(This post first appeared in the Hawkesbury Parish News, June 2018.)
“Hello, Debbie,” said the lady serving me tea at the Oakwood Literature Festival. “Would you like sugar in your tea, Debbie?”
This struck me as odd, as I had never met her before in my life, but I smiled politely and thanked her for the tea. Then, as I was drinking it, another lady gave called out cheerily as she passed by: “Good morning, Debbie!”
When a third person I didn’t recognise greeted me by name, I started to feel distinctly uncomfortable. How could this be? I was a hundred miles from home, in a part of the country where I had no friends or relations, and yet everyone seemed to know me.
I wondered whether that was how it felt to be the Queen.
And then it clicked. The night before, while spring-cleaning my dressing table, I’d rediscovered a tatty old silver-coloured necklace that spells out my first name in cheap metal italics. I remembered buying it for 99p in a scruffy tourist shop on holiday in Fort William, Scotland. It would be hard to find a more parsimonious version of Sarah Jessica Parker’s iconic gold “Carrie” necklace from the TV series “Sex and the City”, but in a fit of nostalgia, I’d put it on and had forgotten to take it off.
So my reputation hadn’t gone before me after all. All the same, it was so cheering to receive such friendly greetings from strangers that I wore it again the next day, and the day after that.
NEXT UP: EVESHAM FESTIVAL OF WORDS I’m looking forward to appearing at the Evesham Festival of Words twice in June – for the full programme, visit their website here.
A post about the heroine of my debut novel,Best Murder in Show
New novel, I hear you cry? Yes, my new novel! Due to launch officially in paperback on Saturday 22nd April at the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival, Best Murder in Show is already available to pre-order as a Kindle ebook via Amazon. (Click here to find it on Amazon UK and here for Amazon US.)
It’s the first in a series of seven classic mystery stories set in the Cotswolds in the modern day, in a village not unlike the one where I’ve lived for the last 26 years.
Of course, as it’s fiction, any resemblance to real people, places or situations is entirely coincidental, although I confidently expect at least one of my neighbours will stop me in the street claiming to be X, Y or Z in the story.
As long as they’re not claiming to be the murderer, I think I can handle that.
To whet your appetite between now and the official launch, I’ll be writing a series of posts about different aspects of the book.
How I Named My Heroine
Today I’m going to tell you how I chose the name of the heroine, Sophie Sayers, who at the age of 25 inherits a country cottage from her great aunt. This legacy provides her with the perfect opportunity to ditch her sponging, controlling boyfriend, and instead to reinvent herself as a writer.
Only problem is, she’s not sure what to write or where to start.
In the meantime, although she’s able to live rent-free, she still has to earn her keep, so she secures a job in the village bookshop,where the charming but enigmatic bookseller Hector Munro takes her under his wing. (More about his name in a future post.)
Before long, Sophie is sucked into the busy social life of the village community, seeking to solve a murder mystery that everyone else assumes to be death from natural causes. She’s hoping that the handsome Hector will not turn out to be the murderer, but he’s definitely hiding something suspicious…
So Why Sophie Sayers?
Firstly, I’ve always liked the name Sophie, and at one time was holding it in reserve for a daughter, should I ever have one.
I did indeed eventuallly have a daughter in 2003, but I decided some weeks before she was born that she was actually a Laura. I still loved the name Sophie, not least because there’d been one in my family a few generations back, so post-Laura I decided to save Sophie for my next cat.
But my next cat, who arrived as a stray in a snowstorm on the same day as my aunt’s postcard of the red shoes from The Wizard of Oz, turned out to be a Dorothy.
She settled in straight away and has been here ever since, our Cotswold cottage apparently being her equivalent to Kansas: “there’s no place like home”.
