Flora Edwards was murdered simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Poor woman! She didn’t even exist at all and even before she was fully formed her fate was sealed. While driving through Mississippi in 2001 I saw a sign that read, “Flora Edwards” because both the towns of Flora and Edwards can be accessed from that exit. I was looking for the name of a woman who was going to be killed off in a work of fiction. What? You thought this was going to be about something other than writing?
Charles had a Dickens of a time creating characters names, by the way. Shakespeare’s original working title for a love story about two star-crossed lovers was “Romeo and Ethyl”. A friend of mine ordered a phone book from Kansas City, tore the pages out of it, pasted them on a wall, and threw multicolored darts at the wall for three hours one night. The blue darts were first names, the red darts were last names, the green darts were names he’d accept as a whole, and the black darts were people he would use as murder victims. I’m fairly certain tequila was involved in this methodology. By the time I arrived on the scene, it looked all the world like some sort of bizarre religious ritual where Alexander Graham Bell was the deity in question.
Flora Edwards made the mistake of befriending a man named Babbie, who got his name from a very small town in Alabama. Babbie’s last name of Adams came from a street in Dothan Alabama, sixty miles away from Babbie.
Cemeteries are a common breeding ground for fictional characters. A woman I know likes to use names from the nineteenth century for her writing. She mixes up last names and first names, just to be safe. As a bit of advice, if you live in a small town, try not to use a recently dead murder victim for a murder victim in one of your stories. It will be the one time in your life everyone on earth reads your work.
Flora and Babbies’s parents, and both sets of parents played a role in the story, were named from the notebook I carry with me most of the time. I write down thoughts, names, plot ideas, and all sorts of things in that notebook. The waitress who brought you lunch, or the cashier with a nametag, write that one down, to be used in a short story later. Name a bartender after a real bartender, if you need one. That white panel van that just passed you on the road…what’s the name of that painter? Write that one down as a drug addict; painters are almost as crazy as writers.
The wonderful world of convenience store card readers, those located on the gasoline pumps, has delivered onto me a virtual cornucopia of fictional characters. I found Myrtle Thornton, Leslie Cooksey, and Thomas Stair there, among others. These are the people who have left their receipts still in the card readers, and I came along looking for someone to write into a horror story where one by one, people are killed by a monster.
But isn’t this the weekend for love stories? There have been people I’ve known in my life who I thought were exemplary human beings. Some fictional characters I’ve created were compilations of these people, and sometimes one of the random names that pop up will be assigned to someone who not only lived, but lived well. A woman I knew who adopted six children donated her name to a character who helped saved kids in an inner city. One of the girls I had a secrete crush on in high school supplied me with the framework of an unrequited love, of a man who saw from afar the beauty of someone he could never love.
And then, there is Sara.
Sara is a character based on a woman named Sara, who I never loved, but wish I could have. I wish she had been capable of it. I wish I had tried to love her.
There is the story of a young woman lost, and her cat, which was based very loosely on an intellectual crush I had on someone far less than half my age.
There is a story I haven’t begun to write yet, based on a woman I never met, and who is to say what name will come to be for this tale. The richness of this character will never match the woman’s life, and perhaps she will be split into many different stories, to be retold in many different ways. She is a mother, a witch doctor, a pagan, a songstress, a musician, a healer, a daughter, a sister, a birder, a wandering spirit, and if I can write just part of this story I will have to have more love in my soul than I do right now.
Ultimately, writing is a labor of love. To be good at this in any way, you have to love writing, you have to love the work that goes into it, and you have to have a love for creation that goes past simple penmanship, or typing. If you do love, that will make you a good writer, even if you are the only person who ever sees anything you’ve ever written. Love isn’t about anyone’s heart but your own, and those you love. What happens tomorrow is more about commercialism than love, and there are people out there who write that way, for the money, for the fame, and for all that goes with being in the public spotlight.
That isn’t love. This is. I love writing. I love writers.
To admit to this prejudice, to confess that above all the other arts, all the other people, it is writers, and writing that I love, is to share with you more than just my secrets on how to name characters, but also, how to love them.