Generating a character name from genealogy

Famhist LogoSo, you’ve carefully crafted your plot, nurtured your creation and developed a story.  But what do you call your characters?  Perhaps a name evolves along the way, but if not, where do you turn for inspiration?

Sometimes luck strikes and a name appears out of the blue. In Beau Garnie & the Invisimin Mine, Beau’s best friend Skyle fell into that category. Her name came first and her character was built around the name, but that was an exception. Normally, more thought goes into naming.

Some writers use the telephone directory, some use baby naming books and there are several random name generator sites – some are genre specific.

I didn’t use any of these resources. The approach I took fitted in with another of my interests. As a keen genealogist, I manage a large website containing myriad East Anglian families. The current working database contains over 51,000 individuals so is a rich resource of old English names. Some are commonplace – there are more John Bird’s than you can imagine, but there are also a number of unusual names or names that have fallen from favour.

A lead character in my children’s fantasy novel, Beau Garnie, was shamelessly ‘borrowed’ from a genealogical source. My 11x Great Uncle Nicholas Fairweather worked for the Sheriff of Suffolk, Nicholas Garneys. My character’s name is a variation of that. Beau’s father Gwalter was based on my 10 x Uncle Walter Brook; his name appears as Gwalter in many documents.

There is an extensive choice of names to work with ranging from biblical to those that must surely have been invented. Old male Hebrew names Shedrac, Onesimus, Gad and Jabesh sit side by side in the name index with their female counterparts Jerusha, Kerrenhappuch, Keturah and Salome. Relatives include Methuen (a Scottish name), Ethelbert, Angier and Esmond (Norman) and my East Anglian ancestor Athelstane Nobbs whose name is Anglo-Saxon.

Using a surname as a forename was popular in Suffolk generating combinations like Catling Fairweather, Pells Kersey, Bosom Abbs and Candler Bird. The rarity of such names makes it is easier to find information, particularly in searchable newspaper databases. This in itself generates ideas for backgrounds and stories for characters. I know from records that Rudd Turner murdered his wife and child in 1831 and was subsequently declared insane and that my 4 x great grandfather Minns Riseborough was violently assaulted with a knife by John Buck following accusations of pig stealing.

Genealogy contains wonderful resources for female names too. The ugly sounding Grysigono Smith sounds more like a witch than the heiress she was. Eszma Seago naturally conjures up an unappealing woman, perhaps with a skin complaint. In fact, she married so was probably quite a normal looking girl. Repeniler Barrett’s name is a little too similar to repulsive to invoke a wholesome character. On the other hand, Gallindra Bayfield is a wonderful name that trips off the tongue and is well-suited to a fantasy character, Haidee Mallett sounds joyful and Fairlino Love must have stepped straight out of the pages of a Mills and Boon novel.

I can’t imagine being able to use the obscure ancestral names of Hersee Fosker, Hiwasse Bullock and Thurley Ulph.  They are just too ugly. But I must find a way to work Sebborn Gonner, Pitcher Belding and Barzillai Brighty into one of my books. My favourite name, for reasons I haven’t fathomed, is the wonderfully christened Scapy Tydeman of Earl Stonham in Suffolk. That name is too good to be lost in the mists of time and a character namesake grows in my mind, even as I type…….

 

 

 

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