Best Movies of 2016

This was a great year for film! That statement deserves an exclamation mark because 2016, despite its many flaws, gave us some exemplary movies. Films that left me sobbing into my sleeve, dancing to my dinner reservation, thrilled and angsty and gob-smacked all at the same time. In an era of peak TV, the best of the 2016 slate of releases (not accounting, of course, for the many, many exceptions because no film year is devoid of piss-poor garbage) could stand toe to toe with most episodes of prestige TV and come out the winner. So here’s my list, in no particular order because we don’t roll like that. I had to make some hard choices to confine it to ten. Don’t forget to check out the fun stuff at the end.

Hell or High Water–No one was more surprised than me by how much I loved this Western noir for our times. Most perfect ending to a film possibly since Breaking the Waves, the flick I think has the most perfect ending of all time.

Zootopia–Fun and zany and cute and imaginative from frame one to the end. All kids films should be like this, with an amazing female protagonist and a strong, not spoon-fed message.

A Bigger Splash–Tilda Swinton as a rock star who lost her voice in Italy, with a spirited Ralph Fiennes along to stir up trouble. Mystery, music, and sun-drenched mayhem ensure. Blissful.

Captain America: Civil War–Slow and steady wins the race. Marvel built up to this epic battle between their two most beloved characters, neither of which is entirely right or wrong, and it blew my mind. (And broke my heart. Tony, Cap, can’t we all just get along?) This is the real 50 Shades of Grey, LOL. With a supporting cast an Oscar-bait indie would envy. They took the time to do it right, and there’s no stopping them now.

Moonlight–These are the kinds of stories we talk about when we say we need more diverse voices, in front of and behind the camera, in film. Poetic, political, sensual, and devastating.

Arrival–It’s like this movie was made for me. I don’t have enough words, but here are a few: the enigmatic nature of language, love, and how we connect as people, as partners, as nations, as a species. An intergalactic love song made by one of Quebec’s most visionary filmmakers.

Sing Street–Adorable coming of age flick with a ridiculously fun soundtrack and more ’80s references than a new romantic has cans of hairspray.

La La Land–Hearts, flowers, glitter, fireworks, unicorns, confetti… swoon! See it, FFS!

20th Century Women–Three women from three different generations help one of them raise a teenage boy to be a man. If you are a woman, you will adore this brilliantly observed and balls-out film. If you’re a man… well, you will definitely learn something.

Manchester by the Sea–In which Kenneth Lonnergan, with the sparest dialogue and the most meticulously structured plot, tears out your heart.

Worth mentioning:

Best scene in an otherwise mediocre movie: “Would that it were so simple”, Hail Caesar!

Best scene in a fantastic movie: “Menstruation dinner”, 20th Century Women

Face-meltingly hot: The Handmaiden. Also best use of subtitles for its Japanese/Korean color scheme.

Not really sure if I liked it, but huge points for originality: The Lobster

Overrated even before the controversy: The Birth of a Nation

Ballsiest ending: Rogue One

Proof that actors are irreplaceable: the CGI resurrection of two major characters in Rogue One. Memo to Kathleen Kennedy–don’t even think about doing this to General Organa in Episode XI.

Still trying to figure it out, but happy to be befuddled: Nocturnal Animals

The future of low-key sci-fi is bright: Midnight Special

Wish it had done well enough to earn itself a sequel: The Nice Guys

Biggest heartbreak that wasn’t, alas, much of a surprise: studio execs’ misogynist interpretation of Ghostbusters’ box office.

Wake me up when it’s over: Certain Women

John Hughes award: The Edge of Seventeen

Best ugly cry: The Light Between Oceans

More white savior BS: Live by Night

I thought comic book movies were supposed to be fun: Batman V. Superman, Suicide Squad.

Franchises that need to be put to bed: Star Trek, Jason Bourne, Jack Reacher… okay, maybe all of them not by Marvel or Lucasfilm.

Pretentious BS masquerading as feminism: Neon Demon

Come for the stars and spectacle, leave because of the rapey subtext: Passengers

Mediocre movie I loved: Miss Sloane.

