About a year ago I started trying to keep better track of names in my novels. A little late, sure. But I’ve finally got a system in place that mostly works. If you know my work you’ll be familiar with my penchant for lots of minor characters. They pop in, establish themselves, pop out again, sometimes for good, sometimes not. They are very real to me, these minor characters. There may be fifty of them in any given book, and if that book is set in one place, that means that the minor characters will be interacting in various ways, related by blood or marriage, etc etc.
Which means family trees. Now, that would really draw me in and I’d get no work done, so I came up with a compromise. I set up a list of about fifty surnames. These names come out of various sources — phonebooks, older census and tax records, news stories, personal experience. Here’s the list for Greenbriar, South Carolina, the setting for Pajama Jones:
Alewine | Ambrose | Aragon | Archer | Argo | Ballad | Barr | Basclark | Beales | Bevil | Blalock | Boggs | Broyles | Burden | Carson | Cedillo | Chambers | Chamlee | Clamp | Clinkscaler | Coffen | Crenshaw | Crooks | Cullin | Dobbins | Dodge | Dover | Drenon | Elrod | Epperson | Espinoza | Felices | Felton | Floyd | Ford | Gambrel | Garmen | Geer | Golden | Goodwin | Gordon | Grift | Guttery | Guzman | Hackett | Harris | Holt | Howard | Hughes | Hunt | James | Kay | Kersey | King | Lambert | Latham | Loveless | Maroney | Marshall | Martin | Martinez | Massey | May | McCollum | Milwee | Newton | Norris | Ogelsby | Pearson | Pegg | Pepper | Prator | Pruett | Ragsdale | Rains | Reed | Rogers | Rosamond | Ruth | Sanders | Shirley | Short | Sinn | Slaterfield | Stabley | Swagger | Swilling | Telford | Trussel | Varner | Vickery | Wade | Walker | Washington | Whitaker | Wossom
I won’t use all these names. When I do use one, I put a tick next to it so I know somebody in Greenbriar is walking around calling themselves Crenshaw or Dodge or Shirley. If I’ve got a whole family full of Shirley-types, I’ll make a notation of how many there are.
So if Julia and John are having an argument in the middle of Julia’s shop, and a customer comes in wanting a pair of pajamas for his wife, that customer has to have a name. Sorry, that’s just the way my storytelling mind works. Until he has a name I can’t see him. The minute he does have a name, he can start talking, he’ll have opinions, he’ll prefer the purple silk babydoll pajamas to the elegant cream silk pegnoir set. He’ll be able to tell me his wife’s name and why it is he thinks she’ll want to wear purple babydolls.
A look at the list and I realize the guy’s last name is King. Sometimes he’ll tell me his first name, and sometimes I have to go look. I have a huge list of first names of all types, from the standard Roberts and Thomases to the regionally and ethnically distinct Bubbas and Gunther. Because Greenbriar is in rural South Carolina, a lot of the characters have very distinctive names. I’ve got a Big Dove and her best friend, Hattie. I’ve got LRoy Swagger, who is married to a lovely woman who is simply Jennie. There’s Exa Stabley and Leo Guzman, Link Kay and Bob Lee Cowper, Marnie Lambert and Josie Beales. There’s a Lazarus Burden but there’s also a Dan Harris. There’s Bassingame Sinn and Lorna Emerson.
The names provide me with some kind of structure on which I build the characters and the characters build their relationships to one another. It’s a process I don’t understand completely, but it’s crucial.