Wednesday, June 10, 2009

It's Just a Name...

Most of my writing career, I’ve published non-fiction. Once I wrote a short article about a woman who I’ll now call Gertie McGuiness, who lived next door to me when I was growing up. After I was married, I read a death announcement that put me into tears. I read the names of childhood playmates who were going to be pallbearers for Gertie McGuiness, other relatives I recognized. My husband and I rushed to the visitation at the funeral home – me sobbing, him holding me by the elbow.

We entered a crowded room of mourners and then – Gertie McGuiness walked toward me and said, “Hi, Latayne.” My husband said he had to hold me up.

“I th-thought you were dead,” I said. She chuckled, put her arm around me, and led me to the coffin where her sister-in-law – a woman also named Gertie who married one of the McGuiness brothers – lay serenely. Others in the room brushed aside tears and smiled at my sputtering delight at finding that my friend, the other Gertie McGuinness, was still alive.

So I wrote an article for our hometown newspaper (later reprinted nationally), called “Saying Goodbye to Gertie.” It was about redemption, getting someone back from the dead. I was eminently pleased with the whole matter.

But the next time I saw Gertie McGuiness, she seemed miffed. When I asked her what was wrong, she said, “You said I laughed. It was my sister-in-law’s funeral. I didn’t laugh.”

Of course she (like Sarah of old, now that I think about it) did indeed laugh. But she didn’t want to be remembered for insensitivity. It was her name on the line, after all.

You would have thought that lesson would have stuck with me a little better, but I thought fiction was different. In my novel Latter-day Cipher I named a minor character after a rather silly-sounding alias, something like “Rocky Richochet,” used briefly 20 years ago by a friend’s rebellious son. I characterized the character through the eyes of the villain, who called him “a punk kid.”

Imagine my distress last Sunday when my friend accosted me in the geographical middle of our church right after services and said sternly, “Did you or did you not call Rocky Richochet a punk kid?” He was angry.

I explained that in the book I had used versions of my own childrens’ names – of those characters, one died, two were infants, another was mentally unbalanced. They had been delighted in seeing details or names slipped into the narratives. He wasn’t dissuaded from his anger. (I have to admit I too began to become upset at the accusative tone, the public setting my friend chose.)

It was fiction, I kept saying to the man, it’s fiction.

But not to this man. I think he saw himself as the protector of his son's reputation, and he was not a bit pleased. And I don’t think he’ll get over it, though I apologized over and over.

How about you? Have you ever had any repercussions from using a name in your writing?


Nichole Osborn said...

Not yet...but I think I will when I start writing a fictional story about my life. I'm trying to give the real people different names, just for this same issue. It's so hard trying to choose names that don't sound anything like the real ones. But on the other side of the coin. It's just a name and it's fiction, just like you said. I think people can be overly sensitive to things like this. I hope things smooth over with your friend from church.I'll be praying!

Lynn Squire said...

Once I used a name not even thinking that it was the same as my dear friend's. Fortunately she was thrilled to find her name in fiction. LOL

But I have had people strongly hint their disapproval over an incident they thought was too close to the truth - when truth was I wrote the piece before their specific incident happened. :)

Carla Gade said...

I can see where that can get you in a lot of trouble. I think I'd like to shy away from using names of people I know, but as for using their personalities that is tempting.

Patti Hill said...

I agonize over names. When it came time to name the protagonist's deceased husband in my Garden Gates series, I worked and worked to pick a name of someone I didn't know. "

"Scott. I don't know any Scotts," I remember saying to myself with a sigh of relief for punctuation.

An eternity passes between the writing of a novel and publication, so I blithely went about life, meeting new people, getting to know their spouses. One of them was a Scott of all things, and a cyclist. (My character is hit by a truck while he's cycling about in his spandex riding gear.) Every time we socialize with Scott, he slips in that I'm trying to kill him off. He's good natured about it, but I can tell that he felt the sting of the storyline. I don't suppose cyclist joke too much about being hit by a Mack truck.

This is why I'm very, very careful about what I name my characters. If it's a secondary character, NOT a villian, I use a friend's name, and they're delighted. If it's a main character or someone you wouldn't trust to babysit your children, I go to online obituaries from other regions. I also use online sites of ethnic groups.

