Character name changes should never be forced

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If you’re observing Yom Kippur in lockdown, may you have an easy and meaningful fast despite being deprived of going to synagogue and being with other people!

I recently took a short break in prepping the paperback production of the book formerly known as The Very First (always the title I’ll think of it as) to start work on the final draft of the book formerly known as The Very Next (also always the title I’ll think of that book as). Despite this delay, I have confidence TVF will be ready for its print run soon.

While going through TVN, I began thinking about how many of the Polish characters’ names are kind of boring. Not that that makes them bad names at all, just that they were chosen by a teenager in the pre-Internet age. While naming tended to be more conservative in the old days (i.e., the same small pool of names vs. a wider variety), it wasn’t super-unusual to encounter a name outside the Top 100.

Knowing now that it was extremely uncommon for Polish Jews to have Polish names, I added the detail that the Polańskis and Robleńskis got those surnames from ancestors who converted to Judaism.

A crit partner several years ago thought the explanation/defense of Polish first names is a bit overdone. I took her advice and reworked that aspect so it doesn’t sound so heavy-handed and run into the ground.

All that really matters is that the Polańskis are a modern family who feels it’s important to prove they’re just as authentically Polish as the Gentiles. That includes mostly having Polish names and not speaking Yiddish. They don’t want extra ammunition for persecution.

I changed the names of Krzyś’s older sisters Bogda and Filipa to Salomea and Faustyna, and while those are lovely names, they felt wrong immediately. While Bogda was never particularly developed, Filipa later becomes an important character as Samuel Roblenski’s second wife, the late-life love match he was denied in his first marriage. I can’t think of her by any name but Filipa!

Bogda, however, is also the name of Cinni’s great-grandma, and I’d prefer to avoid confusion by having two secondary characters with the same name. Bronia sounds close enough, and I’ve always liked that nickname for Bronisława.

I also changed the name of Kryzś’s uncle by marriage from Lech Gold to Bruno Lerner. Lech is already the name of Cinni’s grandfather, and Gold was a lazy, thoughtlessly-chosen surname. This guy’s the biggest intellectual in the family, the only one with a Ph.D., working with rare books at the National Library. I also intend to develop him into a more important secondary character, so he deserves more than a placeholder name.

Likewise, I’m changing the surname of Bruno’s adult stepdaughters from Szymborska to Saperstein. Too many names of Gentile origin in the same family feel implausible. It’s pretty obvious I wasn’t socialized in the Jewish community, since I genuinely didn’t know how unusual it was for most people to have surnames native to the host culture!

Bruno’s kids deserve more original names than Zalman and Luiza too. They were originally Solomon and Liza, and later changed to the closest Polish equivalents. Again, nothing wrong with either name, but not chosen carefully, and hardly the kinds of names an intellectual would give his kids.

I played with changing Cinni’s mother’s name to Carine, but that felt instantly wrong. Instead, I changed her birth name from Katarzyna to Karolina, her legal name became Caroline, and her nickname went from Cairn to Carin. One of her great-granddaughters is later named Karyn in her honour, so I couldn’t stray too far.

I’ll admit I was hesitant about keeping her name because it’s now a sexist pejorative. I immediately stop reading when someone calls a woman a “Karen”! If she’s done something legitimately bad, call out the specific action instead of using a slur that terminates thought, shuts down dialogue, and encourages more insulting of and presumptions about a stranger you know nothing about!

The best time to change a character’s name is early on, before you’ve had a chance to become emotionally attached to it. It’s also much easier to change if you’ve had a story shelved for a long time, or this is a secondary character you never got to know very well.

If it feels wrong, you’ll immediately sense it. And if it feels right, that new name might as well represent an entirely different character, nothing in common with the one bearing the original name.

Naina and Katya at Church

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This was originally one of a batch of twenty posts I put together on 24 June 2012 for future installments of the now permanently shelved Sweet Saturday Samples hop. It differs slightly from the published version in The Twelfth Time.

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On Sunday morning, Naína and Kátya put on their nicest clothes and try to copy Anastásiya when she ties a fancy scarf over her hair. They know not all girls and women cover their hair in church, but they don’t want to call attention to themselves when they’re going to be new and haven’t had the chance to go to church in eight years. Even though Katrin said the church has pews, unlike Orthodox churches back home, they feel they’ll call less attention to themselves if they walk around during the service instead of sitting or standing in one place. Since they don’t even remember what happens or how to behave during a typical Divine Liturgy, they think they’ll feel more at home lighting candles and taking in the ikons and artwork.

