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The Trouble With Names

One of the blessings of writing historical fiction is that you can include the actual historical events and people of the time you are writing about. However, this is also one of the curses! I discovered this as I wrote The Traveller’s Path, my trilogy set in Dark Ages Britain.

The blessing side of that coin is that historical events can be a great source of plot points for novelists. While digging into the history of Britain in the 7th century, I found some interesting events that provided rich details and background that I otherwise wouldn’t have come up with, I am sure. For example, King Oswald was slain at the Battle of Maserfield, and his head and arms were placed on spikes as offerings to the victorious king Penda’s pagan gods. Urp. Yuck, right? Well, if you think it’s not very pleasant for you to think about, put yourself in the place of Oswy, Oswald’s half-brother, the Christian king of Bernicia. What would he have felt about it, do you think? A bit of a slap in the face, perhaps?

Out of juicy details like that a writer can come up a bunch of character motivation ideas. And having real-life timelines to work around saves you from having to make up your own, which can be very handy.

However, it is equally true that having to use actual historical facts and people in your books can cause a bit of difficulty to the writer, as well. Let me show you what I mean.

I discovered early on in my research that, although there are broad strokes of information known about life in the 7th century, such as the names of kings and queens, some place names, some battles, etc, there is much that is very much unknown. The broad structure of the society is understood, with the coerls at the bottom and the kings at the top, and the rest of the society, the thegns, eorldomen, and the like, falling in-between in a graduated line of ever-increasing status. Okay, gotcha. But what about details such as, what did the women do all day? What was a typical day like for a coerl as opposed to an eorldoman? How did their economy work? Coins were fairly rare, so a barter economy, but still…What about the children? What did they do? I mean, obviously everyone worked  hard to survive, farming and hunting and making clothes and whatnot. But details? Some of this is mere conjecture and frustrating for a novelist. However, as Diana Gabaldon says, what you don’t know you can make up, so, fair enough.

One of the biggest difficulties that I faced early on, however, was the trouble with names. Take, for example, the royal seat of the Bernician kings, the fortress known today as Bamburgh. This originally was a fort of the native Britons, and called by them, Din Guardi. When the Angles invaded, and Ida, the Anglic King conquered the Britons, he renamed it Bebbanburgh (or Bebbanburg) in honour of his wife, Bebba. That has now morphed into today’s name of Bamburgh. So, what name should I use in my novel? Well, I have decided to stick with the name that would have been common in that time, Bebbanburg. The spelling of that varies, so you just have to pick one and be consistent.

Greater difficulty came as I wrote about Iona, the most influential Celtic Christian monastery of the time, situated on the north-east coast of Gr. Britain. The original Celtic name for this has been lost in the mists of time, some speculate it was Eoa, Ie, or even I Cholaim Cille (basically, the “island of Colum” or Columba, the first Abbot to establish a church there). In his Ecclesiastical History, Bede called it by the Latin name of Hii. Keeping in mind that I want my book to be as historically accurate as possible, while still making it readable for modern people, what on earth should I call this place in my book? Clearly Iona is out, that is too modern. But the others are unpronounceable to us. After some thought I decided to use Hii. Good enough for Bede, good enough for me. Even though I know that’s a strange name to our ears.

This discussion of Iona brings up another tricky problem of names. Today, we would place Iona in Scotland. However, in the 7th century, the Scotti was actually the name the Romans gave to the British tribes living there, whom we would call the Irish today. Yup, back then the Irish were actually known as the Scots, and the kingdom that Iona was situated in was called Dál Riata (or Dalriata or Dalraida. Sigh. See what I mean?). So, to be historically accurate I would have to completely confuse my readers. So, I fudged a little on this one. Because my main character is from the present time, he can call the monks Irish all he likes. I do not have any of the 7th century characters call them Irish, however. They are referred to as the British (meaning the native British tribes which included the Welsh, the Irish and the Picts), or the Dál Riatan Scots.

One of the biggest name difficulties came with, well, names. As in names of people. Unfortunately, the Saxons and Angles of the time did not come with familiar names such as Matthew, Mark, or John. No. More like Heahbeorth, Seoca, or Winedaeg. And to top it off, names like the last one, with the “ae” should properly be spelt with an “æ”, to be strictly correct. You see my problem? The Irish Celts are not much better, with their Caeoimhin, Fercetrniu, or Guiare. And then we have the Picts, whose names include Eddarrnonn, Ufeichir, or my personal favourite, Bliesblituth.

Readers do not like unpronounceable names, and I understand. I don’t much like them either. So the best I could do was to pick some authentic names from the ones available that weren’t too difficult for people. Names like Nectan, Celyn, and Siward. Not familiar, no, but at least the reader doesn’t have a mental breakdown every time he or she reads it!

