Let Your Fingers Do the Walking

Whenever I hold readings of Naked and Hungry, it never fails. Someone always asks me just where I found the name “Bermadean,” which is the name of an African pygmy goat in my book. Believe it or not, I always say, I let my fingers do the walking.

Desperate for a name for the goat, I happened upon on old phone book. As soon as I saw the name “Bermadean” my search was over. I can’t speak for the inadvertent donor, but for me the name conjured up the perfect touch of  Southern quirkiness. Done!

It goes without saying that the fiction writer shouldn’t lift both first and last names from a single person but you can cobble together some rather memorable combinations. Try pairing a first name such as Maxine with a last name such as Brown or Thomas. Need something more exotic? Change the spelling to Maxzine and add a last name such as Thorvelder or Fortenberry and you suddenly have a completely different character on your hands.

The phone book is also a great source of inspiration for story ideas in general. What do you imagine a woman who spells her first name Maxzine is like? I see an officious receptionist who insists that everyone signs in before being helped. What do you think? And what does a man with a last name of Bobo endure? How many schoolyard bullies did he encounter? And what is a family like who lives on Running Cedar Drive? I see them going in separate directions from the moment they wake up.

Drawing upon the tradition of Flannery O’Connor and Charles Dickens, you can also use last names to plant clues. What would the last name of Brickhouse imply? Someone who is solid and perhaps a bit staid. How about Fairweather? Friendly but changeable. For me, the name Scattergood conjures up the image of a disorganized do-gooder, perhaps known for random acts of compassion.

It can also be fun to use irony. Imagine that someone named Maryann Bakewell is a terrible cook. What if she can’t even make a sandwich? What if a family who is forced to sell their farm and move to the city ends up in a neighborhood called Meadowcroft? And what if a love-starved spinster has lived all her life on Amoretto Way?

Not only does the phone book offer a handy resource for a writer, I find it to be very entertaining. My own is dog-eared with notes and flags, just waiting to breathe life into my latest work. Let your fingers do the walking and you’ll see that the phone book is an instant cure for writer’s block. And the best part? It’s perfectly free.

Fans of Bermadean will be glad to know she reappears in my sequel, Born Again, Dead Again, which is coming to a bookstore near you in September 2013.

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