Has everything working for it but just fell short of perfection: Jackie

Just give this woman an Oscar already: Viola Davis, Fences

I liked this a lot more than everyone else: The Legend of Tarzan

Because seeing movies on film, in the cinema, with a crowd is still the most fun thing ever: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Film critics are falling all over each other for that I loathed with every fiber of my being: Patterson (how does Adam Driver get these parts, seriously?)

Film audiences went crazy for that had me scratching my head: Deadpool

Films I haven’t seen yet that I want to: Moana, The Founder, A Monster Calls, Hidden Figures.

Hit me up in the comments with your picks and pans!

Five Things I’m Loving Right Now – Xmas 2016 Edition!

Selina Claus here, lugging a sack full of pop-culture treats you can read, watch, or binge this holiday season. While I dearly believe in the spirit of giving, once the hustle and bustle of parties and presents is done, I hope each and every one of you takes some time for yourself. It’s been a tough year for so many of us, so indulge. Steal a moment to snuggle in with a good book. Shove the kids at your significant other and sneak off to the movies with a friend. Or spend a night in with a couple of overlooked series. I can’t say this list has something for everyone, but you won’t be disappointed if you give yourself these gifts of entertainment.

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Search Party

This amazing series is a true hybrid: a comedy with mystery and suspenseful elements that’s also a slice of life drama. If your life is that of a restless millennial still in the job you fell into after college and a life that lacks definition. Dory and her hilarious group of friends investigate the disappearance of a college acquaintance through a series of increasingly weird and wonderfully bizarro adventures. But are they really searching for Chantal, or for themselves? The writing is as sharp as the satire, and every character is lovable despite their epic flaws. By the end you, like Dory, will be searching for more.

La La Land

A love letter to Old Hollywood musicals and a vibrant, enrapturing addition to that canon, Damian Chazelle’s movie bursts with color, life, and emotion. A visionary filmmaker who is also an accomplished musician, Chazelle imbues every scene with a rhythm and tempo all his own. I dare you not to be singing the songs for the rest of the week. The love story is the perfect antidote to the winter blahs. It will make your heart soar, and might even break it a little. Here’s to the fools who dream.

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Seven Summer Nights

There’s something about Harper Fox’s lush prose style that’s perfect for the holiday season, like the literary equivalent of a cozy blanket. In this post-WWII historical romance, an archaeologist with PTSD and the country vicar who helps him through find a special place for each other on those eponymous summer nights. Fox’s characters always suffer so beautifully, which makes their eventual healing that much more well-earned. Fall under her spell.

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Eyewitness

Come for the budding romance between two high school hotties–soulful Phillip and skittish Lukas–and stay for the twisty mystery that sees the brilliant Julianne Nicholson on the hunt for a killer-in-plain-sight while overcoming the ghosts of her past. This series has it all, compelling LGBTQ protagonists, a complicated female lead, not one but two heart-rending romances, a pair of frenemy sisters, and a Machiavellian but sympathetic villain. Don’t miss it!

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Manchester by the Sea

This movie takes its time revealing its tragedy. A study of grief, but also resilience, it’s ostensibly about a man who gains custody of his nephew after his brother’s sudden death. But there are layers to this onion, and the deeper you go, the more you ache for all involved. Writer/director Kenneth Lonnergan’s takes a story that cuts to the bone and seasons it with a wicked sense of humor, characters you root for, and an extra sprinkle of human foibles. You will recognize your family; you will recognize yourself. A masterpiece.

The happiest of holidays to you and yours!

Selina

Still Stronger Together — Let’s Find Ways to Help!

“That is one thing that Men call ‘hope.’ ‘Amdir’ we call it, ‘looking up.’ But there is another which is founded deeper. ‘Estel’ we call it, that is ‘trust.’ It is not defeated by the ways of the world, for it does not come from experience, but from our nature.”
–Finrod, Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, HoME X Morgoth’s Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien

The picture attached to this post is of my tattoo. In the Elvish language of Sindarin, it means “Estel” or “hope”. I got it at one of the lowest points in my life, so that hope would always be with me. I’ve thought about it a lot this week as my hope in humanity was tested in ways I never thought it would be in my lifetime.

