Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Writerly Wednesday: Sailing the Polish Ocean

A surname can say a lot about a person.

By the surname on my birth certificate, for instance, a person could easily conclude that my ancestors are German.

They are. As a matter of fact, three of my grandparents are 100 percent German. The other grandparent is mostly German...and a little bit Dutch.

My father-in-law tells me that the only difference between the two is what side of the bed you roll out of in the morning. He's what you call a Heinz 57 -- a lot of Northern European, a little Scandinavian and a couple of fill-in-the-blanks.

His wife -- my mother-in-law -- is 100 percent Polish. Shortly after they married, my in-laws settled and raised their six children in the village where she grew up. Almost everyone there is of Polish descent. My in-law's last name sticks out like a sore thumb amongst all of the surnames ending in -ski in the phone book.







You'd never guess my husband is half Polish. (Not by his name anyway.)

I spend a lot of time thinking about surnames and how they relate to characters.

I nearly drove myself mad coming up with good Italian names for two of the characters in Long Road. After a long, drawn-out search, one ended up with Vacanti and the other ended up with Tyler.

Not very Italian, I know. What can I say? His mom -- Gloria (nee Baldassare) Tyler -- married into it. Just like my mother-in-law married into hers.

I find myself wondering about how authors chose surnames for his/her characters. Are they named after someone? Are their characters' names a amalgums of the names of people the author knows in real life?

I'm very curious.

How do you come up with the last names for your characters?


Kat Heckenbach said...

Your family and my husband's family would love each other! My married name is Heckenbach, and my father in law is German and Polish, and my mother in law is 100% Danish.

I, on the other hand, have not an ounce of German in me--it's all by marriage. But I love having the name--it gives me a sense of
European heritage. My own family is all from TN and SC, and searching generations back will not get you out of those two states. Obviously, we had to come from someplace else at some time, but it was way, way back.

And I, too, love thinking about character names, but I've never thought of them in terms of nationality. I've always picked them based on meaning, or just their sound. I may have to start taking that into consideration, though :).

Cool post.

Lydia Kang said...

Great post!
My current MC's surname is Sterling. It's an old fashioned and usually boy's first name, but I liked it because it makes you think of silver--tough, hard, beautiful.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

LOL The phone book.;)

However, if my character has a ethnic last name, I use google.

Anonymous said...

Stina--The phone book, NEVER thought to try that. SWEET!

But yeah, I normally just use google. It's been helpful so far. Or, I'll run a couple contests on my blog and see what my readers come up with....that's worked for my Violet Midnight series pretty well. :-)

Names are fun to look into, that's for sure.

I went from French (Mathieu) to Dutch (Boeyink) YIKES.

I should look up RUSH since they's my pen name, huh?

Rena said...

I've kept my characters' surnames really simple. Then again, I'm a Jones, so that shouldn't surprise anyone. That's really neat you know so much about your family history, Kat. My mom was adopted and I never knew my dad's family, so I know very little about mine. My maiden name is Gunterman, which is a German name.

Crimey said...

My last mc was named Katherine Rice. I chose a simple surname, but I'm not exactly sure why. It just seemed right for the character. In my current WIP, I haven't decided on a surname. The MC's first name is Valentina (but Val for short) and I figured I better be careful with the last name.

Eric said...

Are you kidding? I'm doing good if I can settle on a first name. I will say though, that when I find a first name for a character I really like, the last name usually just rolls off the tongue automatically.