How Authors Choose Names with Amber West

Welcome to Amazing Words Wednesday, the day we enter the labyrinth of language and discover something interesting about words.

Early this year, I had the joy of reading Amber West’s debut novel, The Ruth Valley Missing. I’m thrilled to have Amber join us today to talk about how authors choose the names of fictional characters and places.

Amber West (photoshopped with Nathan Fillion)
Amber West (showing off her mad Photoshop skills)

Julie: Authors invent names for their characters and sometimes names for fictional locations. Do you have a typical process for naming people and places in your writing?

Amber: Not really. Sometimes I just start writing and the name comes. There have been times where I started with a name that didn’t feel right and changed it later. But process? Not so much.

(Naming my child went pretty much the same way. I wanted to name him Dexter Haven West, but at a certain point during the pregnancy, the name didn’t feel right.)

One of these days, I should relate sometime how my husband and I chose our sons’ names. It was a rather logical process, yet somehow the names seem to fit our children.

I read The Ruth Valley Missing back in January, and your choices of names stuck with me. Tell me how you came up with the main character’s name? And what about the original of “Ruth Valley”?

I like names that can have shortened versions, and I really like names on girls that sound like boys names. Jameson fit the bill. Her last name was a result of a little looking around. Since Jameson is a redhead, I wanted something with Irish origins and one syllable. A quick internet search and there was Quinn.

I love Jameson’s name. If I had a girl, there’s a solid chance that would be her name.

Ruth Valley came about in a few ways. One, I wanted a fictional town. While I have been to various small towns in North Carolina, I wanted a town that I had some license in creating. After all, I just dropped a Catholic church with convent in the middle of this little town, something not at all typical of the region, so I wanted it to be clear that this was a place that was invented.

I always thought of Ruth as a strong female name, and given the presence of a convent–one very involved in the community–I wanted that strength. Adding Valley to it gave it that idyllic little town vibe.

It definitely had that feel to me, Amber.

Have you ever used a Random Name Generator to brainstorm names? What do you think of that practice?

I’ve used one once, but didn’t care for the results. I’ve got nothing against them, though. They can be a good starting point when you’re stuck.

Scrivener has a random name generator, which I’ve tried, but the names always seem rather odd to me. I’ve done better myself culling the internet.

What about people you know? Have you harvested names from people in your past or present?

Haha. Yes.

One of the main characters in The Ruth Valley Missing is named after a good friend and early supporter of my work. The owners of the Bed and Breakfast? One of my aunts and uncles.

The Contemporary YA I’m working on has quite a few names pulled from real life.

I’m guilty as well. I don’t write people I know into my books, but I have used their names as inspiration.

Why is it important to get the name right? What does an author convey to the reader in the choice of a name?

I think there are things that are definitely more important, but names shouldn’t be ignored. Difficult to pronounce names, for example, can make your reader stumble as they read, which can take away from the whole experience.

Sound means a lot to me, too. I studied Latin in school and when you explicated poetry in Latin, sound is a big part of it. The sounds you use contribute to the imagery in the poem. Same thing can go for names. A mean and difficult character might have more harsh sounds. Or you might employ opposites–sounds that go against their nature.

I think sometimes authors have to be careful, too, when using unique names that are already in use. Calling your character “Katniss” or “Obama” might make it difficult for the reader to picture your character.

I’ve use the opposites approach on one of my recent books, with a drug dealer named Skip. Usually, however, I try to make the name conjure up the mood of the character I’m writing.

Do you have favorite character or fictional location names? What people and places from books have stuck with you because of their name?

I do really love Jameson. The serial fic I started on my blog a few weeks ago has a main character who goes by “Battie” and, while I wouldn’t love the name for me, I love it for her character.

Outside of my own stories? Oddly enough, Beatrice and Benedict from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing came to mind. Partly because I’ve heard writers cluck their tongues at using the same first letter for multiple characters in a story, particularly two major characters–but I always felt their names fit them so well. And in real life? It happens.

Just a few weeks ago I had some girls over for tea – we had three Ambers, an Arin, an Erin, and an Emily. Rule breaking nightmare! 🙂

I am so glad you said that because I’ve been looking at one of my novels with a Lacey and  Leah (who appears much less). I don’t want to change either name, but I’ve heard the “too close” advice. We’ll see what I decide.

And one last question, just because you’re here: What Star Trek celebrity and author bought your book again?

Speaking of cool names and alliteration: Wil Wheaton.

Check out that story from Amber’s blog: The One Where I Ramble about Anxiety, Megacon, and Wil Wheaton.

Thanks for coming on, Amber! I think you did a great job naming characters and the fictional town in your book, The Ruth Valley Missing.

I give this book a thumbs-up, y’all! Check it out.

The Ruth Valley Missing book cover

Jameson Quinn is sick of trying to find herself in the big city. After a gallery opening ends in a trip to the ER and an argument with her self-involved boyfriend, she decides to take off for the peace and quiet of a small town — Ruth Valley.

The small town has everything Brooklyn lacked: simple people, peaceful surroundings, and a feeling of safety. Jameson even finds the perfect house to rent from the town’s most eligible bachelor, Sheriff Jack. Life is finally headed in a promising direction.

But something isn’t right. A young man is mysteriously injured, then disappears — and Jameson finds he isn’t the only person to suddenly vanish. The suspicious behavior of an abrasive nun and a creepy priest set her off on an investigation of what’s really happening. Will she figure out the secrets of Ruth Valley before she’s the next to go missing?

Buy from (Kindle & paperback editions available)

Amber West behind a cameraAmber West is a Northeastern transplant dodging rodent sized bugs and sweltering heat in the jungles of Central Florida. When she isn’t battling the urge to pass out, she’s busy being a wife, mother, geek, photographer, and writer, in no particular order. You can read her ramblings at or find her on Twitter (@amberwest) where she abuses hashtags and makes people laugh. Or at least, makes herself laugh.