Posted On April 21, 2014 by Print This Post

What’s in a Name by Christine Merrill

I met Christine Merrill at Jennifer Crusie’s Cherry Con in 2007. Christine read an excerpt of her historical romance, AN UNLADYLIKE OFFER. It knocked me out. I’d had the impression that historicals were stuffy and her excerpt was anything but. That moment opened the door to my current addiction to historicals. I’m excited to welcome Chris to RU!

I am not good with names.  I am definitely one of those people who, even when I know you pretty well, am likely to look at you with a hopeful smile, and wait for clues.  Writer’s conferences are great, because everyone there is forced to wear a badge.  But in that awkward hour before the conference starts, I’ve had more than one conversation with old friends, and thanked God afterward that I didn’t call them by name, because I’d have been totally wrong.

My husband did more of the naming on our children.  He had opinions. He made the first one a junior.  Of course, this means when people hear the name, James Dean, they say, “Like the actor?” And I shake my head.

My husband wasn’t named for the actor either.  It’s very confusing.

The second child he suggested Adric, which was from the old Doctor Who TV show.  I relegated that to a middle name, and chose the first name at random from the movie we were watching.  Sean.  It was a James Bond movie, and we already had a James.

Really, it’s a shame that we didn’t bother to teach Sean a little bit more about his middle name.  Apparently, he misspelled it for years, making him even worse at names than I am.  But the priest that baptized him thought it was an English saint, so no points there.

My pets are all named with nouns.  Dog, Havoc; cats, Chaos and Mayhem.  Mayhem would have been named Clara, since when I found him, he was small, grey, arch-backed, and he hated me.  He reminded me of my mother.  But since he turned out to be male, I had to think again on that.

All of those names fit.  but I bet, in many languages, they’d be translated with the same word.  We were toying, very briefly, with getting a foreign exchange student.  I could just imagine the kid trying to write home to his or her parents that all domestic animals in a household are called the same thing.

With this much problem attaching words to living beings, it is a wonder that I became a writer. I scored high on the verbal section of the SAT’s, so the rest of the words aren’t a problem.  It’s just titles and character names that always stump me.  I automatically beg for help on the book title.  Even when I come up with one, the marketing department doesn’t like it.  But that leaves me with characters, and writers are supposed to come up with those, all themselves, and I’ve developed tricks I can share with any of you out there that are similarly at a loss for those few, very specific words.


Take your subgenre into consideration.  I write in Regency historicals.  This makes make first names easier.  I could call them all James or John, as those names were pretty common. I could probably ignore them entirely and call them by their last names, or titles.  In reality, even wives often called their husbands by their surname.  Mr. Darcy was going to be Mr. Darcy, to the grave.  I have no idea if Elizabeth Bennet was likely to yell “Oh, God, do me, Fitzwilliam!” in a moment of passion, but I have a hard time picturing it.


But no name is kind of cheating.  I’d advice coming up with something, even if you don’t use it much.  Keep the man’s first name basic. My advice is to avoid anything that sounds like a penis. Bolt, Cord, Lance, Dirk, and Rod might be romance hero names, but we can’t keep going to that well.  There can be only one Shaft.

Google “popular men’s names’ and the year. You will get lists of baby names for both boys and girls.  You might also get links to other records, like genealogy databases.  War records are particularly good for men’s first and last names.  I’ve been mining the Agincourt Honor roll for years.  English men’s names don’t get much more traditional then that, and the list is short, since there were relatively few casualties.  I also console myself that my fake English nobles might have had ancestors fighting there.

When it comes to making up titles, remember that they are always based on a place.  You can’t just look at a map and pick one, because some of those titles are actually in use.  Try searching “extant British titles” or “Extinct British titles” to see what names are out there.  Consider combining two or more of them. Remember to Google afterwards (both title and name) to make sure nothing comes up.

I didn’t do that, before I sold my first book. During my very first phone call with a real editor, who calling all the way from England, she said, “I don’t know how much you know about the political situation in our country…”

It was 2005.  I thought I was going to have to apologize for the Iraq war.  I was totally prepared to do it, to get the book sold.

And then she told me that I’d accidentally named my hero after the former Minister of the Exchequer.  I’d also named a housekeeper Mrs. Thatcher. (OK.  I should have changed that second one.  But I stuck Thatcher in there on a day when I couldn’t imagine an English person ever reading the book, much less buying it.  I live in Wisconsin. What were the odds?).