I write historical romances. It’s kind of par for the course that I spend a lot of time thinking about how people lived at other times in history–inevitably harder times. As a woman, I wonder how my female ancestors endured when they were forced into arranged marriages and treated like possessions (or worse, much worse). As a person who has never experienced prejudice because of the color of my skin, I am awed by the strength and resilience of people who were and continue to be enslaved/oppressed/impoverished for that very reason. As a cis het woman who has more or less always know that’s exactly what she was, I marvel at those who every day have to wade through a sea of abuses and micro-aggressions just to be who they are inside. I am constantly made aware of the privileges I hold, being white, being Canadian, being straight, being cis-gendered. I think the reason I’m compelled to write about history is because I will never, deep-down, understand the compulsion to hate people who are different. (Which isn’t to say I’ve never hated anyone–I have. And I’ve been confronted with my own prejudice on multiple occasions.)

I’ve spent the last few days writing this post over and over again in my head, and I’m still not sure what to say. I just know that I can’t stay silent. I am appalled that so many US citizens voted the way they did, for a blatantly and unapologetically racist, sexist, misogynistic, xenophobic bigot with ties to Russian dictators and the worst of Wall Street. I live in a place, Quebec, where we’ve come close to adopting some very fascist legislation–most recently thee years ago–so one thing I am intimate with is the suffocating fear these kinds of political actions can bring on.

I want to say to all my LGBTQ+ friends and readers, all those who are POC and First Nations and of the Muslim faith, to young women devastated that Hillary will not be the first female president, and anyone else affected by Drumpf’s totalitarian regime, that there is still hope. It’s taking me a lot to write that, and I am super privileged, so I can’t imagine how hard it must be for you to cling to even a shred of hope. I know terror and despair are like boulders crushing the breath from your chest. Take care of yourselves and take the actions you need to survive. I am clinging to the hope I try to carry with me every day. I hope you will, too.

In that spirit, if any of you know of organizations that provide shelter or therapy, legal or any other kind of support for those most in danger of losing their rights or worse, please post that information in the comments. I’ll update this post in a week or so, for ease of access. Let’s come together to help everyone who’s most at risk right now. Because I still believe that we are stronger together.

Here are a few to get the ball rolling. I’m sure donations to these organizations are more than welcome!

-The ACLU: https://www.aclu.org/
-LAMBDA Legal: http://www.lambdalegal.org/
-Black Lives Matter: http://blacklivesmatter.com/

-The Trevor Project: http://www.thetrevorproject.org/
-This is a living document some amazing people are putting together to provide LGBTQ+ people with all sorts of necessary information and links: https://docs.google.com/…/1rl6h6If4HllNoZmRF3cOl-JGO5T…/pub…
-GLBT National Help Center: http://www.glbthotline.org/
-The hashtags #TransLawHelp and #TransCrowdfund
-The Indian Law Resource Center: http://indianlaw.org/content/programs
-International Rescue Committee (help for illegal and recent immigrants): https://www.rescue.org/topic/immigration

Please add any local or US-based organizations you know of to the comments (geoblocking is messing up my Google).

Love and strength to you all,
Selina

Bad Roommates: I’ve had ’em

Independence. It’s not always all it’s cracked up to be.

If you’ve been single and under the age of 30 for any significant length of time, then chances are you’ve had one or more roommates. You might have been assigned them by a college or university. You might have gambled on a good friend or acquaintance. Or, perhaps you were especially brave and advertised/answered an ad. If you’re one of the lucky ones who is still in touch with said roommate, consider them one of your dearest, and, in your more wistful moments, wish you were still living together, this post will (hopefully) entertain. You may even permit yourself, in the deep recesses of your heart, a smug little laugh.

No, this post is for those of us who understand the special kind of hell that is living with a bad roommate. Who have watched perfectly normal-seeming people turn into the kind of seven-deadly-sinful monsters fought by bespectacled teenagers with wands and Scooby Gangs with pointy sticks that aren’t wands. Who have encouraged, cajoled, pleaded, begged, promised their firstborn to utterly disrespectful people if only they’d [insert request here]. I have had two such experiences and, let me tell you, there is a reason I now live alone.

