Choosing A Name

How do you choose names for the characters in your stories?  

When I wrote my first children’s stories I picked names for characters from the lists I’d compiled during my pregnancies.   I have two sons and while I was awaiting their births my husbands and I came up with lists of possible boys’ and girls’ names. Since I never got to use any of the girls’ names and only two of the boys’ names for my own children, I assigned the remaining possibilities on my name lists to characters in my stories. Eventually however I ran out of names.

teacher and students 1979I had a thirty-five year career as a teacher and in the process got to know literally thousands of students.  I sometimes used my former students’ names for characters. For example if I had an obstinate character I’d name them after a former student who had that trait. It helped me to add authentic details to flesh out my characters’ personalities if I named them after a  student with a similar personality. However after a time I began to worry that perhaps someday a former student would read one of my stories and recognize themselves. 


In the past I have scoured the obituary pages of the newspaper for names.  Do you know how many names are mentioned in just one obituary?  By the time all the children, grandchildren, in-laws, siblings and nieces and nephews of the deceased have been listed there can be dozens. Never mind the names of friends, care-givers, pastors and colleagues that are often included in obituaries as well. Obituaries are a rich source of interesting names for characters. After a time however I began to wonder if looking for character names in obituaries wasn’t a fairly morbid practice and one I’d be loath to admit to if I ever became famous and an interviewer asked me how I’d picked the names for my characters.  


My most successful method is one I’ve developed recently. I first determine an age for my reading audience and then I look up the most popular names for boys and girls born in the same year. If my story is aimed at nine and ten years old for example, I search for popular names for babies in 2003 and 2004. I look at the list and choose names for my characters from the top ten names or so.  That way I’m fairly sure my readers will feel comfortable and connected with the names I’ve picked. 

Blogger Katie Axelson gives three excellent tips for picking names for characters in a recent post. She tells us to avoid giving two characters in the same story names that sound too much alike, to use names that are easy to pronounce and check to be sure the names will be familiar to your audience. 

My final piece of advice in name selection would be flexibility and patience. I often end up trying many names for my characters before settling on my final choice. Picking a name for a character can be every bit as hard as picking a name for a baby!

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MaryLou Driedger is just beginning to write fiction and non-fiction for children after working as a teacher, newspaper columnist and free-lance journalist for thirty years. She also blogs at What Next?

MaryLou Driedger is a free lance writer with a long career as a newspaper columnist, curriculum writer and contributor to lifestyle, education and religious publications.

Is Sick Lit, well… Sick?

A few months ago I heard the term “sick lit” for the first time. Sick lit books are written for a young adult (YA) audience and deal with intense issues such as terminal sickness, depression or self-harm.

Finding this both concerning and intriguing I read the two books mentioned most often. A Fault in Our Stars by John Green and Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. (Spoiler Alert: Please note that I discuss the endings of these stories.)

Descriptions from Indigo/Chapters:

Thirteen Reasons Why: Clay Jensen returns home from school to find a strange package with his name on it lying on his porch. Inside he discovers several cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker – his classmate and crush – who committed suicide two weeks earlier. Hannah”s voice tells him that there are thirteen reasons why she decided to end her life. Clay is one of them. If he listens, he”ll find out why. Clay spends the night crisscrossing his town with Hannah as his guide. He becomes a firsthand witness to Hannah”s pain, and learns the truth about himself-a truth he never wanted to face.

The Fault in Our Stars: Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten.

Insightful, bold, irreverent, and raw, The Fault in Our Stars is award-winning-author John Green’s most ambitious and heartbreaking work yet, brilliantly exploring the funny, thrilling, and tragic business of being alive and in love.

While researching I came across these two articles:

‘Sick-lit’ popular among youth, raising alarms in literary circles
Sick-lit: a symptom of publishing’s decline?

In my own opinion sick lit is not ‘sick’. I actually resent that it has been given its own genre. It’s fiction. The genre name sick lit is more glorifying then the stories and I find that the most disturbing.

