What’s in a name?

When Marilla Cuthbert first meets Anne Shirley, she asks the 11-year-old orphan girl what her name is.

“Will you call me Cordelia?” she asks.

Anne goes on to explain that she despises her “plain, sensible” name, but thinks it would be perfectly lovely to be called what she considers such an elegant name. Marilla declines, and Anne reluctantly accepts being called by her real name, although with the caveat that it always includes the “e” on the end.

Thus, Anne “with an e,” though plainly named, cements herself as one of the most beloved of literary characters.

One of my favorite parts of writing is naming my characters. I have always loved the history of names. I read my first baby name book cover to cover when I was 8, loving the discovery of their origins and meanings. So when it comes time to naming my own characters, I have a lot of fun! But just as one poorly conceived plot device ruin a good book, so can an ill-named character take the reader out of the story.

Here’s a few of my rules when naming characters:

ShakespeareChoose a name you like. 

Seems kind of silly, doesn’t it? But just like naming your children, this is a name that is going to stick with you with for a long time, depending on how fast you write, or how successful the story has been. Make sure it’s something you’re going to like for the long haul.

Choose a name that suits the character. 

In early draft of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, her spoiled Southern belle was named “Pansy O’Hara.” Can you imagine “Pansy” vowing to never go hungry again, or helping Melanie have a baby while a battle raged on around them? Thank goodness someone made her change the name to the now iconic “Scarlett!” When I started writing my murder mystery, the protagonist’s male co-sleuth was named “Reed Spencer.” But after writing just a few pages of “Reed,” I just couldn’t stand him. He wasn’t a Reed! Today, “Drew Spencer” is helping Mira solve murders!

Choose a name that works with your story’s genre and time period.

Seems simple, but I hate, hate, HATE it when I read a story that features a protagonist named something that utterly doesn’t fit with that time period or genre. Think of a cowboy romance with a heroine named “Tiffany” or “Arwen.” Or maybe a futuristic sci-fi adventure with characters named “Herman” and “Mabel.” Just doesn’t seem to work, right? It goes the same way with modern fiction: if your character was born in the 1980s, most likely her name would be something like “Jennifer” or “Jessica,” two of the most popular names of that decade, rather than something funky, like “Legend” or “Naveah.” And if you want a funky name, make sure there’s a reason for it, other than “I’m a writer and I can do what I want.” (Good reason, but probably won’t hold up with your publisher.) A great resource is the Social Security website, which lists the most popular names by decade going back to 1880.

AnneChoose a name that your readers or target audience can pronounce. 

This one’s a personal pet peeve of mine. Don’t spell your character’s name in such a way that your reader doesn’t know how to pronounce it. Unless they are listening to an audio book, it’s hard to know how an oddly-spelled name is pronounced. The exception: fantasy stories often have unusual names, but there is usually a hint from others on how to pronounce it (“rhymes with BLANK,” etc.).

Of course, sometimes we can’t control our character’s names any more than we as writers can control them. L.M. Montgomery stated in her autobiography, The Alpine Path, that the character of Anne Shirley just came to her, fully fleshed out and named, down the all-important “e.”

So, how do you decide what to name your characters? Are they named after someone in particular? Or do they just come to you?

Anne + Gilbert

Of all of L.M. Montgomery’s love stories in her fiction, none has ever quite captured the imagination, or my heart, quite so much as that of Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe.

It’s hard to put into words how much I love this story. It’s really quite simple: Gilbert is the boy Anne decides to hate forever, until she finally realizes she doesn’t, and grows to love as a friend, and eventual lover. But oh, it’s the telling of that story that makes all the difference! Played out over eight books, Anne and Gilbert’s love story grows and changes as the characters age, get married, and have children. By the time the series ends, Anne and Gilbert’s children are the focus of the story, but the love these two share is evident in every scene they are in. Well into their middle age, Gilbert is still cherishing his “Anne-girl.”

CarrotscarrotsWhile Anne of Green Gables is the story of a girl becoming a young woman more than a romance, Anne and Gilbert have a “meet-cute” when they are young. Anne is the new girl in school, and Gilbert wants desperately to catch her attention. Like most adolescent boys, this comes in the form of teasing, so he tugs on Anne’s red braid and calls her the worst thing a redhead could ever hear: “carrots.”

