NANP: Names In Historical Fiction

Guesting on the blog today for Names: A New Perspective is debut author Michael J. Martinez. His first book, The Daedalus Incident, is scheduled for a June/July release, but given the ongoing restructuring and sellout-acquisition deal at Night Shade Books, it is more than likely that the book will be delayed a few months. You can read more about it from Mike himself here, and I will be doing a Publishing & Marketing column about it later this week as well. In the meantime, you can read my review of the book, one of the top debuts of the year, and here’s what Mike has to say on the topic of names.

DaedalusIncidentThe_CoverPanelNames In Historical Fiction

by Michael J. Martinez

There have been a lot of great thoughts on this blog from authors discussing their naming conventions. But what happens when you’re working with characters with names already attached to them? A writer of historical fantasy – like me – doesn’t have to worry about coming up with a great name out of whole cloth, but has perhaps an even greater challenge doing justice to the name in question.

Warning: The following will include very minor spoilers for THE DAEDALUS INCIDENT, my debut novel coming out some time in June or July. If you like your reading experience pristine, bookmark this and come back after you’ve read the book!

Let’s be clear: Populating your historical fiction/fantasy novel with a who’s who of the past is likely unwise. THE DAEDALUS INCIDENT has a fairly large cast, but only three actual historical personages are featured prominently therein, with a fourth making a bit of a cameo. The rest of the characters in the historical setting of the book are of my own making, but even there, accuracy and a sense of homage tend to narrow naming conventions considerably. We’ll tackle that in a moment.

For now, the question is: how do you do justice to historical figures in historical fantasy? How do they live up to their names? For me, it’s a combination of relatability and subversion. On the one hand, you want to at least nod to history’s take on the individual, because the most famous historical figures have tidbits and tics that have become part of our shared culture, and seeing those recognizable bits within a different context is one of the things that make reading historical fantasy fun. On the other, you certainly don’t want any character to be predictable, and that goes doubly for ones who are well known.

Benjamin Franklin, for instance, would be nothing without his famous sayings, his charm and wit, and his love of science. In my book, most of that remains intact, with science easily translated into the setting’s equivalent: Alchemy. But I also chose to emphasize that Franklin was very much a political revolutionary, one sent to France to agitate on behalf of the United States (of Ganymede, in my case). He was also quite the chess player, which requires forethought and planning. Thus, our first meeting with Ben in THE DAEDALUS INCIDENT illustrates Dr. Franklin’s keen understanding of his predicament, his willingness to place himself at risk for his cause, and his ability to plan ahead for any contingency.

In other words, Lt. Thomas Weatherby of the English Royal Navy, the story’s hero, ends up facing the business end of Franklin’s pistol, effectively trapped without recourse. Surprising, perhaps, but when you consider all aspects of Franklin’s character and his activities, it’s at least plausible, and makes for a fun scene besides.

I won’t give away any other real historical people in the book, but I will note Weatherby’s name and, I hope, the very Englishness of it. DAEDALUS is, at least in part, written in homage to the works of C.S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian, the two great writers of Napoleonic Era naval adventure. Thus, many of my characters in the historical setting have such English names – Weatherby, Finch, Morrow, Baker. I even stole the names Forester and O’Brian for a pair of young midshipmen in the book as a kind of thank-you. For minor characters, I even looked up the old crew manifest of HMS Victory in order to find authentic surnames.

I didn’t feel constrained by the setting, mind you, but I did want the names I chose to resonate as a (distant) part of that literary tradition. There were enough new names in the work – the aliens on Saturn and Venus, in particular, required some syntax tricks – without me trying to reinvent the wheel on the more familiar aspects.

Finally, I should mention that there’s two settings in DAEDALUS – the historical fantasy set amongst the Solar System in 1779, and a much more realistic “hard SF” setting set on a 22nd century Martian mining colony run by the U.S.-E.U. Joint Space Command. I wanted a British officer serving on that colony as well, if only for the lovely symmetry between the two settings. But I also wanted to have a 22nd century British officer, so as to contrast between the two.

Thus, my other protagonist is a Royal Navy lieutenant, like Weatherby. Her name is Shaila Jain, a great-grandchild of Indian immigrants to Birmingham. I wanted her name to immediately call to mind her gender and ancestry among the broadest possible swath of readers, while also being somewhat easy to remember, easy to read and, yes, easy to type. (The only other person of Indian descent I remembered from science fiction was Dr. Sivasubramanian Chandrasegarampillai, the creator of the HAL 9000 from Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010: Odyssey Two, and there was no way I was going for something that long.)

Needless to say, the 300 years of contrasts between Weatherby and Jain are a lot of fun to play with as a writer, and the names are a part of that.

To me, names are a part of the setting, not necessarily allegorical or overly descriptive of the character. I figure I have other tools in my toolbox for that. Mostly, I want names to provide a little background when possible and, mostly, I want them easy for the reader to remember.


Michael J. Martinez on Twitter, and Web.

The next guest on the blog is going to be 2012 debut author Evie Manieri, and her post will go up this week on the 25th. As for the schedule, I’ve sent out a bunch of emails finally, and am waiting for a response. I’ll keep you all updated!

Posted on April 22, 2013, in Debut Authors Guest Series, Guest Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

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