The Name Game

This is not a travel and tourism blog but it’s my blog so I make up the rules, okay! I’m planning to blog about places I visit over the summer and hopefully make even a tenuous link to writing at the same time. Still with me?

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The Hill House is a great example of Mackintosh’s work.

Last week, I blogged about going on a Glasgow Women’s Library heritage walk and it reminded me how interested I am in Scottish history. The walk also encouraged me to do something I’ve been meaning to do for ages, no, not get fit for the next walk I’m booked on, but to join the National Trust for Scotland. The NTS website lists 129 properties you can visit and it was hard to choose, but the one that caught my eye was The Hill House in Helensburgh.

I wanted to visit for two reasons. One, I love art and have a particular interest in Art Nouveau and the work of Margaret MacDonald, the wife of Charles Rennie Mackintosh (you can see more of her work and The Mackintosh House at the Hunterian Art Gallery). And two, I’ve never been to the town bearing my name and thought after forty odd years it was high time I put this right.


The beautiful Sleeping Princess gesso panel by Margaret MacDonald.

The Hill House is the finest of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s domestic designs and the iconic house and gardens date back to 1902. It sits high above the Clyde in Helensburgh, with impressive views over the river. Walter Blackie, director of the well-known Glasgow publishers, commissioned not only the house and garden, but much of the furniture and all the interior fittings and decorative schemes. Margaret MacDonald, contributed fabric designs and a unique gesso panel which still looks stunning. Allegedly Mackintosh suggested the colour of flowers the Blackies should place in their living room to guarantee nothing clashed with the décor. And I thought I was a control freak!


Helensburgh-been there, done that!

Any day out for me is always an excuse for eating out but the tea room was packed full of pensioners on a bus trip so we headed into town. I’d have thought that every Helen visiting should at least get a free glass of wine and souvenir ‘Helen hits Helensburgh’ T-shirt but disappointingly there was no welcoming party for my arrival. We had a wander round the main drag and finally found a decent café in among the rash of charity shops but let’s just say that I can’t see any reason for me to rush back. That’s one thing off the bucket list.


Me and my namesake.

The visit to Helensburgh made me think about my name. Fortunately, I’ve always liked my name, maybe because I was named after my beloved gran although she was known as Ella and I rarely heard her called Helen unless it was in a formal scenario. I’m fascinated with names and waste take time playing the name game deciding what to call characters in my writing.  I try to think about the age of the character and their background but it’s easy to stray into stereotypes. And then there are names like Adolf which are loaded with negative associations or names like Whitney which automatically make you think of a celebrity.

downloadAs a reader, the name of a character can really put me off if it doesn’t seem to suit the image I have in my mind. I also don’t enjoy reading a name that’s difficult to pronounce as it seems to slow down the speed of my reading. Two books I’ve recently read had names in them which bugged me for different reasons. The first one was Raph in Night Waking by Sarah Moss. I appreciate the choice of name was to highlight the middle class status of the family but my brain kept wanting to see Ralph instead. The other name was Aoife in Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell and although the unusual pronunciation is acknowledged in the narrative, again I found my brain stalled each time it saw a name it had never before encountered. Neither of these examples spoiled the enjoyment of the books and I wouldn’t want to only read books featuring familiar names. But for me, it does make the story stick rather than flow.

Am I the only one with a problem reading unusual names in novels? Does a name affect how you react to a character in a book? Do you also take a long time to choose the names of the characters in your writing?


8 thoughts on “The Name Game

  1. I think you should get one of those charity shops to sell Helen t-shirts – cracking idea. Yes, I too spend a lot of time getting names right. Sometimes writing the character only comes together when I feel his/her name fits. I started reading The Lighthouse by Alison Moore, but haven’t got past the first page yet because of the main character’s name: Futh. It sounds as if you’re spitting out a cat hair. Still on the TBR pile …

  2. Well, firstly may I recommend Culzean Castle in Ayrshire for one of your NTS outings… it’s one of my personal favourites – especially when the weather is nice – you can walk straight on to the beach. Oh and they have deer, a lovely gift shop and a fireman’s pole in the playground. (Well, they used to ;D)
    As I write creative non-fiction I do struggle with names… for some characters I am changing their names (to protect the guilty) but any new name just doesn’t seem to fit… I also waste time looking up names and their meanings. I was always fascinated by Saki’s short stories and his choice of names to reflect the character – very clever. x

    • Thanks for the tip Anne. I haven’t been to Culzean Castle since I was a child and I’d love to go back although I think I’ll give the fireman’s pole a miss on my return visit! Also thanks for the recommendation, I haven’t read any of Saki’s short stories so that’s something else to add to the mountainous TBR pile! x

  3. Helen, as a dedicated traveller I love your journey in this piece. I am with you 100% with the name thing. I don’t remember the book, but I got stuck many many years ago on Xavier, not having any idea that it’s pronounced with a zed sound. I’d been saying ex-av-vi-yeah in my mind. Then I met someone who had also read the book and when they started talking about Zavier, I realised how pronouncing the name differently changed my whole perception of the character.

  4. Someone gave me the best of Saki when I was a child and I loved the stories even then. Do read them, they’re amazing. Funny and sinister.
    I walked past Maggie O’Farrell in the street last week – I did that embarrassing thing where I thought I’d met her somewhere before and gave her a dazzling smile, then realised just as I was passing who it was. Mind you I got the same sort of smile back so she was probably thinking she’d seen me at the school gates or in a café…
    I spent a RIDICULOUS amount of time choosing my main characters’ names and birthdates for the story I’m (not) writing just now.
    I’ve got a Historic Scotland card and have just been a Crichton Castle, a beautiful spot outside Pathhead, a village I’ve driven through thousands of times and never explored (blog post coming….sometime…)

    • That’s Saki definitely on the TBR then! Good to know that I’m not the only one who takes the name game seriously. Have you read Instructions for a Heatwave? I haven’t been to Crichton Castle so I must add that to my wish list of places to visit. Looking forward to your next blog posts. 🙂

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