Branching out or what’s in a name?

Tonga 1997

This is a photo of my new investment in Tonga.

Oh, alright.  No, it’s not.

But it is in Tonga; and it does have my name on it.

I think about names quite often, both in real life and when I am creating new characters for a story.

It might be because I was given a relatively unusual name found, by my parents, in a novel; or because I always have to spell it for people, or because the combination of the R and the W makes it difficult for non-native English speakers to say.

Suffice to say finding a shop in Tonga with the name, was pretty startling; that it was a book shop made it feel like destiny.

When I lived in Moscow, I was given a whole new persona when my name was transliterated into Cyrillic, I became ‘Ravenna’, and grew quite used to responding to it, although it never felt as if it entirely fitted.

One evening in Russia, Stas, one of the office drivers, said to me

‘I’ve been thinking and thinking, where have I heard the name Ravenna before.  And suddenly it came to me.  ‘Givanhoe’!  It is a great book.’

He positively beamed at me when I confirmed that he was right.

It was not the last time I was surprised by a link made in unexpected circumstances.

A few years ago I was in a large and rather formal meeting in Paris.  At a coffee break, one of the grand French men in attendance said to me ‘whenever I see you, or your name on an email I think of James Bond.’  All the surrounding conversations stopped as everyone turned and looked at me, quizzically.


‘Yes.  The James Bond actor, he was Ivanhoe.’

‘Really?’ I had no idea what he was talking about, but it was never a good idea to cede ground in any debate in France.

‘Sean Connery?’ someone else chipped in.

‘No. The other one.’

Eventually someone suggested checking online; so a sub committee of five people, including the grandee and me, marched up the corridor to an office with a PC.  It turned out he was right.  Roger Moore played Ivanhoe on TV in 1958.

I suspect if I was called Mary or Ann, I’d not have had conversations like this; but it hasn’t turned me into an advocate of names at the odder end of the spectrum.

I struggle with the naming of characters in my stories, perhaps because I am aware that the names themselves can create a narrative.   They must also have a history behind them.  What were the parents of this character thinking when they bestowed this or that name?  Am I creating an irony in naming a quiet person, say, Gertrude; am I being anachronistic if I call someone a name that wasn’t fashionable in the era about which I’m writing?

And sometimes the name I’ve given just won’t stick and I have to change it, and then comb the manuscript to catch every mention of it, hoping fervently that the new name will last.  It is usually a sign that something else about the characterisation isn’t working either and needs more work; always an unwelcome realisation, but one which can’t be ignored.

I looked out this photo because I had reminded myself of my trip there when writing my ‘sauce bottle’ post.  I subsequently ‘googled’ it to see if the shop is still there.  It seems that it might be.  So if you’re ever passing, do drop in, and mention my name.

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1 Comment

  1. margaret nickels

     /  January 25, 2011

    Now that is comedy ! Even more I get concerned about first name and family name combinations …… which can be unfortunate. I have to say that Ravenna has a sort of Cornish look and sound to it, but I am not entirely sure why !


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