Monday, July 26, 2010

What's in a Name?

I'm working on a new book and I'm having a hard time naming a key character. I've tried out a bunch of names, but nothing sticks. Something will, I just don't know what or when.  I once heard Sue Grafton say, "Trust the process."  Wise advice.  When in doubt, keep at it. Something will come.  

I can't speak for other fiction writers, but naming characters is a critical step for me when crafting a story. I strive for each character's name to evoke an image of or a feeling about the character.  How perfect a name is "Hannibal Lecter" for a cannibalistic, erudite serial killer?   

While I'm struggling with getting this one important character's name just right, I thought it might be of interest to describe my process for coming up with names.  "Process" sounds so formal and orderly. In reality, my method has few rules and mostly flies on instinct.

As a place to begin, names reflect a character's era and background. I think about the character's age, social class, and where and how she or he was raised.  I imagine the character's parents and think about where their heads were when their bouncing baby came along.  In my most recent book, Love Kills, I had fun naming two sets of girlfriends from different generations and upbringings.  One set included Patsy, Catherine ("Tink"), and Vicki.  The other had Cheyenne, Fallon, and Trendi.  Any ideas about the ages of the friends and which had the more stable backgrounds?

There are some Hollywood types in Love Kills and naming them was a kick. There's an A-list celebrity couple and I wanted to give them a catchy shorthand nickname along the lines of Brangelina.  I named the husband, a vaguely creepy funnyman, Gig Towne and named his younger and troubled wife Sinclair LeFleur.  They're known in the tabloids as "LeTowne."  Gig is as snappy and phony as his name.  Sinclair is like a bruised flower. 

I chose Georgia Berryhill for the name of my motherly, nurturing guru to the stars who owns Berryhill, a Malibu Canyon healing ground for the well-heeled.  "Georgia" to me sounds homey and comforting, like peach pie. "Berryhill" conjures a wonderful image.  It was a blast to lift the kimono and reveal what really goes on at the Berryhill compound. Sometimes I choose names that deceive the reader about the character's true nature.

Sometimes, a name comes easily.  That was the case when I named the protagonist of my current series, Detective Nan Vining.  There's a town in California's eastern Sierra Nevada mountains that's called Lee Vining.  That name had always stuck in my head. I wasn't crazy about "Lee" or "Leigh" as a first name, though. Names with a lot of vowels and soft consonants sound soft to me.  I wanted my protagonist to have solid, old-fashioned first name and settled on Nan, short for Nanette, her grandmother's name.  Nan Vining's name is apt because she's like a vine--tenacious, slowly creeping, deceptively strong. Her name also inspired her nickname at the station: Poison Ivy.  

To me, names with hard consonants, like Nan Vining, sound sharp and forceful.  Nan's homicide detective partner is Jim Kissick. Sounds decisive and he is.   

I can start writing without having my characters' names finalized, but they don't feel whole until they're properly named. I feel like I don't completely know them. I often change names when I'm well into a manuscript. I'll be writing along with the great name I've picked and one day, it'll just go "clunk" in my head. Back to the drawing board. 

What comprises my drawing board?  I do have a sort of process for naming and keeping track of characters.  Of course I consult the Internet.  It's great for researching names by any parameters imaginable. I like to see words in print, so I also use books and such. 

I bought Character Naming Sourcebook years ago and use it often. I have baby name books. I have a spiral pad full of names I've jotted down over the years. I keep alumni directories and high school yearbooks.  I'll look through my local newspaper's obituaries.  I'll scan the phone book. Sometimes I'll describe a character to my husband and ask him for a name off the top of his head. I've used names I've overheard.  

I avoid names that are hard to pronounce.  When I'm reading and come across a name I don't know how to pronounce, it takes me out of the story because I stop to try to figure it out. 

I avoid names that can make for awkward reading. "Fred," for example. "Fred said" would take me right out of any story I'm reading. I don't want readers to focus on individual words.  I want them to be lulled into the canvas I'm painting with words and to forget they're reading.