Latayne, send the guy a note explaining that it was your CHARACTER who thought another CHARACTER with the same name as your son was a punk. His son is not in the book. His name was just too irresistibly clever not to borrow.

At least he read your book!

Anonymous said...

Ah, Latayne, I'm sorry for your friend's reaction and I do hope it can be smoothed over.

But I had to laugh at Gertie and the funeral. You see, I've never had a name to myself. I was born Sharon Kay Whiteley. Three days later I had a cousin born named Sharon Ray Whiteley. Growing up we were known as Sharon Kay and Sharon Ray. Then my brother, bless his heart, married a Sharon and so there were three. It doesn't stop there. I married my husband in 1971and became Sharon Souza. My brother-in-law married a Sharon, so now there are two of those. Then another brother-in-law became engaged to a Sharon, but instead he married Na. So one of these days there may be a surprised mourner at the funeral of one or the other of us Sharons.

So I've never had a name I didn't share with someone close to me, but I am at least the first Sharon on both sides. That is why I always use my middle initial. When my first book cover came to me from NavPress my name was missing the K. I made an issue of having it put in (my contract, everything, was for Sharon K. Souza. They included the K in the next version of the cover and I was happy.

But names are hugely important, and we authors have the luxury of bestowing names without having to have babies to do it. I was strongly encouraged to change the name of one of my main charactes in Gift, and I did so reluctantly. That character is still -- and will always be - Mike to me -- and to my family who knew her as Mike LONG before she became Gabby.

Latayne C Scott said...

Thank you all for laughing -- and crying -- with me. I did go to the friend privately and express my frustration, my motives, and finally my forgiveness to him. (He admitted that I have been a servant to their family for years, and that is the truth.)

But I'm still stinging from even the possibility that someone could entertain a suspicion-- the outside chance that I meant a friend some harm or even discomfort.

I'll avoid names of people I know from now on.

Now -- my present WIP is set in ancient Rome. The protagonist is a historical character with a name still used today. I'll just have to take my chances with her, because I can't change her name even if a really offended Priscilla comes into my life.

Ah, the life of a writer....


Kathleen Popa said...

Let me get this straight, Latayne: You name your characters after your children... and then you kill them??

I really should have a word with Bonnie. The character in Speaking To the Dead, the one who is hearing voices? Her name's Kate.

And then there is Patti, who named her character Birdie, clearly in imitation of my character, Bertie (who also has a Suzanne pushing her around). I just don't know how Patti got hold of my manuscript before it was published, before we knew each other.

LeAnne Hardy said...

I have always been careful about names, but I based the protagonist's best friend in Between Two Worlds on my daughter's best friend in junior high. I thought I was just using her enthusiastic way of speaking, but my daughter says I got the negatives a little too close for comfort as well. Everyone in that town knows the setting is based there even though the name is changed. Hopefully no one remembers who my daughter's best friend was.

Bonnie Way aka the Koala Mom said...

I guess that's why there's disclaimers in the front of fictional books saying "characters are completely fictional and not based on real people..." :)

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

I have only named pets after pets I know. Friends and relatives are happy to see them in print, especially if they have some of the same stories or characteristics. I don't suppose you could get sued for defamation of a pet's character, could you?

Latayne C Scott said...

Kathleen: It's fiction. It's fiction. And those characters were dead when the novel began.

LeAnne:Don't bet on anyone's short memory. In my incident, the name was an alias for under a year decades ago. Yipes.

Debbie, My dog's name is Cisco, and he's very sensitive. Smart, too. I think he can dial 1800PETSSUE.

Seriously-- thanks for the empathy and great comments!

Latayne C Scott said...

And Koala Bear Writer -- Disclaimers are good. They are very good. I love disclaimers.

Stace said...

Wow! That is why I will never use a name I know. In a college class once, 20 some odd years ago, I read that when searching for names, you should always note the first and last names that intrigue you together if you find them somewhere like a phone book, etc., anywhere it could be a real name. That way, you can make sure you never use one mistakenly, thinking, "Oh, this sounds good together," and open yourself up to possible legal problems.

I couldn't use my family member's names - they wouldn't take it the way your children did. Maybe we should ask the person before we use their actual name, just to be on the safe side. It does seem a silly thing to me, but apparently it's not to others.