With Jay Asher’s outstanding writing quality, I could not stop reading Thirteen Reasons Why. I read it in a day and it made me cry.  Do I think that this story could have a negative influence on its readers? For the most part, no. I think it gets kids talking. It certainly has the media talking, but for the wrong reasons. The topics being written in books today for teens are covering topics our parents wouldn’t even dream of discussing with us growing up. Open discussion about depression in teens, open discussion about suicide (or the prevention of), open discussion about death, this is new. And newness brings controversy.

Death is the number one fear in the whole world. (Sorry, that’s wrong, number one is public speaking, death is number two… depending on which list you seek out.) Regardless, people don’t like thinking about death and the death of a child is heart wrenching. Myself as a mother reading these books certainly affects me differently than they would have if I was a teen.

Would I recommend my teens read these books? Yes. However, (there’s the BUT!) my teens are strong willed and of healthy mind and we discuss many topics openly. Now, sharing a little piece of my personal history, I’m not sure it would have been a good idea for me to read Thirteen Reasons Why when I was a teen, as I was not of healthy mind. So, I would qualify this with parents should be aware of what their kids are reading and have discussions with them about these topics.

The Fault in Our Stars, is different, not dealing with suicide, it deals with terminally ill cancer patients who are teens. This is a very different subject from Asher’s story. Do I think this story has a negative affect on the reader, not in any way at all. The media makes a big hoopla over the fact that one character (the dying boyfriend) was writing a eulogy for the main character, a terminal case herself. Having read the book it was totally within the boyfriend’s personality and character make-up to do this. It did not stand out, the main character was touched, not offended. The true ending to this story is the main character’s finding of peace with her situation. She spent a lot of time worrying about how others would deal with her death, particularly her parents. And yet she found answers and peace to all her questions by the story’s satisfying end.  (Another cryer…I do believe crying is a requirement for sick lit.)

I wondered if A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness should be on the Good Reads sick lit list…  It’s about a boy dealing with his mother’s terminal cancer. Is it not sick lit because it’s the adult dying? I’m not sure what the rules are or who the royal “they” is that makes them. A child dealing with the loss of a parent and facing the truth about his inner feelings is just as harsh.  (Yep, I cried, well done Patrick.)

Other books on the sick lit list involve young people hurting themselves in other ways – cutting, promiscuity, drug or alcohol abuse. Could this glorify these actions for easily influenced teens? Maybe. What it comes down to is we live in a society of free will and free speech. Parents need to be aware of what their kids are reading (watching on TV, playing on their video games…) and like everything else, they need to answer the question, can their child handle the deep issue discussed in this book (TV show, video game)?

Have you read any books on this list? How do you feel about the new ‘genre’?

Suzanne’s first novel, Empty Cup, is an edgy contemporary young adult story about a seventeen year old girl who lives through life’s ultimate betrayal. Suzanne lives in Winnipeg, MB.

Write with your Heart, & Shelve your Brain

I just read this somewhere today and by one of life’s little coincidences it echoes and defines a message I’ve been reading in a book recently (Escaping into the Open by author Elizabeth Berg.)

Learning the craft of writing is often a long and solitary journey. Yes there are courses available at colleges and universities that some have the fortune to attend, but many of us, especially moms at home, basically teach ourselves by small local courses or scouring our libraries and bookstores and of course the internet for as much knowledge as we can unearth, drinking it like a life staple.

In any case there’s such a wealth of information at our literal fingertips as we read blogs of other writers, and authors, publishers, and editors. Overwhelming is an absolute understatement.

So how the heck is our writers voice going to arise from the sea with all that information and no life jacket?

The above saying doesn’t say to follow your brain and drag your heart along.

Elizabeth Berg says, “Do not act as editor at the same time that you are being the writer.” Your voice WILL NOT come through genuinely. Dump the editor off your shoulder for now so you can write from your heart, your guts, your soul, not your brain, be completely uninhibited without fear or pressure. Like a child turned loose in an elaborate empty playground.

After you’ve poured yourself right out onto your pages and not a moment sooner, should you haul out your brains to put into practice all the technical stuff you’ve read and studied.

