The Challenging Game of ‘Name that Character’

Most_Popular_Male_NamesYou think it’s easy, naming characters? It’s harder than naming your own baby. In fact, it’s one of the hardest things about writing—for me, anyway. I was talking with an acquaintance at a party recently who said, “How about using my name in your next book? I don’t care if I’m playing a villain or a hero—or even just a walk-on part.” It put me on the spot. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings but choosing names for characters doesn’t work like that. It can be a daunting prospect—especially for authors who, like me, write historical novels.

First and most important, the name has to fit the era. My mysteries are set in the Roaring Twenties, so names popular in the 1950s or 1970s or today may not work well at all. Authors who set their books in the medieval era or Revolutionary Russia have an even tougher time.

One place I consult for ideas is the Social Security website where the most popular names of any given decade are listed. If I have a character who is 35 years old in 1925, I look at the records for 1890 to learn which names prevailed. I don’t necessarily use the most popular names on the list, but I definitely want a name from that list. For example, the top 5 names for boys in 1890 were John, William, James, George, and Charles; the top 5 for girls were Mary, Anna, Margaret, Helen, and Elizabeth. There is zero overlap with today’s popular names (Liam, Noah, Ethan, Mason, and Lucas; Emma, Olivia, Sophia, Ava, and Mia).a-web-boy-names-no-frame-2014-jan-otth

I also take into consideration naming styles of the era. In the 1920s, it was common to use –ie or –y endings on nicknames for men, not just boys. Lots of grown men were called Freddy, Tommy, Jimmie, Johnny, Timmy, Frankie, Eddy, Wally, and so forth. You don’t hear those much today, do you? Also common was the use of nicknames that bore no resemblance to the given name, like Slats, Studs, Lucky, Stretch, Fats, Porky, Babe, and Lumpy. This is particularly true in the criminal underworld; think of Bugs, Scarface, Hymie, Killer, and Snorky—all real gangsters.

But first names are a breeze compared to last names. For those, I need to consider not only the era but the likely ethnicity of the character. The Roaring Twenties was a time of heavy immigration from eastern Europe; so many people in urban centers had surnames that were Italian, Jewish, or Polish. If I’d been writing about an earlier time, the names might have skewed to German, English, Irish, and Scots. I have to also consider professions: police forces in 1920s Chicago or New York skewed toward Irish, so I’ll probably name my cop Mac or O’Toole. In fact, the cop in the book I’m currently writing is named Kevin O’Rourke. Servants in the early part of the twentieth century were often Irish immigrant or African American women, which is why the young Irish housemaid in my current book is called Ellen and the black cook is Bessie Jackson. (Unlike today, when African Americans often use names that have African, Muslim, or biblical origins, blacks in the early 20th century chose names that closely resembled those used by European-Americans.) Their employer’s name is Weidemann, a German name representing the German immigrants of an earlier generation who are now prosperous enough to afford servants.

Madeleine.11In writing my current book, I muddled my way through several names before settling on Maddie for my main character. She was born in the 1890s in Chicago to immigrant parents from French Canada, so I gave her a French name, Madeleine, which I Americanized with a nickname to Maddie. For her Italian immigrant husband, I chose Tomasso Pastore, so she now has a multicultural name—how very American!

Another fun tool I use to help me with ideas is the on-line random name generator. This site lets me choose the gender, the ethnicity, the country, and the age of a person; then it spits out an appropriate name. So if I needed a name for a minor character who is an Australian male living in America today and in his fifties, I get . . . (drum roll) Eddie J. Adcock. Sounds good to me! Check it out at www.fakenamegenerator.com.

Some famous authors, like David Baldacci, auction the naming rights of their characters for charity, promising to use the winner’s name in their next book. It’s a nice fund-raiser, but it’s risky. I guarantee the author worries about what the winning name will be! What if he or she ends up having to use a name that doesn’t fit any characters? I’d love to auction a name for charity, but I can’t risk getting stuck with something that didn’t exist in the 1920s. It’s really more appropriate for authors who write contemporary fiction.

