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Dunbarrow Etmyology

Character names are one of the banes of my writing life. I find them incredibly difficult to get right, and yet it’s almost impossible to write a scene if I don’t know what the characters involved are called. There are writers who are famous for their vivid and memorable names; Charles Dickens and JK Rowling are two who spring to mind immediately, although almost all of my favourite authors are responsible for some incredible names. Lyra Belacqua and Iorek Byrnison, Dolores Haze and Charles Kinbote, Hal Incandenza and Don Gately. Good names do more than refer to a character; they define them.

I name partly for meaning and partly just for sound. If I don’t like saying a character name I’ll change it until I do. When they do have meanings I don’t like them to be too obvious; I prefer connotations or resonances. With all that in mind, I thought it might be interesting to take a tour of the names in Thirteen Days of Midnight and the sequels, to explain a little of what I was thinking when I settled on each one.

The obvious place to start is Luke Manchett, the first name I came up with for the series. Luke hopefully doesn’t require that much explanation — it’s a common name which comes from one of Jesus’ apostles. I chose it because it’s fairly normal sounding, with the suggestion of a good person, I think, coming from the gospel association. A manchette is a type of protective cuff that fencers wear on their weapon hand; I mainly chose this word because I like saying it, although you could say there’s also a suggestion of competitiveness and combat sports, which fits Luke as well. I removed the final E to make it more masculine sounding.

Luke’s dog Ham was the easiest character to name and the explanation is the simplest: I think the name is funny.

Elza Moss is a name I came up with in the middle of the night and wrote on the side of a box of tissues I was keeping by my bed. Elza is a derivation of Elizabeth, although as far as I know it’s an uncommon one, and you’re more likely to come across an Elsa or an Eliza. I partly like this because of the Z — an odd letter which, along with X, you’re unlikely to see in English names. To me this fits Elza’s character, as she is something of an odd fit in Dunbarrow. Moss is partly chosen for sound, but I also think there’s a positive feeling from the word. I like moss and I’m always happy to see it growing. It seemed like a good name for a moral person, someone who’s in touch with the supernatural world and the history of their own town.

Luke’s parents didn’t have names for quite a long time. Horatio Manchett is obviously named after a character in Hamlet, perhaps the most famous story about ghosts and dead fathers that’s ever been written. However, I also like Horatio because of the resonances with ‘exhort’ and ‘oration’ — he’s a character who likes the sound of his own voice, and does a lot of lecturing and pleading. Luke’s mum is named Persephone, which is another reference to classic literature, this time Greek myths. The mythical Persephone is married to Hades, the God of the Underworld; hopefully the link with my own story is clear. Persephone’s maiden name in the trilogy is Cusp. Since the mythic Persephone is associated with springtime, I wanted Luke’s mum to have a spring-related last name, and Cusp fit the bill, as to say something is ‘on the cusp’ means that it is just about to change.

Luke’s friends have names that are intended to sound masculine and phonetically similar to his. Mark is another gospel name, and a kirk is a Scottish word for a church; both names have the same hard K sound that ‘Luke’ has, while still being different enough that they’re difficult to confuse. Mark’s surname is Ellsmith — an ell is an obsolete unit of measurement, about forty-five inches, which was mainly used for cutting cloth. There’s no way you could smith an ell, I just like how it sounds. Kirk’s surname is Danknott, a meld of ‘dank’ or dirty and a knot. There’s no deeper meaning here than to suggest someone who’s a little grubby and disreputable. Holiday Simmon, benevolent queen of Dunbarrow High, is named to suggest sunshine and pleasantness. Simmon is not a real word, but it sounded like it could be a surname, and suggests ‘cinnamon’, which I associate with sweet-tasting desserts. Alice Waltham, Holiday’s sourer friend, doesn’t have a particularly unusual forename, and I mainly chose Alice because there were no characters whose names began with A. Her surname is of Saxon origin, and it roughly means ‘a town in the forest.’

The sinister spirit Mr Berkley is named after a village in Somerset, although I had intended to name him for the city of Berkeley in California, which is why double-checking things is important. This is a name I associate with a sort of slippery charm, although I couldn’t say why that is; it may come from right-wing American invocations of Berkeley as the home of a certain kind of traitorous liberalism. It’s always interesting to examine these things rattling around inside your head. In early drafts Mr Berkley had an assistant demon named Mr Bernem, whose name was an explicit callout to the satanic nature of the law firm they operated — Bernem of course becomes ‘Burn Them’. The character was cut, which was a shame because I liked saying ‘Berkley and Bernem’ to myself. It sounded like a curse.

The Ahlgren twins are named for sounds. I wanted names that went well with their Swedish surname and also worked together. Ashana is a Hindu name, Ilana is Hebrew. I had the idea that their father Magnus travelled widely when younger, hence the girls’ non-Scandinavian names. Ashana is usually addressed as ‘Ash’ in Eight Rivers of Shadow, and ash of course is the material left behind after a fire. Ash herself is a survivor of the Fury’s attack on her family home and the Ahlgren Host; in a sense she is also material left behind after a terrible fire.

The names I get asked about most frequently are the titles given to members of the Manchett Host, as the bound ghosts’ birth names usually aren’t known to us. There’s a pretty simple reasoning behind this: when the spirits are bound by a necromancer, they lose their original names and instead are given titles that reflect their position within the Host. These archetypical names were inspired by the names of the major arcana in a tarot deck, although I didn’t want there to be a direct one-to-one conversion. So while the tarot contains cards such as the Magician, the Emperor, and the Fool, the Host titles include names such as the Shepherd, the Vassal, and the Judge, none of which are true arcana. I don’t want to delve too deeply into the meaning behind the Host name of each spirit, since this is one area where I think preserving some ambiguity is more interesting.

Titus and Dumachus, the monstrous Knights of the Tree that we meet in Seven Trees of Stone, are named for the two thieves crucified alongside Jesus Christ.

The final set of names I’d like to write about is the place names in the trilogy. It’s a minor joke that most of the place names in Dunbarrow are deeply sinister and connected with death somehow, a fact that goes unnoticed by the characters. Dunbarrow itself is named after a barrow, which is a type of ancient grave; dun is a word that comes from Old English and means ‘dark or gloomy’, although it can also refer to a specific, brownish-grey coat colouring in horses. Luke lives on Wormwood Drive; wormwood is a kind of plant, but it also refers to a star named Wormwood that falls from the sky during the apocalyptic events of the Book of Revelation. Elza Moss lives at Towen Crescent; a towen is an ancient place where blood sacrifices were performed. Holiday Simmon lives on Wight Hill; wight is an Old English term meaning ‘living being’, in this case however it was a reference to the living dead barrow wights found in the work of J R R Tolkien. The least sinister place name in Dunbarrow is the Pilgrim’s Grove development where Ash lives in Eight Rivers. This name of course foreshadows the pilgrimage both Ash and Luke will undertake to the Shrouded Lake later in the story.

Hopefully some of this was of interest and shows how much time I spend on the names for my characters and places. I think it’s worth noting as a parting thought that often these resonances and meanings are not clear to me until I’m finished writing the book — it hadn’t even occurred to me consciously that Horatio sounded like ‘exhort’ until I was writing this article. But I’m certain my subconscious mind noticed. If you’re coming up with your own names, my best advice would be to say them out loud, and try a few different variations until you find one you really like. Often there will be more hiding in the name you settle on than you first realise.