What’s In a Name

ShakespeareWhen your imagination first gives birth to a story, the characters are nameless, and choosing names is an important step in fleshing out their identities. The names must fit the personalities. Huck Finn stiffens up if you call him Jackson Remington Pollack, III, and D’Artagnan of The Three Musketeers loses all his steam if you name him Humphrey Clinker.

Naming my death row inmate Kenneth Deatherage (pronounced “death a ridge”) in The Closing took me on a meandering journey. The surname was easy. I found it researching the ancestry of the Oder family. My ancestors were farmers living near Little Washington and Flint Hill, Virginia, in the 1800’s. Deatherages lived all around them, and I found gravestones near those towns bearing that name dating back to 1830. I was so familiar with the name when I selected it for my character that I didn’t realize until later how well it matched the accusations against him – Death rage.

His given name was what caused me trouble. Originally, I called him Carl Deatherage, but that didn’t feel right after I’d written a few chapters. This often happens. As a character develops and matures, the name I first chose slides off the mark, and I’ll cast around for a better fit. Deatherage became Robert, then Logan, then Lonnigan. None of them worked, and in the end I gave him my first name, Kenneth, and I had his mother call him Kenny, which my mom called me till the day she passed on. At least one friend was troubled by this. “Why would you give an accused murderer-rapist your own name?” she asked, looking somewhat anxious. (I’ve also noticed she’s careful never to be left alone with me since she read the book.) The reason is I had a hard time getting into this character’s head. I thought maybe giving him my name would help me understand him better. My trick helped some. I even developed some empathy for him, but it didn’t serve to overcome the distance between us. It was an interesting exercise, though.

I take special care in my novels with surnames. My stories are set in Virginia in the 60’s, so for authenticity, I search for long-time Virginia family names. Rosaline Partlow was my great great grand aunt. She lived near Little Washington in the 1860’s. The murder victim, Darlene Updike, takes her name from another ancestor from that same place and time. The name Feedlow (the Buck County sheriff in The Closing) comes from a 1760 marriage record, but the name is probably an error. In those days most people were illiterate and couldn’t spell their names. The county clerks would do their best to spell them phonetically and they often got it wrong. To make matters worse, the records are handwritten, faded with age, and sometimes indecipherable.  Feedlow became Fiddler and sometimes Fielder in later records, but I liked the sound of Feedlow, so I stayed with it.

Nate Abbitt’s family name came from attorneys in Appomattox, who represented my father in his parents’ divorce proceedings when he was a boy. There was no legal precedent in the early 30’s for a child having separate representation in those cases, but two young lawyers, the Abbitt brothers, took him on pro bono and blazed a new trail in the chancery court, resolving custody more in line with his wishes. One of the brothers later became the county commonwealth’s attorney, and although Nate’s character was in no way based on these lawyers, I borrowed their surname for Nate.

I named my myopic private investigator, Clarence Shifflett. The name Clarence was perfect for this eccentric old gumshoe, but I caught some flack from a reader who thought I stole the name Shifflett from a John Grisham character in The Rainmaker. I didn’t steal it. Grisham lives in Nelson County, Virginia, near my old stomping grounds. Shifflett is a more common name there than Smith or Jones. About half my childhood friends were Shiffletts and 450 of them swell the pages of the Charlottesville phone book today. If I wanted to make my books more realistic without regard to the confusion it would cause, I’d name almost all my characters Shifflett. But let me tell you, it’s a tough name to spell correctly when you address a Christmas card to a friend. There are so many variations on the number of t’s and f’s with a silent p occasionally dropped in the middle or an e tacked on to the end. I can’t keep the different versions straight. Even with Clarence, a guy I made up, I unintentionally spelled the name four different ways in the draft manuscript. Nearly drove my copy editor crazy. A website about this interesting and storied family can be found at http://www.klein-shiflett.com/shifletfamily/HHI/surname.html.

I gave one of my characters in The Closing a variation of my own surname. The clerks in colonial Virginia messed up my family name to the point where I don’t know what it really was or where it came from. People I can prove were of my bloodline are listed in old records as Oder, Odar, Odir, Odyer, O’Dyer, Odo, Odoe, Oden, Odor, Odle, O’Der, Odom, Odoms, and on and on. So I named the African American man, who captured Deatherage and held him down until the law arrived, Willis Odoms. He was the most admirable character in the book, so maybe I was trying to make it up to my mother and my anxious friend for having named my accused murderer-rapist Kenny.

Anyway, my surname is a sore point with me, given all the teasing it generated when I was in elementary school (not to mention the continuing jabs from adults who never progressed beyond grade school maturity levels). I often wish that someone in my direct line had steered the spelling of the name toward a less odious (get it?) outcome. So maybe I should change it, the way I change a fictional character’s name when I don’t like it. Costs about $150 to change a name legally, I hear, well worth it in my case. With all the demographic shifts in the country, I figure I’ll go with the flow and choose something with a Latin flair to it. I’m thinking Kenito Aroma.