I explained a little of this to my friend and promised him I’d keep his name in mind for future books. But off the record, it won’t happen. His name is far too modern for a Roaring Twenties mystery.

 

 

Published in: on August 28, 2016 at 8:46 am  Comments (2)  
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Hand-Painted Knees

On July 21, 1925, the same day as the St. Petersburg, FL, newspaper headlines featured the John Scopes trial (he was found guilty of teaching evolution in a Kentucky science class), there was also an article on the latest flapper fad: painted knees.

6ade6db95341a66ac19572a3a7d2534a“What is more appealing to the eye than a hand-painted knee? The answer, of course, is two hand-painted knees. And the world may expect from now on to see Flapperia’s dimpled knees exhibiting a painted pansy or a bleeding heart, or any other design of their choice.

This painting of the epidermis in the region of milady’s knees is predicted and advocated by Mrs. Ruth J. Maurer, beauty culture expert who has brought the question up for the approval of 500 beauty specialists meeting in Chicago. ‘It is an odd and beautiful fashion,’ Mrs. Maurer declares. ‘Hand-painted pictures on the knees are intriguing. Some of the designs are simple, some elaborate. Some girls prefer a flower or a group of blossoms of startling colors. Others like a portrait or a little landscape.”

I have my doubts as to how popular this was . . . I found only one image online that showed painted knees (and these, as you can see, are actually painted shins). Still, I think I’ll make a brief mention of this in the mystery I’m currently writing. Nothing big, maybe just a line where Jessie notices someone in New York with painted knees. If it happened anywhere, it would have happened in New York!

Here are some photos readers submitted:

1926 flapper

1926 flapper

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Published in: on August 20, 2016 at 8:09 am  Comments (9)  
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Sneak a Drink!

During the 13 years that Prohibition laws were on the books, inventive Americans developed many ways to sneak a drink. Let’s look at a few: 

Walking sticks enjoyed a surge in popularity after men found they could conceal a good deal of alcohol inside a hollowed out stick with a screw top.

Walking sticks enjoyed a surge in popularity after men found they could conceal a good deal of alcohol inside a hollowed out stick with a screw top.

 

Ladies could take advantage of their high heels to insert a flask that carried enough for at least one drink.

Ladies could take advantage of their high heels to insert a flask that carried enough for at least one drink.

 

And the ever popular garter flask suited many flappers.

And the ever popular garter flask suited many flappers.

 

The easiest concealment was probably a bulky coat. This woman seems to be wearing enough liquor for a party!

The easiest concealment was probably a bulky coat. This woman seems to be wearing enough liquor for a party!

 

This woman is ready for a big evening out.

This young lady is ready for a big evening out.

 

A coat could cover a lot.

The right coat could cover a lot of hooch.

 

“Great men not abstainers”

contentI found this passage in the 1916 booklet by Horatio Stoll titled “How Prohibition Would Affect California.” 

Among the world’s great–really great–men, not one can be found who was a total abstainer. Throughout the ages, the men whose names have gone down in history as having achieved something of real note, used wine. No matter in what direction their activities lay, whether in war or in peace, whether in religion, in literature, in art, in science, or in the strenuous field of exploration, they all used alcoholic stimulant in some form or another.

Alexander the Great was noted for his wine drinking; so was Julius Caesar. Christ and His Apostles used wine. Coming to later times, we find the names of Christopher Columbus, Dean Swift, Dryden, Pope, Napoleon Bonaparte, Lord Nelson, Voltaire, Rousseau, Edmund Burke, Gibbon, Hume, Sheridan, Fox, Goldsmith, Robert Burns, Benjamin Franklin, Byron, Walter Scott, Victor Hugo, Balzac, Dickens, Dumas, Herbert Spencer, Guizot, Carlyle, Mommsen, Ernest Renan, Thackeray, Washington Irving, Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, Abraham Lincoln, Bismarck, U.S. Grant, Admirals Porter, Farragut and Dewey, Wagner, Verdi, Marconi and Thomas Edison, and an indefinitely long list of other world celebrities–all wine drinkers. . . Total abstinence has never been found hand in hand with momentous accomplishment.