Enjoy the journey, don’t drown along the way. I must remind myself of this constantly. Happy writing, whether profound, or silly, or scary or emotional. Pour it out!

Christina’s motto is:
Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?” (George Bernard Shaw)

Sentence Fragments

Sentence fragments occur when a modifier is too long and a writer treats it like an individual sentence.

For example:

Because he was serving at the overcrowded restaurant near the hospital.

The reader is left asking, “What about it?”

The writer may continue the thought in the next sentence– He had little time to himself. However, this does not fix the sentence fragment.

A sentence fragment can be corrected in one of two ways:

1) Properly related the large modifier to its noun or verb.

2) Convert the modifier into a sentence that can stand alone.

I found the first couple of examples obvious, however the ones toward the end of this article do appear more able to stand alone. See if any of the following fragments are familiar to you.


Fragment: While she ran along the sidewalk to school.
Correction (Method 1): I rode my bike while she ran along the sidewalk to school.

Fragment: To see her ride the famous race horse.
Correction (Method 1): We went to the Kentucky Derby yesterday to see her ride the famous race horse.

Fragment: Believing in equal opportunity for all.
Correction (Method 2): My teacher believed in equal opportunity for all. (The verb required a different suffix.)

Fragment: Giving an aggressive nation whatever it demands.
Correction (Method 1): I do not advocate giving an aggressive nation whatever it demands.

Fragment: An unkempt, slob of a man who will not tolerate organization.
Correction (Method 1): The worst example in our family is an unkempt, slob of a man who will not tolerate organization.
Correction (Method 2): Uncle Bob is an unkempt, slob of a man who will not tolerate organization. He is the worst example in our family of such behaviour.

Watch for fragments in your editing to be sure to complete your sentences.

Hopper, Vincent F., Cedric Gale, Ronald C. Foote, and Benjamin W. Griffith. Essentials of English. Hauppauge, NY: Barron’s Educational Series, 2000. Print.

¸.•´¸.•*´¨) ¸.•*¨)
(¸.•´ (¸.•* Suzanne Costigan writes middle grade and YA novels. She lives in Winnipeg, Canada with James, her children, three dogs and four cats.

Suzanne’s first novel, Empty Cup, is an edgy contemporary young adult story about a seventeen year old girl who lives through life’s ultimate betrayal. Suzanne lives in Winnipeg, MB.

Toys, Trains, and Alliteration

Definition: “Alliteration (noun)

“Repetition of the same sound at the beginning of two or more consecutive words or of words near one another.”  (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 1958 by G. & C. Merriam Co., Springfield, Mass.)”

At the Ottawa Train Expo recently, kids of all ages milled around the massive building looking at the multitude of model train layouts, and other exhibits.

Serious seniors, and young parents with smiling tots and bright-eyed youngsters, strolled from table to table taking in miniature tracks, trains, mining towns, mountains, and rivers.  

On one table, filled with metal Meccano toys, a  red paint-peeled ferris wheel brought smiles to faces as it swung smoothly and silently on its frame.

ferris wheel
Ferris Wheel at Ottawa Train Expo 2013. Photo: B. Lange

Back bent, I peered along a HO scale track on a nearby table, waiting for a train to emerge from a miniature mountain tunnel.  When the steam engine (powered by electricity) raced smartly out from the tunnel, pulling a tender filled with artificial coal, a baggage car, and several Pullman passenger cars, for a split second I was transported back to my parents’  living room, where on hands and knees I pieced together two portions of track.

Then I realized what model railroading was all about.   Not just toys to play with but patient hands spending countless hours to pass on and preserve pleasant memories, and often a skill, to younger generations.

Why not reread this piece and pick out the places where alliteration was used as a writing device?   I’d like to hear from you what you think sounds smooth and what sounds stilted or inappropriate? Write a short piece yourself, then revise it using alliteration.  It’s fun!

~~~Barbara Lange is editor of Through the Window of a Train.

Suzanne’s first novel, Empty Cup, is an edgy contemporary young adult story about a seventeen year old girl who lives through life’s ultimate betrayal. Suzanne lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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