells bells” became “hells bells, conker shells”, misunderstood by kids as “hells bells, taco shells” – now that family just yells, “Taco shells!” when they’re upset!
  • Names as swear words might backfire if you happen to meet someone by that name; here are a few: Christopher Columbus; Gordan Bennett (in Scotland); Gottfried Stutz (here in Switzerland – I actually taught English in a company that had an employee with that name!)
  • Sugar Honey Ice Tea!
  • Sunny Beaches
  • Fudgenuts
  • Someone I used to know would say things like “bug knuckles” or “dog feathers” or “ants pants” when she was upset.
Credit: Getty Images

These are just a few of the areas I’ve delved into in the past few weeks; I’m still deep in the editing/proofreading process; once that’s complete, the “behind the scenes” checklists begin – those are the things readers will never see: The number of hours put into finding the right images and designing the best cover art possible; choosing the right fonts; formatting for the various mediums online and print; writing blurbs, preparing marketing bits and bobs, and setting up all the dominoes in a row for the final push of publishing!

Clusterfluff! I’d better get my fanny in gear!

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Filed under Articles, Etymology, Grammar, Lists, Musings, Nuts & Bolts, Research

Seeds, Pits, Pips or Stones?

If you’ve hung around here for any length of time, you know that my curiosity likes to sprint down obscure paths. I recently finished the first draft of my next novel (Woohoo! Now the real work ahead!), and one of the things I was researching was something I wanted to write but then hit that proverbial wall: Do I use pit or seed in this context? And what’s the actual difference between the two, or are they interchangeable? And where does stone or pip come in?

Well, as with any roadsign to curious paths, I pulled out my walking stick – or in this case, the dictionary (as in, Wiktionary). And as you’ll see, just looking it up won’t do – I had to learn a wee bit about botany along the way:

Peach Pit Anatomy

Anatomy of a Peach. Image Credit: http://www.pngfuel.com

Endo- means within, inner, absorbing, or containing. Peri- means peripheral, or surrounding; Meso- means middle (as in Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic); Exo- means outer (as in exoplanet); and -carp means part of a fruit or fruiting body. I tend to remember something better if I can make a linguistic leap of understanding, and the suffix carp- actually comes from the Greek word Karpos, which was the mythological son of the west wind and spring (new vegetation), which naturally includes fruit.

In this instance, however, the dictionary wasn’t exactly helpful:

SEED: A fertilized and ripened ovule*, containing an embryonic plant. [*the structure in a plant that develops into a seed after fertilization.]

I don’t know about you, but I found myself none the wiser.

PIT is even more confusing! It’s a seed, stone or pip inside a fruit, or a shell in a drupe (such as a peach) containing a seed.

PIP makes the issue even foggier: It’s a British term for a seed inside certain fleshy fruits (compare stone/pit), such as a peach, orange, or apple!

STONE seems the clearest definition (insert sarcastic tone here): The central part of some fruits, particularly drupes; consisting of the seed and a hard endocarp layer.

If I had to put it in layman’s terms, I’d say it like this: The seed contains the embryo; the pit/pip/stone protects the seed until it’s ready to sprout (and only certain types of fruits have pits); pits are usually singular in a fruit, while there may be one or more seeds.

Pits are found in fruits like cherries, mangoes, peaches, plums, avocadoes, olives and dates. Seeds are found in fruits like apples, oranges, and bananas (the variety of bananas usually sold in stores usually have sterile seeds – what we might call “seedless”). If I can follow this jungle-infested side path for a moment, did you know that bananas don’t actually grow on trees, but are the world’s largest herb, and that they grow upside-down, defying gravity? Another interesting point is that a seedless banana can still propagate itself – I should rather refer to it as clone: Each” tree” (i.e. layers of leaves) produces 1 bunch of fruit and then dies; but its rhizome, below ground, simply sprouts up as the one is dying and repeats the process.

Then there’s the hairy issue of the coconut: Technically, it’s a one-seeded drupe; but it could be considered a fruit, a nut, or even a seed. When you buy a coconut in the store, the outer layers have generally been stripped off: The exocarp is usually green; the fibrous husk beneath that is the mesocarp, and the hard, woody layer we often think of as “a coconut” is actually the endocarp. Every part of the coconut and the palm plant (not tree) on which it grows can be used for something, so it’s often referred to as “the tree of life”.

And let’s not get into figs; they’re technically inverted flowers, and besides, there’s probably a wasp inside there (without the fig wasp, we’d have no figs). Now ya know. Don’t look into that too closely unless you really want to know, because you’ll never look at a fig the same way again.