Take that, you prohibitionists! 

This was published in 1916, as the Anti-Saloon League and Women’s Christian Temperance Union was working to push national prohibition into the Constitution. The 64-page booklet makes good reading!

Published in: on July 30, 2016 at 3:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

Blind Drunk

Where does the phrase “blind drunk” come from?

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Wood alcohol (methanol) attacks the optic nerve and destroys retinal cells, rendering the drinker blind. During Prohibition, all alcohol was illegal as a beverage, so it was impossible to distinguish between legitimate alcohol and the poisoned version. People who drank in speakeasies–especially the cheap ones in poor parts of the city, in places like New York, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, etc.–might be buying wood alcohol. Who could tell the difference? No one, at least not until the side effects set in.

Here’s what wikipedia says: Methanol ingested in large quantities is metabolized first to formaldehyde and then to formic acid or formate salts, which are poisonous to the central nervous system and may cause blindness, coma, and death. It is used to denature alcohol which is intended for industrial uses. This addition of methanol exempts industrial ethanol from liquor excise taxation.

Did it always kill? No. It depended on how much you drank and the individual’s health. But it made drinkers sick and could kill. I use it in my books when I need something poisonous.

Published in: on July 24, 2016 at 6:50 pm  Comments (2)  
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Miss America–How Our Ideas of Beauty Have Changed

I use photos of people and places taken in the 1920s to help me describe clothing, hairstyles, and locations, indoors and out. One thing I’ve noticed is how much our ideas of beauty have changed in the past hundred years. These pictures of the first few young women to be named Miss America illustrate my point. The first thing I noticed is that these girls are not stick-thin and top-heavy; they are, well . . . rather normal in shape. Check out the following photos of Miss Americas in the Roaring Twenties. These are all attractive women, but I doubt any of them would win a beauty pageant today.

Here’s the first group of contestants for the Miss America title in 1919:

09 Sep 1922, Atlantic City, New Jersey, USA --- Original caption: Atlantic City: Mary Dague as "Miss Wheeling," Dorothy Haupt as "Miss Easton," Helen Lynch as "Miss Fall River," Ellen E. Sherr as "Miss Allentown," Paula E. Spoettle as "Miss Bridgeport," and Miss Margaret Gorman as "Miss America"--in bathing suits. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

I noticed the early Miss Americas didn’t bob their hair. Probably seemed too flapperish, too risqué, not enough Girl Next Door wholesome.

Miss America 1922

Miss America 1922

Miss America 1924

Miss America 1924

Miss America 1925

Miss America 1925

Miss America 1925, first with bobbed hair

Miss America 1925, first with bobbed hair

Miss America 1926 has long hair twisted in a popular style known as earphones. (Think princess Leia.)

Miss America 1926 has long hair twisted in a popular style known as earphones. (Think princess Leia.)

Miss America 1927

Miss America 1927

Miss America 1928

Miss America 1928

 

Miss America 1929

Miss America 1929

Published in: on July 10, 2016 at 9:05 am  Comments (1)  
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Poisons Galore!!

SONY DSCsmilingskullI’ve had the remarkable good luck to find some authentic bottles of Twenties poisons–one that I use in book #2–mercury bichloride. This is so cool! I bring them with me to book signings and talks as a show-and-tell kind of prop. Now that I own some mercury bichloride, my next goal is to find some Veronal, the sleeping powder I use in book #3 that, like most sleeping medicine, becomes fatal if taken to excess. It was made by Bayer, introduced in 1904, and used during the first half of the twentieth century. Where do I find these treasures? Mostly on eBay. hommedia.ashx

Published in: on July 2, 2016 at 8:19 am  Leave a Comment  

Paddy’s Market

Jewish market on the East Side, New York, New York, 1890-1901

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In my reading, I’m always alert for any historical tidbits that I can work into my books. Just this week, I came across some information about Paddy’s Market, a seven-block stretch of outdoor stalls selling food along New York’s Ninth Avenue (35th to 42nd) where home winemakers could buy everything and anything they needed during the Prohibition years. Many, perhaps most, of the vendors and buyers were immigrants. (I couldn’t find any images of Paddy’s Market, but these show what it looked like.) It was a bustling place until the building of the Lincoln Tunnel brought about its demise in 1938. When I learned about this, I added one sentence in my newest manuscript (the one without a title), which is working its way through my critique group. 