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In graduate school, away from my family for the first time, I lived in the international student cottages section of my UK university. Six students to a cottage, each with their own room, but sharing a bathroom, a kitchen, and a dining room (the latter really just a large table beside the square of appliances). I lucked out on three of them. Teddy the Newly Out Bear was the son of a restaurant owner who taught gaggles of Japanese girls how to make dumplings on weekends and watched every episode of Queer as Folk with me. Girl Who Shares My Real First Name was your typical English rose with an affable, adoring, permanently attached boyfriend. Southern Belle became my close friend and fellow pub-crawler, despite her strict religious upbringing (and my liberal atheist leanings).

But then there was M. She doesn’t get a cute nickname. Used to servants scurrying to fulfill her every whim, I don’t think she had ever seen a fridge before, let alone learned how to use one. She left so much food to rot–and by that I mean lettuce would liquefy and drip all over our food–that we had to eventually get a second fridge, leaving her the bacteria-laden cave that we moved out into the hall. She avoided spending any time with us as a rule, ignoring our hellos and early-weeks’ invitations to have a cuppa. She never met a song she didn’t want to play at full volume at all hours of the day and night. But her piece de resistance came one Sunday morning while the rest of us were gathered around the kitchen table, having a fry up.

Southern Belle left to have a shower, only to discover that M had spilled her black hair dye all over the bathtub and not even made a cursory effort to clean it up. In Belle’s words, it looked “like a horse had a bath in there!” By this time, we were deeply fed up with her rebuffs and her behavior, so we pounded on her door until she “woke up”, letting her know that she would be cleaning the bathroom. Which she proceeded to do. With dish washing fluid and a facecloth. You can imagine how much good that did. So the four of us ended up taking turns scrubbing with actual bathroom cleaner and cursing her name for most of Sunday afternoon. And strongly suggesting she move in with her boyfriend.

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A suggestion I would come to rue a mere six months later. Before leaving for the UK, I worked at a cinema for three years. The staff was a tight-knit group: we made work feel like play; we partied afterwards; we had each others’ backs. So, naturally, when two of my most responsible former co-workers needed a roommate, I jumped at the chance. The last thing I wanted to do, moving back to Canada after a year and a half living in a foreign country, was keep on living with my parents. Arrangements had to be made while I was still in the UK, so they chose the apartment… and got suckered by a slum lord.

The place itself wasn’t horrible–it just wasn’t the cute apartment they had originally been shown. Instead, it was the exact same layout in the building opposite, with words painted into the walls and scum so bad the whole place had to be bleached. I was still out of the country when they discovered the bait and switch, so I escaped most of the painting process. Which is why our kitchen ended up being navy blue.

K was my former manager. The oldest, the savviest, allegedly the most responsible of the three of us. At work, she’d been a by-the-book badass. You can guess where this is going. Just before I got back, my other roommate, Updo, was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and was in the hospital for two months. It was during this time that K painted the kitchen, knowing full well our lease said it needed to stay white. Her little housewarming gift to us, apparently.

When Updo and I moved in, K’s room was full of stuff. Like, storage closet-level full. But she didn’t live in the apartment a day the entire year we were there. She got back together with her on-again, off-again boyfriend a week before we took possession of the apartment and went to live with him. She would come around occasionally when we weren’t there, to eat our food and watch our cable TV. Every month we had to beg/threaten her for her share of the rent. Because of Updo’s hospital stay and continued crappy health, she wasn’t in a position to pay $100 more a month, and I was just out of school, looking for my first job. K didn’t help us fight our gross slum landlord, code name Bastard Man, who also used to creep around our apartment when we were out. When our lease was up and we decided to go our separate ways, she sent her boyfriend to repaint the kitchen for her. He did such a half-ass job that I was stuck doing it the night before moving day, after working a 12-hour shift at my new job and having to move Updo as well, who had just had surgery. (Postscript: she’s managing her condition and perfectly fine today.) Our saving grace was that K’s name was on the lease, so we had some leverage when pleading with her for rent/painting/getting her stuff the hell out of there.

So, those are my tales of roommate woe. Infuriating at the time, but with the benefit of a few decades’ distance… nah, still infuriating. But I’m sure you’ve got a far worse tale to tell! Please share in the comments, so we can all commiserate together.

Are you a tommyrotter who goes motting for riffle? You can be with Green’s Dictionary of Slang!

