Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, writing today about naming characters and places in mystery novels. It’s not as easy as you might think.
Take my new “Deadly Edits” series, for example (Crime & Punctuation will be in stores May 29), in which the amateur sleuth is a recently widowed retired school teacher who leaves Maine, where she’s lived for the last fifty years, returns to the small town in rural New York State where she grew up, and starts a new career as a book doctor. Although we do have some things in common, my husband is still alive and well, I was only briefly a school teacher, and I continue to live in Maine. That said, it isn’t that much of a stretch to imagine myself in my character’s situation. Would I move back to Liberty, New York if the house I grew up in came on the market just as I was feeling both nostalgic and at loose ends? Maybe.
But since this is fiction, and I’m not—repeat not—using real people or places in stories where, let’s face it, murder is at the center of the plot, it behooves me to take special care in selecting names, starting with that of my detective. My choices need to create an alternate universe.
My mother once told me that when she and my father were considering baby names, they seriously contemplated choosing Michelle for a girl and Michael for a boy. It wasn’t much of a stretch to go with Mom’s alternate choice and name my new protagonist Michelle. I quickly shortened to Mikki, and as soon as I said it aloud, the last name Lincoln popped into my head. It worked for me, and I kept it, even though I also knew why I’d thought of it. Many years ago, there was a controversial proposal for a tidal power project in the state of Maine that went by the name Dickey-Lincoln. Lincoln Place is also the street I lived on in Liberty, so that was a nice bonus. Naming things is a strange and peculiar process!
Next up, I needed a name for Mikki’s old home town. I fully intended to use the layout of Liberty’s streets in my fictional setting, but I didn’t want to use the name because, obviously, it’s not the same place I’m writing about. I used Liberty and Liberty Falls (now Ferndale) in a couple of historical novels (Julia’s Mending, a YA set in 1887, and No Mortal Reason, the third book in my “Diana Spaulding 1888 Quartet”) but for Crime & Punctuation I decided on Lenape Hollow. The Lenape were native to the area but, to be honest, my earliest contact with the name came from the Lenape Hotel on Academy Street, where I went to take my first dance lessons.
My goal in naming both people and places is to avoid using real names, especially when it comes to street names and classmates. There are a couple of exceptions. Main Street is still Main Street. And when my character has a flashback, remembering all the years when she was in home room with the same group of kids, seated alphabetically, she rattles them off from my memory. In our row we were Gertzman, Gildersleeve, Gips, Gorton, and Grant. All I did was add Mikki’s maiden name, Greenleigh, to the roster.
At one point, I consulted my high school yearbook and made a list of the first and last names of everyone in my class. It’s impossible to avoid using all of them. In fact, there were two girls named Michelle. All I’m trying to avoid is getting too close to any real names, especially for my villains. There were 114 individuals in the class of 1965. Although spellings varied, they included six named Michael, five named Robert, five named Patricia, and three each named Sharon, Judith, or Alan. Those are fair game, but I intend to avoid the less common names of classmates. Preston, Belen, Clayton, Edgar, Glenna, Toby, Perry, Regina, and Wendy are all lovely names, but not for characters in my alternate universe.
Last names are just as tricky, but all in all, it’s been a lot of fun finding just the right ones. I’m sure, in the real world, someone somewhere has every name I might choose, but as they say in all the best disclaimers, any resemblance to a real person, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of more than fifty-five traditionally published books written under several names. She won the Agatha Award and was an Anthony and Macavity finalist for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries and the “Deadly Edits” series (Crime & Punctuation—2018) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries (Murder in a Cornish Alehouse) as Kathy. The latter series is a spin-off from her earlier “Face Down” mysteries and is set in Elizabethan England. Her most recent collection of short stories is Different Times, Different Crimes. Her websites are www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com and she maintains a website about women who lived in England between 1485 and 1603 at A Who’s Who of Tudor Women.