When I was young, when my maternal grandmother addressed me, she would often go through my sister’s name, our cousin’s, her own sisters’, her nephew’s and my mother’s, until she got to Paula.
These days I do the same, swapping my son’s name for my husband’s (my excuse is that they start with the same letter), my daughter’s for my sister’s (my excuse is that they have similar personalities) and recently my brother-in-law’s for that of the mutual male friend’s who was hosting us all for dinner (my excuse is that they both have Scottish names… OK that’s no excuse).
Very occasionally I suffer from face-blindness. E.g. once in a blue moon, I don’t recognise someone even if I know them very well. This usually happens when I’m deep in thought and/or daydreaming.
I regularly suffer from name-blindness, which is possibly linked. This means I can look at someone I know very well, recognise them, know who they are, but absolutely blank their name. Completely. It’s just gone.
This particularly traumatic when I have to introduce people to each other and can only recall some random irrelevant fact in lieu of a name (‘This is M’s mum’ or ‘This is my friend who makes great cupcakes’ or ‘This is my friend, the wife of another friend who cycles with my husband’).
Perhaps it happens in social situations or introduction scenarios, because I find both very stressful and they take up most of my ‘pretending I’m confident and sociable’ resources. An article called Is This Normal? “I Can’t Remember Names or Faces.” | The Swaddle, give reasons for this phenomenon that make sense to me at least. But it doesn’t stop it from being mortifying.
What about my book characters’ names? After all, I invented the characters (shh – don’t tell them). I waded through lists of potential forenames for the right era, or unusual British surnames (I’ve managed to get five of these into my books so far), and even researched how common certain surnames were in certain parts of London in the 1881 census.
So are their names easier to recall? Nope. Apart from main characters, I quite often can’t remember what I’ve called some people after writing a book at all. Sometimes I can’t remember what they’re called while I’m writing it, because I’ve changed their name halfway through.
For example, in one of my more recent books I realised that I had five female characters with names starting M and about four with surnames starting T. One of the female characters was called Mary (which was the number one name for girls in England and Wales for decades if not centuries). I decided to change it to Lois and did a search and replace for Mary throughout the document, happily ‘accepting all’ without thinking. This resulted in a lot of action taking place in Loislebone, and someone providing a sumlois of information etc. One of the T surnames had to change but in my head, the character still has the original name, which means nine times out of ten, I have to dig about for what I changed it to when thinking of them.
To avoid this sort of thing, also avoid duplicating names within the same series, and to keep a series bible of background info on characters whether or not it would ever be used (birthdays, details of parents and children and pets etc), I called upon my clerical career and started a card index system.
Fortunately I didn’t need to buy anything. When my daughter was studying for her GCSEs, she asked me to get her some cards to help with revision and a storage box to put them in. She obviously inherited my tendency to create revision schemes but lose interest before actually doing anything, because there were plenty of blank cards for me to use.
Then I found another set of index cards in a drawer.
Only they weren’t blank, and they didn’t have random facts about English Literature or The Cold War or Spanish verbs or whatever else my daughter had been studying on them. They were written in my father’s writing and furthermore, they were the details of characters he’d written stories about!
I still have boxes of Dad’s writing – typed, handwritten in notebooks large and small and on floppy disk. I have one ready to edit, and others I remember him reading aloud to me when I was a child (including a science fiction novel which if he’d published at the time, would now be reality). I have no idea what I’m going to do with them all. But seeing those index cards so unexpectedly brought a moment of serendipity, surprise that I could read his writing for once and of course a pang of what’s called in Welsh hiraeth and in Portuguese saudade – missingness, nostalgia, loving reminiscence.
I wish I could show Dad what I’ve written and help him do something with what he wrote. I can’t and he wouldn’t want me to fret that I can’t. But his characters’ index cards are now stored with mine as a reminder of the things he and I had in common: a love of storytelling, words, names, random facts and near illegible handwriting. And while I have no idea who Dad’s Janine Bex (below right) is, I do know that Roderick Demeray (below left) is based, with love, on Dad.
Maybe in some alternative universe, our characters hang out together and complain about us. ‘Look what she made me do!’ ‘Why would he call me that?’ ‘What’s going to happen to me next?’ ‘Why can’t she ever remember my name?’
After all, who’d blame them?
Words and pictures (c) Paula Harmon 2023, not to be used without the author’s express permission.