Murder by Syllabub, fifth in the Ellen McKenzie series, is available in bookstores now. Purebred Dead, the first in the new Mary McGill series, was released in August 2015 and Curtains for Miss Plym will be out in April 2016.
I’ve been thinking a lot about names lately. People’s names but also names for places. I’m working on another book and that means choosing just the right ones, not always easy to do.
Names should mean something, should suggest a picture in the readers mind. With people’s names that’s hard to control. We tend to associate names with people we’ve either liked or disliked, and no two of us are the same, or have had the same experiences. What Robert means to one person, someone helpful and kind, can to another bring up a picture of the boy who made life miserable all through grade school, Eleonore can mean a best friend, or someone who made fun of you in gym class and who now, at thirty eight, you still hate.
It’s a little more straight forward with place names. If the story is set in, say, Paris, you can pretty well be sure the picture in your readers mind will include the Eiffel tower, outdoor cafés, gothic churches and lots of dogs. San Francisco brings up images of cable cars and steep hills, Victorian houses painted in soft pastels overlooking the bay and Chinatown. But what about small towns nobody’s ever heard of? Do their names bring up images of where the town is located and what it’s really like? Some do. I am reading a Tana French novel, entitled Broken Harbor. The very title tells you this is not a tale about happy families playing in the sun, floating lazily on the water in their sailboat, returning at dusk to sit on their deck, sipping cold drinks, watching the sun sink out of sight while barbequeing some mouth-watering delight. It hints of something much darker, and if you read it, and you should, that’s what you’re going to get.
I live in Georgia, and we have some great street, town, and region names—Holcomb Bridge, Bell’s Ferry, John’s Creek, but I’m not sure I could use them. Take, for instance, John’s Creek. Who was John and where was his creek? It sets up an image, at least in my mind, of a small town surrounded by forest, with a creek running through it. John must have been important if they named the creek after him, so shouldn’t he be in the story? Maybe, but I don’t think I could use him or his creek unless I was doing a period piece. John’s Creek today is all medical offices, crowded streets, take out pizza places and tract houses. Not a creek in sight. John wouldn’t recognize it. Neither would a reader.
I didn’t live in Georgia when I started my first mystery series. I lived in California, and wanted to set my story in a small town on California’s central coast. Yes, California does still have small towns, although a lot of them have grown up. Some nicely, some not. But I wanted a name for my town that said California, or at least the southwest, so I called it Santa Louisa. I thought that sounded like a small town, missions, rolling hills, oak trees. It’s the sort of town that started out as a farm community and grew. Now it’s surrounded by vineyards and wineries, tourists visit, businesses flourish, but families still pack picnics in the summer, spread their blankets on the downtown park lawn and listen to band music, chat with their neighbors and watch the children play. It’s the kind of place where you go to the county fair as much to see the quilts your aunt entered or the heifer your neighbor’s child is showing as the big name entertainers who come.
Mary McGill lives here. She was born here and has never seen any reason to leave. She and her dog, Millie, know everyone in town, which comes in handy when you need to help solve a murder. You can read about their adventures in Purebred Dead, and soon, in Curtains for Miss Plym.
Santa Louisa. A small town on California’s central coast, where the living is good, and sometimes deadly.
Do you get the picture?