One question that pops up sometimes when I am talking to people about writing is “Where do you get names?” Names are tricky, I find. Sometimes a name simply presents itself to me. For some reason I always knew Peter Byerly in The Bookman’s Tale would be a Peter. It had nothing to do with the symbolic meaning of the name—I wasn’t trying to imply that he is a rock. He just always seemed like a Peter. Sophie Collingwood in First Impressions is named after my dog, Sophie, and Lewis Carroll’s nephew and biographer, Stuart Collingwood. Yet as soon as she was named, she became Sophie Collingwood, and could not possibly be anyone else. This brings up another tricky thing about names. I find I have to get it right the first time—it’s hard to rename a character once I have gotten to know her.
Often I find naming characters a challenge—particularly naming historical characters. In this case the name not only needs to seem natural for the character, it also has to fit the time period. So, being a bibliophile, I depend on an old book to help me out—or four old books to be more accurate. When searching for a name, whether surname or Christian name, I head for a set of four volumes bound in blue cloth sitting on the top shelf next to my desk—the Alumni Oxonienses. The book is simply a listing of ever person to attend Oxford University from 1715 to 1886, with a brief biographical sketch of each. Those volumes offer me a historic record of what educated men were named in England over a period of a hundred and fifty years, and while that might not cover all my historic characters, it’s an awfully good start. From Abbay to Zouch the selection of surnames is especially rich.
I almost didn’t buy this book. I was at the Cambridge bookfair in 1997, my car parked far away on the other side of town, when I spotted these four beautifully preserved volumes. I discovered that not only Lewis Carroll (under his real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) was listed, but also many of his contemporaries and family. It seemed a bit peripheral to my collecting, but it was such a lovely set that, just before leaving the fair, I returned to the booth where they were displayed and bought them—lugging them through the streets of Cambridge to my car.
Since then, whether researching fiction or nonfiction, those books have been invaluable to me. Months have gone by when I have referred to those volumes nearly daily, and for at least a decade after I bought them, it would have been difficult to find their information anywhere else—as it turns out they are anything but common. Now, of course, the entire set is available online, but it’s not the same as pulling down one of those heavy volumes, flipping past plates that illustrate the architectural glories of Oxford, and seeking out a name.
When my new novel First Impressions is published in October, you’ll see that I have included Alumni Oxonienses in the story, and you will know that it’s my tip of the hat to a set of books that has been a friend and companion for many years.