Rhobin Courtright would like me to tell you where I find names for my characters.
The first thing is, I am NOT going to quote from Romeo and Juliet. Instead, I’ll use Hit and Run as a case study.
The whole story is Sylvia Kryz’s diary. Why on earth would she have such an unusual surname? I had no idea when she introduced herself to me, and didn’t find out until well into the book:
“Yes, I will have a cuppa, thank you. It’s certainly not tempting out there.” She accompanied me to the kitchen, and I guess to make conversation, asked, “I’ve been wondering about your surname. It’s very unusual, isn’t it?”
“My husband was Polish. His original name was Krzyzanowski.” I spelled it for her. “I was the one who encouraged him to simplify it.”
“How did you meet?”
The jug boiled, and I poured into the teapot. “In 1948, I was an idealistic girl of eighteen. I volunteered to welcome Holocaust survivors. Wotjek was one of them.”
I felt the tears come, after all these years. “Actually, no. He had a Jewish great-grandmother, and for that was sent to Auschwitz. He was a powerfully built man, so they put him on slave labour though his wife and children went to the gas chambers. He survived three years of hell. But oh, it took terrible toll of his body. He died at only 39 because of it.”
Brigitte carried the tray out. I got my special folder, the one I leaf through on important days: his birthday, the anniversary of our meeting, of our wedding, and of his death.
The first drawing was of him walking off the ship: a skeletally gaunt man in a shabby suit, with the most beautiful smile. “He looked at me among the welcomers and said, ‘Is Australia populated by angels?’ That was it, I was in love.” Sixty-two years later, I still felt the emotion, and had to wipe my glasses.
Brigitte turned pages, looking at the photos and drawings with compassion and interest. “So, he could already speak English?”
“Oh yes. It was with an accent, but he was fluent in English, French, German and Russian. Before the war, he was a maths and science teacher, then conscripted into the Polish army, which of course the Germans overran. Then someone reported his Jewish ancestry, and was rewarded for this patriotic act with the Krzyzanowski family home.”
Brigitte looked furious, and suddenly I liked her very much indeed. She reached my drawing of Wotjek cuddling new-born Laura, the love shining off his face. “Did he teach here, too?”
“No, his qualifications weren’t recognised. When he regained his strength, he worked as a carpenter, and after a while we had our own business. I did the administrative work. When he died, I worked as a freelance secretary. After all, I had three small children to raise, and there were no government handouts then. I did get some compensation from Germany.”
“Sylvia, thank you for the honour of being allowed to see this. You’re wonderful, you know that?”
“Oh no! Your story shows as much courage as mine.”
She stood. “Hmm, I think the rain is easing a little. It’s either out into it, or spending the night here!”
Um… you mean, I haven’t answered the question? That’s all the answer I have, sorry.
As for her given name, I’ve known several Sylvias, and all were wise, compassionate, decent people. I guess that had something to do with it.
Sylvia is the narrator. The hero is Charlie, because I needed his name to be a form of abuse. His birth certificate stated his name as Chuck: “Me darling mother said I made her chuck all through pregnancy, so that’s me name, see?”
Then there is Jenny: a fourteen-year-old girl in a foster home because her mother is dying of cancer. She formed within my computer as Petra. If you look for meanings behind names, that’s very appropriate, because it means “rock.” She has immense inner strength. Trouble was, I found out that the father, the man she and her mother had run away from, was looking for them, so she needed a far more common name. I suppose she could have been Petra Jennifer, but that didn’t occur to me while I was writing. She transformed into Jenny, and that was that.
The final name I want to look at is Sylvia’s son, Ron. This needed to be an abbreviation for a Polish name. So, I went to Behind the Name and looked for just that. Intuitively, without thinking, I chose Polish names starting with H, and there it was: Hieronim.
So, you now have a description of the three ways I settle on a name. You might be kind enough to summarise them for me in a comment below, so I’ll know how to do it in the future.
There is a fourth. I sometimes name a nice character after someone who has done me a favour. You will find a Julia Morrissey in Eulogy for Paul, and a Michael Amos in Gratitude, because they were equal winners of a contest helping me to create the subtitle for my coming book, Lifting the Gloom.
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