When I was a teenager, I gave my mom a heart attack. Not a real one, just one of those Fred Sanford, “Elizabeth! I’m coming to join ya, honey!”, hand over heart ones that parents affect when they’re in shock. It was only fair, then, that she gave me one in return.
There was a little store quite a few blocks from my house. They sold cassette tapes, CDs, Black books, African Kente clothing, and incense. It was one of those eclectic mom and pop stores that are fast disappearing these days. I would walk up there on my own with my allowance and buy myself any new music I wanted or the occasional book (I made stringent use of my library card for books most of the time back then).
My most recent book from there had been a copy of a book about Rosewood. It had the husky, slightly sweet scent of incense clinging to the pages. I devoured the book, even though its contents horrified me and saddened me by turns. About halfway through, I set it aside for lighter fare and meant to return to it later. In the meantime, I was going to focus on my writing and strengthen some obvious areas of weakness.
So, on this particular trip to the little entertainment shop, I looked over the offerings for a book I’d seen several times but never had the foresight to buy: The Book of African-American Baby Names. I was horrible at naming characters. All of the women were named Hope or Janet (one white and one black). I didn’t want to use the names of people I actually knew, and that left me a small pool to work with. I was sure, though, that this book would have names that I hadn’t thought of that would be perfect for characters I was thinking about. I finally managed to quell my snobbery at picking a name out of a name book and took it to the cash register.
The shop owner, a kind older gentleman who willingly discussed all manner of old school music and Black history with me, eyed my purchase distrustfully. “That’s an interesting choice,” he said noncommittally.
“Well, I’ve been trying to come up with new names to use in my writing, and I think this is just the thing,” I responded, not thinking about the other reasons people might have for purchasing this book. I was so intent on conquering my name picking snobbery, it didn’t dawn on me that other people would come to an entirely different purpose for my purchase.
“Ah,” he said. I imagine the light clicked on for him. I was as naive as I looked, after all.
He wrapped up my purchase with the suggestion of another book, a writing book with hints specifically for black authors. I didn’t have enough for it, but I told him to keep a copy back for me if he could.
Pre-occupied with A names that were the Kenya word for this or that, I didn’t notice the curious glances I was getting. I made it all the way home before anyone had approached me about it. My mother, who, I imagine, had been cooking dinner or doing something similarly domestic, broke my reverie.
I was showing her my purchase when I noticed she wasn’t all that excited. “Why are you reading about babies?” she asked.
“I’m not; it’s a book of baby names.”
“Same thing. I’m not taking care of any babies.”
What? Suddenly, I got it (the backup generator finally kicked in). “What? No, I’m not thinking about babies. I bought it to find names for my characters.”
“That’s all you better be doing.” Clearly, my mother didn’t trust in my naiveté as much as my friend at the store.
I’m twenty six now, and I still don’t have any children. I have a plethora of names picked out for them, though. 😉
What’s your funniest writing misunderstanding? Have you ever used a book to find a good character name? Are you a snob when it comes to giving your characters names, mannerisms, or personalities?
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