AHMM regular Robert Lopresti is the winner of the 2012 Black Orchid Novella Award, or BONA, for “The Red Envelope,” which appears in our July/August issue. We co-sponsor the BONA contest with The Wolfe Pack, the Nero Wolfe appreciation society, to encourage the ratiocinative detective style exemplified by Wolfe. Here, Rob discusses the important matter of finding the right name for your character.
If you’re a writer creating a character, you need a name. (Oh, there are exceptions: Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op and Bill Pronzini’s Nameless, for instance, but if you fill an entire book with Anonymous and Mr. X it might get tiresome pretty fast.)
I’m usually pretty casual about names, but when I started writing “The Red Envelope,” my entry for the Black Orchid Novella Award contest, I was hoping that this might be the beginning of a series. That meant that if I were lucky, I might have to live with those characters for a long time.
So I gave a lot of thought to matching the characters to their names. Consider my detective. The story is set in Greenwich Village in 1958 and the hero is a beat poet, a bit of an oddball, and definitely a man who likes to be the center of attention. Surely his name would be unusual. Something that stood out in some way. Hmm . . .
What follows is an example of why smart writers keep a notebook in their pocket at all times, and never throw an idea away, no matter how useless it may seem at the time.
Let’s go back in time to San Francisco, 2010. I was there for Bouchercon, and being a cheap cuss I was staying at an inexpensive hotel miles from the convention site. One day I was walking back toward my room and–
Yeah, I got that. What does it mean?
I looked around for a store sign or something else with the name on it. Nothing. The name had just popped out of thin air and refused to go away.
Okay, if you write creatively you know that when your subconscious mind delivers agift like that you had damned well better pay attention. So I grabbed my pen and notebook and wrote down the name.
In the days that followed I tried to attach a story to Mr. Delgardo, or at least give him a character. (Huh . . . How did I know he was male? I just did, that’s all.) It went nowhere, but when I was looking for a name for my beat poet, there he was in myh files, waiting. And one detail from that abortive brainstorming did stick: I knew that Delgardo cheerfully changed his first name depending on who he was talking to, and what about. So that became a characteristic of my poet.
Now, since the BONA is a salute to Rex Stout I had noticed that most of the winning tales were narrated by the detective’s younger assistant, like Archie Goodwin in the Nero Wolfe books. My narrator would be a naive young midwesterner, the recent inheritor of a Greenwich Village coffee shop. But I needed the proper name: something bland and uninteresting, but ideally something that my poet would find a hidden meaning in.
I went through lists of older British authors and there I found the perfect moniker for my narrator: Thomas Gray! What could be blander than that? And here’s a bonus: Gray wrote “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” Perfect for a murder mystery.
So, that’s what I started with: Delgardo and Thomas Gray. All I had to do to win the contest was add 14,997 more words. Who said it was going to be easy?