While I'm immersing myself into a world of names via these myriad sources, I jot down names on blue index cards with a Sharpie pen.  I like blue cards for names and white cards for plot points.  No reason.  The white index cards I thumbtack to a big bulletin board to the left of my desk.  I'll write about how I plot in a future blog post.     

I look for memorable rather than unusual names. Sometimes the names are unusual.  Sometimes they're common.  The one thing they have in common is that they fit the character.  Once I come up with a name I like, I tape the index card with it onto one of two large white boards that sit on the floor behind my desk, within easy reach. I'll also write brief facts about the character--age, background, etc. If I have longer descriptions, those go up too. Sometimes I'll put up photos I've found of people who look like how I've imagined a character.  

Through all this, the characters begin to live and breathe and I'm slowly building the skeleton upon which I'll drape the story.  I put index cards up and take them down as names change, new characters appear or ones I thought I needed drop away  The index cards on the whiteboards also help me see if I have too many names that start with the same letter or that sound the same.  

I save the final index cards that I've created for all my books.  Part of saving them is sentimental, but they have a practical use too. I can quickly look through them to make sure I haven't already used a character's first or last name in another book in my Nan Vining series.

Here's a shot of one of my white boards as it looked when I finished the final revisions to Love Kills. After a book is finished, which for me is after I've gone through the printed page proofs and there's no further writing to do, I take everything down, leaving my white boards clean and bare, waiting for a new family of characters to move in. I again begin the process of getting to know them and their stories.

As far as the ongoing characters in my Detective Nan Vining series, I'm well beyond the blue index card phase with them. I have to keep track of their entire lives and make sure the basic facts about them stay consistent from book to book.  I've set up a Word document for each character. I type into it physical characteristics, background information, family and educational history, types and names of their pets, even descriptions of their homes and workplaces if we've been there.  I record anything about the character that has appeared in any of the Nan Vining books.  With each book, I add to each character's encyclopedia page.  I print the pages and put them into a three-ring binder that sits to the right of my computer.  Then if I forget the color of Jim Kissick's eyes (hazel) or the number of times Nan's mother has been married (four), the information is at my fingertips.      

Speaking of changing names, you might have noticed that I've changed the name of this blog. I used to call it "I Write Therefore I Am," which I meant as a fun poke at my undergraduate philosophy studies.  "Plot Points" is pithier, I think, and speaks more to my goals with this blog.  I've also used one of the new templates supplied by Blogger. What do you think?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Interview for The Big Thrill

This interview by Lori A. May appeared in the International Thriller Writers "Big Thrill" newsletter.

Dianne Emley escaped a career in business middle management and the cubicle warren and now writes the Detective Nan Vining thrillers published by Ballantine. The debut, The First Cut, was an LA Times bestseller. Publisher's Weekly called Cut to the Quick "compelling" and "edgy." The Deepest Cut, a Romantic Times TOP PICK, received a starred review from Booklist. Love Kills was released in May 2010. The series has been translated into several languages. A Los Angeles native, Dianne has a BA and an MBA from UCLA. She lives in Pasadena with her patient husband and two willful cats.

Dianne was pleased to chat about writing, life, and her latest in the series--Love Kills.

Q: Congratulations on Love Kills, the fourth book in the best-selling Detective Nan Vining series. When you started writing the debut in the series, The First Cut, did you imagine Nan would take you for such a ride?

A: Thank you! I can't wait for Nan's fans to reconnect with her in her newest adventure, Love Kills, which is jam-packed with twists and turns. When I started writing The First Cut, the series debut, I wanted to keep readers turning the pages into the wee hours of the night. I have to say that Nan has taken me to some unexpected and exciting places that neither I nor she could predict. In her obsession to trap the man who ambushed her and left her for dead, whom she and her daughter have dubbed T.B. Mann (short for The Bad Man), she's danced on the line between right and wrong, scaring even herself (and me).

