Where’s In a Name?

This week we’re talking about names: character names, our own names, book names. I’m lousy at character names — I have a terrible case of Monoletter Fixation Syndrome, which makes me give all my characters names that start with the same letter, then fail to notice this until the middle of the third draft. I’m not much better at naming books, if you ask my agent and my editor. But what I really love is naming places. Or, more accurately, choosing the place whose name I want to use.

Flags on the town square in Williamsburg, Iowa.

I’ve always had a fascination with place names, especially those in the American Midwest and West. They tell a story. Always. Some towns are named after the men who founded them — like Williamsburg, the town where my mother grew up, which was founded by my great-great-great-grandfather. The founder of any town, large or small, has his own history, like that of my ancestor, an adventurer who emigrated from Wales, and that story is passed down the generations until it becomes a local legend that defines a community. That makes all those towns named after people, from Pittsburgh to Ankeny to Bakersfield, inherently interesting.

Downtown West Liberty, Iowa.

Better even than “people” names, though, are the more abstract place names. Take the name of my father’s hometown: West Liberty. Not just Liberty. And certainly not East Liberty, or North Liberty. It’s West Liberty. That is a great name. The whole American diaspora — all the desperate striving that drove a million people to across a continent — is right there, in the name of that tiny Iowa town.

In fact, if you listen, you can hear the echoes of those early pioneers in many of the names they gave to the places they stayed and the places they passed on their way to the Pacific. Midwestern town names, for example, tend to be full of hope. There’s Hope, Arkansas, of course, but there’s also Hopeville, Indiana; Hope City, Kansas; New Hope, Minnesota; and a dozen more “hope” towns sprinkled across the Great Plains. There’s Lovely, Kentucky. Fertile, Arcadia, and What Cheer, Iowa. Carefree, Indiana. Smileyberg, Kansas. All of these names speak of the optimism and the sense of a new beginning that the first settlers felt when they claimed those lands for their own.

Ignore this sign. Do not turn right.

But, as you move your finger west on the map, you reach the wide deserts and the forbidding mountains of the true West, and the place names become darker as those who forsook the fertile plains in hopes of finding something even better met stark disappointment on their route. What to make of places like Tombstone, Arizona? Hell’s Kitchen and Tragedy Spring, California? Highlonesome, New Mexico? Last Chance, Colorado? Dead Dog Creek, Idaho, Massacre Lake, Nevada, or Deadman Gulch, Wyoming? These are places that took their pound of flesh and more from those who passed through. They are places whose names are a warning to those who came after, not a promise to those who might stay.

When you reach the coast, you find names that reflect the wide range of fortunes these American adventurers met at the end of their harrowing journey. From Cape Disappointment and Useless Bay in Washington to Sweet Home, Oregon to the City of Angels and Paradise, California, these places, too, tell stories. Stories of success and failure, of dreams realized and dreams that slipped away.

Then, if you were to lift away all these names, you would find older names. The names given to the land by those who lived there long before the Europeans came, some of which have lingered, others of which have fallen into disuse. Names like Oconee. Mankota. Nebraska. Wabash. Kootenai. Mississippi. Tillamook. Willamette. These place names tell stories, too, and before them there were other names, given by other people, whose stories are lost.

When I write, the names of places matter more to me than the names of characters. Because character names are malleable. They take on the attributes I give the character who wears them. The Lilith I invented is a strong, vibrant girl trying to break free of her stifling family, so that is what the name “Lilith” means. The Lucy I wrote is a timid girl, watchful and cunning, so that is what “Lucy” means. But place names are not so amenable to the writer’s pen. Williamsburg, the town my mother grew up in, is small, insular, stratified by class and heredity, but protective of its own. It was exactly the town I needed for the story I wanted to tell. But, though I could move it from Iowa to Minnesota, I could no more change its character than I could change the character of San Francisco, or Death Valley. For places come with their own stories. Writers, storytellers though we are, change them at our peril.

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After a decade practicing law and another decade raising kids, Heather decided to finally write the novel she'd always talked about writing. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and the Tin House Writers Workshop, all of which helped her stop writing like a lawyer. She lives in Mill Valley, California, with her husband and two teenaged children. When she's not writing she's biking, hiking, neglecting potted plants, and reading books by other people that she wishes she'd written.

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This article has 3 Comments

  1. Wonderful stories.

    There are stories on the East Coast, too. There are the “Hey, we’re over here now, but we’re still British” names: New York, New England, New London, etc. (Later, it was “No, we’re not British anymore after all — but we’re keeping the names.” 🙂 )

    Oh, and I agree that character names take on the attributes of the characters (like band names — “The Beatles” is actually a really stupid name, but now it just means the band that adopted it), but some do come with more baggage than others. “Lucy” is pretty neutral, I agree, but “Lilith” does come with some amount of history. But, as on the TV show Cheers, that can be used. 🙂

    1. Interesting you should mention that about Lilith, Anthony. I originally picked that name because of the Biblical implications, but as my story changed, my character did as well, and the name Lilith changed right along with her. And good point about the East Coast names — I’m from Maryland, originally. Named for King Charles’ wife, Queen Mary. Ha!

  2. Great thoughts on naming people and places this week. I named the characters for my novel-in-progress mostly by ethnicity and family heritage, but appropriate for contemporary Maine. Thus my “regular guy” protagonist is Charlie, but his Acadian French-speaking mother would call him Charles. His last name I found while researching Acadians in Northern Maine, and is actually from a place name, Mont Farlagne, which in turn comes from the way New Brunswick French speakers pronounced the English-speaking government’s “fire line,” which spoke to me since his father died fighting forest fire.
    The two settings in which most of the action takes place are thematically named, both with a nod to the same Biblical story in which Lilith originates, but appropriate to the New England locale. So the idealized upscale residential development is called Eden in Maine (also my working title), while the nearby small town where Charlie lives and works is East Nodding.
    The Internet has lots of sites I’ve used to name other characters, mostly by Googling baby names. You can also find sites with names popular in given years.

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