Hah! Comic courtesy of xkcd,

Hah! Comic courtesy of xkcd,

One more difficulty raised its head as I put names to the people in my book: some of those people already came with names! In other words, they are real people who lived in the time and place I wrote about. People like Aidan, Bishop of Lindisfarne. Or Talorcan, Oswy’s nephew who was fostering with the Picts as the story opens. Those names aren’t too bad. But one of my real dilemmas cane along with Oswy himself. You see, his older brother is named Oswald. And his cousin, the sub-king of the kingdom to the south of Oswy’s, is named Oswine. As I looked into the list of kings in the various kingdoms of that period, I saw this more than once. The Angles and Saxons had a thing about alliteration when it came to names. Like the successive Kings of Essex, from 527 AD to 617 AD: Sledda, Saebert, Sexred, and Saeward.

Confusing. I know there will be readers who will wonder why I gave them such similar names. But as those are their actual names, I don’t have much choice.

This is just a little taste of the trouble with names when it comes to historical fiction. All part of the challenge, and all part of the fun!


  1. sdorman2014 says:

    I was reminded of a couple of things while reading this interesting post: Tolkien leaving his elvish language lines untranslated, I guess in the hope of sharing an aesthetic appeal as well as lending an air of mystery and depth. Your choice of names not so difficult seems a pretty good one though. Also, in The Horse and His Boy from the Chronicles of Narnia, one of the titular characters explains that brothers have names done similar to what you show above.

    In a slightly different topic, do you have any thoughts on problems concerned with using real people in your fiction? I’ve been thinking of this lately, and wondering about current books using historical persons, whether in the genre of historical fiction or fantasy. Are there different criteria for each? Is doing this different for each?

    (I had a brief discussion with a magazine editor about this recently (for instance he talked about controversy over liberties taken in Ragtime), and his interest got me thinking.)

    1. L.A. Smith says:

      I think since Tolkein made up his elvish language he may as well have left some untranslated parts in his books – it gives a richness and depth to his books that otherwise wouldn’t have been there. He was trying to create a mythology for us and in incorporating the actual language of one of his races it adds realism to the stories. And plus, if I had made up a whole language I would put some of it in my books too!!
      Your question about using real people in a historical book is a good one. For me, it was not too difficult to do this, because there are not a lot of historical facts known about the people I write about. Bede gave us brief sketches of Aidan and some of the kings, but most of what we know is when they were born, when they died (and how) and some of the things they did. Not too much in terms of what their personality was like. So I feel comfortable in making that up, all the while trying to stick within what they “could” have been like based on the times they lived. But as you get closer and closer to present day and more and more is known about the historical figures you write about, you are more and more obliged to stick to what is known about the person’s personality rather than making it up. That’s what I think, anyway. If you are going to write about a historical figure you should be as accurate as you can, including their personality.,

  2. sdorman2014 says:

    A lot in this response. Thank you. This caught my attention and seems an excellent way to proceed:

    “…all the while trying to stick within what they “could” have been like based on the times they lived.”

    Your points about more information on the actual, as vivid and detailed accounts descend through history to us, are good. What I find troubling is the MORAL aspect of character in real people — how it’s portrayed. (In capitals because comments don’t seem to allow for italics.) To me this is the most important part of getting the character right when based on an actual personal history. On no account (in my own writing) should I make up, portray, that which is out of moral character regardless of genre. Because another aspect I’m thinking about, perhaps as a way to apologize or justify some things in my own work, is the idea of genre: is it historical fiction, fantasy, humor–satire or parody? Depending, how accurate to the real historical person need it be, and are there qualifiers with regard to genre? I would think that in attempting to write on the subject of using actual people genre might be factored in? Recently I blogged a fun piece (parody) about a couple of authors in conversation who are alive, which, I feel is an even more important consideration — that they are alive now — when doing such portrayals. Even with parody we’ve got tonal qualities to consider; for instance, is it light, is it affectionate? Is it harsh, belittling? That sort of thing.

    So that brings me back to the question of whether or not genre is important in this. Aside from my own, wish I knew of current works to consider for a possible essay. I’m thinking of Jonathan Strange, etc….but it may have few historicals to consider?

  3. L.A. Smith says:

    Yes, once you get into a person’s moral character you are going to have to make decisions. If there isn’t anything known about them, you are free to invent. If it’s an actual person still living today, you have to be extremely careful or risk being sued for slander. Same if the person’s family is still alive. So judgement calls all around. I’m not sure the genre matters all that much, if it’s fiction but still using a “real life” character, you have to be careful, no matter what the genre. But I suppose a parody or satire might have more leeway…hmm…good question! Not sure I have the answer!

    1. sdorman2014 says:

      good thoughts. if it happens, and you get a chance, please let me know if you learn of other conversations around this topic. i appreciate what you’ve said in this thread. many thanks!

      1. L.A. Smith says:

        Will do! Thanks for your questions as well…they are making me think, which is a good thing!

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