On to women’s names.  There are a lot more of them to choose from, in almost any era.  This is because women like to sound pretty.  Also, it is because women are not automatically permanently attached to a place or a family, until we get married. (Unfortunately, we used to be property. It’s sexist.  But we have to deal with it.) Given a wider choice for female characters, I sometimes like them to mean something. Yep.  Literary symbols, insert them here.  So after you have been through the baby name list and not found anything that trips your trigger, ask yourself, ‘what sort of a person is she?’  Does she have any hobbies that might lead you to a certain name?  More importantly, did her mother and father have hobbies, since they were the ones who named her.

I had a heroine who was obsessed with translating Homer. I decided it was from the love of classics that her parents gave her.  I named her Penelope, and gave her a brother named Hector.  Doing this gave me automatic reasons to make connections in my mind between her and the fictional Penelope, chances to make subtle comparisons between her husband’s behavior and Odysseus, and to make her brother the sort of character who hectors her.

I had another, slightly, bossy young lady with no name, and told one of my friends she reminded me of Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. My friend said the obvious, which had totally slipped past me.  Name her Rosalind.  That also got me thinking about the Rosalind in Shakespeare, and pairs of lovers, which was what my book had.

I once wrote a gothic mystery, and named the heroine, Daphne.  From Scooby Do.  Yeah, I did. It didn’t turn her into a cartoon character, but it gave me a few more mental anchors which I could use to visualize her character.

On a recent project, I needed a lot of names, all at one time.  I had been writing for sometime using random initials to indicate characters, until I had better ideas.  This works fine for me.  I sometimes go for months, until the book is almost done, before I come up with any names.  I really HATE NAMING.  But sooner or later, you have to show the manuscript to someone, and they like people to be labeled.

Anyway.  I needed names.  My mind was a blank.  And I was watching a movie. I grabbed paper and pencil, and wrote down anything the characters said that sounded even remotely like a name.  First name, last name, street name, city name, brands. I came up with a very nice list, which I could shuffle around, adjusting spellings, prefixes and suffixes, until I had a whole cast of characters. Maps and phone books might work just as well. But then, I would have had to stop watching the movie.


Do names – fictional and otherwise – come easy for you? How do you come up with names for your characters?

On Wednesday, RU’s resident weapons expert ADAM FIRESTONE returns with his regular column.


A reluctant rake and a ruined woman with nothing to lose are a perfect match in this delightful comedy of manners from Christine Merrill…

Vincent Wilmont, the Earl of Blackthorne, makes a point of living up to his reputation as a rake, even though his heart isn’t quite in it. Indeed, his heart rests with Caroline Sydney, the ruined woman who’d gone to his bed in passion after she’d rejected his cool-headed offer of respectable marriage. A year later, she’s cast him off, humiliated him in front of all of London society, all because he made the damn-fool mistake of telling her he loved her.


Blackthorne’s public humiliation earns him admittance into the Hephaestus Club, a secret brotherhood of societal rejects, and there he swears never to marry, putting money down on the oath. When the wager provides a motivation for a smart, if skint, gentleman matchmaker to cash in, Blackthorne and the fiery Miss Sydney find themselves the starring players in a romantic farce filled with duels, declarations and passionate trysts as they rocket down a path toward a horrifyingly respectable future as man and wife.




Golden Heart winner Christine Merrill has written twelve historical novels and an assortment of stories and novellas for Harlequin Mills and Boon, and has self published two contemporaries.

She is also the only author of Regency set historicals ever to fail a college English class covering Jane Austen.  If pressed, she will insist that the F had more to do with her feelings on Tristram Shandy than Northanger Abbey.  After she graduated with a degree in English and theater education, and could go back to reading for fun, she discovered Pride and Prejudice and learned the error of her ways.

She lives in rural Wisconsin about ten minutes outside of pizza delivery range with her high school sweetheart.  They have two sons, a labradoodle, a pond full of goldfish and two cats with active social lives. She talks frequently about getting “just a few sheep or maybe a llama.” Everyone breathes a sigh of relief when she stops.

When not writing, Chris can be found at the movies, halfway back and towards the center, with a large buttered popcorn (but only if the film has a happy ending).Visit her on the Web at


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10 Responses to “What’s in a Name by Christine Merrill”

  1. Enjoyed this blog–particularly the dogs names. How creative! Sharing it with my writing students. Thanks.

    Posted by Carol Baldwin | April 21, 2014, 7:24 am
  2. Enjoyed your post! My two Siamese actually have movie names, Ping & Mushu from Disney’s Mulan.

