Alafair Burke has made a name for herself with her mix of legal thriller and gritty suspense as well as with her new stand-alone novel, If You Were Here. In our guest blog she talks about names and what they mean to a writer.
What’s in a Name?
Thank you so much for the invitation to blog here today. As supporters of an awesome indie bookstore in Texas, readers here might be interested in something related to another awesome indie bookstore in Texas.
Some mystery readers might recognize a familiar name in my new novel, IF YOU WERE HERE, about journalist McKenna Jordan’s search for a friend who disappeared without a trace a decade earlier.
Yep, that’s right. McKenna Jordan. Same name as the owner of Houston’s MURDER BY THE BOOK.
Why the same name? The short answer is that McKenna’s a wonderful friend and a terrific supporter of the genre, and I’ve always loved both her and the name. But there’s a much longer explanation. Here it is, so I can refer people here whenever they ask, as they surely will because McKenna….knows….everyone!
I strive to make my books appear effortless. For readers to lose themselves in a book, they should be able to believe that story, characters, and settings exist in a parallel world. The writer simply becomes the tunnel for pulling those thoughts onto the page.
For the most part, I’m a tunnel kind of writer. I see and hear some characters as if I’ve known them for years.
My problem? These little brats who come to me from the ether never stop and tell me their names! Hey lady, what am I supposed to call you?
Not much of a whine, is it? A name for a non-existent person seems pretty easy to conjure. Absolutely. In theory.
But here’s an exercise: Let’s say I tell you that a man is a thirty-eight year old lawyer in Chicago. His name is Robert Simpson.
No, his name is Bob Simpson.
Wait, no, Bobby Simpson.
I don’t know about you, but I just pictured three slightly different people.
Now his name is River Simpson. Whoa.
Maybe it’s because I grew up with a name like Alafair, but I believe (and my thirty minutes of Google research indicates) that we automatically draw inferences about people based only on their names. So when it’s time for me to think of a name for a
fully formed person speaking to me from the ether, I really struggle.
When I started the Ellie Hatcher series, nothing seemed quite right for this woman I already saw as a friend. Ellie grew up in Wichita, Kansas, the daughter of a police detective and bookkeeper. She lost her father at a young age. The Wichita Police Department labeled it suicide, but Ellie never accepted the determination. I knew her route from the teen beauty pageant circuit in Kansas, to waiting tables in New York City, to John Jay College, to the NYPD. I knew she kept a jar of Nutella and a spoon in her top desk drawer. I knew she listened to the Clash and the Pixies. I knew how she felt the first time she took a punch to the face.
But I didn’t know her name.
I looked at baby names from the year of my girl’s birth. I expended enormous amounts of time looking at cast and crew names on IMDB, trying various combinations of short and last names that might just fit. Nothing.
Her parents would have given her an old fashioned name, but as a kid, she would’ve altered it to something that still suits her well today. There’d probably even be a story about what she hated about her given name. I realized I was searching for something that sounded a little like my mother-in-law’s maiden name, Ellie Hatcher. I needed to get on with writing the book, so I started using the name as a placeholder, with every intention of doing a search and replace once I figured out her real name.
By the time I finished the novel, there was no going back. It would be like changing a kid’s name in the ninth grade. Elsa Mae (Ellie) Hatcher had a name. I even knew why and when she’d begun going by Ellie instead of Elsa.
In my new standalone, IF YOU WERE HERE, I really knew the two main characters before I started to write, because they are not so loosely based on my husband and me. (Backstory to the backstory: The greatest compliment we may have ever received as a couple was from my sister, who wants us to go on The Amazing Race. Unless she just wants to see me fall during some roof-scaling exercise, I think she’s referring to the fact that Sean and I have opposing but complementary strengths and personalities. Since I can’t figure out how to get us on a TV show, I figured I could use us as the bones for two new characters with our basic skills and personalities, but who face tremendously puzzling and dangerous challenges.)
But what do I name a character based on myself? Certainly not Alafair, because that’s the name of the author. And Alafair Robicheaux. And Alafair Tucker. I tried Ally, but it sounds too much like Ellie. And like Alice, the main character in my last standalone, LONG GONE
I had already named the husband Patrick Jordan by looking at my own husband and asking, “What should his name really be?” Then it came to me. This main character I knew so well had to be named McKenna. McKenna (Wright) Jordan.
Fortunately, McKenna was game. She tells me it was a little hard to get used to seeing her name being bandied about by some fictional character in a book. I told her that, as a person named Alafair, I could identify. And I hope that readers who recognize the game will smile to themselves at the insider reference, the way I smile when I see Kiz Rider and Maggie Griffin in Michael Connelly’s novels (both named for booksellers at the wonderful, though now closed, Partners & Crime in New York).
Thanks for the chance to share my little aside here today.