What’s in a name…?


Romeo Montague, Elizabeth Bennet, Huckleberry Finn, Anna Karenina, Atticus Finch, Scarlet O’Hara, Holden Caulfield, Hermione Granger, Owen Meany and Garp.

Those are some pretty compelling names for fictional characters. Some long familiar, others more recently introduced to our collective consciousness.

How can I possibly come up with names for my characters that are at once authentic and memorable, like Anne Shirley or Harry Potter, or distinctive and unforgettable, such as Albus Dumbledore or Daenerys Targaryen?

I have spent many, many hours pondering the possibilities. In the car after dropping my daughters at school; while waiting for a doctor’s appointment; even out running, with or without my canine companion. And, far more often than is good for me, I’ve found myself contemplating the options in the wee small hours, when everyone else is sound asleep.


I’ve compared books of babies’ names with an old copy of the White Pages, trying to combine first and last names in a way that clicks. I’ve roamed library aisles, wondering whether I could get away with linking the first name of a celebrity chef with the surname of a metaphysical poet.

Many suggestions from my book club chums were either outrageous or disgusting, but I may yet end up calling the strict school principal June Broomhead. Betty Beaver, however, definitely won’t be making an appearance in my manuscript.

Then I heard about the name generator function in Scrivener (the novel-writing software), which allows writers to set parameters for the names they seek – such as gender, ethnic origin, first name meanings – and click to create a list of possibilities.

Sounds brilliant, right?

The only problem is, my initial searches have predominantly produced names that are so quirky, idiosyncratic and original that I can’t imagine any of them being given to a girl growing up in a blue-collar suburb of Perth in the 1970s. Barnabas Bel and Musa Demanche sound more like Hogwarts students than freckle-faced bookworms trying to outwit a bully.

So, my task is to write descriptions of each of the key characters I’m creating, and then try to find some way to give each of them a convincing name. It’s time.

I suppose, if you think about it, some of those names at the top of this post may not have sounded quite so convincing when they were coined. It’s really only their familiarity that makes them seem, well, real. So perhaps there’s hope for Barnabas Bel yet…

Originally published as The Neophyte Novelist column in Good Reading.

Emma Donoghue

Internationally acclaimed author Emma Donoghue – who won an Academy Award earlier this year for the screenplay adaptation of her bestseller Room – has a new novel due for release this month. I’ll have more to say about that new book, The Wonder, at a later date. In the meantime, I thought it might be worthwhile to share this interview I did with Emma for Good Reading in March 2013.


Betrayal, adoption, slavery, piety, senility and love in its many guises are among subjects author Emma Donoghue explores in a new short-story collection inspired by people from bygone times.

With journeys at its heart, Astray is an intricate exploration of the lives behind incidents reported in old newspapers, journals or archived documents, and reflects the author’s interest in a broad cross-section of subject matter and writing styles.

Born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1969, the youngest of eight children, and mostly educated in Catholic convent schools, Emma now lives in Ontario, Canada, with her partner and their two children.

The critically and publicly acclaimed author of 2010 novel Room has been writing short stories, novels, plays and literary history ‘more or less simultaneously’ since she was 19, publishing six novels before Room and four short-story collections before Astray, plus biographical, historical and academic texts.

‘Short stories are a particular pleasure because each represents so much less of a commitment, in terms of time and headspace; I can afford to write a short story that takes me in some peculiar new direction because I know I won’t be gone for long,’ Emma says.

As an example, Emma has written two short stories featuring ‘undead’ narrators, but concedes she’s unlikely to write a whole vampire or zombie novel.

‘Something peculiar about me as a short-story writer, though, is that I am almost always thinking of the collection the story will ultimately end up in.

Kissing the Witch was written all in one go, and for The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, Astray and Touchy Subjects, I had the theme and the method early on in the process of writing and gathering the stories.’

Emma sees herself as a fairly strategic writer – attributing this tendency to her ‘lapsed-academic background’ – and, after publishing one or two travel-themed stories, recognised she wanted to write a historical collection about journeys to, from or in North America.

‘I get a great, slow-ripening satisfaction from dreaming up, shaping and honing these collections over long periods – in the case of Astray, about a decade and a half.’

The new collection includes background notes for the stories, many of which had their roots in articles Emma discovered while ‘relaxedly’ trawling through old documents.

‘You never know where you’re going to find those odd historical moments. Mostly I keep my eyes peeled and when I come across one I do a bit of initial research right away.

