Wheatfield Near Fort Pierre, South Dakota. Photograph by Robert Clements

Monday, November 15, 2010

What's in a name?

A metal chicken by any other name would be a drill. Photo by Robert Clements

I was reading a piece on the web the other day about how it's important to take care when naming your characters.  For instance, a Scotsman named Carlos might seem out of place.  Well, duh. 

But since one lives with these people all during the writing process, from conception to birth, a familiarity, a rightness with each character's moniker will aid in moving the process forward.  I was lucky for my first novel.  I'm having a bit of trouble with the second. 

Florine sprang out of my head fully named.  I reached up into the sky and pulled it down as if I'd had a balloon attached to my wrist, all along.  I named her after no one.  She just became.  Her friends, Bud, Dottie, and Glen each came from a different place in my psyche.  Bud.  A good Maine nickname (his real name is James Walter, after my grandfathers).  Dottie's named after one of my grandmothers, and after a woman who wrote a hilarious letter to the editor of a local paper.  That's how this whole novel began (see my blog entry about ideas).  Glen, well, he looked like a Glen to me.  Or perhaps he reminded me of someone I knew named Glen.  Again, the name seemed to fit.  If it hadn't have been right, it would have been struck.  Leeman is a good Yankee name, and Gilham is close to Gilliam, a big name in the Phippsburg area, where much of the book is set.

More names.  Ida - my aunt Iva; Sam and Robin - no one in particular; I love the names and wanted to use them.  Ray - the former owner of a general store.  He's no longer with us.  Funny story about Ray - one of my friends, a woman 'from away' moved to a local village during her hippie days.  She brought with her a beautiful cat named Leonardo.  One day, as sometimes happens to city kitties transplanted to the country, Leonardo disappeared.  My friend went into the general store and asked Ray if he'd seen the kitty.  Ray said, "Dead."  That was Ray, and his blunt, taciturn nature remains alive through the gruff character who runs the general store in my novel.  Bert Butts - well, he's a nod to the late, great Marshall Dodge's Bert and I.  Stinnie Flaherty I named after two guys I worked with at a grocery store early in my twenties.  Andrew Barrington - Andrew after someone I had an enormous crush on, once.  Barrington - sounds toney.  Several characters have names that are combinations of people I know; many of them some of my favorite firefighters who work in Portland, Maine.   Elisabeth Moss and Detective Pratt are named for beloved writer friends and colleagues. 

I still don't know Grand's first name.  I think it's Florence, although it might be Edith.  Carlie was Marley, but then the dog book and movie came out, and I figured that another Marley would lose her impact.  So, Carlie (short for Caroline Lee) she became.  It's a saucy name, as was she.  Susan was Suzy, but it seemed to Elton Johnish and cutesy - "I remember when rock was young, me and Suzy had so much fun...".  So she turned into Susan.  And here is a good example of how the psyche plays with our imaginations.  I swear to this - when I named this character, I completely forgot that my eventual first husband went out with a Susan prior to our courtship, and left me for a Susan at the end of our kiddie-marriage.  Wow...  I wonder what else I'm keeping up there.

Stella was Betty, to begin with.  In my mind, Betty was plump and not attractive, kind of a gossip, and a lot less subtle than she became.  I didn't like Betty, she was the woman who took poor Florine's Dad away during the most vulnerable time in Florine's life.  Then, as I got deeper into the novel, I realized that Betty was a cliche.  This character, one of the most complicated and difficult to write, and to like and understand, needed a name worthy of any number of actions.  Stella is an interesting, rather sexy name that can go one way or the other.  Stella - means Star.  Stanley Kowalsky - STELLA.... My grandmother, Stella, a hella if there ever was one. 

So, yes, simplified, Carlos the Scotsman might be a reach.  I find, as a writer, that I need a comfortable cast of characters surrounding me, with names that I recognize and can work with.  Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea is filled with folks I can work and play with, anytime.  Takes a village of well-named characters to make a book.  That's why I'm hoping that I can settle on either Sarah, Berry, or Molly, so that she can pair up with Rocky and be a good sister to Gary - who changed his own name, by the way.

But that's another story.   

Saturday, November 6, 2010


Irene's Tree - photo by Robert J. Clements

They met in high school.  He, a shy boy from Winnegance, a country/seacoast village across the river from Bath.  She, a lively, attractive, vivacious girl involved in a pinwheel of school activities.  He liked her, immediately, but she didn't like him like that.  He had warts, you see.  When they went away, she began to date him.  He may have chewed them off, but that part of the story is vague, and not pleasant to recall, particularly at the supper table.

A courtship followed, of which I have no knowledge, because I wasn't an idea in their heads yet.  Photos show them at Quaker Point, sitting close and holding hands.  He was handsome in a quiet, Yankee way.  Stubborn chin.  Plain, strong face.  She had wavy dark hair and a smile that creased her face from there and back again.  She went to college at Orono for nurse's training.  He tried Junior College in Portland, but it wasn't his thing, so he signed up for the army, which was his thing.  While she studied and apprenticed and learned to heal, he tramped across post-WWII-torn Europe, taking in the aftermath of horrors unimaginable except to those who suffered and died, and to those, both good and bad, who bore witness.  He came back at one point and they married on December 26th, the day after Christmas, in a double wedding with her brother and his bride, then he shipped out, again.

