Yesterday’s post, and subsequent comments, got me thinking about names. Once upon a time, when I was much younger and far more of a follower trying to fit in to be accepted instead of being myself, I thought I wanted to be called Sandy. I mean, almost all the popular girls at school had “eee” ending names – Tracy, Connie, Stacey, etc. Connect popular to cute and you start to get an impression of the names that translates to the physical.
Sandra was just so darned serious and boring.
For better or worse, so was I. I thought about trying to go by Sandy once I went to high school, but there was a very popular girl in the same grade who came in from a different school named Sandy. Blonde, too. And while not a total ditz, not the brightest bulb on the shelf. ‘Sandy’ was just never going to take. And so, I have always been Sandra – on occasion Sam.
It’s sort of been stuck in my head ever since that Sandy is a bit of a dumb blonde name, at least where I’m concerned. This was not helped at all by seeing Grease. I’ve known a great number of intelligent women who are neither blonde nor dumb called Sandy, but that’s what the name means to me when people call me that.
And it’s just not my name.
For as much as I didn’t like it as a child, I came to have a real appreciation for being Sandra. For one, it’s a very universal name. Europeans, Africans, Latinos… pretty well everywhere I’ve been, from Costa Rica to Germany to Tunisia to Bali, people have been able to manage my name.
Kevin, on the other hand, turned out to be a real burden for people in non-English speaking countries. Go figure.
The surname thing becomes a pain in the butt as well. For years I was – believe it or not – too shy and insecure to correct people who said my name wrong.
But if you want to know the honest truth, people calling me Sandy actually bugs me a lot more.
The reason is assumed familiarity. Pet names are what we give to friends, family, lovers. When someone calls someone by a variation on their name it says something to everyone around, that they have a connection to that person and to do that without permission is highly presumptive.
I mean, could you imagine someone walking up to Laura Lippman and calling her Laurie? I do find myself getting supremely choked sometimes - why do people just assume they can call me Sandy? Or that I’d want to be called that? It’s a notion I haven’t even entertained in over 20 years.
If an abbreviation is widely used, that changes things a bit, yet I still asked JD Rhoades if I could call him Dusty.
I have a confession to make: I sometimes use the name of a person who’s been a jerk to me as the name of a jerk in my stories. Not typically the victim, because if I don’t like someone I don’t want anyone else to feel sympathy for them.
See, I can be petty that way.
It doesn’t always hold true, though. Sometimes, the name just suits the character. To me, how a name fits a person is one of those almost mystical things it’s hard to explain. I think that names go through transitions in perception, and also, how we feel about a name is often affected by people we know.
I mean, can any American think ‘Hillary’ and not think Clinton?
Whenever I’m working on a new book or story, the naming is something that will take hours for me to process. In almost everything I’ve worked on, major characters have gone through a name transition.
What Burns Within
Ashlyn started off as Natalie. Another name I tried? Gina.
Lara was once Tessa.
Lara was a particularly tough name to deal with, because of a comment Linda L. Richards made yesterday, about her middle name and the mispronunciations. How could I communicate to readers that it was LAYR-ah? Having a scene early on with someone who had trouble with the name so it could be said ‘Lara rhymes with Sara.’
A tricky thing for many people. Ian Rankin started having people refer to Siobhan as ‘Shiv’ (which drives her nuts, btw) to get people familiarized with the correct pronunciation. All I can say is, thank goodness he didn’t name her Roisin – I mean, I knew how to pronounce Siobhan, and I know how to pronounce Roisin, but few people do.
Without a pronunciation key in a book, names do tend to get ingrained, and sometimes they get programmed in wrong. In the comment trail yesterday I mentioned being embarrassed that I’d said my boyfriend’s surname wrong, although I have to be easy on myself. After all, this was the first time I was corrected on it.
It’ll be a problem if I keep saying it wrong. I’m just glad he told me so I can get it programmed in properly sooner, rather than later.
I bear all of this in mind when I’m writing. For example, it still surprises me that people aren’t sure if it’s ‘Sandra’ or ‘Sondra’. Honestly, that’s the one variation on my first name I don’t mind. Well, okay, not the only one. Because of the nature of the work I did in the past I had kids who couldn’t manage my name. One called me something closest to Anna, and another called me Sara. Neither bothered me, particularly considering the reasons – a triple consonant blend in the middle of the name is a mouthful, especially for a child with speech delays, and one of the kids couldn’t pronounce ‘S’ properly.
But, for the record, it’s Sandra.
In my reading, sometimes names have jumped out a lot. Part of the reason has been overuse of names that sound similar. I keep an alphabet list for first names and last names and try to limit multiple use of the same letter as a starting letter for names. I know it sounds silly, but when you’re reading a book that has 10 POV characters and there’s a Jen, Joan and June, you’re damn relieved the fourth woman’s called Betsy. Truth was, in Suspicious Circumstances I wanted to call the twins Megan and Mary – not an uncommon thing for people to use the same first letter for twins – but early readers balked. Mary became Susan.
(Oh, another pet peeve, and if you really want to piss me off you call me Susan. I mean, ha ha ha, you’re so funny, nobody’s ever thought of that joke before. Gag. It was old more than a decade ago.)
Ultimately, I think we’re all a bit sensitive about our names. Some people may never experience that, because their name is never shortened or altered or mispronounced.
Imagine if started calling James Oswald Jamie or Jimmy.
Or called Stuart MacBride Stewie.
Daniel Hatadi as Danny? Mark Billingham Marky?
Any takers on calling Patrick Shawn Bagley Pat? (I’m betting that’s where the ‘hitmen’ thing comes in…)
If you value your life you won’t call Val McDermid, well… I won’t even say it. (But I’ve always thought for her, Val must be short for Valiant.)
And can we imagine anyone daring to call The Pope of Galway, the wondrous Ken Bruen, Kenny?
A name either fits, or it doesn’t. So if you really don’t want to call me Sandra, please please please, go with Sam.
And Daniel, in the event I’m regularly called Sam, no, I will not change my surname to Spade. ;)