With all due respect to Shakespeare’s Juliet, who had good reason to proclaim to Romeo that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” I beg to differ. What’s in a name? A lot actually. For me at least, a character can’t come to life until I’ve found just the right name for him or her. The naming process is often fun: you start with the vague idea of a character and select a name which seems to fit that character, because of the associations it carries. Sometimes these associations are deeply personal, sometimes not. When I can’t think of an appropriate name that belongs to someone I know or have known, I find those name-your-baby books helpful. Or if I’m really desperate, I’ll pick up the phone book. Once I’ve got my name, I can begin the process of fleshing out the character.
In the past, I haven’t had to worry much about dreaming up place names, because my first two books are set at real places: MURDER AT PLIMOTH PLANTATION, at the Pilgrim village of the same name, and MURDER AT GETTYSBURG at the town in Pennsylvania. My third book was supposed to be called MURDER AT MYSTIC SEAPORT, but then both the Seaport and my publisher decided the name needed to be changed “to protect the innocent” (the Seaport and my publisher) from the aspersions that would be cast on the Seaport if it were connected with a murder, albeit fictional. So I was faced with the daunting prospect of re-naming not only the museum and the village of Mystic, but all the real-life restaurants, bars, and ships I’d mentioned in the book.
I began my quest for a replacement name for Mystic by jotting several possibilities on a legal pad. But none satisfied me. Then, on a long drive from Burlington, Vermont back to Boston, I had a “Eureka” moment. Mystic would become Spouters Point (with no apostrophe, as in Harpers Ferry). Readers of MOBY DICK will know that the name comes from the Spouter’s Inn in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Ishmael spends the night on his way to Nantucket, and where he meets the Native harpooner, Queequeg. From then on it was smooth sailing: Mystic Seaport became the Spouters Point Maritime Museum, the whaler, the Charles W. Morgan became the Susan Kilrain (after a woman who’d won the right to have a character named after her in my next book at a charity benefit auction), and so on until I hit another snag.
Mystic Seaport wasn’t the only real place name I’d used in the book. There was the Mashantucket-Pequot-owned gambling casino of Foxwoods. An important part of the book is devoted to Foxwoods and to the history of the tribe itself. Anxious to get permission to use the Foxwoods name, I contacted a lawyer for the tribe, who told me he would need to present my request before the tribal council. I dutifully made my case, and by the time I was done, I’d sent the lawyer copies of every page in the manuscript where Foxwoods and/or the tribe were mentioned. Weeks passed and still no answer was forthcoming. “It could happen tomorrow, or it could be months down the road,” the lawyer told me. Reluctantly, I decided to withdraw my request and change the name. Foxwoods became Clambanks. I wasn’t finished, however. When I contacted the “rights” person at my publisher to make sure I had done everything I was supposed to, I was told that I needed to change the name of the tribe as well. Fortunately, I found a glossary of Algonquin words in the back of a book written by a seventeenth-century visitor to New England, and there found a name for my tribe: the Mashantucket Pequots became the Dottagucks.
The moral of the story: unless you’re a big-name author with a big-name publisher, you may have to fictionalize names of people, places, and institutions, as I did. Once I got going, the process of re-naming wasn’t as difficult as I’d thought, but I still wish I could have avoided it.
But back to the question with which I began: Does a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Yes and no. “No,” because I’d seen people’s faces light up when I told them I was writing a mystery set at Mystic Seaport. Knowing and loving the Seaport, they were excited about the prospect of reading a book that takes place there. Now, of course, this doesn’t happen. Instead, I get puzzled looks. “Where is Spouters Point?” people ask, assuming it’s a real place. This is the “yes” part, because it shows that at least I’ve managed to pique their curiosity with my new name. And their interest in the location of the village I’ve created gives me a chance to explain that Spouters Point is a fictionalized Mystic Seaport. So, in a sense, I get to have it both ways.