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.