Sometime later, I was born.  He was given an honorable discharge from the army and he went to work at the Bath Iron Works as a shipfitter.  She had a heart condition while I was hanging out in the womb.    She was bedridden prior to my birth, but after a C-section, I appeared to be fine, and the heart condition went away.  She did this, twice more, then stopped.  They adopted another son later on.  He continued to work at the BIW, she worked the second shift at the Bath Memorial Hospital.  I remember riding in the car with my sister and brothers, all of us sleepy, to pick her up at 11:00 p.m. at night.  I watched the door until she came out, smiling, always, no matter how tired she must have been.

We moved in with my grandmother, a woman determined to be seventeen for all time.  Those years must have been hard for them but their marriage held strong.  We grew, they lasted, and they made it look easy, despite what must have been tremendous pressure.  Whatever crisis might have engulfed them, we children were the audience watching the play, unaware of what might have been going on backstage.  He quit his job at the BIW and took work delivering groceries before he found work at the City Hall as a messenger and custodian.  She became the Director of Nurses at the hospital.  We were proud of her.

It gets hazy for several years, as I lived my life, looping in and out for holidays and family days, zooming in to regroup after several false starts, then lurching out into the light again for another stab at zeroing in on my dreams, and on my humanity.  For a long time, I resented them, was scornful of the choices they had made, of what I considered the wronging of my childhood self.  I got therapy.  They moved into another house.  He retired.  She retired.  They traveled some, to Hawaii, to Florida, to Las Vegas (where I swear she wants her ashes scattered), to California, to the National Parks, to Alaska, to Northern Maine.  He did man stuff, like hunting and golfing.  She read a lot and went to yard sales.  Sometimes she went to Foxwoods.  They lost a son to cancer.

When he began to lose his eyesight to macular degeneration, she guided his way along the roads and highways until he admitted that he had to stop driving.  She, at 69, got her license.  I went driving with her once, for practice.  Her voice shook, she was so nervous, but she did it.  Someone had to do the driving, she said.  They played Cribbage every afternoon at 3:00 p.m., not matter what else was going on.  They invited folks for drinks every Friday afternoon.  They went to church every Saturday night.  I visted them, occasionally, on Sunday, mostly itchy to leave because I had a lot going on in my own life.  They made me impatient.  He could be cranky.  She could be shrill.  I hated her questions about my life.  Now I know they were curious about their complicated daughter.  They were the audience.  I, my brother and sister, and their grandchildren, were the play.  

This October, I went back to Maine after four months in South Dakota.  She has suffered three strokes, small ones.  Her speech and intelligence are intact, although she gets confused and tired.  Her right limbs are affected, and she has two walkers, now - one she calls the Ford, a metal, simple thing, and one she calls the Cadillac because it 's a fancy dancy do-dad with baskets and places to put coffee and magazines.  He can see out of the corner of his left eye.  He still takes a daily walk, although he carries a golf club to lean on, if need be.  He is still 'army' all the way.  Everything in its place.  One day a week is towel washing-drying-and folding day - one day a week is ironing - one day a week, recycling and garbage.  She manages her routine in her tiny, tough, yet gentle way.  Neither of them can drive, but they have many, many friends and family to do that for them.  They manage their troubles with grace. 

I stayed with them for three weeks.  I cooked for them, watched the World Series - at least the Yankees didn't win; Dancing With the Stars - why haven't they voted off Bristol Palin?; and Wheel. Of. Fortune. and Jeopardy.  I walked my dog through the local cemetery every morning in search of a fox that we more often than not found.  The leaves, when I showed up in Maine, were bright.  They had all fallen by the time I left.  I picked up buckets of acorns for my Dad and carted them across the street, where I threw them over a stone wall.  We went to lunch a few times.  I rearranged the canned goods, the Tupperware, and the spices.  My mother and I went to see the movie Secretariat along with my sister.  We all cried, even though we knew the ending - wow - 31 lengths?  I'd forgotten that.
 I consider these three weeks some of the most illuminating and satisfying of my life.  I am thankful that they have lived long enough so that anything that has bothered us has dissipated.  Our bodies are breaking down.  Stuff is leaking, drying out, or falling off.  Forgiveness and kindness are not two of these things.  I am grateful for both.

Most of my friends have lost either one or both parents; some, tragically, long ago.  Mine are still much alive.  I still have them.  They have been together almost 70 years - 60 of them, married.  They sit diagonally across from one another in their Barcalounger chairs.  She shouts at him over the loud television.  He doesn't hear, sometimes, so she shouts again.  I'm not sure it's important that he does hear.  It's the sound of her voice that lets him know that they are both in the same room, together.