One of the great things about Twitter is how it brings people of similar interests together who might otherwise never have met. That’s how I became acquainted with Mr. Slang, aka Jonathon Green, an expert in and researcher of English slang, which, in my humble opinion, is one of the most fascinating aspects of language. As any North American who’s traveled to England, or vice versa, can attest, two people who speak the same language can easily not understand a word the other person has said for two reasons: accent and use of slang. With the imminent launch of Green’s Dictionary of Slang online database on October 12th, there is now a resource that can help bridge some of those gaps. Once only available in print, the dictionary/database now:

“…stands at 54,500 main headwords, comprising some 132,000 nested terms. The citation count is c. 650,000. The dictionary has increased in size since 21010 by some 59,000 new citations found in 15,500 entries. Geographical depth has been expanded by the reinstatement or addition of many more examples. In all, nearly 30% of the print book has been revised, augmented and generally improved.”

Which makes using slang that much easier and more fun. Mr. Slang’s extensive and ongoing research doesn’t just cover contemporary slang, but delves into the past, teasing out words or meanings that date as far back as the 19th century. The title of this post, for instance, which I cherry-picked from the 1860s-1890s on the Timelines of Slang, asks: “Are you a conman who has sex for money?” But in a much more interesting way.

As a writer of historical romance, I can attest that his dictionary has been invaluable to me. Historical writers often struggle with authenticity in terms of word use and language, and the fact that all that knowledge is now located in one place is such a boon (and a relief–less research for me). Add to that the fact that, in Mr. Slang’s words:

“The dictionary will remain ‘live’ and research will continue. […] It will offer a far wider range of citations. The search for ‘first recorded uses’ will continue. Around 10,000 such antedatings have emerged since 2010. The expansion of geographical spread will be pursued. Where once it was necessary for reasons of space  to offer only a single cite per decade, thus excluding much material, the aim is now to show as wide as possible number of examples from across the Anglophone world. The original printed entries will also be expanded, both historically — through the search for earlier ‘first uses’ but also through the addition of hitherto un-recorded words and phrases — and in the adding of new, contemporary material.”

I recently had the opportunity to help Mr. Slang by providing some resources for Canadian slang, so I can attest that his life’s work is alive and ongoing (and his dedication to it is something to behold). And if you don’t take my word for it, explore the Timelines for yourself. Here are some other accolades he’s received:

“[Green’s Dictionary of Slang] won America’s  Dartmouth Prize for the outstanding non-fiction work of 2011 and was cited, among many positive reviews, as ‘Quite simply the best historical dictionary of English slang there is, ever has been … or is ever likely to be’ (Julie Coleman, Journal of English Language and Linguistics).”

If you are a writer or publisher or just a linguistics nerd like me, this is a tremendous resource. To access the database as of October 12th, simply go to https://greensdictofslang.com/. There are two levels of access:

“Those who wish only for a headword, an etymology and a definition can access that information for free (the material being the equivalent of the author’s non-cited single-volume dictionaries). For those who wish to access the ever-expanding range of citations (which include a timeline of their development) and enjoy the full extent of search functions, we are charging an annual subscription. This is currently set at £49.00 ($60.00) for single users, £10.00 ($12.50) for students. Prices are available on enquiry for institutional subscriptions.”

So if knowing the 1873 slang term for “fool” is as vital to your work as it is to mine (ranker, chowdar, or moony), or you just want some colorful ammunition for your next family dinner, give Mr. Slang’s cheeky, wonderful work a gander.

 

 

First Author Signing at #UKMeet 2016

To this writer, Britain equals romance. When you think of a place that makes your heart patter and your head tipsy, that inspires those tingly feelings deep inside, most people default to the City of Light, Paris. But if you tally up where all the swoon-worthy classic romances are set, well, Great Britain wins hands-down. Pride and Prejudice. Jane Eyre. Wuthering Heights. Rebecca. The list goes on. So it was with great envy that I read post after post, year after year, about a gathering of UK LGBTQ+ romance writers and readers called UK Meet.

But this year, I crossed that item off my bucket list, hopped on a plane, and joined them!

