Friday, June 27, 2014

Cast of Characters

Did you ever wonder where the names of the characters in your favorite novels came from? If you’re a writer yourself, you undoubtedly have a number of inventive ways to generate names. But even for writers, coming up with names that uniquely fit the people who inhabit their stories can be a mysterious, and even torturous, process.There are numerous baby name sites on the internet, which can be a great help in coming up with first names. If you write historicals, as I do, however, you need names appropriate to the period you're writing about. I often resort to my wide range of research resources, using the index to glean names from the period.

I’ve found that some characters actually come with names attached. When that happens, I mentally do a little caper of glee because that’s one I won’t have to agonize over. Unfortunately, I’m not always that lucky. The names of the main characters naturally require the most intensive thought because they’re the most important actors in the story. I want my hero/heroine to have names that signify their social position and character, then names I especially like and names that are sympathetic and will appeal to readers. They might also be symbolic of some deeper meaning or aspect of the character; Charles Dickens was particularly good at this. Creating a history for the characters and their families helps immensely in this process because family relationships and histories are often taken into consideration when it comes to naming babies.

It took a lot of effort to come up with Jonathan Carleton’s name, for instance. Jonathan wasn’t too hard—John was a very popular and common name in the 1700s, and since I wanted his to be distinctive, I decided to expand it to Jonathan, with the nickname of Jon, which I really like. But I struggled over his last name. It had to sound high-class British, but none of the various names I found quite fit. Most, of course, belonged to well-known people of the time, which raised the spectre of family relationships that would have to be accounted for. However, I kept being drawn back to Carleton, the last name of the governor of Canada, Sir Guy Carleton, which had a distinctive sound. I also liked the history of this name, which fits my extended history of Carleton’s family, combining Norse, Anglo-Saxon, and Norman branches. In England, the name is most highly concentrated in southern Scotland. Below is an excerpt from an article found on The Internet Surname Database.

“This interesting surname, of combined Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon origin, is a locational name from any of the numerous places called Carlton or Carleton found all over England, but particularly in the north and east parts of the country, where there were many Scandinavian settlements. The placename means “the settlement or village of the free peasants”, derived from the Olde English pre 7th century word ceorlatun, which became Scandinavianised to karlatun. The component elements of the name are the Olde English ceorl (Old Norse karl), free peasant, villein; and the Olde English tun, village or settlement.

“Locational surnames were developed when former inhabitants of a place moved to another area, usually to seek work, and were best identified by the name of their birthplace. Early examples of the surname include: Geoffrey de Karlton (Bedfordshire, 1273) and Anabella de Carleton (Yorkshire, 1379). Mary Carlton, aged 23 yrs., who embarked from London on the ship Bonaventure bound for Virginia in January 1634, was one of the earliest recorded namebearers to settle in the New World. The first recorded spelling of the family name is shown to be that of Reginald de Karleton, which was dated 1272, in the Lincolnshire Hundred Rolls, during the reign of King Edward 1, known as “The Hammer of the Scots”, 1272–1307.”

I finally decided that the name fit Jonathan too well, and, hey, it’s a big family, and Jonathan can be Guy’s (very) distant relative. So I went with that, and if you’ve read the series, you’ll remember that this relationship is mentioned a couple of times in passing.

Elizabeth Howard’s name was a less torturous to create. My youngest daughter’s middle name is Elizabeth. I loved the character Beth in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and really liked the idea of that being her nickname. And I’d watched a TV series on the six wives of Henry VIII and did a bit of research into the subject. The surname Howard and their history stood out to me, so decided to use it for Elizabeth’s family and have her be descended from that family line.

I find second- and third-level characters much harder to name. In upcoming posts, I’ll delve into what it took to come up with names and histories for Elizabeth’s and Jonathan’s extended families—some of which, thankfully, did come with names attached—as well as Charles Andrews, the cast of Indian and French characters, and others. Currently I’m slogging through the process of generating names for the personnel aboard 3 of Carleton’s privateers: Destiny, Liberty, and Invictus. For them I need French and Spanish names and possibly a few Dutch too, since those countries were generally hostile to Britain during the 17th and 18th centuries.

