No, this is not about the presidential primary campaigns. I just realized that, with CATCH AS CAT CAN, I’ve devoted more than a third of a million words to the adventures of Sunny and Shadow, and that it might be interesting to discuss some of the most important of those words – the names of the characters.
The first to get christened were Sunny and Shadow – for some reason the title of the series was one of the first inspirations to come from brainstorming a cat mystery. A neighbor had a cat named Shadow, although I honestly don’t recall hearing the name before I worked up the series. Shadow didn’t need a last name, but Sunny did. I’d been asked to set the series in Maine, but the names famously associated with the state – Gorgas, Muskie – didn’t match well with Sunny. The best was Pepperell, which always makes me think of towels. Casting my net farther around New England’s past, I got lucky in nearby Vermont, who had a native son make it to the White House – Calvin Coolidge. Sunny Coolidge sounded good to me. Problem almost solved, except I didn’t want Sunny to be a Sonya. A friend suggested a somewhat more exotic first name, Sonata. Fine, and it probably meant that Sunny’s late mother was musical.
Having gotten a star, I needed to build up the supporting cast. As an editor I’d worked on a lot of series bibles, the guidelines for multiple writers to work on a project, so developing character names and capsule biographies remains a big part of my preparation process. Sunny starts off the series taking care of her ailing father. He’s supposed to be a regular, if somewhat grumpy guy, so Mike seemed an excellent name choice for him. By tradition, a romantic interest, often in law enforcement turns up in these stories, and I filled the bill with a fellow named Will Price. I forget where the Price came from, but I recall thinking that Will was a name not much in use these days, and it would stand out. I like having a colorful neighbor lady in my cozies, but what would her name be? One of my sources for Early American names was the passenger list on the Mayflower, although I didn’t use direct swipes. Among them was someone named Margeson, which was a bit of a mouthful. I went with a simpler Martinson and a fancier first name Helena. You may see another naming quirk of mine here. Among my major characters is someone with a two-syllable first and last name, Sunny Coolidge. Her dad has a one-syllable first name, Mike Coolidge. My male lead has a very manly pair of one-syllable names, Will Price, and Mike’s lady friend has two triple-decker names, Helena Martinson. I like the variety, and I think it helps to distinguish the characters, if only on a subconscious level.
Another naming quirk I picked up was one my agent used in his writing projects. As he began work, he’d create a two-column list, first names and last names, with rows for each letter of the alphabet. Then, as he’d name his characters, he made sure they were well-distributed alphabetically. His point, again, was that it made the characters easier to distinguish. Not that you need to follow this rule. Pride and Prejudice has three Bingleys and seven Bennets, not to mention a George and a Georgiana. But if you’re not Jane Austen, every bit helps.
Considering the Maine location would call for a lot of old Yankee names, I made a conscious decision to limit the number of names ending in -son or -ton. There are a lot of fine old English surnames based on being someone’s kid or coming from a particular location, but I didn’t want to overuse them. Binge-reading a lot of Sherlock Holmes, I seemed to see a lot of these sorts of names pop up in the stories. And there are plenty of WASP-y names that don’t fall into the category: Frank Nesbit, my nasty sheriff, Jane Rigsdale, Sunny’s romantic rival (There was a Rigdale family on the Mayflower – I changed the spelling). Jane’s maiden name was Leister, which is a twist on a friend’s name and could be Yankee or perhaps German. We have a couple of Italians in the area. Sal DiGillio gets his first name from a friend’s father and his last name from a high school pal. Gene Avezzani gets a fancy name as a restaurateur friend of Will’s. The Avezzani, as I recall, was an alphabetical decision. Gene may have been, too. In any event, only two -son surnames survive in the continuing cast of characters. Mrs. Martinson and the town grocer, Zach Judson.
I have to admit, I’m not above tossing the occasional joke name into the mix. In HISS AND TELL, I introduce a politically-connected New York realty magnate named Augustus de Kruk. He says the Kruk rhymes with “truck” and gets furious when people pronounce it “crook.” In CATCH AS CAT CAN, a detective appears, Phil Treibholz. That’s German for “driftwood,” which, oddly enough, is one of the possible Old English sources for the name . . . Marlowe. Philip Marlowe, Phil Treibholz. Sorry, folks.
Naming your characters is only half the job. Then you’ve got to keep track of them. Think not? Let’s consider the case of Sherlock Holmes’ partner in crime detection, Dr. Watson. In all the fifty-six stories and four novels, his full name appears only four times. In the subtitle of the first Holmes tale, in the preface of a short-story collection, in the first line of one of the later mysteries, he’s “John H. Watson, M.D.” However, the one time his name appears in dialogue, Watson’s wife calls him “James.” Dorothy Sayers spun a wonderful theory that Watson’s middle initial stands for “Hamish,” which is Scots for “James.” The editor in me, however, suspects this contradiction can probably be put down to a bad day at the writing desk.
To try and make sure this doesn’t happen in the Sunny and Shadow universe (emphasis on try), I rely on the old editorial technique of the style sheet. One of the more boring aspects of a copyeditor’s job is to generate a list of all the names, places, oddball things and spellings that appear in a manuscript, to make sure no Johns turn into Jameses, or Picketts into Pucketts. It has happened to me, I’m sorry to say. In THE BIG KITTY, the friendly neighborhood grocer was Zack Judson. In CAT NAP, he mysteriously became Zach because I was asleep at the keyboard. To prevent similar disasters, I consult a ring binder with all the style sheets for previous books. I also maintain a computerized alphabetical list of all the continuing characters in the series, adding any new characters being introduced in my present book in red. It’s very colorful, not to mention handy. And the style sheets are great for providing the name of the nice restaurant four towns over that the characters visited five books ago . . . when your faulty memory comes up with the name of the nice restaurant in the make-believe town from the series you were doing six years ago.
Shepherding Sunny and Shadow through five adventures hasn’t been easy. (You know what they say about herding cats.) But now you know how this author rides herd on all the names that crop up along the way. Every new book adds another page to my private Who’s Who . . . not to mention What’s That?
About CATCH AS CAT CAN
The new Sunny and Shadow mystery from the New York Times bestselling author of Hiss and Tell and Last Licks.
When a new seafood shop opens in Kittery Harbor, Maine, Sunny’s tomcat Shadow is on the hunt for tasty treats—until Sunny discovers a cold-blooded killer’s catch of the day.
Neil Garret is new to town, but his seafood shop is already going belly up. Working next door, former reporter Sunny Coolidge can’t help noticing the telltale signs. But checking on Neil one morning reveals something far worse for business than a lack of inventory—a mysterious man lies murdered in his freezer.
Sunny’s boyfriend, Chief Investigator Will Price, nets Neil as the prime suspect. But even when Sunny learns about Neil’s secret past, the open-and-shut case seems fishy. Now it’s up to Sunny to find the real culprit and get Neil off the hook.