UK Meet 2016 was held at the Grand Harbour Hotel in Southampton over three days in early September. But my business holiday started a few days earlier, with a short trip to London, aka one of my spiritual homes. My plan: seeing sights I’d missed on previous trips, dining at some of the top affordable restaurants, and theater, theater, theater. The Victorian walk and bookstore at the Museum of London helped me with research for my new historical mystery romance series, Stoker & Bash. I also got to visit the 2016 version of the townhouse I’ve picked as their headquarters in Berkeley Square:

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An improvement on 221B Baker Street, no? 😉

On the theater front, I discovered that Lin-Manuel Miranda is the J.K. Rowling of musical theater. I think I was one of the oldest people at In The Heights, but it thrilled and moved me all the same. This guy is the real deal. Another talented newcomer who riveted me was French playwright Florian Zeller, whose The Truth made some incisive points about modern marriages. And I fulfilled a lifelong dream of seeing Kenneth Branagh live and sparkling in an otherwise mediocre production of The Entertainer.

By the time dinner at the scrumptious Honey & Co. rolled around, I was… Well, I was still a nervous wreck, since UK Meet was starting the next day, and I was going to meet two online friends live and in person for the first time, the darling book reviewer Karen Wellsbury and author inspiration Aleks Voinov. Setting the tone for the whole weekend, they were lovely and generous and sweet and welcoming. I didn’t want the evening to end.

The next morning, the train to Southampton beckoned. As did the three items I packed into 160 red organza bags as part of the romance author booty every delegate takes home. My offering? A flyer designed by graphic wizard Robin Patterson, a Stoker & Bash character bookmark by artist extraordinaire Mila May, and two maple leaf-shaped pieces of maple syrup candy. (Liberally sampled by me prior to bag-stuffing, natch.) The assembly line…

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Having stalled and fretted in my hotel room long enough, I rabbited down to the Grand Harbour to register for UK Meet. I had managed to bulldozer through most of my panic up until then by focusing on all the organizational details, but then I found myself standing in the hotel lobby in front of a large crowd of people and I almost turned tail and ran. But I had come all this way, had been planning for this for months, so I made my way to the registration desk and just about got my pen name out at a volume that could be heard by humans.

I think the most important thing I learned that weekend was that everybody feels this way their first time. Soon enough, I was in the hotel bar chatting with two fellow newbies, May Raymond and Ruby Moone, trying to work up the courage to go chat with my favorite authors. I met even more fabulous people at the event that night and throughout the weekend, notably my Sunday partner in crime and fellow Fortitude obsessive Sam Evans.

On Saturday, a morning panel on designing book covers segued into an incredible keynote speech by Shaun Dellenty, an educator who started his own charity promoting inclusivity and teaching methods that “tackle gender stereotyping, LGBTQI stereotyping, homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying and related derogatory language” in primary schools (visit his excellent web site here). He recounted his personal story of overcoming school bullying and homophobia to excel as an adult with such passion that there wasn’t a dry eye in the hall by the end of his speech.

With everyone teary and sniffly, we segued into the first block of book signing, which meant getting my half-table ready with all my books and swag!

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This is where I bemoan not taking better pictures… But I was just too nervous/excited/emotional/flibbertigibbet to concentrate on something so simple as focusing a camera! And there were so many lovely people, including some fellow Canadians, who came to visit, it was over in a blink. Then it was my turn to freak out over getting books signed by J.L. Merrow, L.A. Witt, Julie Bozza, Jordan L. Hawk, and K.J. Charles. And have a little happy cry afterwards because, wow, the emotion and the enjoyment of the day became overwhelming. Thankfully, sweethearts Alyson Pearce and Teya Martin cheered me up by talking vampires.

And that was the best part of the Meet, conversing with like-minded folk about romance writing, pop culture, favorite books/authors/genres/TV shows/films. The high point of the whole event for me was my lunch with K.J. Charles, Sam Evans, Alyson Pearce, and Ruby Moone, talking historical events we’d like to see written about, what readers want from authors if they change genres, and all things Agatha Christie. It’s these connections that will stay with me and these friendships that will (hopefully) live on past this year’s UK Meet, and will be the thing I remember most about the event once all the particulars have faded from memory.

So, a big thank you to all the authors who took time to chat with me and offer advice, all the wonderful people who made my trip so enjoyable, and to the organizers who worked so hard and gave us so much. Is it 2018 yet?