    My fictional characters usually come to me complete with names. Not always but most of the time.

    Posted by Carol Opalinski | April 21, 2014, 8:21 am
  3. Morning Christine!

    I do pretty well with names, mostly. =) It’s almost always decided by the end of the first chapter, and always with the first letter of the first name. “This heroines first name begins with the letter D” and then I go on a hunt for D names.

    Unfortunately the last names aren’t quite so clear, and usually requires the phone book or watching the end credits of a movie. =)

    Fun post!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | April 21, 2014, 8:34 am
  4. Thanks for an interesting look into your naming process, Christine! It’s interesting for me to see the other side of the coin because I love naming characters.

    For those who write American historicals and contemporaries, I hope you don’t mind me sharing my favorite site for names: The Social Security Baby Name site. You can look up the popularity of a certain name, look up names by state, and best of all for me, you can look up the most popular names by decade or by year, going back to 1879. Here’s the link:

    It’s great if, say, your heroine was born in 1976 and you want to know what the most popular girls’ names were for that year. Or what the hero’s sixteen-year-old son would most likely be named. I’ve got it bookmarked on my browser’s toolbar because I use it so frequently.

    Posted by Linda F | April 21, 2014, 9:25 am
  5. Chris – I have a good friend named James Dean. He IS an actor and he had trouble joining Screen Actors Guild because his name was already taken. He had to add a middle initial to make himself unique.

    When it comes to names of real people, I have an appalling memory if I only HEAR the name. I seem to have a visual memory – if I see your name printed on a name tag, I almost always remember it. Otherwise, not so much.

    I love names – I spent a lot of time making lists of potential names for my kids starting when I was 8 or 9. One of the fun things about writing fiction for me is that I get to use some of those “leftover names” – I only had two kids, but they both have two middle names.

    Names are also a MAJOR time-waster for me. I want just the right name, so I’ll spend hours scrolling through ancient and modern names, popular and old-fashioned names, meanings of names, etc.

    Also, I’m a pantser, and if anything changes in the physical characteristics of a character, or if their personality takes on a new twist, I feel duty-bound to come up with a new name to fit that altered personality. I guess I’m OCD about names – I wasn’t happy with my own name until I came up with a personalized spelling. Surprisingly, my kids’ names are pretty normal.

    Thanks for a fun post, Chris! As you can tell, it’s a topic close to my heart! I’m not going to even get into pet names. I’m likely to get stuck in THAT OCD rut and go on for hours!

    Changing the subject, I remember at one point your books were only available in the U.K. Since I’ve bought several of your books, I assume that’s no longer an issue? Or are some of your books still locked out of the U.S. market?

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | April 21, 2014, 9:37 am
  6. Thanks for having me, everybody. And always looking for good sources of names.

    Becke, there was a time when some of my books were only in the UK. Harlequin Historicals went througha period where they had different release schedules for US and UK, and there were always more gaps for Regencies in their schedule, so I came out there first. But as of 2012, they are both the same and I am all caught up on US releases.

    Posted by Christine Merrill | April 21, 2014, 9:58 am
  7. I have a terrible time with names, mostly because I tend to have preconceived notions of what they should sound like, without actually knowing what they’re going to be. For example, in my latest book, a polyamorous romantic comedy, I knew that the men’s names needed to be one syllable, couldn’t have the same vowel sound, and preferably wouldn’t have any letters in common. I went over and over the lists and finally settled on Sam and Jim, which met most of my criteria. What do you think the publisher reading the completed manuscript said? “Change the names. Too similar!” Sigh. Of course, by now I’m really attached to those names – which I suppose is a point in favor of not naming your characters too soon!

    Posted by Lori Schafer | April 21, 2014, 9:59 am
  8. Hi Christine,

    Names come fairly easy to me. I’ve had an obsession with names ever since I could read. I look for interesting names whenever the movie credits roll.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | April 21, 2014, 5:44 pm
  9. Oooh – one thing about fictional names. I’m a fast reader, and I’ve noticed that my brain takes shortcuts with names. That can cause problems if several characters in the book have names that start with the same two or three letters. I try to avoid using same-letter first names for my characters, but it can be hard to keep track.

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | April 21, 2014, 6:39 pm
  10. Thanks so much for hanging out with us today, Chris! I’ll think of you next time I’m stuck for a character name!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | April 21, 2014, 10:49 pm

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