Counting one’s blessings at Thanksgiving is even more traditional than a turkey dinner. So this year, like so many others, I am thankful for family, friends, good health, and good books. And for poetry, like this seasonal charmer by Langston Hughes.
When the night winds whistle through the trees and blow the crisp brown leaves a-crackling down, When the autumn moon is big and yellow-orange and round, When old Jack Frost is sparkling on the ground, It’s Thanksgiving Time!
When the pantry jars are full of mince-meat and the shelves are laden with sweet spices for a cake, When the butcher man sends up a turkey nice and fat to bake, When the stores are crammed with everything ingenious cooks can make, It’s Thanksgiving Time!
When the gales of coming winter outside your window howl, When the air is sharp and cheery so it drives away your scowl, When one’s appetite craves turkey and will have no other fowl, It’s Thanksgiving Time!
–Langston Hughes (1902-1967)
Happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate it! And a lovely day to everyone, regardless.
According to T. S. Eliot, “the naming of cats is a difficult matter.” The naming of fictional characters can be every bit as challenging, especially when you’re restricted to a certain time, place, and culture.
In modern/contemporary romance, you have pretty much a free hand to name your characters whatever you want. After all, this is a world in which Dweezil and Moon Unit Zappa are actual people. And I’ve read romances featuring heroines with names like Rainbow or Moonflower, completely without irony on the author’s part. (And usually, it is the heroine, rather than the hero, who ends up saddled with the outlandish moniker.)
Historical writers have somewhat fewer options–especially if they want to sound reasonably authentic. An anachronistic name–like Heather, Brittany, Amber, or Skye–can pull a reader right out of your Regency- or Victorian-set romance. Personally, I did a double take when Georgette Heyer inflicted bratty ingenue Tiffany Wield on us in The Nonesuch, even though she explained that Tiffany was actually a diminutive for the more historically accurate Theophania. And the further back in time that you set your novel, the more careful you have to be about names.
So, what are some resources to ensure a period-appropriate name? Well, Biblical and saints’ names are fairly safe unless you’re setting your story in the pre-Christian age. You can find John, Mary, and all their variants throughout history. Names from Classical history and myth were also popular, especially from the Neo-Classical period onward. The Georgian and Regency periods boasted plenty of Julias, Dianas, and Sophias, along with their Janes, Marys, and Elizas. And if you’re a stickler for historical authenticity, you can check population censuses for your chosen time period and setting and see for yourself which names recur most frequently. This is also a good way to generate a list of surnames, which I find particularly useful!
For a more fanciful touch, you can turn to popular literature. Rosalind, Viola, and Miranda from Shakespeare. Lancelot, Tristan, Guinevere, and Isolde from Arthurian legend. Deanna Raybourn’s eccentric March family in her Lady Julia mysteries all have Shakespearean first names. And several members of Mary Balogh’s Bedwyn clan have names derived from the old romances their mother apparently loved.
I myself often turn to poetry, music, and history itself for inspiration. The heroine of my first book, Waltz with a Stranger, is named Aurelia–a popular 19th century name with classical connotations. But it was the Civil War era love song “Aura Lea” that first recalled that name to me. And one of my WsIP features a Welsh hero named Llewelyn, after Llewelyn the Great, Prince of North Wales. (By the way, Llewelyn was a highly popular Welsh boys’ name during the Victorian era, along with Arthur, Evan, Huw, and Rhys.)
Sometimes the most mundane objects can provide unexpected inspiration when it comes to names. Winston Graham, author of the Poldark Saga, once wrote about finding the perfect name for his heroine on a country signpost, deep in the heart of Cornwall: Demelza. And from that moment, Graham asserts, the image of his heroine became crystal-clear in his mind, and remained so throughout his many years of writing her. Following Graham’s example, I scrutinized several local street signs and found a handful that served quite well as historical surnames–Barrington, Tiverton, and Ashby–even if none has yielded as indelible a character as Graham’s Demelza Carne Poldark.
What are some of the unusual names you’ve encountered as a reader or dreamed up as a writer?
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
–John McCrae (1872-1918)
Anthem for Doomed Youth
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
–Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)
The Bishop tells us: “When the boys come back
“They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought
“In a just cause: they lead the last attack
“On Anti-Christ; their comrades’ blood has bought
“New right to breed an honourable race,
“They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.”