Just as Katrin said, Anastásiya makes Mrs. Whitmore and Dmítriy ride on the upper level of the bus, while she takes a seat with Naína and Kátya on the lower level. Mrs. Whitmore gets off several blocks before their stop and walks the rest of the way to the church, so no one will suspect she’s with Anastásiya. Naína and Kátya think she’s as ridiculous as Katrin and Viktóriya told them, and hope this woman isn’t around them very much during the vacation they were promised. They’re more looking forward to spending time playing with the children, which seems a natural activity after so many years in orphanages, and getting to know Viktóriya and the other three young girls they were told might be coming. They left all their friends behind and can’t wait to make some new ones.

Anastásiya doesn’t even introduce them and goes to sit on one of the pews nearest the altar. Naína and Kátya are shocked to see a healthy young person taking a seat when they remember only the old, infirm, pregnant women, and people with small children taking seats back home. They try to follow along in the prayerbook for awhile, then give up on following along with the Old Church Slavonic, both printed and spoken. While they’re waiting for an ample space to open up so they can light some candles, they notice a very handsome, tall man holding a young girl in the crook of one arm and holding a little boy with his other hand. The young girl is venerating an ikon in a baby’s way. Next to him is a very tall woman holding a somewhat older girl who’s lighting a candle.

“Welcome to our church,” the man smiles. “I don’t think we’ve ever seen you. We’re the Konevs.”

“We just came here a few days ago.  I’m Naína Yezhova, and that’s my best friend Kátya Chernomyrdina. I’m fifteen and she’s nineteen.”

“Oh, you’re the girls my wife’s crazy radical friend Katrin’s husband sponsored. I was told you’re going on vacation with us this summer. I’m Iván, and that’s my wife Lyuba. Our baby here is also named Kátya, after her maternal grandmother. The other little girl is Dárya, and the boy is our son Fyodor. Our firstborn Tatyana is somewhere over there with her godparents and their kids.”

“We promise we’ll be very good on vacation and prove we deserve to be sponsored. We’ll do chores, childcare, and whatever else you ask us to do. And we won’t bother you anymore after September. Sándros told us we could go to some hotel run by an older Russian woman, and possibly get information about my aunt there. We’ve never had a real vacation, and barely remember when life was normal.”

“We were all immigrants ourselves not too many years ago. We’d never exploit one of our own. I assume you came here with that light-headed Anastásiya. She usually minds her own business when we vacation together. Other than that, we’re pretty nice people. Even that crazy Katrin seems like a nice person beneath her radical politics.”

“Her little boy is so cute,” Kátya says. “I can understand not wanting to draw attention to their relationship in public, since she’s an unwed mother, but she doesn’t even act loving or motherly in private.”

“She was never the smartest person or possessed of very sympathetic feelings. God forgive me for saying this in church, but she’s been self-centered and oblivious since I’ve known her. She only kept her son instead of placing him for adoption so she could have an heir to her family name and successful business. And she once was against having kids for fear her figure would be destroyed and she’d have her precious personal time disrupted and a potential competitor for her beauty, if she’d had a girl. The woman’s got as much sense as God gave a brick.”

“Ványa, that’s quite enough gossip in church,” Lyuba warns.

“Of course. Well, I guess we’ll see you girls again tomorrow, when we all leave for Coney Island. I hate most of the rides and sideshows, but the beach is nice.”

Famous surnames (intentional) in my Russian historicals, conclusion

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These days, I mostly find surnames from lists, and have moved past randomly choosing them from outdated encyclopedia and picking names in the news. It’s so much easier to do research now. However, I don’t regret giving some of my characters famous names, either intentionally or unintentionally.

It’s like an Easter egg; e.g., names like Chernomyrdina, Yeltsina, Zyuganov(a), and Yavlinskiy make it pretty obvious how immersed in Russian politics I was in the late Nineties.

I particularly don’t regret giving Lyuba’s stepfather’s family the name Lebedev(a), after Gen. Aleksandr Lebed (1950–2002), the candidate I supported in the 1996 presidential election. He had a very strong third-place finish, and was exactly the kind of leader Russia needs. The name means “swan,” which fits the title and symbolism of the first book.

Anna Akhmatova with her husband and son

Gumilyov, the false name Boris claims for himself, Lyuba, Ivan, and Ginny when deserting Bolshevik soldiers visit them in autumn 1917. Nikolay Stepanovich Gumilyov (1886–1921) was a prominent poet of Russia’s Silver Age, and the husband of poet Anna Akhmatova. He was arrested and murdered by the Cheka. His son, Lev (1912–92), was a historian, anthropologist, ethnologist, and Persian translator.

Rhodes, Katrin’s awesome butler. He’s so fun to write. I created him in 2001, and named him around 2012, after Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran.

Scholl, a radical Greenwich Village doctor with an underground clinic, and a lot of courage and compassion. He was named for Sophie and Hans Scholl of the anti-Nazi White Rose group.

Tolstaya, a gymnasium teacher. Obviously after the famous Tolstoy family, titled counts who’ve produced scores of notables over the centuries.

