Wednesday, March 30, 2011

How Do You Think Up Names For Your Characters?

Roadside signs have been great sources of names for characters in my books. Many of these signs have been along freeways, bearing names of two nearby cities or towns. A surprising number are reasonable people-names, often with just that little twist that makes a character stand out. I scribble them onto a page in my pocket notebook, and wait for characters to claim them.

Some years back, on my way from Malice Domestic to the Mystery Lovers Bookstore Festival in Oakmont, PA, I noticed a sign telling me I was approaching Irwin McKeesport. It took a while, but Irwin finally made the jump into fiction as "Iggy the Key," a locksmith and detective's sidekick in my current project, A PERILOUS CONCEPTION (due out from Poisoned Pen Press this coming December). Can you picture him?

My two favorite character names went into the same book, SCAMMING THE BIRDMAN, my second Music Box Mystery. I was driving from Seattle to Chicago on Rt. 94, bored out of my mind, when I saw the sign on the left above this post, and Cleveland Gackle popped into my mind, full-grown, a 70-something weed-smoking lockpicker with bushy white eyebrows and a perpetually-bemused expression. (Rt. 94 in North Dakota was a particularly rich stretch of road. 76 miles east of Cleveland Gackle, I saw the sign on the right above. I still haven't found a character for Buffalo Alice, but I hope to. Somehow, I don't think she smells very good).

The second sign that launched a character in STB was a faded painted ad, I'd guess from the 1930s, on a brick building beside the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle. It advertised a meat company named LoPriore Brothers. The villain in STB was the nastiest person I've ever characterized, and right off, Vincent LoPriore struck me as the perfect name for him. It just seemed to ooze menace. So imagine my surprise one day, after the book came out, when I opened my email and saw a message in my inbox from Vincent LoPriore. I could not bring myself to open it for over an hour, and when I did, I found it was from a man by that name who lived in Pennsylvania. He asked where I'd gotten his name from, so I explained, and told him I hadn't imagined there was anyone anywhere in real life named Vincent LoPriore. Fortunately, he thought it was funny, and said he kinda liked being the bad guy in a murder mystery. So I sent him a signed book, and that was that. Just in case you think you've ever got all bases covered.


Mizmak said...

What a great way to come up with names, and what wonderful ones, too! I love Cleveland Grackle. I'll have to keep a closer eye on road signs when I'm driving.

I often get names from a family member who's a genealogist, especially for characters in historical fiction. She has endless lists of census records from various decades that have amazing names - my favorite was a poor woman from the 1870s christened "Preserved Fish." Haven't found a use for that one yet.

Alexandra MacKenzie

Larry said...

"Preserved Fish," huh? That must have been a burden to lug through life. What *were* her parents thinking? Or not? Thanks, Alexandra.