The Search for Enlightenment

I possess many of the personality traits of a nerd, but few of the technological skills, which is why it’s only now, three years after I set up my author website, that I’ve discovered my own website statistics. Web statistics tell you how many people have visited your website, which pages they prefer, what they’re looking for, how they found you in the first place and lots of other interesting bits of information. My favourite set of data is the list of key words that my website visitors type into Google and other internet search engines.

Not surprisingly, the most common search words are various spellings of my name and the titles of my books. Most people are looking for information about my second novel, A Brief History of Montmaray, although I was tickled to find several people searching for ‘the island of Montmaray’, ‘Montmaray island’ and ‘Montmaray near the Atlantic Ocean’. (I like to think they’re planning a holiday in the Bay of Biscay and are hoping to drop in at Montmaray.)

There are also quite a few visitors wanting information about my first novel, The Rage of Sheep. Judging by the number of requests for ‘chapter summaries’, ‘quotes’ and ‘spark notes’, I’m guessing these visitors are high school students who are being forced to study the book in class. (My heart went out to one who plaintively asked, ‘What is the rage of the sheep about?’) I’d really like to help, but I think teachers would get suspicious if thirty of their students handed in identical character analyses and chapter summaries, all copied from my website. (However, if you think there is some other information that would be useful to include on my website, please leave a comment or send me an e-mail, and I’ll do my best.) There are also lots of teenage writers searching for writing competitions and writing workshops, and fortunately, I do have some relevant links for them.

Then the list of key words gets more entertaining. There are people with an extremely vague interest in history, who search for ‘historical people’, ‘famous history people’ and ‘historical people with a picture’. Some are more specific, looking for ‘historical people who were known for their gratitude’, ‘lying historical figures who failed’ and ‘historical person whose son left and died and had a secret wife’. Sadly, these searchers are unlikely to find enlightenment at my website, although sometimes I come very, very close to providing an answer. I can only imagine the frustration of the person searching for ‘the handwriting of Anne Boleyn’, only to discover my website provides a link to a handwriting sample from not Anne, but her daughter, Elizabeth. Happily, I was able to help those who were interested in ‘the Duchess of Kent’s popularity as fashion leader in the 1930s’, wanted to see ‘pictures of Princess Elizabeth and Margaret as children’, and wondered about ‘fascism in British aristocracy’. However, the person looking for information on ‘sheep hormonal rage’ was doomed to disappointment.

Finally, there are those who ask the really big, important questions. ‘What would Jesus do in the schoolyard?’ ‘Was Boy George sexy in the 80s?’ And then, the most difficult of all to answer: ‘When does Book 3 of the Montmaray Journals come out?’

A Rose By Any Other Name

Would Harry Potter have been such a success if he’d been called Nigel Clutterworth? I don’t think so.

I suspect most authors put quite a bit of time and effort into finding the right names for their characters – I certainly do. The Montmaray Journals contain more than sixty named characters, not counting all the real-life historical figures who appear in the story. Here’s how I named some of them:

Sophia comes from the Greek word for wisdom. She was called Elizabeth for a couple of days, but I changed it as soon as I realised that the novel was a getting-of-wisdom tale. Sophie is named after her twin aunts, Sophia and Margaret, who were born and died in 1894, and were going to play a ghostly role in A Brief History of Montmaray until I realised the supernatural elements in that book were getting out of hand. Elizabeth became Sophie’s third name. She’s also named after Jane, her mother (plain Jane), and Clementine, her grandmother (inspired by Winston Churchill’s wife).

Braet von Uberfeldt 'Woman with bible' 1866
The author ponders character names

Veronica is one of my favourite names for girls. It means ‘true icon’. Saint Veronica is the woman in the Bible who offered her veil to Jesus on his way to Calvary; the cloth is supposed to have been stained with his blood and sweat in the exact image of his face. I thought Veronica’s Catholic mother might have chosen that name, and I liked the irony of the family’s most vehement atheist being named after a saint. I also liked the idea of a name full of ‘truth’ (from Latin verus, ‘true’), because Veronica seems so determined to fill her life with facts.

