the name dance

Robyn asked how I came up with some of the names for the characters in Pajama GirlsI’ve talked a little bit about naming characters before, but this was a special case, and it didn’t follow my usual pattern. The trick is to get interesting names which are particular to the time and place but not to push it so far that it turns into farce. It’s especially difficult when you’re telling a story set in a small rural community in a place you’ve never lived. Pajama Girls is set in rural South Carolina, which is about as far away (culturally) as you can get from my Chicago background.

There are a few ways to approach this.

1. Local publicatons. One of the best ways to get comfortable with the culture (and the names) in question is to read the local papers. Now, it’s not always easy to get hold of best papers, because they have a restricted circulation and they are unlikely to be put up on a website. This is where connections come in.

I have good friends in the south, and they have been diligent about sending me all kinds of materials. Church bulletins, for example and the police blotter. If you sit down and really read a lot of this stuff, and you keep doing it, you’ll get a sense of how things work. And you’ll run into some great names reading these small publications.

2. I spend a good amount of time quizzing friends from the south about their relatives. Which is how two secondary characters (both Julia’s employees) got their names. A friend was telling me about her elderly aunts, Big Dove and Trixie. I stopped her right there. Big Dove? And Trixie? I wanted to know if Big Dove was a big woman, or how did she get her nickname?

It turned out to be a dopey question. Of course you’ve got to have Big Dove, to distinguish her from her daughter, Little Dove. Big Dove and Trixie just sang to me, and I sat right down and did a character sketch.

3. Another great source — but hard to come by — is to listen to local talk radio. Driving through Virginia once, years ago, we listened to a talk show where people called in to advertise things they had to sell or swap. These were rural people, very straightforward. No fancy talk at all. We got us a Sears Deep Freeze and nothing much to put in it. Runs real good, though. I still remember that person’s first name: Lyman.

4. You have to be very careful about baby name books. Most usually you won’t find anything useful or interesting in them, but there are exceptions. In this case I found Linda Barth’s Distinctive Book of Redneck Baby Names to be a treasure trove not just of names, but also cultural details I never would have thought about. You might assume that this kind of book can only provide stereotypical descriptions, but if you’ve got five hundred names and a different take on each one of them, it’s harder to dismiss the endeavor.

I worked hard to find the right names for all the very distinctive personalities in Pajama Girls. I’ll be interested to find out what you think, come Valentine’s Day.

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8 Replies to “the name dance”

  1. Great tricks Rosina, for a wanna be writer like myself, I’m already thinking about whom do I know in the South and or anywhere else for that matter. Thanks again, I’m looking forward to the book’s release impatiently. :D

  2. Although, visiting, passing through and talking to folks can be very helpful, I think it’s very difficult to write about a place if you don’t actually hang around for an extended period. However, this can’t always be helped — some of the things I’ve written myself are set in places I’ve never even been so I can only go by what I’ve researched. I’m a southerner (Georgia) — born and bred and still here — and many books I’ve read which have been set in the south (and written by non-southerners) don’t always ring true on all levels. The “big” things are okay — those are easy to capture — it’s usually the small nitpicking things which often don’t cut the mustard. However, I think most readers realize these things when they are reading. I wouldn’t take anyone to task for it.

  3. No, I hadn’t heard about Grace Paley. Thanks for letting me know — I am a longtime reader of her work.

    Robyn — long, long story. Sometime I’ll write about it here.

    Lynn — Yes, of course. I should have said this more clearly. It’s always the little things that people trip over. This does worry me, however, and so I always have my work vetted by people who will catch the little things. Not that some don’t slip in anyway — and of course, that is to be laid at my doorstep alone.

  4. Just discovered your blog through PBW. In fact, thanks to Her Giveawayness, I’m in the process of reading ‘Tied to the Tracks’. Enjoying it, too.

    Southern names. Now we’re talking my backyard. I just happen to be one of those Southern sorts, South Carolina-Upstate.

    Some of my favorites (people I know): Big Mama, Cutie, Sister, Lucius (female), Nene, Big Henry and Little Henry (AKA Beau), Mannie (pronounced Man-nee, for grandmother), MoMo (for grandfather), and several others from my husband’s side of the family I can’t bring front and center at the moment. My family has never been as creative as his. We’re full of dull names, like well, Karen.

    The South is still unique in many ways, but we’re losing a lot of the local quirkiness due to mass media and the influx of…non-Southerners. I agree with Lynn (above) about how hard Southernisms are to pull off by someone who isn’t from the South, but I’ve found ‘Tied to the Tracks’ delightful.

    To take it a step further (and not completely unrelated to naming) non-Southerners should never attempt Southern accents. For a good example of someone who, bless his heart, was as authentic as a Southerner as Ghandi, think Nick Nolte in ‘The Prince of Tides’. I almost had to be sedated. In the theater. Within the first five minutes of the movie.

    Accents and local idioms vary from one part of a state to another. My accent is decidedly Southern, but differs slightly from someone from say, Denmark, SC. Here in the Upstate, we use ‘of’ incorrectly as routinely as Nascar uses motor oil. There’s always a little wiggle room with language. (I got started on the accent thing by connecting a loose wire to how to translate ‘Southern’ into written word. Sister has to ‘sound’ as Southern as her name without sounding like Nick Nolte.)

    I’ll be back to read later–after I take my daddy to the Baptist Church for morning services.

    Thanks, Rosina. I’m looking forward to poking around here.

  5. Karen — I am so glad you decided to de-lurk. What great names and details. I love it when people stop in and share this kind of thing. No book in the world could replace plain old talking — even in this electronic way.

    I’m glad you are liking TTTT, but don’t hesitate to let me know if/when you run into something that doesn’t feel right. Pajama Girls — out in February — is set in South Carolina. I’m hoping that I’ll hear from Lynn and you and others about what I got wrong (and hopefully, right).

  6. I read the excerpts from ‘Pajama Game’ and I’m looking forward to getting my hands on it when it’s released.

    Small town, South Carolina, huh? Ficticious town? Or a real bump in the road? I’m even more excited about PG.

    I love the South, warts and all. The warts need a little Dr. Scholl’s, but over all, most people are still warm and friendly. People still wave whether they know you or not. They still speak, say excuse me and thank you. I hope some things will never change. Well, the kudzu can go.

    I think what I’ve liked most about ‘TTTT’ is your treatment of Southerners. You’ve been kind to us, not making us stereotypical dumb sheriffs and wilting Southern Belles. Southern women, for the most part, aren’t wimpy. Polite, but if you want to see what they’re made of, just back them in corner. By the time most people figure out they’ve been insulted, the scratches have nearly healed. Verbal warfare is a stealth art in the South. Miss Zula is perfection as the grand dame. Even native Southerners would be at her mercy.

    And I like the documentary staff. Angie is a wonderful character. Well, so are Rivera and Tony. I’ve enjoyed seeing the South through their eyes. A terrarium! Yep. Good discription on many levels.

    Alrighty then, I’ll be quiet. I love discussing a book I’m reading and the thoughts it stirs up. And how cool is this Internet business? I get to tell the author how much I’m enjoying her work.

    Looking forward to ‘Pajama Game’.

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