A few years later, when I started writing the first in a planned series of mystery novels, I wanted to pay tribute to one of my own favourite detective story writers, Dorothy L Sayers, author of the wonderful Lord Peter Wimsey series. (I’d always assumed this was what M C Beaton had done when echoing Agatha Christie in her Agatha Raisin detective stories. and I’m now kicking myself for not asking her on the two occasions when I have been lucky enough to meet her.)
But I couldn’t call my heroine Dorothy, because the cat had nabbed that name.
So Sayers it had to be – and Sophie, retrieved from the backburner, provided a pleasingly alliterative match. The similarity between Sophie and her namesake end there. The title of Dorothy L Sayers’ biography hints at the author’s uncompromising approach to life, but Sophie is eager to fit in with others – often too eager, as is sometimes her downfall.
I’m glad to have found a worthy bearer of one of my favourite names at last, while also offering homage to one of my many influences (as indeed is M C Beaton, as testified by my bookshelf).
If you’d like to order the ebook of Sophie Sayers’ first adventure, Best Murder in Show, you’ll find it on Amazon UKand on Amazon US, and in fact on all the other Amazon sites around the world.
I love the fact that some religious institutions allow and even encourage their members to change their names. Names are generally chosen as symbols of what the involved parties hope the bearer will become. It’s not so much choosing a name as picking a personality or fate. This notion of nominative determinism is one reason why books of babies’ names continue to be top-sellers, year in, year out. It helps that there are always plenty of new babies to be named. Unlike popes.
I don’t blame the former Argentinian cardinal for choosing a name unprecedented for popes. I don’t think I’d fancy being just the next in a sequence of popes of the same name, like the interminable sequels of a Hollywood blockbuster (Pope Rocky VI, anyone?) I have always been fond of the new pope’s namesake, St Francis, especially since visiting his old stomping-ground, Assisi, as a teenager.
What’s in a Papal Name?
Of course, not all papal names were created equal. I wouldn’t mind being another Pope Boniface, which to me suggests a kindly, rotund, beaming Pope giving and receiving love in all directions. Pope Honorius sounds as trustworthy as you could get. Pope John-Paul was a pretty benign name, too, with a touch of Beatles-esque hip about him – though I’m not sure Pope George-Ringo would have had the same cachet. And if you think that would have been a wacky name, how about Pope Sixtus III – how confusing is that? He put in 8 years’ service in the 5th century, just to add more numbers to the equation. I’m hoping the equally strangely named Pope Sisinnius had neither a lisp nor a stutter.
If you’re in the mood for more idle musings about papal names, there’s an engaging list on Wikipedia here. It’s the cardinal’s equivalent of the Parent’s Best Book of Babies’ Names.
Twitter Hashtag Fun
And if that isn’t enough to entertain you, pop over to Twitter and search under the hashtag that was the second most popular trending story at the moment the new pope was appointed. Right under the unsurprisingly top hashtag “#NewPope” came “#ReplaceMovieTitleWithPope”. The gems that cropped up here were enough to completely distract this atheist from the white smoke at that point still emerging from the Vatican chimney. Suggestions included “Dude, Where’s My Pope?”, “Jurassic Pope”, “The Pope with the Dragon Tattoo”, “Pope Fiction”, “Gone with the Pope”, “Dr Strangelove: Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Pope”, “The Pope Wears Prada” and so on – you get the picture.
Of course, I quickly added my own contributions: “Mary Pope”, “Smokey and the Pope”, “The Pope, The Witch and The Wardrobe”, “Pope Gordon” and “Flash Pope” (the last two in honour of my aggressively atheistic husband Gordon), to name but a few. It’s no wonder I didn’t get much work done that night.
Once A Pope
Actually, I don’t think it really matters what the Pope is called, any more than it matters what the Queen is called. The title alone is enough to conjure with. Who needs a name when your title is recognised around the globe?