Beyond Paul, Mark, and David: Tips for Naming Your Characters, Part 1

The naming of cats is a difficult matter

It isn’t just one of your holiday games

You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter

When I tell you a cat must have three different names

 

First of all is the name that the family use daily

Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James

Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey

All of them sensible everyday names…

-T.S. Eliot, The Naming of Cats

It happens like clockwork. Every few weeks, one of my writer friends will bemoan the fact that they can’t think of a name for a particular character, that this is the part of writing that they hate the most, that inventing a person is easy but giving them the right moniker is mission: impossible.

At first, this surprised me. Why? Because I LOVE to name things. Not just characters or places or cars or stuffed animals, a favorite armchair or sex toy, but anything. I obsess over the names of my characters, doing hours of research until I find the exact right one. To me, a character doesn’t really exist until they have the right name.

I am what is called a name nerd. I have bought more baby naming books than I care to admit, and I never intend to have any children. But I’ve had an ever-changing list of what I would call my hypothetical children that will never exist since I was ten years old (current faves: Persephone and Lorcan). I fret and debate and fiddle with potential names far more than actual parents do over what to call the baby that is at that very moment gestating and will soon be a living, breathing person.

But I came to understand my fellow authors’ grief. When you think about it, unless you’re having a quiverful of J-named tots, most parents will only name one to four children in their lifetime. A successful author could potentially name hundreds of people, from their main protagonist to all the incidental people in a book to family members who get a one-time mention but never appear in a scene. And if you’re writing about a fictional place and/or fantasy world, the number of names rises exponentially. There’s a reason Tolkien invented two languages in order to name his characters with some consistency. When you are a creator of worlds, you’re responsible for the well-being—and the names—of the people and creatures that populate that world. But relief is in sight because…

Authors friends, I’m here to help. Nearly thirty years of name-nerding has taught me more than a few tricks, and I’m happy to share. This post is the first in a three-part series of tips and tricks for naming your characters (and places, and things, etc…). This first one centers on contemporary names, and the two that follow will be on historical names and fantasy names.

Before we dive in, I also want to offer my service as a character name consultant. Email me at selinakray@hotmail.ca if you like these tips and need some help/advice/inspiration. This kind of thing is like crack to me, so don’t be shy!

And now, without further ado, five tips for naming contemporary characters:

1. Think beyond Paul and Sarah. Please. For the love of all that’s literary. In the romance genre, there’s always the fear of being too flowery, too cutesy, too try. We’ve all read those books, where characters have crazy, improbable names that distract from who they are or just don’t fit. I write and read M/M, and a particular dislike of mine is all the macho-man names like Stone, Brock, Jock, or Rip. Soap opera names. These don’t always have to be a bad thing, though. They can be used ironically, or to tell you something about the character. No name is a bad name if it fits the character wearing it.

As a reaction to that, some authors go the complete opposite direction and give their characters the most simple name possible. You know the ones: Mark, Dave, Steve, John, Mary, Sarah, Catherine, Elizabeth. There was a point at which if I read another book with a character named Paul, I considered returning the book on principle.

We can do better, without cracking out the weird Y’s, extra consonants, and Gaelic spelling. There are hundreds of simple, classic names that are a little left of center—maybe a little old-fashioned, maybe too long out of use—that could fit your character. Oscar, Felix, Dario, Stellan, Bram, Lionel, Rufus, Arturo, Barney, Jerome, or Sabine, Clara, Simone, Nadine, Mira, Juniper, Faye, Lena, Carly. All easy to pronounce, all easy to read. Each with their own unique flavor.

A good baby name book, like my bible Beyond Jason and Jennifer, Madison and Montana, or website like Nameberry, will give you thousands of options that don’t get into Jerramy and Kaetelynn territory. So please, go explore the possibilities!

2. Law and Order is your friend. Once upon a time for work, I had to watch around 200 episodes of Law and Order over a period of maybe four months. What struck me at the time—other than, “Please, please don’t let me be assigned another episode of Law and Order”—is the variety of names that the writers of that show had to come up with over 20 seasons of 22 episodes per season. They couldn’t all be variations on John Smith.