“We’re none of us the same!” the boys reply.
“For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;
“Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;
“And Bert’s gone syphilitic: you’ll not find
“A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change.”
And the Bishop said: “The ways of God are strange!”
Not too surprisingly, the subject of music arose frequently during my October blog tour. On at least two stops, commenters were asked to share their favorite kinds of music or, alternatively, their favorite soundtrack. Stopping by to chat and give my own answers (traditional Celtic, classic rock, Patrick Doyle’s Henry V), I theorized that many books had their own “soundtrack,” whether that means music the author played to get her in the mood to write or music that the author associates with the characters and situations in her book.
As music figures heavily in A Song at Twilight, I thought I’d share the “soundtrack” for the book, along with a little background information about each song. These are probably the most important musical numbers in the book, and they’re quite an eclectic bunch, ranging from traditional carols/folk songs to classical opera to Victorian parlor ballads.
1. Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day: Traditional English carol, sometimes ascribed to the Cornish. The central theme is Christ narrating his own life cycle as movements in a dance. The carol goes on at length from Birth to Crucifixion to Resurrection, but usually only the first verses are sung.
2. Music for a While: Written in 1692 by Henry Purcell, a gifted English Baroque composer who’s not as well-known as he could be, owing to his untimely death at 35 or 36. This song–about the soothing power of music–was composed as incidental music to a play, Oedipus, and sung by the character of Tiresias, the blind Greek soothsayer.
3. Voi che sapete: One of Cherubino’s arias from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. In the opera, the lovelorn page performs this song for his patroness, Countess Rosina, and entreats plaintively of the ladies he serves, “Tell me what love is.” Cherubino, a trousers role, has been famously portrayed by Frederica von Stade and Cecilia Bartolli. I enjoyed adding my heroine, Sophie, to their number!
4. Deh vieni, non tardar (Oh, come, do not delay): Also from The Marriage of Figaro, but sung by Susanna, Figaro’s bride. It’s often staged as a love song sincerely meant for one man (Figaro) but also intended to entrap/deceive another (the lecherous Count Almaviva). Sophie’s interpretation of the song was influenced by Alison Hagley’s performance in the 1994 Glyndebourne production of The Marriage of Figaro.
5. The Mermaid’s Song: A lyric poem by Anne Hunter (1742-1821) was set to music by Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) to make this very lovely canzonetta. Hunter and Haydn became good friends and enjoyed a fruitful musical collaboration.
6. I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls: An aria from The Bohemian Girl (1843), an opera composed by Michael William Balfe, in which the heroine, kidnapped and given to the gypsies as an infant, confides to her lover the dreams she has had of her noble upbringing. The song on its own enjoyed great popularity during the 19th century, but I first heard it as an airy, ethereal track on Enya’s Shepherd Moons.
7. The Lost Chord: Composed in 1877 by Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan), who had tried for several years to set Adelaide Anne Procter’s poem “A Lost Chord” to music. He found tragic inspiration in the last illness of his brother Fred, who died five days after the song was completed. Although not written for sale, The Lost Chord became an huge commercial success in Britain and America during the 1870s and 1880s. In Topsy-Turvy, the 1999 filmabout Gilbert and Sullivan’s stormy partnership, Sullivan’s longtime mistress Fanny Ronalds (Eleanor David) performs “The Lost Chord” at a society function.
8. Love’s Old Sweet Song: An Irish folk song, written in 1884, with music by James Lynam Molloy and lyrics by G. Clifton Bingham. Very popular with Victorian audiences, the song has been recorded by many artists. The title of my book is actually taken from a line of the chorus: “Just a song at twilight, when the lights are low.”
As I observed, the selection is nothing if not eclectic! But I enjoyed picking out each song, and hope that its inclusion enhanced the mood and the readers’ experience!
So, dear reader, do you have a favorite opera/composer or a soundtrack that you associate with a favorite book? And writers, do you find yourself imagining or even arranging a soundtrack for your works in progress?
I will be giving away a signed copy of A Song at Twilight to one commenter on this week’s post, until midnight, PST, 11/10.