If you write fiction, how do you come up with names for your characters? If you’re not a writer, I’ll bet you’ve had occasions to name someone, whether a new baby or a new pet. How did you settle on the names for each one? Share your naming experience!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Considering the Series

Series in which the author features a different hero and heroine in each volume are common in Christian fiction today. I hate to admit it, but, with the exception of a very few authors whose work I especially love, I generally don’t read the rest of the books in these series. If I’m really drawn into the first story, love the hero and heroine, and am satisfied by the conclusion of their story, I feel very little motivation to read a sequel that focuses on one of the secondary characters. Although a setting that readers are particularly drawn to can provide the motivation to continue with a series, I personally believe that switching heroes is a major reason why sequels often don’t sell as well as the first book even if the subsequent stories are well written and engaging.

From the time I was a teenager, I devoured novels, primarily classic literature. And very early on, what stood out to me in these stories was that my interest was the most highly engaged when the hero or heroine was “on stage”. I was conscious of a definite drop-off of energy and engagement when secondary characters commanded the stage and became impatient for the hero to return. The exception was when secondary characters’ actions or dialog directly related to the hero, but even then my interest never quite reached the intensity the main character engaged. For that very reason, when I began to think about turning Daughter of Liberty into a series, I made a conscious decision to feature Elizabeth Howard and Jonathan Carleton throughout rather than having secondary characters become primary in the sequels.

Unlike most series today, both series I’m writing—The American Patriot Series, set during the American Revolution; and the Northkill Amish Series, set during the French and Indian War—focus on the primary characters of book 1 from beginning to end. The scope of these particular series demands that treatment. However, I believe that following one hero and/or heroine throughout is the most powerful way to construct a series. It allows the author to develop a strong, overarching theme that builds through every volume, affecting readers on the deepest level and keeping them reading.

What’s your opinion about series? Do you agree with me or not? Why or why not? Please share some examples of series you’ve read that especially engaged you and how the author handled this issue.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014


When creating a piece of fabric on a loom, the weaver interlaces threads to create a pattern, whether simple or complex. The threads that run longitudinally are called the warp, while those running laterally are called the weft. I’ve often thought that a story is very much like weaving. The warp is the structure, or plot, of the story. On it hangs the weft, which includes things like theme, characterization, and details of the time period and the characters’ lives that flesh out the plot and cause readers to care about what’s happening. Just as a weaver works back and forth across the loom, the storyteller works back and forth across the breadth and length of the story, weaving in the details that create a coherent and beautiful pattern.

Right now as I’m working back and forth at my story loom while writing Valley of the Shadow, I’m struggling with structural elements that are more complex than any I’ve written before, and I’m wondering how well they’re going to integrate. This installment of the series starts off with a perilous rescue, progresses through a wrenching aftermath, and transitions to the winter at Valley Forge, which includes a brief return to the Shawnee community. A desultory summer campaign follows, and the story concludes with the beginning of a new journey.

How to weave these disparate elements together without ending up with jarring transitions? I worry about that, but then I also wonder whether that’s necessarily a major problem. After all, aren’t unsettling changes a natural part of life? I’ve had them in mine, and I suspect you’ve had them in yours too. Life can turn on a dime, and the occasional jarring transition might add a dose of reality to the story world, just as Elizabeth’s capture in Crucible of War did. In that case there were numerous warnings of increasing danger, but she ignored them and suffered the consequences. How altogether human! Robert Fulghum illustrated that humorously in his book It Was on Fire When I Lay Down on It.

Overall, of course, a story needs to hang together and transitions need to make sense in the context of what’s gone before. Too many abrupt changes are likely to give readers a sense that the story—and maybe the author—is out of control. We all want control, don’t we—if not in our own lives, then in the lives of fictional characters in a story? So I continue to wrestle with how to weave all the elements together in such a way that will keep readers flipping those pages and reading long into the night.

What unsettling transition have you had in your life that seemed jarring and out of control at the time? How well did you handle it? Are you still dealing with it, or are you able to look back on it now and see how God was weaving your life on His great loom?

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Revisiting Turn

Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge
AMC’s Turn continues to be entertaining, though now that they’ve established the characters and their situations, I wish the script writers would focus more on the actual history of the time and less on the personal drama. They’re reaching if you ask me—unless they have materials available that I haven’t come across. That’s possible, of course. The storyline on Benjamin Tallmadge, however, seems particularly dubious, though the one on Major Andre, from what I know, is probably pretty accurate in general terms. The ending of Sunday’s episode did hint that the focus may be turning, so to speak, more to the spy ring, which I definitely welcome.

