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.