NANP: Gossip Castle

Stopping by the blog today for the latest Names: A New Perspective post is Robbie MacNiven, a fellow Boltholer who got published last year and has been going all out with his love of writing. I haven’t had a chance to read any of his work yet, but it is on the reading pile for sure. As with most other posts that I’ve had a chance and the pleasure to feature on the blog so far, Robbie’s take on names is just as interesting and varied. Here’s what he has to say on the topic.

HeavenfallGossip Castle

by Robbie MacNiven

Having seen works of historical fiction, horror, SF and fantasy all make it into print over the past couple of years, there’s one thing I’ve learned about naming conventions – it drives your work.

Take historical fiction. My current project,* a thriller set in 17th century Scotland, immediately throws up four points for consideration. The first is that I don’t get to name my main character since she already has a name – she’s based on a real person, one Jenny Geddes of Edinburgh. In that regard some names are completely out of my control.

The second point is that sometimes its interesting to note how the situation is reversed – rather than have a name foisted on me by a historical figure, I steal someone’s name for my character. The main antagonist of the novel is the Earl of Menteith. Yes, the Earl of Menteith was a real person and no, bar a few loose strands the real man and the fictional character bear nothing in common. I could have invented a name from scratch, but Menteith just had the ring I was looking for and is period-correct. I hope the noble Earl’s descendants will forgive me, but all’s fair in love and writing.

The third point of interest is instinct – it can play a strong part in the naming process. I chose “Clavers Castle” as the name for Menteith’s lair simply because it was a) a generally identifiable Scottish word and b) sounds kinda like “cleaver,” which has all sorts of brutal, choppy, generally unpleasant connotations. Google informs me that “claver” actually means “to gossip,” whilst I know a 17th century Jacobite commander was nicknamed “Bloody Clavers.” Neither of those facts stopped the inclusion of the fictional Clavers Castle because, frankly, if the name fits, wear it.

Finally, and most obviously, naming conventions in historical fiction have to adhere to the rules of the period. An ill-conceived name at the wrong moment can really ruin the sense of historic immersion you’re trying to build. Sir Baldwin smashed his broadsword two-handed through another Saracen shield, bellowing for his squire to quicken his pace. “The drawbridge!” he yelled. “Now Delmar, for Christ’s sake!” See.

On top of at least some historical accuracy, I had an interesting culture clash when it came to choosing names – around 2/3 of my characters were lowland Scots, and thus rightly possessed of Scots names, however the remaining 1/3 were highlanders and thus spoke the ancient celtic language Gaelic. Quite often the names they use are interchangeable, but the spelling is almost always different. Thus the anglicised ‘Alaster’ became the original Gaelic ‘Alasdair,’ whilst other items had their names switched for greater immersion, for example ‘claymore’ swords are referred to by their Gaelic name, the claidheamh mòr. Touches like these offer a writer a fine line to tread – on the one hand these names can help lull the reader deeper into your story, yet if used too frequently the unfamiliarity can also become a stumbling block.

What about other genres? Well actually a lot of the same conventions apply. Previous contributors to these posts have already described the importance of having a theme running through naming conventions in science fiction and fantasy. The half-beast creatures of my serialised fantasy novel Werekynd have a Nordic flavour to them (I actually have no idea what werekynd taste like, but you get me). Short, jagged names like Vrak, Vega, Ulthric and Venneck suit their brutal mindset. Likewise the human realm, the Protectorate, have a culture based off Euro-Mediterranean peoples, and thus have names like Lorenzo, Novo and a city called Bilbalo. It’s lazy and downright insulting to simply take a real culture or race and dump it in your fantasy or science fiction novel, but again there is a middle ground that offers its advantages. Without stereotyping, adding hints of real-world cultures can help immerse the reader and move the story along. I don’t have to go into great detail describing the architecture of Bilbalo for example, because anyone who’s visited southern Italy or has even a slight understanding of that part of the world recognises what such a place looks like.

In short, the names we choose for the people and places that populate our stories are of prime importance. It isn’t only the name, but all that it implies which helps construct a narrative. Names can create a story worth the telling.

*If you’re an agent get in touch, soul, firstborn child, nuclear launch keys, you name it and you can have it if you’ll represent me.


Robbie MacNiven on Twitter, Facebook, and Web.

The next guest on the blog is C. L. Werner, and his post will go live this coming Monday on the 20th.

Posted on May 16, 2013, in Debut Authors Guest Series, Guest Posts and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Reblogged this on Shaven Wookiee and commented:
    The latest in Ab’s Names: A New Perspective series. Read and enjoy!


  2. Reblogged this on robbie macniven and commented:
    The excellent Abhinav Jain interviews me on naming conventions and, well, the Gossip Castle…


  1. Pingback: Paper Vultures – A SITREP (Part 5) | robbie macniven

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