Anne’s famous temper flashes and she promptly breaks her slate over Gilbert’s head. Despite Gilbert’s attempts at apologies, “the iron has entered” her soul, as she tells her best friend Diana. She vows to hate and ignore him for forever. However, Gilbert is the smartest boy in school, so Anne and Gilbert wrestle for academic victory for years, first in their small country school, then later at Queen’s College. Gilbert frequently tries to win Anne’s forgiveness, but she rebuffs him at every turn. Finally, at the end of the first book, Gilbert makes a sacrifice for Anne that makes her realize she forgave him long ago. The two decide to be as good of friends as they were enemies.

Over the next two books, Anne’s journey through young adulthood continues, with her “chum” Gilbert always by her side. At Redmond College, Gilbert proposes marriage, and Anne turns him down, claiming she doesn’t love him.

montgomery-anne-of-the-island“I suppose you’ve gone and refused Gilbert Blythe. You are an idiot, Anne Shirley!”

“Do you call it idiotic to refuse to marry a man I don’t love?” said Anne coldly, goaded to reply.

“You don’t know love when you see it. You’ve tricked something out with your imagination that you think love, and you expect the real thing to look like that. There, that’s the first sensible thing I’ve ever said in my life. I wonder how I managed it?”

“Phil,” pleaded Anne, “please go away and leave me alone for a little while. My world has tumbled into pieces. I want to reconstruct it.”

“Without any Gilbert in it?” said Phil, going.

A world without any Gilbert in it! Anne repeated the words drearily. Would it not be a very lonely, forlorn place? Well, it was all Gilbert’s fault. He had spoiled their beautiful comradeship. She must just learn to live without it.

-Anne of the Island, 1915

Of course, Anne and Gilbert eventually get together, when Anne learns Gilbert is dying of typhoid fever. Unlike the movie, in which Anne’s profession of love seems to pull him back from the brink of death, in the book, Anne spends a dreadful night praying, and agonizing that the man she loves will leave the world without ever knowing how she truly feels. But “joy comes in the morning,” and Gilbert recovers to renew his suite of Anne, who gladly accepts this time.

Anne-and-Gill-on-the-Bridge-Kissing“But I’ll have to ask you to wait a long time, Anne,” said Gilbert sadly. “It will be three years before I’ll finish my medical course. And even then there will be no diamond sunbursts and marble halls.”

Anne laughed.

“I don’t want sunbursts and marble halls. I just want YOU. You see I’m quite as shameless as Phil about it. Sunbursts and marble halls may be all very well, but there is more ‘scope for imagination’ without them. And as for the waiting, that doesn’t matter. We’ll just be happy, waiting and working for each other—and dreaming. Oh, dreams will be very sweet now.”

Five more books continue Anne and Gilbert’s love story, through marriage, children, and World War I. Their love only grows stronger through each book, and I never tire of reading about it.

Since we’re getting a blizzard here in the Midwest today and my office is closed, I may just have to re-read my favorite romance again!

Christmas with Anne + Book Giveaway!

Christmas with Anne and Other Holiday Stories is a book I pull off the shelf every Christmas season, mainly because of three things:

  1. It’s by my favorite author, L.M. Montgomery (regular readers of this blog know of my love affair with the Anne of Green Gables series!)
  2. It’s a collection of 16 short stories, which are perfect to read when time is short and the busyness of December prevails.
  3. Every story takes place during Christmas!

L.M. Montgomery was actually a prolific short story writer, writing over 500 stories that were published in magazines, newspapers, and all sorts of periodicals, all before her first (and most well-known) novel was published in 1908. Many of her stories have been recovered and collected into themed collections, such as Christmas with Anne.

Christmas with AnneThe title story in the collection is from one of the best chapters in Anne of Green Gables, “Matthew Insists on Puffed Sleeves,” in which Matthew finally fulfills Anne’s lifelong wish to have a dress with “puffed sleeves.” It’s his Christmas gift to her, and the humorous tale illustrates how much he had come to love the chattering redhead with a big imagination. Another story in the book returns to the world of Anne, taking a chapter from Anne of Windy Poplars in which Anne brings the surly Katherine Brooke home to Green Gables as an act of charity, only to turn her into a true friend. I’m not sure if these stories work outside of the context of the books from they were taken (since I read them both in their respective books first), but it’s always nice to revisit those particular chapters and relive the Christmas magic.

However, most of the stories in Christmas with Anne stand alone, and are entirely appropriate for young children. They share sweet, simple messages of Christmas: family, love, giving, peace, sacrifice, and even a bit of romance. One of my favorites involves a trio of sisters who travel to their uncle’s house to cook up Christmas dinner, only to discover they had made themselves at home in the wrong house. “Aunt Cyrilla’s Christmas Basket” involves a girl and her aunt on a train that becomes snowbound on Christmas Eve. The niece had always been embarrassed of her aunt’s habit of toting a large basket full of Christmas goodies, but after sharing their bounty with the strangers on the train and making their holiday merry, she realizes her Aunt Cyrilla’s habit isn’t so bad after all.

