The answer is, I beg, I borrow and I steal them. I also make them up.
Here are some examples:
I love the name Desmond. We have a dear friend who lives in Dalkey, Ireland with that name. I borrowed the name from him and he was gracious enough to let me. I chose Sheerin as the family name because, while not as well-known as Murphy, or even Malone, it is an Irish name. Once again, I borrowed it. My maternal great-grandfather, Patrick Sheerin, owned a bar or “saloon”, not unlike the original Ceol agus Craic, in Boston around the turn of the last century. From the first moment I envisioned this character I knew his name was Desmond or Des Sheerin.
Francesca Chiesa was my paternal great-grandmother, my father’s beloved Nona. I always loved the name. I asked permission of the “senior” cousin on that side of the family to use it. I am happy to think that Nona’s name lives on in my novel.
Nick’s name is stolen, from a saint, no less. Di Benincasa is the family name of St. Catherine of Sienna. I thought it was a perfect name for a plumber of Italian descent.
Drew MacCullough and Lilah Patch
Two examples of names that I made up from thin air. I wanted a Scot name as a counter-point to Brid’s name, which is Irish, and I liked the sound of MacCullough. The character was neither an “Andy” nor an “Andrew” and thus Drew McCullough was born.
Lilah was conceived in a moment of whimsy with a nod to a dynamic lady I once worked for whose name was Lilla. I liked the way the name sounded and I think it fits this character.
Here are some general guidelines I use when choosing a name:
- Match the name to the nationality or ethnicity of the character or use names popular at the time the character was born.
- Don’t use weird names unless you want the character to be viewed as weird, in which case, a weird name fits.
- Make sure you offer an explanation if the name is unusual or out of time or place. An example of this would be Franny explaining to Nick why her name is Francesca.
I was still working in corporate training when MacCullough’s Women was published. My boss congratulated me on my great pen name. I laughed and asked, “What do you mean?” He said, ” Your name, Ferrari. Like the car. Great choice.” I said, “I am Kathleen Ferrari.” He said, “I know. Great pen name.” I tried again. “No,” I said,”I was born Kathleen Ferrari. It’s my name.” He couldn’t get over that.
I have been married twice. Both times I have taken my husbands’ surname as my own. Shortly before I was married the first time, I needed to get a passport in a hurry. This required a trip into Boston to the federal building for immediate processing. My father drove me “in town” as he, a Boston boy, always referred to the city. The plan was for me to take the train home. At the last moment, my dad decided he would stay with me. Luckily, as it turned out, because the birth certificate I had with me did not have the seal of the city where I was born embossed on it. “This won’t work,” the man behind the counter told me. At the sight of my dismayed face, he looked at my father standing next to me and asked, “Is this your daughter?” He then explained that if my father signed an affidavit swearing that I had been born where and when the birth certificate I had with me said, they would accept that as sufficient proof to process the passport request.
We then had to wait for them to make the actual passport. I fretted that my name on the passport would not be the same as my soon-to-be married name. My father’s patience was wearing thin. He turned to me and said, “Listen. You’ll always be Kathleen Ferrari.”
I smile when I see the name on the books covers. He always believed I could be a writer. Using the name he bequeathed to me is my small way of thanking him for having faith.
Is there a fictional character whose name you particularly like or will never forget?