Historical Naming

Interesting question today: “When writing historical fiction, do you have a hard time coming up with names? Is there a list of when particular personal names were first used? I have written some fiction that is historical and I’m worried the use of a name or names that were unknown in that period might put some people off because of the inaccuracy.

I have written before about how names can be astoundingly important to how both authors and readers respond to characters in stories. It makes complete sense that having a “Neveah” and “McKenzie” wandering around Elizabethan England would be a problem.

Luckily writers have a few resources for looking for “historically accurate” names:

1. BehindtheName.com: One of my favorite sites for finding names in general, behindthename.com (and its sister site surnames.behindthename.com) is a great resource when trying to find appropriate names for historical characters. With popularity lists reaching back to 1880 (with John and Mary topping the charts), you can very easily find names that would suit a story based in the Victorian era forward (it even lists just how popular the names were at the time: 8.15% of boys born were named John and 7.24% of girls named Mary, for example).



For earlier names, you have to do a little more digging, but by looking up specific names you can find out about the history of a name, including first origin, famous bearers, and popularity charts (see above). For example, for ‘Mary’ you’ll find:

In England [Mary] has been used since the 12th century, and it has been among the most common feminine names since the 16th century.

For a name like ‘Jessica’, however, you’ll find:

This name was first used in this form by Shakespeare in his play ‘The Merchant of Venice’ (1596), where it belongs to the daughter of Shylock … It was not commonly used as a given name until the middle of the 20th century.

So where you would be more than safe naming a character “Mary” in the middle of the War of the Roses, “Jessica” is probably better suited for a character born in the 1980s or 1990s (#1 or #2 for most popular name from 1981 – 1997).

2. Historical Figures: If you are writing historical fiction you have most likely (hopefully) done some research into the time period. While doing that sort of reading, you have likely come across people who were important to the time period. For example, following the Elizabethan/Tudor example, you might see Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Mary I, Edward VI, Katherine Parr, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, William Shakespeare, Thomas Moore, Walter Raleigh…and the list goes on and on and on. It is therefore reasonable to assume that you are “time period appropriate” using any of those given names in the time period.

Edward VI--meaning there had already been six other kings with his name by the 1500s.

Edward VI–meaning there had already been five other kings with his name by the 1500s.

If you are interested in genealogy/have done any family research, it is also possible to use your own family tree for inspiration. If you have an ancestor named “Samuel” who fought in the Civil War, you’re likely safe making your 1860’s character’s name ‘Samuel’.

3. Historical Records: Assuming you are writing about a time period that includes a written language/has some “primary source” documents surviving, you are likely to be able to find names off censuses/tax rolls/etc. The more “modern” the time period, the simpler it will be to find these sorts of records (for example, the U.S. Census Bureau released the 1940 Census records in 2012 for interested parties), but it is possible to find things like the 1319 London Subsidy Roll online which will provide you with names such as Johannes (“John”) and Thomas which were both highly popular in London at the time.

1850s Census with names galore (assuming you can read cursive)

1850s Census with names galore (assuming you can read cursive)

(Note: Sources I have easily found online do tend to be highly euro-centric, but as long as you are writing about a “record-keeping” society you should be able to find something [i.e. it will be easier to find records from England or China than it will from nomadic groups]).

4. Figure out naming conventions: This is another one your previous research will aid in, but if you are looking for names on Behind the Name (or another similar site) this should help point you in the right direction. It’s just about following trends. For example, naming oneself after royalty/the ruling class has always been popular, thus you will find more children born after the Norman Conquest with French-based names (from watching how many King Henrys and Charleses there are in both England and France early on, you can see the name bleed-over). Similarly, Puritans were big fans of “virtue” names (Charity, Mercy, Remembrance…) by picking a virtue name for your fictional character on the Mayflower, your name will fit in without “copying” a famous name.

(Note: It is also important to pay attention to naming conventions when it comes to things such as surnames and name order. Would your characters have patronymic names (Greta Hansdatter, James FitzJames, Phillip son of Coul) a geographic indicator (Joan of Arc, Leonardo da Vinci), their family name first (as it common in many Asian countries), or no second name at all? Those details help with the authenticity of your characters).

As with everything else in historical fiction, research is your friend. As long as you know the time period you’re using, you shouldn’t have a problem coming up with names.


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Writing Shakespeare

As prolific as Shakespeare has proven to be with his plays, most people at least have a passing familiarity with a few of his plays. With Baz Luhrmann and Kenneth Branagh out there, it’s even likely many have seen at least one of Shakespeare’s plays performed more or less with its original dialogue–even if some have guns in them.