Q: Perhaps more than ever, Nan has some serious personal stakes within Love Kills. What sort of struggle do you have, as Nan's creator, to keep her balanced between peril and pursuit?

A: Love Kills takes Nan disturbingly close to home when she learns that the seemingly unrelated murders of a Hollywood P.I. in a seedy East L.A. motel and the mysterious drowning of Pasadena socialite in her backyard pool do, in fact, have a connection--Nan's mother. Even though Nan faces daunting challenges investigating these new homicides, she must stay grounded and balanced as she is a single mom to her fifteen-year-old daughter, Emily. No matter the perils of her day job, Nan has to make sure that Em gets to and from school, eats well, does her homework and chores, and stays out of trouble.

Q: You have quite an impressive tour schedule this summer! Some might say the book tour is on a decline--in part due to the economy and partly since there are more online marketing opportunities than ever for writers. What do you like most about touring and why do you think there is still value in meeting readers face-to-face?

A: The writing life is solitary. Contact with fans and other writers online is a form or connection, but there's no comparison between sharing Twitter tweets versus a handshake, a face-to-face smile, and real conversation. I enjoy the discussions that arise at book signings. Plus, I love chatting with booksellers, finding out what they're reading, and poking around genuine brick-and-mortar stores.

Q: When you were eleven, you asked for a desk and a typewriter for Christmas. Do you still have these items of nostalgia? If not a Smith Corona, how do you prefer to now write out your works-in-progress?

A: That desk and typewriter were given away long ago. The desk was tiny. Don't miss it, but I do miss the Smith Corona portable for sentimental reasons. I typed many college papers on it, scads of letters, and my earliest fiction. I still have the Brother portable electric that replaced it and I also have two antiques, an Underwood and a Royal, both from the 1920s. They are impressive--big and heavy. I sometimes tap their keys just to hear that typewriter "clack." Now I mostly write on computers, about which I'm not sentimental. They get traded in regularly. For revisions, I print out the manuscript and handwrite with Dixon Ticonderoga #2 pencils, sharpened with a manual sharpener that's bolted to the back of a door. I reach a point where I need to touch the words and handle the manuscript.

Q: It took several career changes and some far-reaching travel to finally settle in as a writer. What would you say to others who have realized they have done everything else they want or should--go to college, get a job, get married--and still feel that desire for writing, but perhaps wonder if it's too late to start?

A: It's never too late, as long as there is breath in your lungs, ideas in your mind that you'd like to put on paper, and a fire in your belly to write. That's the charm of the writer's life--youth and beauty aren't important! Wisdom and perspective make your work richer. On the other hand, you don't need to wait until you've attained that great college degree, job, relationship, family, etc. to begin. All you really need is to start. And don't stop, no matter what. Set a routine. Make writing an important part of your day. Carve out just one hour, five days a week, put your butt in the chair, and do it.

Q: Earlier in your writing endeavors, you signed up for a writing class and now you're a published member of International Thriller Writers. How has ITW benefited you and why is it important for writers to connect with others via classes, organizations, and writing groups?

A: ITW and Thrillerfest are terrific. I always learn something at Thrillerfest and reading The Big Thrill. At Thrillerfest, it's great to connect with old pals and make new friends. As I said earlier in this interview, the writing life is solitary. It's easy to get bogged down and in a rut. Sometimes talking with another writer is just what I need to work through a rough plot point or a rough career patch. It's nurturing to connect with folks who understand your career and craft challenges and joys. I started my first book in a writing class, where I also found my first mentor. I got that book published and my mentor became a trusted colleague through the years. I don't know if I would have finished that first book and set about finding and agent and a publisher without the support and the nudging of other writers.

Q: Finally, what's the future for Nan? Will we see a fifth book in the series?

A: I'm giving Nan a break for the time being and am working on a new book, a thriller, that I'm very excited about. There will likely be another Nan Vining. For now, I'm putting all my effort into this new book, hanging on for what is shaping up to be quite a ride. Thank you for inviting me to participate in this Q & A and for sharing your time with me.