But their pain is your treasure. The show is set in New York, the original melting pot of cultures and ethnicities, and all of these are represented in the names used on Law and Order and its various spinoffs. Need inspiration? Go to their IMDb page and scroll through the list of names. I guarantee you will find something offbeat but authentic.

Any favorite television show, film, or book can provide character name inspiration. Are you a fan of Judy Blume? Buffy the Vampire Slayer? The Godfather films? All great starting points.  

This brings up a prickly issue in the character naming game, which is cultural background. Most of the names I’m going to suggest in this post are from a white North American perspective because I am a white North American and not qualified to speak about other traditions. But I hope we are all committed to writing diverse characters and, when doing so, using the naming traditions of that particular culture. All names are beautiful! So do your research, reach out to people within that particular culture, and get it right. We’ll get into this more in the historical post.

3. Balance is key. The person who inspired me to write this series of posts and my personal naming guru—though she prefers the moniker ‘name therapist’—is the wise and wonderful Duana Taha, who gives name advice in her bi-weekly column over on LaineyGossip.com (search for the name nerd tag in Lifestyle).

Duana, who has one of the loveliest and most unique names I’ve ever heard, is the ne plus ultra of name nerds. I just finished her book, The Name Therapist, which I suggest all authors pick up, and it is a goldmine of naming tips and theories.

One of the things I’ve learned from her over the years is that names need balance and flow. To achieve this: first, middle, and last names shouldn’t have the same number of syllables. The ideal would be any variation on a 1-2-3 balance, i.e. 3-1-2, 2-3-1, etc. Richard Brice Westinghouse. Francesca Ines Behar. Gideon Abel Dershowitz. Catriona Leigh Byrne.

She tends to come down against alliteration, again because of the cutesy-twee aspect. But that cutesy-tweeness might tell you something about that character or their parents, so try to avoid it, but don’t rule it out entirely. She counsels against too many names ending in A for girls—especially in both a first and middle name—and also having a first name end with the same vowel that a last name begins with.

Say the name out loud, listen to the flow. If you stutter or stumble, go back to the drawing board.

4. Avoid stereotypes. We’ve all read books with a cop named Jake or Mac (apologies to Josh Lanyon) or a plain girl named Jane. A doctor named Richard. A princess named Kate. These names take on lives of their own by being used over and over again in similar contexts, leading us to make associations with jobs or characteristics, even causing us to categorize certain names as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Staying away from these stereotypes helps to avoid reinforcing them.

But names aren’t neutral, far from it. We each have our specific, personal experience of people with certain names that are either beloved or have bad associations. For instance, I love the name Astrid because of a dear friend, while childhood bullies have forever soured me to the names Louise and Kerri. A fun exercise might be to name a misbehaving or misunderstood character one of the names you dislike, or an annoying character a name that doesn’t have music in order to help shape their identity. But using a name you love might spell trouble for you as a writer. If you love the person behind the name too much, you might not have the right perspective on the character’s actions.

Whether a name ‘fits’ your character’s identity can help shape them in your mind and define for you some of the major challenges/traits/flaws they have as a person, so choose wisely.

5. Think generationally. Another thing Duana talks about in her excellent book is the popularity boom of Jennifer in the ’70s and ’80s, a phenomenon that is unlikely to be repeated. I lived through that era and knew my share of Jennifers (and Julies, since I live in Quebec). But nowadays, Jennifer is a mom name. So is Stephanie or Jessica or Pamela or Karen. Dad names are Kevin and Josh and Jason and Steve and Patrick.

Some names, like Michael, are classics that transcend generations, but most common names speak volumes about specific decades or eras. What do names like Ethel, Doris, Herman, and Bernard evoke? The 1920s and ’30s, when our grandparents—and for this generation, great-grandparents—had their heyday. Conversely, someone who’s in their teens/early 20s in 2016 is unlikely to have the name Judy or William. Don’t believe me? Go hang out at a playground.

A simple Google search can clue you in to era-appropriate names. But don’t be too reliant on those top-ten lists. One thing that never goes out of style? Originality. There are thousands of names that have no decade or era association at all. Yet another reason to research, research, research.

Or consult your friendly neighborhood name nerd. I hope this post has been helpful! Drop me a line in the comments and let me know your name obsessions and pet peeves.

 

Selina