‘I probably looked at 40 cases, which got narrowed down to the 14 stories in Astray. Many historical incidents have been perfectly well served by other writers, others are too damn sad, others just too predictable in their emotional architecture.’

When asked about her favourite stories or characters in Astray, Emma reveals her preferences aren’t always based on personal connection.

“With The Gift, it is personal, I suppose, because having two kids has made me very aware of the different claims those who give birth to children and raise them can make.

‘But I like Man and Boy because it was such an enjoyable challenge to write a human-elephant love story, not because I have any skin in the game.’

Her two children also influence Emma’s working day, which is ‘wonderfully structured’ by the arrival times of their school bus.

‘It feels like work, but such satisfying work – such a right use of every muscle and neuron – that I wouldn’t want to be spending my days any other way.

‘My only fear is that sitting so much will lead me to an early grave, so I’m about to make the experiment of a treadmill desk…’

Inspired in part by the locked room as a metaphor for the “claustrophobic, tender bond of parenthood” and by the Fritzl family’s escape from their Austrian dungeon, previous novel Room expanded Emma’s readership beyond its early scope and its success has had an effect on everyday life for the whole family.

‘To use a fairytale analogy, which [character] Jack would like, Room has been like the magical child who carries back heaps of treasures to the whole family; it’s brought all my work not just more readers, in more countries, but more serious consideration from the publishing business too.

‘I’m not bothered by it being a ‘hard act to follow’ because all my books are such one-off oddities, nobody could have expected me to become a reliable ‘brand’.

‘I will admit that Room has been the kind of annoying, high-maintenance baby who hogs more attention than all the others; for a long time my working day was eaten up by endless interviews and tours. But these are still good problems to have!

‘And now I have time to write again, so I’ve no complaints.’

Although no publication date is set, Emma’s next foray into fiction also has an historical base – it’s a crime novel set in 1870s San Francisco.

Astray, by Emma Donoghue, is published by PicadorInterview originally published in Good Reading, www.goodreadingmagazine.com.au The crime novel set in 1870s San Francisco referred to in this interview is Emma’s 2014 novel, Frog Music.


Training to write…


So, what’s next?

I’ve made up my mind to get on with my first novel. I’ve considered key scenes to incorporate and I’ve got a general plot – of sorts. And I’ve attended a couple of courses on the finer points of writing fiction.

What steps should I now take to get it written?

The most obvious answer is to just write. Or to put it another, equally obvious, way: stop procrastinating, Maureen.

Many published authors advise newbies like me not to worry about how bad the writing may be. Get the first draft down, and there will be time for editing and improving once I know what I’m working with.

So, to make sure I actually get on with the job, I’ve decided to start scheduling time for writing fiction.

That may sound strange, given that I work as a writer. Shouldn’t it be easy to just switch from journalism to a few pages of fiction each day?

Clearly, that hasn’t been the case in the past, because I always have a list of newspaper articles to be chased up on any day, interviews to organise, books to read or review, or research to undertake. Let’s face it, most of us have other things we could – perhaps should – be doing instead of writing.

To get on with the job, I’m going to start by trying to set aside three 30-minute sessions and two 15-minute sessions for fiction writing each week. And, while unanticipated  demands may keep me from sticking with the schedule perfectly, I intend to make regular progress toward developing the habit of writing fiction.

I’m well aware that some days the muse will be absent, and I may very well sit at my desk re-writing the same two or three sentences over and over and still feel dissatisfied at the end of my allotted time. This happens sometimes with my other writing schedule…

Other days, perhaps, I’ll be on a roll and unwilling to stop when the next task on my schedule is due to start. Here’s hoping that happens often!

I know there will be some times when I’ll feel I can keep going — and I give myself permission to do just that. But other times I’ll reluctantly have to close my file and move on – content in the knowledge that there will be another novel-writing session scheduled in a day or two.

There’s a parallel between training myself to write fiction and the training I undertook ahead of my first half-marathon a couple of years ago. As I donned my running gear each morning and headed out the door — come rain, hail or shine — I noticed the efficiency of my running improved over time. I could run further, faster and with increasingly levels of comfort and satisfaction.

So, too, will I begin to discern a glimmer of improvement in my fiction writing (at least, that’s what I hope will happen).

The analogy seems apt: Time, persistence, patience and determination are all necessary when preparing for a race – and equally important when writing a novel. And with the right attitude and regular practice, I know I’ll get there in the end.

Adapted from The Neophite Novelist column originally published in Good Reading.