Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Dear Fellow Sleuths,

Whether or not you have finished reading Jennifer Holms’ marvelous book, Turtle in Paradise, you’ve likely already noticed the brilliant job she’s done choosing character names. There’s Turtle, the endearing main character. Slow Poke, a secondary character who plays a large role in Turtle’s life. Turtle’s cat, Smokey, who’s unfortunate name was chosen, prophetically, before her tail was ever set on fire. In choosing names such as these, Holm has honored several rules concerning the naming of characters. First, she has assigned names that are both memorable and fun, and that will appeal to her intended readership. Second, the character names have meaning. Consider Turtle, tough on the outside, but soft and vulnerable beneath, who literally comes out of her shell as the story evolves, discovering aspects of self and family. And the ever-tardy Slow Poke, who, upon learning that his true love, Sadiebelle has gotten married, comments, “Huh—too late again.”

Following another rule, Holm has been careful to select names that reflect the time in which the story takes place. When the story opens and Turtle is reminiscing about the kids that have made her life miserable, she mentions Josephine, Sylvia and Marvin—not Caitlyn, Maddie and Aidan. It turns out that if you do the math, these characters would have been born in 1923 (they are 12 and the story is set in 1935). Referring to the US Government’s Social Security site I found that in 1923 all three of these names appeared on that year’s top 100 baby names list. And looking at statistics for 1905 (around when I thought Aunt Minnie would have been born) I found that the name Minnie was #35 on the popularity chart for that year.

Holm has also taken care to choose character names that reflect the story’s location. In her Author’s Note, she points out that nicknaming was a tradition in Key West. She gives the Key West local residents names that are in keeping with that tradition. There’s the pair of best buddies Beans and Pork Chop, the baby Pudding, and the calamitous friend they all avoid, Too Bad.

We contacted Jennifer Holm (who wins the blue ribbon for Author Quickest to Reply to a StorySleuth’s Email!) and asked her a couple of questions about how she chose names for Turtle in Paradise:

StorySleuths: All the names in Turtle in Paradise shine with originality. Would you share a few thoughts about how you came up with the names you used in this book? Also, was it an intentional choice to have Turtle and Slowpoke have names that one can draw a strong connection between?

Holm: That's a great question. So ... "Turtle" was actually a nod to the historic turtling industry of Key West (green turtle soup, anyone?) Some of the names were inspired by Key West nicknames ("Beans" and "Johnny Cakes" and "Killie the Horse"). There's a man who grew up in KW who actually went around and catalogued peoples' nicknames. "Pork Chop" just sort of grew out of Beans (Pork Chop and Beans--they just go together!) "Papa" was actually Ernest Hemingway's local KW nickname. And finally, "Slow Poke" was more of a little tease for the reader to understand that he's always been chronically late ... and that sometimes being late has big consequences.
More on Choosing Names

There are plenty of web sites that offer tips about how to choose names. Two that I found to be particularly useful are the Tips for Writers section of the Baby Names website, and Anne Marble’s article Name That Character! at the Writing-World website

And where do you go to choose names that help make your characters come to life on the page? I recall a lecture I attended years ago in which Jack Gantos shared one of his sources—graveyards. But you don’t need to walk amongst the dead to find terrific names for your characters, as there are fun and informative sites available online to both look for names, or generate your own.

The Baby Names site offers lists sorted not just by boy and girl, but even has a “cool names” option with categories like spooky names, names in sports, and top pet names. And there is the Social Security website already mentioned which not only lists popular names for a particular birth year, but can show you how a particular name has waxed and waned in popularity over time.

To generate names, take a look at A Barrel Full of Names, or The Seventh Sanctum name generator which generates names for specific categories like your fantasy character, your gnome or your princess.

StorySleuths Tip #92: When choosing character names do your research and choose names that are not only fun and meaningful, but that also reflect the time and location in which the story takes place.

Post #2: Narrative Voice

Posted by Allyson Valentine Schrier