Book Giveaway!

Don’t forget we’re doing a book giveaway every day for the next two weeks on the blog! Leave a comment below along with your e-mail address for a chance to receive a novel, novels, or a novella collection.

Climbing the Alpine Path with L.M. Montgomery

Today, I’m interviewing my favorite author of all time, Lucy Maud “L.M.” Montgomery (1874-1942), author of 20 novels, 530 short stories, 500 poems, and 30 essays (can I get a “holy cow!” at this woman’s output?). Maud, as she liked to be called, is best known for her first novel, Anne of Green Gables, which was published in 1908 to become an almost overnight success. It has sold more than 50 million copies and translated into 20 languages .

I have been a huge fan of Maud’s since reading Anne as a little girl, and I proudly own nearly all of her novels (many are out of print and hard to find), most of her short story collections, and her autobiography, written mid-career, The Alpine Path, as well as a 1919 first edition of her seventh Anne book, Rainbow Valley.  (All of Maud’s answers are excerpted from The Alpine Path, copyright 1917).

NOTE: Maud may have found success with Anne of Green Gables, but she toiled for close to 20 years, writing short stories and poems for magazines and newspapers before Anne ever saw the light of day. 

The original 1908 cover for Anne of Green Gables. I have the centennial commemorative edition, complete with the original illustrations and replicated cover.
The original 1908 cover for Anne of Green Gables. I have the centennial commemorative edition, complete with the original illustrations and replicated cover.

SL: What was your inspiration behind Anne Shirley and the rest of of Green Gables?

LMM: I had always kept a notebook in which I jotted down, as they occurred to me, ideas for plots, incidents, characters, and descriptions. In the spring of 1904, I was looking over this notebook in search of some idea for a short serial I wanted to write for a certain Sunday School paper. I found a faded entry, written many years before: “Elderly couple apply to orphan asylum for a boy. By mistake a girl is sent them.” I thought this would do. I began to block out chapters, devise, and select incidents to brood up my heroine. Anne — she was not so named of malice aforethought, but flashed into my fancy already christened, even to the all important “e”– began to expand in such a fashion that she soon seemed very real to me and took possession of me to an unusual extent. She appealed to me, and I thought it rather a shame to waste her on an ephemeral little serial. Then the thought came, “Write a book. You have the central idea. All you need do is spread it our over enough chapters to amount to a book.”

SL: Was Anne of Green Gables accepted by a publisher right away?

LMM: I sent it to a new American firm that had recently come to the front with several best sellers. I thought I might stand a better chance with a new firm than an old established one that already had a preferred list of writers. But the new firm very promptly sent it back. Next I sent it to one of the “old established firms,” and the old established firm sent it back. Then I sent it, in turn, to three “Betwixt and between” firms, and they all sent it back.

That finished me. I put Anne away in an old hatbox, resolving that someday when I had time I would take her and reduce her to the original seven chapters of her first incarnation. The manuscript lay in the hatbox until I came across it one winter day while rummaging. I began turning over the leaves, reading a bit here and there. It didn’t seem so very bad. “I’ll try once more,” I thought. The result was that a couple of months later an entry appeared in my journal to the effect that my book had been accepted. I wrote “Well, I’ve written my book! The dream dreamed years ago at that old brown desk in school has come true at last after years of toil and struggle. And the realization is sweet, almost as sweet as the dream.”

Half of my shelf of L.M. Montgomery treasures. My original copies are frayed from so many readings!
A sampling of some of my L.M. Montgomery treasures. The original copies of my Anne series are too frayed from so many readings to be displayed!

SL: How do you feel about the success of Anne of Green Gables?

LMM: When I thought of the book succeeding or not, I had in mind only a very moderate success indeed, compared to that which it did attain. I never dreamed that it would appeal to young and old. I thought girls in their teens might like to read it, that was the only audience I hoped to reach. But men and women who are grandparents have written to tell me how they love Anne, and boys at college have done the same. I recently received a letter from a lad of 19 who is going to the front and wants to tell me “before he goes” how much my books and especially Anne have meant to him. It is in such letters that a writer finds meet reward for all sacrifice and labor.

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Remember, Rose Zediker is giving away a copy of Reclaiming the Cowboy’s Heart to one lucky commenter. In the next two weeks, every time you leave a comment your name will be entered. Offer open to continental U.S. residents only. Winner will be selected on Sat., April 25.