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.
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.
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.
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.
Latest posts by Heather Young (see all)
- The Graceful Exit - Wednesday, August 31, 2016
- Former Deb Kelly Harms Takes the Deb Interview + A Giveaway of THE MATCHMAKER OF MINNOW BAY - Saturday, August 27, 2016
- What I Loved Best About My Debut Year - Wednesday, August 24, 2016
- My Favorite Books of 2016 (So Far) - Wednesday, August 17, 2016
- The City Baker’s Guide to Putting On Your Big Girl Pants - Wednesday, August 10, 2016