Our monthly topic this month, inspired by all the people out there participating in NaNoWriMo, is the handling of names when writing historical fiction. To kick things off, this post will look at some of the issues that writers and readers of historical fiction face.
One of the perils of doing niche research is that you can be very attune to very precise details that the average person will be completely oblivious too — and this is a peril that can manifest itself in many ways when it comes to interacting with fiction. Watch a science fiction film with a scientist, watch a period flick with a costumer, and there’s going to be some under-the-breath muttering when the details are gotten wrong.
When you’re an onomast, it’s naturally the names that can stick out like a sore thumb. Nothing ruins your enjoyment of book quite like learning from the dust jacket that it’s set in mid 14th C England, and then finding out the first character named in the book is named Gunther. Gunther is a fine medieval name — no doubt about it — but it’s not English, and to someone who has done the research, the discrepancy is discordant.
The tricky thing is that very few people are researchers of medieval names to such a degree, and one could argue that even a writer of historical fiction shouldn’t (or couldn’t) accommodate for all the neuroses of the niche researchers. And yet, for those writers of historical fiction who aren’t experts in names who want to lessen the chances of such jarring moments for the experts, in this month’s monthly topic posts we’ll explore both general and specific advice, and we’ve also been speaking to actual authors of historical fiction about their practices and the pitfalls they’ve faced.
No. 1: Match period and place
This is, of course, an obvious point — the best way to ensure that your names are appropriate for your historical context is to pick names that you know where used when/where your story was set, and so we won’t belabor it. Instead, we’ll simply point the desiring novelist to the Dictionary entries, where they can do just that.
No. 2: Exploit the diminutives
Using names appropriate for the period and place provides a base level of authenticity. But it is possible to use all names which are authentic for a specific period and place and yet end up with a conglomerate which is, itself, not reflective of period practice. This is because the onomastic practice of a particular place and period is not just the names being used but their frequency — no historical novel would be complete without a man named John. There are two difficulties that can arise when trying to replicate not only the names used but the frequencies in which they are used. First, there may not be any statistics available on the frequency with which names were used in a given place/period. For that, there’s always general popularity data that can be appealed to, such as our discussion of some of the most popular names for men and for women. But another problem can arise even when detailed frequency data is available: You might be stuck with naming every fourth man John. Here’s where diminutive forms come in: It might be the case that 25% of medieval men in some particular time and place where called John, but if that time and place is, say, 13th-14th C Italy, you could have Johannello, Zuanutto, Vanni, and Iovenello. Even in England John can rub shoulders with Iankyn, Jenyn, Jack, and Johannet.
Stay tuned for more!