Learn something new and get smarter every day!

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Filed under Articles, Etymology, Nuts & Bolts, Research, Science & Technology

A Rabble of Animals

Collective Noun - Murder of Crows

Did you know that a group of vultures has a sense of humour? Or at least the people who decided to name them did (likely back in the 16th century, when a slew of collective nouns emerged): While hanging out and doing nothing, vultures are called a committee. When feeding, they’re called a wake. There’s irony in them thar’ varmints.

Some collective nouns are common sense, and others simply common, such as packs of wolves, flocks of birds or herds of cattle; but did you know that lice flock, and sea urchins form herds, too? If I say swarm, you might think of flies or gnats or even minnows; but you could use the same word to describe a group of eels.

Worms bed, dotterels trip, cheetahs form a coalition, and Hippopotami bloat. Rhinoceroses either crash or form a stubbornness, while skunks stench and squirrels scurry. Jellyfish smack, brood or fluther, while oysters bed and goldfish glint or create a troubling. Butterflies flutter, swarm or kaleidoscope; caterpillars army, while grasshoppers cloud.

There are some fun combinations: Crows murder (they also gather as a storytelling or a parcel), Flamingos flamboyance, guillemots bazaar, gulls screech (don’t they, though?), and hawks kettle (flying in large numbers) and boil (two or more spiralling on an updraft). Hummingbirds charm, as do Magpies (unless they murder), and owls and rooks hold a parliament – I’d trust them to do so more than most politicians. Peacocks muster, ostentation and pride, while penguins tuxedo or huddle (I kid you not). Young penguins gather in a Créche, just like human toddlers, and seagulls squabble.

Starlings form beautiful murmurations and chatterings, while swifts scream and tigers ambush. I’d love to see a zeal of zebras, but not so much a prickle of porcupines. Whales pod while trout hover and stingrays fever; snails walk, frogs knot and, believe it or not, rattlesnakes rhumba! Elephants gather as a memory, while deer gang and bucks clash, and gnus form an implausibility. Running into a mob of kangaroos might be quite pleasant, but not an intrusion of cockroaches!

There are hundreds more such collective nouns; English is an ever-changing language, but some things are just too good to allow them to go the way of the Dodo, so add a few more colourful expressions to your language, and enjoy the idiosyncrasies of English!

I’ll just add that, by now, my grammar-checking program is having a nervous breakdown.

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What a Buttload!

Now, now… if you thought I was going to be rude, you don’t know me very well.  While I am certain that the term “butt” has led to countless jibes and jokes down through the centuries, it is (among other things) in fact an English measuring unit for wine.  A Buttload is a unit for liquids which contains 126 gallons (~476 litres) which is one-half tun (252 gallons / 953 litres), and equivalent to the pipe (the latter also referred to the large container used for storing liquids or foodstuffs; now we rather use the terms cask or vat).  That they needed a term for a unit of wine that massive may seem odd at first; but when you consider that the water they had to drink was the same water that flowed downhill from the landlord’s latrine, the cows in the pasture, and the washerwoman upstream, wine, beer and ale (depending on which harvest climate you lived in) was by far the safest thing to drink.  If wine was available in your area, it was stored in barrels and thus was drunk relatively young; also, to counter the effects of drinking it at every meal, wine was often diluted 4 or 5-to-1 with water; that took all of the buzz out of it (and added who knows how many bugs that they were drinking wine to avoid in the first place…).  Now you know.  What a buttload off my mind… I think it’s time for a glass of (undiluted) wine.

Treading Grapes.jpg

 

Originally Posted on History Undusted, August 2015

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Filed under Etymology, History, History Undusted, Nuts & Bolts, Riddles

Finding Time

Lately, I’ve been thinking about time; how much we have in a day, how fast it passes, and that days never seem to be long enough. In dwelling on time, is it a waste of time? Is productivity only what our hands produce, or does it include, in our perception, what our minds ruminate on? Obviously, the trail led me to idioms about time.

What idioms or phrases do you use to describe your day? I use one phrase about four times a week, as I write it in my journal to describe my day in a nutshell before I go into details: “Hit the Ground Running” (I just write HTGR). I’m grateful for the days I don’t use it… those days are like a secret stash of chocolate to be enjoyed (if you knew my husband, you’d know that’s a matter of self-preservation – but don’t tell him. Hoi, Schätzli). The phrase, etymologically speaking, came into use in the late 19th century, but really, well, hit the ground running during World War 2: It became a popular way of describing deployment from ships or parachuting into combat. Later it moved to a figurative sense; some days, I use it both literally and figuratively.