There are definitely liberties being taken with history. For example, the last episode totally screwed up the two battles of Trenton and the battle of Princeton by conflating them, changing raging a nor’easter and an ice-choked river into fog and calm water, and then not showing any part of any of the three battles. What a disappointment! The attack was the point of the whole exercise, and leaving it out certainly didn’t give viewers any feel for the magnitude of what Washington and his soldiers accomplished. Instead the story focused on more fictitious personal drama—Tallmadge’s illness due to an accidental dunk into the river. Seriously?

Here’s a link to the History Channel’s minimalist account of the two battles. Indeed, first-hand reports from American soldiers in the first battle decisively debunk the myth that the Hessians were surprised by the attack because they were drunk from celebrating Christmas. In fact, they were on high alert after numerous militia probes over the preceding days. It was the monster nor’easter that concealed the movement of Washington’s corps and allowed them to overrun the Hessians’ defenses before they could mount an effective defense, not dereliction of duty by soldiers who happened to be seasoned professionals!

While you’re on the History Channel site, be sure to check out the page on the Culper Spy Ring and the videos they offer. They’re simplistic, but the one on the winter at Valley Forge is actually pretty good. Ignore the fact that the description about Washington escaping Brooklyn states: General Washington fleas across the East River under cover of darkness. Um…..

If you haven’t watched or need to catch up with the series, be aware that there was a close call between Abe and Anna in this episode as they gave into temptation, only to be interrupted by a British soldier who, in a delicious bit of irony, reminded them of their better natures. Adultery happens, even among Christians, and I can accept its being in a series as long as it’s not explicit and the consequences for both parties are honestly shown, as here. All of us have been tempted in one form or another, and we’ve all given in to it at some point. Let’s not glory in sin, however, and let’s be honest about the damage it does. In this case, neither Abe nor Anna looked too happy when they were confronted by an enemy soldier who humbly called them to account.

We don’t see too many TV shows or movies on the Revolution. What’s your take on this series? Are you enjoying it? Do you feel they’re doing a good job? Are you learning anything about this period and the founding of our country? Please leave a comment and share your thoughts!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Medical Care in the 18th Century

Have you ever wondered what medical care looked like in the 18th century? Since my main female character, Elizabeth Howard, was trained as a physician by her father, and since she’s involved in a war, I’ve had plenty of occasion to delve into how sick and injured people were treated and who did the treating. One helpful resource is “Colonial Medicine,” a paper published by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. Below is the section on women as health care givers, which makes it quite plausible that a woman might have acted as a physician during that period.
Women as Health Care Givers

Much of the health care for the 18th-century colonists was provided within the home. Women became responsible for health care in addition to their responsibilities for housekeeping and child care. They served as doctor, nurse, and pharmacist for their family despite the fact that 18th-century women rarely received any type of formal education. Their education in medicine consisted mainly of training from their mothers. They were exposed to raising medicinal herbs in kitchen gardens, concocting remedies from available resources, and nursing the ill by the traditional methods passed down through families and neighbors.

Popular guidebooks were also available to these women to assist in maintaining their family’s health. These guidebooks provided many useful recipes, but rarely introduced women to current medical theory. The literate housewife would record successful recipes for medical treatment in handwritten journals.

Some women practiced medicine outside of their own households. Women, as child bearers, were the logical candidates to assist other women as midwives. Some women competed in the male-dominated medical field by prescribing, preparing, and even advertising cures for troublesome diseases. It was quite common for successful women health care givers to serve the needs of the neighborhood. During the Revolutionary War, women served as nurses to the wounded and sick of the army and received pay and rations for their service.
It’s not implausible, of course, that the daughter of a physician might be taught by her father. And clearly a woman trained in the healing arts would be as highly valued by an army as she would be in her home and neighborhood.

In addition to herbs and other compounds that were known and used for their healing properties, many medicinal recipes of the period called for spirits. I’ve read that stills were common in rural areas primarily to supply spirits for medicinal uses.

In writing historical fiction, authors need to be careful not to portray female characters who are “liberated,” who hold opinions and act in ways that weren’t acceptable for women of that period. It’s equally true that we sometimes assume that women’s roles were more restricted than they really were.

Have you encountered real women from earlier times who acted in unexpected ways or successfully lived unconventional lives? If so, please briefly share their stories with us!