Friday, January 23, 2015

The One Catherine Rule

The first time I wrote a book, I had a Rowan, Reed, Rosie, and Renarda. Yes, Rosie's dead before the story starts and Renarda only shows up in one scene. Yes, Rowan and Reed are twins, so it made sense for them to be similarly named, and they die too. But 4 R's? And three of them plant names? I vowed to never do that again. 
For my next book, I wrote out the alphabet in my story notes and deleted each initial I used. And not just for important characters. If the main character's little sister listened to music, none of the singers could have the same initial a character who walked and talked and did stuff. I think I named one of them Omar. 
In book three I named my villain Marguerite Marie Amalia Walburg. She's Meg most of the time and the spare names only show up when she's signing a letter. Reading over the manuscript a few months later, I was horrified by what I'd done. A secondary character had a long lost wife who was only mentioned by name twice. But when she was? That name was Amalia. How did I do that? 
So I changed Meg's middle name and wrote two more books with no major name conflicts. My latest book had a Chelsea and a Carter. I was at peace with repeating an initial, but only because Carter's a toddler boy, Chelsea's an eighteen year old girl, and they never meet. As I sat down to write this post, I remember Carter's mom is Angela. And she shares a story with Amy. 
I had this grandiose goal to never reuse a main character's initial until I'd written twenty six books.Yes, I know this would culminate in me giving names like Yolanda and Ulalani, but I wanted to stick to it. For diversity's sake. 
Then I picked up Pride and Prejudice. 
Darcy's first name is Fitzwilliam, though it only shows up twice, and he has a cousin called Colonel Fitzwilliam. Lady Catherine De Bourgh and Catherine Bennet. Mary Bennet, Mary King, and Maria Lucas. Sir William Lucas and William Collins. 
There are also gender swapped duplicates. Charles and Charlotte. George and Georgiana. The characters spend a lot of time in formal settings, so they're referred to by last name. That means we have five Miss Bennets running around. Then, to top it all off, Jane Austen went and named the eldest (and prettiest) Bennet sister after herself. 
Jane Austen name cloud courtesy of Baby Name Wizard. The bigger the name the more often it's used.

This cloud doesn't even take nicknames into account. Richards and Dicks are tallied separately. What fascinates me most here is the distinction between Jane and Janet. I read Jane Eyre this summer. The first time Rochester called her Janet, I thought it was a typo. Five Janets later I realized it's a pet form on par with Janie. Austen's characters have a tendency to lapse into nicknames. Characters who barely know Elizabeth think nothing of calling her "Miss Eliza Bennet". Her official family nickname is Lizzy but she never protests to Eliza.
As every family historian knows, name diversity didn't really take off until the twentieth century. Austen's fictional worlds actually have more variety than the one she lived in. A mere twenty characters across six novels are named John or Mary, the classic chart toppers. These ladies aren't alone. Charles Dickens christened the protagonist of A Tale of Two Cities Charles Darnay. Wait.What?Did he just...reuse an initial?I think this my hint to stop obsessing over repetition.

Monday, January 19, 2015

In Memory

Tommy's dead.
I lost a grandmother and then a cousin back in elementary school. But last Tuesday was the first time I've seen someone my age in a coffin.
We weren't close. At least, not anymore. He lived just up the street when we were kids. When I was in kindergarten and he was in first grade, we lined up in parallel rows to get our school pictures taken. Our moms were college roommates and we took his family to Lake Powell last summer. Tommy didn't come. He was on the fasttrack. Work-study-sleep-repeat.
I knew him, but if you asked me a week ago to describe him, I'd say, "Tommy likes soccer."
But I put on a black skirt and shuffled through the line with my family. I felt so out of place surrounded by Tommy's real friends and family. Then, to my surprise, I ran into someone I knew, an ex-classmate who transferred to some computer focused school forty five minutes away. I never counted her as a friend. I wouldn't have shown up to her viewing.
The line was slow and I had nothing better to do, so I wandered over to her and her entourage and made stinted conversation. "How'd you know him/work/childhood/that's sad/I'm sorry/thanks for talking."
Here were people who knew Tommy. Their pain was real. What right did I have to claim it?
Then  I got to talking to them and realized just how much they didn't know.
They don't know that he had an obese chihuahua named Taco. They don't know that his mom would come home from class everyday and belt Broadway. They don't know that his sister swallowed a razor battery when she was a baby and burned a hole through her esophagus. But I don't know the name of his best friend. His favorite color. How he got a hold of heroin in the first place.
Everyone on this planet is somehow connected to the rest of its inhabitants. I used to think I had to be close to someone before I deserved to shed a tear. Now. instead of claiming my share of the grief, I'm going to mourn him as if he belonged to me.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Definitely Not Damsels

When I was nine, the only princesses I could name were the Disney girls. I thought princesses, like unicorns and fairies, belonged in fantasy. Then I started studying history. Where did the idea that princesses are pretty little wimps come from? Certainly not from these ladies.

