Posted in Events, Personal life, Reading, Writing

What’s in a Name?

The naming of the new bells in our parish church inspired my column for the July 2021 edition of the Hawkesbury Parish News

Photo of the bell named John
The bell John, decked out in flowers for the blessing ceremony

The closest I’ve been to a christening for many years is the blessing of St Mary’s new church bells last month, in which each one was given its official name.

Only afterwards did I realise the significant difference between the choice of names for bells and for babies:

  • Bells arrive fully formed and their purpose in life is clear.
  • With babies, it’s all still to play for: how the little bundle will turn out in adulthood is anyone’s guess, although their given name will likely reflect parental aspirations.

Thus, when naming bells, there is no need to consult any baby name books or The Times’ most popular names list for that year. Bells’ names are typically those of apostles and saints, indicating their devotion to the church. St Mary’s are thus Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, James, Mary, Arild and Wulfstan.

The Naming of Characters

As a novelist, I’m in a similar position with my characters: I choose names to suit their traits in adult life, rather than to reflect their parents’ ambitions at their birth.

I do however consult official lists of names popular at their date of birth to ensure I don’t end up with anachronisms. Deborah, for example, has not been in the top five since four years before I was born, and I long ago resigned myself to being my generation’s equivalent to a Gladys in my old age.

Masterful Namers

I’m in awe of masters of the art of naming fictional characters, such as Charles Dickens and P G Wodehouse, even though the cynic might find their choices larger than life.

  • Would Mr and Mrs Squiers, parents of the future cruel headmaster of Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby really have had the foresight to name their son Wackford?
  • Might Bertie Wooster’s awkward chum Gussie, obsessed with newts, be likely to inherit the surname Fink-Nottle? To my mind, it doesn’t matter – it’s all part of the fun.
photo of two sleeping kittens curled up
We named our kittens Bertie and Bingo after the comical characters in PG Wodehouse’s novels

Nominative Determinism

Whether or not you believe in nominative determinism – the notion that your name anticipates your status in life (Nomen est omen, as the Ancient Romans neatly put it) – it’s hard not to rejoice when you find a real-life example:

Keith Weed, President of the Royal Horticultural Society, I wish you the best of luck.

To find out how the leading characters in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries got their names, read these posts from my blog archive:

Who Is Sophie Sayers Anyway?

Why I Named the Leading Male Character in “Best Murder in Show” Hector Munro


Posted in Events, Writing

I am Not a Number

Debbie with a microphone gesturing to the audience
Making the opening address at Oakwood Literature Festival last month (Photo: Angela Fitch Photography)

(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.

Photo of Debbie necklace
How to make friends and influence people… wear necklace with your name on it

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.

photo of Debbie and Dawn
Chatting with the organiser of the Oakwood Literature Festival, Dawn Brookes – one of many Festival friends (Photo: Angela Fitch Photography)

I’m looking forward to appearing at the Evesham Festival of Words twice in June – for the full programme, visit their website here.

For more information about the Oakwood Literature Festival, visit their website here.


Posted in Reading, Writing

Who Is Sophie Sayers Anyway?

A post about the heroine of my debut novel, Best Murder in Show

Cover of Best Murder in Show by Debbie Young
Ta-da! Now available to order as an ebook for Kindle’ paperback to launch on 22nd April

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.

Photo of Dorothy on a cushion
A safe landing for Dorothy

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”.


Photo of Debbie Young and M C Beaton
With writing hero M C Beaton, author of the Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth series

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.

Cover of Sayers biography, "Such a Strange Lady"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).

Dorothy L Sayers collection on packed bookshelf
Taking inspiration from cherished treasures: the fragile paperbacks that I avidly collected as a teenager, nestling amongst other favourites such as Orwell and M C Beaton

If you’d like to order the ebook of Sophie Sayers’ first adventure, Best Murder in Show, you’ll find it on Amazon UK and on Amazon US, and in fact on all the other Amazon sites around the world.

The paperback will be launched on Saturday 22nd April at the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival, and will then be available to order from all good bookshops. 

Image of ebook on Kindle
Best Murder in Show – now available as an ebook (paperback coming soon)


Posted in Personal life, Writing

Nominative Determinism, Pope Francis and Other Keywords I Have Loved

Pope Pius IX
Pope Pius IX – a name that states the obvious (photo: Wikipedia)

So, Pope Francis it is, then.

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

Pope Gregory XVI made gambling on papal electi...
Pope Gregory XVI made gambling on papal elections punishable by excommunication. Quite right too. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Wombles Annual 1975
Remember you’re a Pope (Photo credit: Museum of Hartlepool)

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.