Baryshnikova, wily orphanage girl Klarisa, whom Lena Yeltsina names her first daughter after in gratitude. As an adult, she continues using her skill at forging and double-crossing to help people with defecting. Mikhail Nikolayevich Baryshnikov (born 1948) is one of the greatest danseurs in history.

Nureyev, an interrogator in Lubyanka, named after venerable danseur Rudolf Khametovich Nureyev (1938–93).

Grinkova, the midwife who serves the fictional Russian–American farming town of Firebird Fields, Minnesota, very near Duluth. Mrs. Grinkova delivers Lyuba’s sixth, seventh, and eighth children, as well as all of Tatyana’s children. She and Ivan frequently trade sharp barbs because of their very different views on Lyuba continuing to have children with her history of high-risk pregnancies and deliveries.

In the fourth book, Mrs. Grinkova removes the husband stitches given to Nikolas and Kat’s daughter Raisa against her will. She and Raisa’s future second husband Filaret will come to her rescue near the end of the book, after husband Gustav’s most monstrous act.

Sergey Mikhaylovich Grinkov (1967–95) was the 1988 and 1994 OGM in pairs skating with his wife, Yekaterina Gordeyeva, with whom he also had four World golds, three European golds, one European silver, one World silver, one World Junior gold, and several other assorted golds and silvers. I’ll write a review of the book My Sergei sometime this year.

Aleksandr V. Popov during the 2008 Olympics, Copyright KenChong 一洲

Popov, one of creepy Basil Beriya’s fellow inmates at The Marx Center for the Crazies. He’s convinced he’s Karl Marx. Aleksandr Vladimirovich Popov (born 1971) is widely considered the greatest sprinter in swimming history. He has four OGMs, and two World Championship golds.

Nemova, another fellow inmate, who screams out the Nicene Creed nonstop. Basil is chained to the wall between these people. Aleksey Yuriyevich Nemov (born 1976) is one of the greatest gymnasts of history, with twelve Olympic medals (four of them gold), thirteen World Championship medals (five of them gold), four European Championship medals (three of them gold), and two European Team Championship golds.

House of Zubov coat of arms

Zubov, a former count, WWII Red Army hero, and young widower who moves into the Minneapolis apartment of the unhappily married Raisa and her twin Lyudmila in 1950. Raisa is instantly smitten with the handsome, polite, kind-natured Filaret, and begins dreaming of having an affair.

Filaret treats her twins Diana and Pamela much better than their father Gustav, and his respectful treatment of Raisa is night and day next to the increasingly cruel way Gustav treats her. He and Mrs. Grinkova will come to their rescue towards the end of the fourth book.

Though Zubov is a real noble surname, I also chose this name because of Dr. Nikolay Ivanovich Zubov, the subject of Chapter One of Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn’s Invisible Allies. Dr. Zubov and his wife repeatedly risked their lives to hide his writings, and suffered a lot for their association, but remained loyal allies who refused to betray their friend.

Famous surnames (intentional) in my Russian historicals, continued

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Tvardovskiy, Lyuba and Ivan’s friend Aleksey. In America, he changes the spelling to Tvardovsky. His surname was originally Trotskiy, which really only has one association. I don’t see it as a bad association, but it’s not one of those famous names (e.g., Lennon, Jackson) that feels believable on a non-famous person.

The replacement not only has a similar sound, but was also the surname of literary magazine Noviy Mir‘s chief editor, Aleksandr Trofimovich (1910–71). Under his tutelage, the magazine published a lot of things butting up against the Party line.

Teglyov, Lyuba and Ivan’s friend Pavel, who saves their daughter Tatyana’s life when villain Misha Godunov throws her in the Skhodnya River as a baby. This is a character in Turgenev’s story “Knock, Knock, Knock.”

Premier Brezhnev (1906–82) in 1943

Brezhneva, curmudgeonly orphanage mother in Kyiv. Mrs. Brezhneva is so fun to write, because she’s so predictable, while also demonstrating slow but steady emotional growth. As loath as she is to admit it, she grows to deeply care for co-director and former orphanage girl Inna, as well as Inna’s children and the children of the other now-adult orphanage girls who also defected to Iran. Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev was Soviet Premier from 1964–82.

Andropov, a boardinghouse manager who appears in the first book. Yuriy Vladimirovich Andropov was Soviet Premier from November 1982–February 1984.

Yavlinskiy, a doctor who treats Ivan’s broken arm in the first book, and lets Lyuba, Ivan, Ginny, and Tatyana hide in his clinic for two weeks. Grigoriy Alekseyevich Yavlinskiy founded social-liberal party Yabloko (Apple), and came in fourth in the 1996 presidential election.