'Here's my plan,you hit the ground running.'

Here is a collection of idioms about using one’s time. Let me know if you use any of them regularly. If you know of any others, please share it in the comments below!

A day late and a dollar short

Against the clock

A good time

A hard time

A laugh a minute

A matter of time

A mile a minute

A month of Sundays

Around the clock

As honest as the day is long

A whale of a time

Beat the clock

Behind the times

Better late than never

Bide one’s time

By degrees

Call it a day/night

Call time (on something)

Carry the day

Catch someone at a bad time

Clock in, clock out

Crack of dawn

Crunch time

Day in the sun

Day to day

Dog Days

Donkey’s years

Don’t know whether to wind a watch or bark at the moon

Do time

Dwell on the past

Eleventh hour

Feast today, famine tomorrow

Five o’clock shadow

For the time being

From now on

From time to time

Have one’s moments

Have time on one’s side

Here today, gone tomorrow

High time

Hit the big time

One day, he hoped to hit the big time.

Hour of need

In an instant / In the blink of an eye

In the interim

In the long run

In the right (wrong) place at the right (wrong) time

In this day and age

Just in the nick

Kill time

Like clockwork

Like there’s no tomorrow

Long time no see

Make my day

Make time

Not in a million years

No time like the present

No time to lose

Now and then

Now or never

Once in a blue moon

Once upon a time

Only time will tell

Pressed for time

Serve time

Shelf life

Sooner or later

Stand the test of time

Stuck in a time warp

Take one day at a time

The moment of truth

The ship has sailed

The time is ripe

The time of one’s life

Time for a change

Time flies

Time heals all wounds

Time is money

Time is of the essence

Time off for good behaviour

Too much time on one’s hands

Turn back the hands of time

Until hell freezes over

Waste of time

Wasting time

When the moon turns to blood

Year in, year out

Time_Well_Wasted

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Columbus’s Egg

1200px-columbus_breaking_the_egg'_(christopher_columbus)_by_william_hogarth

Columbus Breaking the Egg, by William Hogarth, 1752

At the end of December, I began a new training course in crafting short stories; this has renewed my interest in finding good writing prompts. By focusing on something, you usually begin to see things related to it everywhere you go. For instance, if you’re doing a puzzle and focus on the edges, you’ll begin to see them right under your nose where they’d been all along – you just hadn’t seen them before because you’d been focused on a specific colour or a particular section.

My brain is usually on rapid-fire mode; in any given second, dozens of topics flash through my thoughts. Reaching into this stream and pulling out one particular topic to focus on can lead to interesting, related issues, and Columbus’s Egg is one of the results.

The original thought that I plucked from the stream this morning was, “How do you actually spell Kobayashi Maru?” (I know, right? I’m sure you had exactly that thought as soon as your feet hit the ground this morning; it’s just that my “morning” began this afternoon as I wrote through the night and got to bed at 9:30 this morning…) By looking it up, I came across the apocryphal story about Columbus:

The story goes that Christopher Columbus, while attending a dinner, was confronted with Spanish scoffers who said that, had he not been the first to discover the Americas, someone else would have done so. He made no answer but asked a servant to bring him an egg (presumably a boiled one). He then challenged everyone present: They must try to get an egg to stand on its end, with nothing to support it in that position. Everyone tried and failed; when it was Columbus’s turn, he tapped the tip of the egg on the table, and the crushed, flat end made the egg remain upright. the moral was that a solution is obvious to everyone, but only once it has been found by someone else.

brunelleschi's dome, duomo of florence

the dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral

The story is recorded in Girolamo Benzoni’s History of the New World, published in 1565, as he related it to Columbus, but it is likely apocryphal as the same anecdote was circulating 15 years previously about the architect of the dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral in Florence, Italy.

My original thought’s term, Kobayashi Maru, is a term that any Trekkie will be familiar with: It was a no-win scenario designed to test Star Fleet cadets’ characters in the face of certain defeat. The term has gone beyond Star Trek and is used in business to illustrate the importance of changing the rules of the game in order to win, i.e. re-evaluating the foundation of a particular business scenario.

There are other such related terms, such as the Gordian KnotCatch-22, and the Archimedean point. All of these concepts are about thinking outside the box, which is exactly what I try to do as a writer.  If you’re also a writer, catch those thoughts – write them down, and let them foment into something interesting! Keep writing!

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Filed under Articles, Etymology, History, History Undusted, Links to External Articles, Musings, Nuts & Bolts, Research, Writing Prompt

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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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!

DSCN9991DSCN9994DSCN9996DSCN0004

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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!

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