Saturday, July 30, 2011
What's in a name?
High frequency, for one. Amazon does some interesting content analysis of the books they sell, including word clouds and textual readability and complexity scores, not to mention numbers of words and sentences. From this I learn that there are 15,287 sentences in my novel Counting Heads. More interesting—the five most frequently used words in the book are character names. I don't know if that's typical in a novel, but it would suggest that name choice is serious business. You don't want a stinker of a name showing up on every page.
What makes a good character name? What makes a memorable one? Dang if I know. I do know that I seem to always employ a large cast of characters in my stories, and so I have many opportunities to come up with names. The way I usually do it is to start writing the story and let the characters' names drop in as they may. Some appear early and some late. In the meantime, I give characters temporary names or initials. I may try various names out on a character for a few scenes to see if any fit.
In my novel-in-progress I already have a handful of characters with solid names, none of which I can divulge here. But one of my three main characters is still operating under his temporary appellation--HAD. It stands for Hunky Alaskan Dude. It was the placeholder my former Anchorage collaborator and I used for our protagonist candidates while we were brainstorming Sarah Palin story scenarios.
My own HAD is in his late 20s or early 30s, has lived in AK for about 10 years (up from LA), and worked for the NPS as a ranger for about 7. He's of the "partnership park" persuasion when it comes to the park service mission. He's a self-effacing young man, an atheist, a lover of French women, and a lover of the wilderness. No name has presented itself yet for his use. That's OK; there's time.
There's time because I'm only about halfway through the first draft. The middle of the first draft is both an exciting and scary time for me. I don't know how novel writing is supposed to work any better than I know how to name characters. Mostly I write down scenes as they present themselves to my mind's eye and trust that they are true and that more will come to me later. There is no outline, just a vague idea about the direction I'd like to go. Every other day a character says or does something surprising that changes the course of the story or reveals connections or fault lines or comedy or previously unknown facets of their personality. There's a point when the products of a sustained act of imagination--fictional stories and characters--acquire the feel of reality. Then I seem to remember them as much as imagine them. Until then it's a game of chasing shadows in the fog and hoping something worthwhile emerges.
The photo at the top is a street scene in McCarthy. One of the original buildings during the boom times, the hardware store now houses the Wrangell Mountain Center, an educational non-profit that sponsors summertime courses and field trips in the park. It would seem an unlikely building to inspire science fiction (at least before the genre-bending movie Cowboys and Aliens). But the truth of the matter is that ghost towns are a lifelong fascination of mine, and although they're not unique to Alaska, they may be the part of Alaska I find most inspiring. Deep-pocket captains of industry have come up here to extract fish, gold, copper, and oil for quick bucks. They tear up the wilderness, plop down instant communities, pile up fortunes, go bust, and leave on the last train out (before pulling up the rails behind them). They leave with what they can carry and they abandon the rest. Buildings weather and rot. Thirty years later, the coffee cup and sugar bowl are still sitting on the dining room table where the last resident left them before hurrying to the train station.
On my first day in Alaska, in July 1973, I met a man who gave me a job. He and his business partners owned the derelict Superior Cannery on Chichagof Island. It was closed in the 1930s, I think, and the owners liked to have a watchman on site during the summer to keep passing boaters from landing and stealing all the brass fittings. They loaned me a dog and a rifle and sent someone out from Tenakee Springs to check on me once a week and drop off groceries. The dog and I had a whole industrial ruin to ourselves to explore. I have stories from that time I am still trying to tell. With any luck, some of them can be put to rest with this book.
Here's another McCarthy picture. The pickup trucks are probably parked according to the last time they were in running condition. The building was made of poles nailed to a frame. Not a very stable construction method, but an accommodation to the state of the local timber. Because of the dry climate and historical wildfires during the copper mine heyday, the trees in nearby forests are skinny. Traditional log cabins around here are made with imported logs. Too bad no one's invented a willow bush cabin construction method.