Here’s an example. When my brother was a teenager, he belonged fleetingly to a band. He and his friends chose the band’s name by picking words at random from the dictionary. It is a time-honoured process for the unimaginative which worked a treat for the Wombles (eventually a rival band themselves, of course, as well as a bestselling children’s book). The Wombles used an atlas instead of a dictionary, hence a string of characters with melliflous names such as Orinoco, Tobermory and Great Uncle Bulgaria. What did my brother come up with? “Inedible” – ok, quirky. “Giant” – good, suggests impending megafame. And finally: “Pope”. Put them together: “The Inedible Giant Pope”. Well, band names don’t get more memorable than that.
So what if I were pope, (and I realise that is about unlikely a proposition as I will ever make on this blog), which name would I choose? Well, based on the principal of nominative determinism, I think I’d follow the new Pope Francis’s example and go for a name that suggested what I wanted to be. Pope Popular, Pope Ethical, Pope 21st Century – all a bit too obvious. But given the fact that by the time anyone becomes pope, their age will feature in both the “weakness” and “threat” sections of a SWOT analysis of their position, I have a simple but elegant solution, so obvious that I suspect you’ve arrived at it ahead of me. After all, what’s not to love about Pope Young? I rest my case.
Long live the Pope!
PS No Popes were harmed in the writing of this blog post.
PPS I admit this post is something of an experiment, driven by the surprising revelation that “nominative determinism” – a phrase I have always adored – has been one of the most popular keyword phrases in my previous posts. I have absolutely no idea why.
Just before her ninth birthday, my daughter asked me how I’d chosen her name. Given that it’s one piece of parenting that I’ve never regretted, I’m happy to share that information with you now.
In the run-up to her birth, I’d had plenty of time to consider. I’d been hoping for her arrival for many years. All that time, I’d anticipated a Sophie, a Chloe or, best of all, a Catherine, the latter particularly favoured for its many variables. (An old friend, who spelt hers with a K, had run through most of the possibilities while we were at school, and my great-grandmother saw nothing wrong with christening two of her daughters Katie and Kathy.)
There was a touch-and-go moment when we thought that she might have turned out to be a boy, though I really longed for a little girl. In a weak moment, I agreed that if our baby turned out to be a boy, he could choose what to call it, whereas I had the naming rights over a girl. If indeed I had given birth to a boy, he would have rejoiced in the name of Munro, in honour of my (Scottish) husband’s hero, Sir Hugh Munro, who charted all the Scottish mountains with a height of over 3,000 feet. Not keen, I tried to influence his choice, suggesting Hamish as having a suitable heritage. “Och, no!” came the chorus of replies from his assembled Scottish relatives as we discussed possiblities in Kincardine-on-Forth. (Only later did I discover that Hamish is actually a Scottish derivative of James. As Gordon already had a son called James, we would have been stepping into Kathy-and-Katie territory here.) Laura regularly reminds us of her near miss and rolls her eyes , saying “I’m SO glad I was born a girl!”
Five months into my pregnancy, an amniocentesis confirmed categorically that I was carrying a girl – so Sophie, Chloe or Catherine she would be.
But then, just a few weeks before she was born, the name Laura suddenly came into my head, and I knew at once that was what she would be called. I’d never really known another Laura, but, post-rationalising, I can see that two of my heroines, both pioneers in different ways, were responsible for this inspiration.
I’d followed Laura Ashely’s ascent from cottage industry at her kitchen table to international style and fashion mogul, and I adored her style, even after it had long gone out of fashion. I mourned her premature death, while in my house, and in my wardrobe, she lives on . I suppose her early designs made me ever associate her name with all things pretty, natural, unpretentious and feminine – all things that I’d like a daughter of mine to be.
My other role model was Laura Ingalls Wilder. Forget the saccharine TV programmes that her books have spawned. Read those books instead. I defy anyone to fail to be awed by her and her family’s courage, optimism, self-reliance and flexibility (again, great qualities in any child) as they moved ever westward in search of the perfect place to settle. And of course, she wrote like an angel, a further quality that scores very highly with me. (I daresay her outfits would have charmed Laura Ashley, too.)
