Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Where Do You Get...?

All writers get asked where they get their ideas. Another question that comes up (especial during National Novel Writing Month) is "where do you get your character names?" That's actually a pretty good question.

Back in the olden days (before the Internet), we collected baby name books. I still remember one that claimed that Gamaliel, a boy's name usually said to mean "recompense of God" meant "camel of God." Even in Biblical times, I don't think parents named their children after camels. I could, of course, be mistaken.

Now we have the Internet, where large amounts of data can be gathered together and indexed and made searchable. There are a number of baby name sites, generally sponsored by companies that make baby food, clothing, toys, etc., of which my favorite is

Another popular source of character names is to use the names of your more obscure ancestors. Even though I complain that I come from a family that has way too many people named John Brown and Mary Smith, there are unusual names in my family. One of them even comes from a book: in 1897 somebody had twin daughters and named them Vivian and Villette. Villette is a novel by Charlotte Bronte, published in 1853, and for the longest time I thought that Villette was the heroine's name. It turns out it's a fictional city. But Villette's daughter was named after her mother (and called Letty), and there are two more of them in my generation. One of them dropped her first name and uses her middle name instead, and I can't say I blame her.

If you don't have enough strange names in your family tree, or if you've never bothered to trace it back far enough to get to names like Phineas, Zebediah, Tamesin, Jabez, Elihu, Caleb, Clerice, and Hepzibah, don't despair. The Social Security Administration is happy to help you. They've been collecting names since 1880, and on their website, at, they have names broken down by year, by decade, and by state or territory. From 1880 until 1924 the most popular names were John and Mary, which probably explains all my John Brown and Mary Smith ancestors.

I still have a lot of my baby name books. My current favorite is A Saint's Name, which contains the names of many saints even I have never heard of before, thus making them suitable for characters for my fantasy stories.