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.