As a reader, there aren’t a lot of deal-breakers for me.
I don’t mind a recycled plot. I actually like most of the common tropes (hello, Cold-Hearted Guardian Who Secretly Loves His Ward.) And I can even tolerate a smallish degree of historical inaccuracy. The occasional anachronistic word, a heroine wearing underpants instead of drawers, a fork in the medieval pantry—none of these drive me absolutely crazy.
But when a character’s name is wrong for the period, I see red.
I don’t mean the mistakes in the correct forms of address that crop up all the time, although I do tend to lose faith if an author combines “Sir” with a man’s family name instead of his given name.
I’m talking about modern names on historical characters. Just because a name looks or sounds pretty doesn’t mean it will work. It may suit your character perfectly, and it may sound impressive when combined with a string of titles. But that doesn’t change the fact that many modern names—Jayden, Heather, Ryan, Mia and the like—were rarely used before the mid- to late-20th century.
I know from experience that it isn’t easy to find names that are appropriate for a particular time and place but that also sound attractive to modern ears. When I began work on Improper Relations, I wanted my hero, the second son of a marquess, to have a string of names appropriate to his station. At the same time, I didn’t want his names to sound ridiculous or hopelessly staid to the modern reader.
Before becoming a writer, I trained as an historian, so I did what came naturally: I researched what kinds of names would have been typical for the period. Twenty years ago, when I was in grad school, this would have required a trip to the library. Last spring, all I needed was a high-speed Internet connection.
Since a number of 19th-century editions of Debrett’s Peerage are available for free download online (Google Books is a good source), I started there. I scrolled through the 1836 edition and soon had a list of names that were in heavy use in aristocratic circles in the early 1830s, when my hero would have been born. I also took a few minutes to examine the family tree of the British Royal Family: King George III’s fifteen children and Queen Victoria’s nine sons and daughters provided plenty of inspiration.
It took me a while to put together a set of period- and class-appropriate names for my hero—I probably spent less time deciding the names of my own children!—but eventually I decided on Alfred Frederick Leopold.
I know. You’re trying, and failing, to picture a hero with the first name Alfred. That’s why I gave him a nickname—Leo, an abbreviation of his third name. Lord Alfred he might be to his parents and acquaintances, but he would be Leo to his intimates.
It then occurred to me that he needed a set of surnames that seemed authentic without a) sounding as if they came out of a Monty Python sketch and b) didn’t appropriate the titles of any actual English nobleman of the period. For this, I turned to Wikipedia.
Although Wikipedia does have a number of weaknesses as a research tool—its inclusion of unvetted material foremost among them—it can also be a really useful and comprehensive source of straightforward data, particularly if you take a moment to read the footnotes at the bottom of the page to ensure the validity of the information cited.
Especially useful were the lists of peerages. Not only was it possible to find out which names to avoid, but I could also see which peerages had once existed but had fallen into abeyance over the centuries. Since I’d already decided to set a portion of the story in Dorset, a county on the southern coast of England, I looked to see if there were any titles associated with Dorchester, its best-known town. There had once been a Marquess of Dorchester, but the title had become extinct when the holder was elevated to a dukedom in 1715. To this I added the family name of Wraxhall, again taking inspiration from a map of Dorset. Bingo!
It really isn’t difficult to find period-appropriate names for your characters. It only takes a bit of research—I spent less than an hour combing through easily accessible online sources to find the right name, not only for my hero but also for the time and place in which he lived.
Below are a few links to websites that you may find useful in your own search for the perfect character name.
- Wikipedia’slist of marquessates in the peerages of the British Isles (it also has lists of dukedoms, earldoms, viscountcies and baronies)
- A list of common surnames in Great Britain
- A list of unusual names found in mid-Victorian census records
- A searchable index of the most popular names in U.S. census records from 1880 onwards. Although the U.K. census doesn’t have a similar index of popular names, census results from 1841 to 1911 have been digitized and may be searched (in some cases a fee may apply) at the National Archive or one of its partners such as Ancestry.co.uk
- A writer’s guide to Victorian names
About Improper Relations:
When Hannah’s caught watching her late husband’s cousin debauch the maid in the library, she’s mortified—but also intrigued. An unpaid companion to his aunt, she’s used to being ignored.
The black sheep of the family, Leo has nothing but his good looks and noble birth to recommend him. Hannah ought to be appalled at what she’s witnessed, but there’s something about Leo that draws her to him.
When Leo claims he can prove that women can feel desire as passionately as men, Hannah is incredulous, for her own experiences have been singularly uninspiring. Yet she can’t bring herself to refuse his audacious proposal when he offers to tutor her in the art of lovemaking.
As the tantalizing, wicked lessons continue, she begins to fear she’s losing not just her inhibitions, but her heart as well. The poorest of relations, she has nothing to offer Leo but herself. Will it be enough when their erotic education ends?
You can buy Improper Relations through Carina, Amazon, Barnes and Noble and All Romance.
About the author:
An editor by profession but an historian by inclination, Juliana Ross has an abiding interest (one might even say obsession) in British social history that first took root when she studied at the University of Oxford. She graduated with a doctorate in modern history and has since used her 350-page thesis, variously, as a paperweight, booster seat and flower press.
Juliana now lives in Toronto, Canada, with her husband and young children. In her spare time she cooks for family and friends, makes slow inroads into her weed patch of a garden, and reads romance novels (the steamier the better) on her eReader.
You can find Juliana on herwebsite, Goodreads, Twitter, Facebook and—her newest obsession—Pinterest.
*Edited by Teresa Crumpton*