Anita Roddick (the admirable founder of Body Shop) would also have been in with a chance, if I didn’t dislike the name Anita. Had Cath Kidston raised her profile a little more before Laura’s birth, she could have kept me straight on the Catherine path.
But Laura she is, and there are plenty of other reasons that I adore the name. It’s pretty without committing its bearer to a certain image, size or shape (I’d never have risked a Grace, a Fleur or a Rose, just in case she turned out beefy). It’s classical, too, with a hint at Greek laurel wreaths – appropriate considering she was born 9 months after our stay in Athens.
It hasn’t been hijacked by Hollywood or the pop charts either – a phenomenon presumably to blame for the three Ethans in her school of 85 pupils (thank you, Mr Hawke) and the imminent Rihanna in reception. You have to feel for the hundreds of Kylies and Madonnas now hitting their twenties.
It’s a name everyone knows how to spell (I pity the poor child I came across whose parents decided to be different and christen their daughter Abbeygale).
But it’s not so common as to cause confusion. (I remember in my first class at secondary school there were four Susans in our class of thirty.)
It’s poetic without being twee or soppy, and classless and timeless, so it shouldn’t date.
Nine years on, I’ve never regretted my choice. The name hasn’t dated or gone out of fashion, nor been blighted by the bad behaviour of a celebrity Laura. Consequently I’m predisposed to like any new Lauras I encounter, whether in person, on the phone or online. I expect them to be sweet, kind, big-hearted and gentle – just like my Laura – and to have a healthy sense of humour too. In the last few days, I’ve added several new Lauras to my collection, and they’ve all complied with these expectations. I love the notion (and glorious phrase) of nominal determinism: the presumption that you will grow into the name you are given, although my rational side assures me that it must be nonsense.
My own name, Debbie, has its perks – for example, a recent survey showed it to be the top name for female CEOs (my brother and father’s name, Peter is top for men). But already it seems old-fashioned. I know quite a few Debbies, and there have been some pretty damn cool ones, from my best friend at primary school, Debbie Hasletine, to the peerless Debbie Harry of Blondie. But I don’t know any now under the age of thirty, and I suspect that in another twenty years, my name will have all the cachet of a Gladys.
But whatever fashion dictates, I know I’ll still have claim to one name that I will always love: and that name is Mummy.
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Half-listening to the radio in my car the other day, I picked up the start of a news story: “Jordan is calling for the repatriation of ancient manuscripts from Israel…”
Gosh, I thought, maybe she’s trying to reinvent herself as an intellectual in the wake of her second divorce. Doesn’t sound like the kind of thing she’s usually up to. I thought she preferred cavorting in Ibiza night clubs, if we’re to believe the tabloid newspapers.
I’d driven another mile before I realised that John Humphrys was not talking about the infamous Katie Price, aka glamour model Jordan, but the Middle Eastern nation.
It’s not the first time I’ve been confused by a country’s name. Years ago, at a dinner party, the whole table was held in thrall by the hostess’s account of domestic habits in Iceland. It was only when someone piped up “I didn’t know you’d been there for your holidays” that it emerged she’d actually been talking about Iceland, the popular frozen food chainstore. I’d been wondering how she knew so much about foreign shopping bags.
There’s something rather appealing about hijacking a country’s name for other purposes. I’m usually a traditionalist with babies’ names – I did after all choose Laura for my own daughter – but I rather like the growing trend for calling children after countries. India and China suggest elegant, dainty girls, while states’ names like Georgia and Alberta summon up a more robust, outdoorsy type. Nations terminating in a consonant sound more masculine. Israel, of course, and Chad have long been used as boys’ names, but Egypt and Sudan would be equally rugged. How refreshing it would be to see a little America and Libya holding hands in the playground, or Laos and Denmark playing tag. Report some of these events on the news and we could all believe that we’re living in a new, more peaceful age, at least for a pleasant, fleeting moment.