Alive, in triumph! and Mercutio slain! Away to heaven, respective lenity, and fire-eyed fury be my conduct now!

Alive, in triumph! and Mercutio slain! Away to heaven, respective lenity, and fire-eyed fury be my conduct now!
(photo: Romeo+Juliet [1996])

While Shakespeare has been adapted and re-adapted in just about every setting possible at this point, the language is still a sticking point for many readers. This exposure to what sometimes is mistakenly referred to as “Old English” (Shakespeare wrote in “Early Modern English” much more understandable than true Old English), many times seem to give writers who wish to set a story in Tudor England the feeling that they need to break out the prithees and thous (and perhaps try to figure out how the heck to write in iambic pentameter) if they are going to be “accurate”.

The first time I received a question about how to properly do X-time period language in writing, I admit I was a bit confused. Having grown up on a steady diet of historical fiction as a child, I’d never considered having to make someone “sound” 16th century in a novel by going so far as to write in Early Modern English. It makes sense to some extent (you wouldn’t have someone in 1620’s Massachusetts saying “cool” or “what’s up”) but there is certainly a difference between refraining from using modern slang and trying to get your PhD in Renaissance Literature so you’re able to properly use Elizabethan phrasing.

Have your PhD and want to write in historically accurate language? Awesome, that sort of rocks. Just find the time period fascinating and want to write a story about it after doing non-PhD-level linguistics research? Don’t drive yourself crazy.

You see, the main reason Early Modern English finds itself questioned so much when it comes to this set up is that it is a version of English that is obviously different, but still possible to understand. Writing in it is not outside the realm of possibility, so some authors feel like a fraud not even trying.

But then, if you’re writing a book set in ancient Rome, do you have to write it in Latin? If your characters are from China, do you have to write in Chinese? Do you have to come up with an entirely new language for your aliens who would obviously not speak English on their home planet?

Of course not.

Creative fiction comes built in with a very handy tool for writers–suspension of disbelief. To a certain extent, the reader is willing to believe what you (the author) say is true simply because you say so. There are dragons in your world? Sure, let’s read about them. There’s no such thing as a smart phone? Sure, why not. You have to be careful to stay within the set rules of your universe and not strain/break that suspension of disbelief, but it is a very handy tool.

Language works the same way. Would someone born and raised in China likely speak English everywhere they go? No. Does that mean you can’t write that story until you become fluent in Chinese? Again, no. As we have been trained to do since before most of us would be able to even really think about it, suspension of disbelief allows the reader to assume that the novel is a modern-English translation of whatever your characters would likely be speaking. You can easily break this disbelief by throwing in too-modern language in historical pieces, but you by no means have to learn some different dialect just because you are writing historical fiction. And that really is for a few reasons.

1. Suspension of disbelief covers you.

As I said above, people aren’t going to condemn your WWII story for not being written in Polish when that’s your setting. They aren’t going to condemn you for not writing in Early-Modern English for a Tudor period piece. Just keep the modern slang out of it, and it is assumed your work is a “translation”.

2. You’re more than likely going to get something wrong and be more distracting.

Unless you are a linguistics protege/actually did get your PhD and are now fluent in the vocabulary and syntax of whatever time period you’re setting your story in, trying to make your characters sound Shakespearean is just going to make the dialogue stilted, and annoying to people who might be more familiar in the usage (that’s not how you use thou!) You will end up with better writing writing as you are comfortable.

3. It makes it easier for your audience to read.

As well-remembered as Shakespeare is, there are still plenty of people who just “don’t get it” and thus don’t especially like struggling through the Elizabethan language while attempting to follow along. Perhaps you know all the nuances, perhaps you don’t, you still have cut your possible readership down to people who understand Early-Modern English/don’t mind muddling through. Generally your sales will thank you not to do so.

And so, don’t worry too much about what your characters would actually speak when you’re writing, even when writing historical fiction. Worry about not throwing someone out of the time period altogether with modern slang. As long as you are careful about that, you’re in good shape.

(Note: When it comes to using a word that you feel might sound too “modern” I highly suggest looking at etymonline.com. An online etymological source, it has the historical usage of most words in its database. So can you use the word “crazy” to describe the man yelling about the world ending outside the Globe Theatre? Etymonline says if it’s after 1570, yes if you mean “diseased, sickly” or after 1610 to mean (the more modern usage) “of unsound mind, or behaving as so”).


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