Freddy shrugged. What could he say? These days, no one could know what they were drinking unless they made it themselves, which wasn’t a bad idea, now that I thought of it. If only I still lived in my own house with its kitchen and back yard, I could buy beer starter and brew my own beer like lots of folks were doing. Magazines advertised dried grape bricks for making wine at home—I could have tried that too. Or I could have walked down Ninth to Paddy’s Market, a seven-block Mecca for home winemakers, and bought all the supplies I needed. And Tommy had told me once that building a distilling operation needed no special know-how, just some equipment. Those who made their booze at home could at least rely on its safety, if not its quality.

Published in: on June 26, 2016 at 6:07 am  Comments (1)  
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Mostly Lost 5: for those who love solving mysteries

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This past weekend, I attended the annual Library of Congress workshop on silent films in Culpeper, Virginia, where those who love solving mysteries are challenged with real mysteries. Specifically, the LoC shows three days of snippets of unidentified silent movies to an audience of about 125 experts, collectors, academics, and fans (like me!) in the hope that the group effort will nail down some facts about these orphans. 

IMG_0638The projector rolls and we see some bit of a movie–it could be as short as 6 seconds, it could be an hour (we don’t watch the whole thing in that case); it could be a comedy, a tragedy, a cartoon, a western, a foreign film . . . whatever it is, the members of the audience shout out clues and thoughts as they spot them. “The eye makeup looks German,” says someone. “No, the cuts are faster than Germans usually did . . . maybe it’s Danish or Scandinavian?” “The typeface in the titles resembles the sort used in Rex productions,” says a voice. “That looks like Dot Farley,” calls another. “1912 to 1914,” says a man behind me. “That’s an American upright piano on the right,” meaning it’s not likely to be a foreign-made film. “That’s Billy Quirk; he was a Solax comedian.” On and on . . . 

th-1About half the presentations are identified, meaning the Library of Congress now knows at least something about the title, the actors’ names, the date, the director, and the place where it was filmed. Three times someone in the audience was familiar enough with a particular location to identify the place as a park in southern California, a historic mill in New Jersey, and the ruins of Palmyra in Syria (recently destroyed by ISIL). Amazingly enough, I don’t get tired or bored sitting in the audience, even though I have very little to offer during this process. It’s fascinating listening to the experts working together to solve each mystery as it comes to the screen. 

What do I get out of this besides fun? I meet interesting people and I learn little things I can work into my stories, which are set in the 1920s when silent movies were at their height. Like: I can use the word “plane” for airplane, something I’ve been afraid to do until now. I know what a bus in L.A. looked like in 1925, with an open top deck with wicker chairs for passengers. Minor details, of course, but they bring the era to life. And best of all, I get to participate in genuine mystery-solving! This is my second year at Mostly Lost, and I hope to be back next year for another round. 

A Surprise Nomination

stolen-memories-ebook-coverI was so surprised when I got a phone call telling me STOLEN MEMORIES was a finalist for a prestigious Daphne award, I must have sounded like an idiot . . . I kept repeating, “What award? Are you sure?” The caller was sure. The book is one of five finalists in the category of Historical Mystery/Suspense. The winner will be announced on July 13-16 in San Diego at the Romance Writers of America conference. I don’t imagine my book will win–after all, it has only a 20% chance–but I’m thrilled it’s a finalist.

The award is named for the late Daphne du Maurier, one of my favorite authors (Rebecca, Frenchman’s Creek, The Birds, Jamaica Inn, etc.) Young_Daphne_du_Maurier

Published in: on June 11, 2016 at 7:48 am  Comments (10)  
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