J.R.R. Tolkien found inspiration in words and names. After inventing his own languages, he began to wonder about the people who would have spoken them. What was their history and culture? His musings led to the creation of an entire mythology in The Silmarillion and eventually to The Lord of the Rings.
To a far humbler extent, I also find inspiration from my characters’ names. Just as my husband and I prayerfully and carefully chose the names of our children, I give considerable thought to the names of my characters and the back-stories their names evoke. Let’s take for example the protagonist of my series The Oxford Chronicles: David MacKenzie. David happens to be the first name of one of my sons as well as my nephew, and I like the name for its kingly biblical connotation and its meaning of “beloved.” The name David suggested to me that my protagonist would be a man of strength, a warrior (at least in a spiritual sense), an athlete, a leader, a beloved son, and a “man after God’s own heart.” My maternal grandmother’s maiden name was “McKenzie,” a Scotch-Irish derivative of the Scottish “MacKenzie” (which means “son of the king”), but a dear friend with Scottish heritage, who had greatly encouraged me in my early writing ventures, urged me to use the Scottish spelling.
The Scottish identify opened a whole new story line to me. My protagonist’s father had to hail from Scotland. How did a Scotsman end up in Oxford, England? What was his back-story? My friend and her husband traveled with me to Scotland to help me “discover” the history of David’s father, Eric MacKenzie. We located the MacKenzie clan’s lands near Gairloch in the north western highlands of Scotland, and stayed there in a lighthouse over-looking the Irish Sea. Naturally, a good Scotsman has to be a golfer, right? And so, we drove to the eastern shore of Fife and walked the Old Course of St. Andrew’s, where providentially we met the head caddy who “happened” to be a MacKenzie and who shared some wonderful stories about other MacKenzie caddies. We visited the nearby fishing village of Anstruther with its picturesque harbor and stayed in stately Cambo House with its lovely gardens and golf course along the coast. The richness of the Scottish setting evoked Eric MacKenzie’s back-story and inspired the plot of my World War II novel Evasions.
So, to quote the Bard: “What’s in a name?” Why, possibly a great deal. A name could just spark the plot and setting for a new novel.