Toby was called Thomas until a couple of days before the first Montmaray book went off to the typesetters. By that stage, my editor had shown the manuscript to a variety of people, nearly all of whom mentioned the novel I Capture the Castle in their feedback. While I could see the similarities between the two books (1930s, teenage girl, diary, castle), I thought the differences (island, royalty, Holy Grail, Nazis) were considerable. However, we both felt we should eliminate any minor similarities where we could, and I remembered that the narrator’s brother in I Capture the Castle was called Thomas. My editor suggested several alternative names, including Tristan, Alexander, Oberon, Benjamin and Adrian, but I decided on Tobias, shortened to Toby by most of the other characters. Now I can’t imagine Toby being called anything else.

Henry was initially Charlotte, shortened to Charlie. However, I ended up giving the name Charlotte to their overbearing aunt. Henry’s full name is Henrietta Charlotte.

Simon is a name I associate with sinister, dark-haired men. I have no idea why, and I offer apologies to any good-natured, blond Simons who are reading this. There is actually a Simon in I Capture the Castle, but he’s nothing like my Simon, so I didn’t bother changing his name.

Rebecca is also a name with sinister connotations, thanks to the Daphne du Maurier novel. It’s also another Biblical name, which is appropriate for the most religious character in the Montmaray series.

Julia was originally called Helena, which seemed a good name for a society beauty. However, Helena was too similar to Henry, so I changed it to Julia. Then I accidentally used the name Helena for a character who appears at the very end of The FitzOsbornes in Exile. Helena is such a minor character that she doesn’t even have any dialogue, so hopefully, the similarities to Henry’s name won’t matter to most readers.

Daniel needed a name that would suit the English grandson of Jewish immigrants from Vienna. As I was doing my usual searching-for-inspiration routine (looking at the author names on my bookshelves, flicking through the phone directory, staring at the contents of my kitchen cupboards), I came across a magazine full of photos of celebrities, including British actors Daniel Radcliffe and Orlando Bloom. Hence, Daniel Bloom. My Daniel’s family name was originally Rosenblum, but his grandparents changed it to Bloom to seem more English – so I was interested to read the recently published Mr Rosenblum’s List, by Natasha Solomons, in which the eponymous character changes his surname to ‘Rose’ for exactly the same reason.

The Colonel’s first name is an enigma even to me, as is fitting for an International Man of Mystery. I think he was called Peter at one stage, but some of my notes refer to him as Andrew. Who knows? It’s lucky that everyone, even his own brother, just calls him The Colonel.

As for the family name of the FitzOsbornes, I needed something grand and Norman, so I used William FitzOsbern as inspiration. He was one of the viceroys of William the Conqueror, who arrived in England in 1066. According to The National Trust Book of British Castles (an excellent read, with some wonderful photos), FitzOsbern built at least half a dozen castles in England in the five years after the Norman conquest. Spelling in those days was not very consistent, so I’ve also seen his name written as fitzOsbern and FitzOsborn. I eventually decided on FitzOsborne, and I’m not entirely certain that was a good idea. People keep spelling it as ‘FitzOsbourne’, so I guess that must be the most common spelling these days. Oh, well. It’s too late to change now.

Shorthand for Geeks

One of the topics I’ve been researching lately is shorthand. The narrator of my work-in-progress briefly attends a secretarial college in 1939, so I needed to know what she’d learn there. Shorthand, I figured – but then I found out there were all kinds of shorthand. Wikipedia alone lists forty-one different types. The only one I’d ever heard of was Pitman shorthand, so I started with that, and it was absolutely fascinating. It was brought to Australia by Jacob Pitman, now buried in Sydney’s Rookwood Cemetery under a phonetically-inscribed tombstone that states he ‘INTRODIUST FONETIK SHORTHAND’. Apparently Pitman was also used in the United States at the trial of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination plotters. Back before digital audio recorders and voice recognition software, Pitman was the most common way of writing English down quickly, reaching speeds of up to 350 words per minute.

How does it work? It uses very simple symbols to represent sounds and common groups of sounds. Then it speeds things up even more by allowing you to omit vowels and by providing symbols for commonly occurring words. I came across a very nifty website called Pitman for Geeks that explains how proper Pitman shorthand works, then gives step-by-step instructions for learning it the ‘easy’ way. The website author admits that ‘a Pitman teacher would be appalled at the look of it, but as there aren’t many Pitman teachers in the world today, the risk is not high’. Even though I have no reason whatsoever to learn shorthand, this website almost tempted me to try teaching it to myself.

Needless to say, only about one-thousandth of all this information on shorthand made it into my manuscript. Still, I had fun reading about it.