1&2. Mary and Elizabeth, The Tudor Sisters
You may think you hate your sister just because she fights you for bathroom time. Imagine if you had a throne between you. When Mary was eighteen, Henry VIII divorced her mother to marry Anne Boleyn, his pregnant mistress. Elizabeth was born a few months later. She was given Mary's title, "Princess of Wales". At least until their brother Edward came along. But Edward only ruled for a few years after their father's death. Then Mary took the throne. She was the first queen of England to rule in her own right. A devout Catholic, she opposed the Protestant Reformation and every "heretic" in the land. Over 300 Protestants were executed at her command.
Even her sister wasn't exempt. She had Elizabeth jailed. Mary was so determined to produce an heir and prevent Elizabeth from gaining the throne that she married Phillip II of Spain. He was eleven years younger than her and couldn't even read English.
But Mary was thirty seven at this point, too old for childbirth. When she died after five years on the throne there was no choice but to hand it over to her sister.
Elizabeth took a cue from her messed-up family and never married. The Elizabethan Era, which gave us Shakespeare and advances in modern plumbing, is named after her. When she died, the throne passed to her distant cousin James. He built one tomb for both sisters. They share an epitaph.
"Partners both in throne and grave, here rest we two sisters, Elizabeth and Mary, in the hope of one resurrection."

3 &4. Olga and Tatiana Romanov, "The Big Pair"
Olga (left) and Tatiana (right) treating a patient in 1915.
You've probably heard of their little sister, Anastasia, who along with their sister Maria formed the "Little Pair". Olga and Tatiana were the oldest Romanov sisters. When World War I broke out, the Romanov's palace was transformed into a hospital. The Big Pair ditched their gowns and pearls to become nurses. Yes, full out nurses who operated on the wounded. Tatiana was especially popular with the soldiers because of her looks.
Tatiana not in nurse gear
Unlike the Tudors, the Romanov sisters were extremely close and loving. Olga turned down a marriage offer from the crown prince of Romania because she wanted to stay with her family. When the family was placed under house arrest after the Russian Revolution, Olga fell into depression. Tatiana developed a mother hen instinct that kept the family together. In 1918, the Big Pair were executed along with the rest of their family. They died in each others arms.

5. Kaiulani, "The Island Rose"

Kaiulani grew up surfing and riding her pony along the beaches of Hawaii. As a young girl, she met Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson. He wrote her a poem as she left for a long stay in Britain.
Forth from her land to mine she goes,
The island maid, the island rose,
Light of heart and bright of face:
The daughter of a double race.

Her islands here, in Southern sun,
Shall mourn their Kaiulani gone,
And I, in her dear banyan shade,
Look vainly for my little maid.

But our Scots islands far away
Shall glitter with unwonted day,
And cast for once their tempests by
To smile in Kaiulani's eye.

Kaiulani should have been succeeded her aunt as queen, making her the second female monarch in Hawaii's history. But she never got the chance. While she was away at a British boarding school, Hawaii was annexed by the U.S. Kaiulani spent the rest of her life fighting for native Hawaiian's rights. She met with multiple American presidents. While standing on U.S. soil, she gave passionate speeches with not one of her people beside her. She died in 1899 at age twenty three, sixty years before Hawaii ever became a state.

6. Maria Theresa

 Maria Theresa was the first and only empress of the Hapsburg line. In this picture, painted when she was twelve, Maria Theresa holds flowers in the folds of her dress to symbolize the expectation that she would bear many children in the future. Well, it worked. Maria Theresa had a grand total of sixteen children, thirteen of them surviving infancy. The youngest of her brood was Maria Antonia, who would later become Marie Antoinette of France.
But Maria Theresa didn't just sit around having babies. She had a talent for multitasking. Once, she called in her dentist and asked him to pull out a tooth that was troubling her-while she was in labor. This was long before the invention of anesthesia, so she figured she might as well get all the pain over at once. Another time she addressed her troops while holding her infant son, Joseph, in her arms. When they saw this, her soldiers ripped the swords from their scabbards and cried in Latin, "Let us die for our king, Maria Theresa!"

Several historical princesses were kidnapped to be used as political pawns or imprisoned for other reasons. The Tudor and Romanov sisters each spent some time locked up, but that's not the reason we remember them today. With the exception of Gwenllian of Wales, an obscure thirteenth century princess who spent her entire life in confinement after England conquered her country, most princesses left some other legacy.
Contemporary culture would have us believe that a woman can't be strong unless she mans up. I disagree. Yes, they were married off to strangers. Yes, bearing an heir was part of the job description. And yes, sometimes they sat around in towers. But that didn't stop them from inspiring soldiers, poets, and historians. History is full of powerful queens, empresses, and princesses who were strong in addition to being women, not in spite of it.