Naming names

One of my favourite things about writing a novel is that I get to choose all the names of the characters in it. I love this process. There are so many considerations, and yet once they’re named, it quickly becomes the only thing they could possibly be called,  just as a newborn baby seems to inhabit its given name within minutes of arriving in the world.

Eve Williams is actually the name of a friend’s little girl, who was born just as I conceived the idea for the book. It seemed to have the right balance of qualities for my heroine: it scanned well, it had a lyrical quality but it also had its feet on the ground, it was timeless. Then, because the same friend already had a little boy called Seth, I put him in the book too so that when the two of them are old enough to read Netherwood, they won’t feel I favoured one over the other. Plus, of course, Seth was simply perfect for the era. Eliza and Ellen, and dear old Arthur,  all presented themselves in my head from nowhere, but felt just right.

The other names come from all sorts of different places. Some of them are an amalgam of people I knew as a child – first names and surnames swapped around – or teachers from my old secondary school. I had a lovely English teacher whose name was Mr Farrimond, so he became the Methodist minister from Grangely. Some of the names were plucked from old local history books, which have been a fantastic source of good, authentic, regional surnames such as Waterdine, Sidebottom, Pickersgill and Sylvester. And then the Hoyland clan, of course, all share a name with my old home town: my small tribute to the place in South Yorkshire where I grew up. I don’t always get it right, mind you; Anna began life as Malina in the very early days of Netherwood, and was swiftly changed, because it sounded all wrong and I also learned that it meant ‘raspberry’ which didn’t seem  very appropriate; Anna is much too dignified to be named for a small red berry. Also, there was a Lady Louisa Hoyland originally – she came, in age order, between Tobias and Isabella – but I went off her, because there was nothing for her to say, so she was scrapped, poor thing.

In my new book, Eden Falls – which I’ve just completed – there is a grand total of fifty-four characters. I know this, because as I read through the manuscript, prior to sending it to my editor at Sphere, I made a note of each name as it cropped up. Some of them, of course, are brand new – this book is set partly in Jamaica, so there were rich picking in my Jamaican history books and cook books for some great, characterful names for my new cast members. Ruby Donaldson, I hope, will be as appealing to readers as Eve and Anna have been. Then, there’s her son Roscoe, two porters called Scotty and Maxwell, and a devout kitchen hand called Batista. There’s also a mule, called Edna, and a gardener, called Bernard. I have images of them all in my head now, as I write their names, and I hope my readers will too, when they get their hands on the book, in September.

Anyway, I was thinking that it might be a good idea to have a Who’s Who list at the front of the book, so that readers can flick back and double-check who someone is, if they lose track. I like this, when I find it myself in a big novel; Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (by Hilary Mantel) both have a cast list, and in the Cazalet Chronicles (by Elizabeth Jane Howard), which I’m currently devouring after hearing a snippet on Woman’s Hour, there’s a sort of family tree of the principle characters. I’m not sure why, but this makes everyone seem more real – adds to the benign deception, I suppose, that these fictional people live and breath within the pages of the book.


  • Alison

    To be a goosegog or goosegob does it really matter? I say not. Great to see you Jane so looking forward to book three.

    • Jane Sanderson

      Great to see you too, Alison – sorry you were barred, but thanks for waiting till the end – at least we had a coffee, after thirty-odd years!

  • Alison

    Hey it didn’t matter people had come to see you. Can’t believe its taken 30 odd years to have coffee together, the last drink we had might have been a cider at party in Elsecar! But shushhhhhhhhhh about that I told my Mum there would only be soft drinks. The goosegog was the topic of the afternoon, and your not on your own with goosegog. I asked a friend today and I asked what he called a gooseberry and he said goosegog so there. Well my Dad has started on Nethrwood, he’s hooked. Take care my friend and its not going to be another 30 years before we have the next coffee.

  • Bailey

    Great to hear about Eden Falls…I love the name Maxwell! And well poor Arthur that name just suited him perfectly.

    • Jane Sanderson

      Hey Bailey, how’s things? Yes, Eden Falls now complete, and in the hands of my editor at Sphere. Maxwell only has a small part, but he makes his presence felt!

  • Link

    Hi Jane,
    Heard about your trip up to Hoyland just too late.. Would’ve popped over if I’d know before.. Maybe next time.. Great to see you’ve done so well!

    • Jane Sanderson

      Hi – you didn’t leave a name (just wullybee!) – but thanks for leaving a message. The event in Hoyland Library was great – very busy. Hoyland’s changed such a lot! That Hoyland Centre was never there before, and what’s happened to Oliver’s Ale House?!

  • Alison

    Oliver’s Ale House is now a Dentist. If I’d have know how much it was going for I would have bought it. Would have been perfect for Eve. I’ve got a little bit of Hoyland for you the next time I see you. Hope Mrs Quinney is flowering? xx

    • Jane Sanderson

      Hi Alison, yes I had a message about Oliver’s from Paul Linley! Link, as we knew him! Talk about a blast from the past.

      So, when you say a little bit of Hoyland, are you talking about a quarter of Lion’s Midget Gems? Or a bag of chips with bits and salt n vinegar? Or half a lager and black? Mrs Quinney nicely settled and modestly blooming, thanks.

  • Pat nee Burke

    HiJane, just read your book about Hoyland, was so pleased to be able to recognize some of the places, I was brought up in Hoyland Common with my twin brother,we lived halfway down Central Street during the war and went to both the Infants and Junior schools until we went back to Leeds,hope to read more books about Hoyland and its characters.

    • Jane Sanderson

      Hi Pat, thanks for writing and I’m glad you enjoyed Netherwood. You can move on to Ravenscliffe now, and then Eden Falls! I have to say, they move gradually away from Hoyland as the characters move up in the world, but the roots of the story are firmly in Yorkshire, and I hope you like the other two books as much as the first.

  • Margaret Abrahams

    How weird I was doing a google search to get the address for Olivers Ale House and your blog popped up – I used to be the landlady there for 7 years with Eddy and needed the old address – hope you are well

  • LyndaWaitakere

    Some of these comments were made quite a while ago and I sincerely hope your agent found a more perceptive publisher so you can continue this rivetting series.
    As a published author myself, I know so well how characters live with one and influence the story, often indicating, in some strange way, what direction to take. But oh the sadness when the book is finished and they are no longer part of daily life :-)
    I’ve read all 3 of your books now and as an ex-English teacher (latterly a curmudgeonly old word pedant :-) I was glad when Ruby corrected Roscoe ‘You and I, not you and me’. But sadly, the word ‘prodigal’ was used incorrectly. Thousands of people do this (along with brackish and prone) something a good editor, dictionary to hand, should have picked up .
    Like one of your other correspondents, I too lobbied my library to get Eden Falls, in audio, as a sight problem prevents reading.
    I’m a Yorkshire lass as well and have some of my mother’s memories on tape; useful when I wrote my own story of growing up just after the war. All the very best Jane – never give up, never give in :-)