Grigoriy A. Yavlinskiy (born 1952), Copyright Бахтиёр Абдуллаев (Bakhtiyor Abdullayev)

Kerenskaya, orphanage girl Olga, who’s later adopted by Inessa’s Dyadya (Uncle) Dima and marries Inessa’s cousin Rustam. She’s eight months pregnant when she wades across the creek-like River Bug to Poland in 1937. Shortly after her arrival in America, she gives birth to her first child. In 1945, her family and Inessa’s family move to Staten Island.

Aleksandr Fyodorovich Kerenskiy (1881–1970) was a prominent politician during the short-lived Provisional Government of 1917, and the leader of Russia from July–November 1917. He narrowly escaped after the Bolshevik takeover, and settled in France. After the Nazi invasion, he immigrated to the U.S.

Aleksandr F. Kerenskiy

Kuchma, Ukrainian orphanage girl Valentina, another of the girls adopted by Dyadya Dima. She becomes very close to Inessa after they’re mistakenly sent to another orphanage, which influences Inessa to beg Dyadya Dima to adopt a little girl too. It means so much to Valentina to have a family again, and that Dyadya Dima respects her origins so much he tells her to never change her name, forget her native language, or call him Tata.

Leonid Danylovych Kuchma (born 1938) was Ukraine’s second president, 1994–2005.

Kwasniewska, Polish-born orphanage girl Zofia, also adopted by Dyadya Dima. She moves home to Poland as an adult, and ends up at the same rocket-making forced labour factory as Darya and Oliivia in the third book. Zofia survives Mauthausen with them too. She’s reunited with her three children after the war, and they’re given permission to join their family in America. Aleksander Kwaśniewski (born 1954) was President of Poland from 1995–2005.

Iosif Brodskiy (Joseph Brodsky)

Brodskaya, orphanage girl Irina, who appears in the first two books. Iosif Aleksandrovich Brodskiy (1940–1996) was persecuted, twice put in a mental hospital, put on trial, and sentenced to five years of hard labour (of which he served 18 months) for his “anti-Soviet” poetry. In 1972, he was forced into exile, and in 1987, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Rutskoy, a false name Boris gives Aleksey and Eliisabet when deserting Bolshevik soldiers pay a housecall in autumn 1917. Aleksandr Vladimirovich Rutskoy (born 1947) was Russia’s only Vice President, 1991–93. During the violent constitutional crisis of ’93, he was proclaimed Acting President. He remains active in politics.

Andrey A. Voznesenskiy, 1933–2010, Kremlin.ru

Voznesenskaya, a deranged, sadistic orphanage warden in Petrograd, who gets her just desserts near the end of Part I of the first book. Andrey Andreyevich Voznesenskiy (whose surname means “ascension”) was an amazing poet I highly recommend.

To be continued.

Famous surnames (intentional) in my Russian historicals

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From late ’96 on, any well-known Russian surnames I’ve chosen for characters have been intentional. Not all of these famous names belong to laudatory people, but it’s unrealistic for every single character in any book to have a name untainted by any negative namesakes or associations.

One could read the choice of some of these names on some of these characters as a political allegory of sorts, but that wasn’t really my intention. Certain were chosen in the context of the late Nineties.

Apart from Ivan’s uncle by marriage, Grigoriy Golitsyn, all my former princes’ and nobles’ names  (e.g., Orlov, Obolensky) were deliberately chosen.

Boris N. Yeltsin (1931–2007), http://state.kremlin.ru/president/allbio

Yeltsina, one of my main families, introduced with 13-year-old third sister Lena in 1920. Matriarch Mrs. Yeltsina, who’s run boardinghouses almost her entire adult life, is my oldest character in these books, born in 1866. Lena and her little sister Natalya are an entire generation apart from older sisters Valya and Zina. I have very mixed feelings about their namesake, but ultimately feel he was a decent person who started out trying to do the right thing.

Gorbachëva, Lena’s surrogate mother Sonya, and Sonya’s younger daughter Karla, whom she’s separated from in 1919 and doesn’t see again till 1953. After Karla is separated from her cousin Naina and their friend Katya, she’s adopted by Leonid Savvin and convinced her birth family are enemies of the people. She falls deeply under Stalin’s spell. Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachëv is one of my heroes.

Gennadiy A. Zyuganov (born 1944) 
http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/19646/photos

Zyuganov(a), one of my main families, introduced through 10-year-old orphanage girl Inessa in December 1919. Her Dyadya (Uncle) Dima adopts her and five of her friends, after already having 27 of his own children. Some of the family later escapes Minsk to begin new lives in the West, but they remain committed Communists and atheists.

Gennadiy Andreyevich Zyuganov came in second in both the 1996 presidential election, and the run-off. If he’d won, Putin (who was left in charge by Yeltsin) might never have come to power, but no, the West just had to meddle and pull Yeltsin’s ratings out of the toilet. God forbid a Communist become president! The current Communist Party of Russia is NOT one and the same as the old one!

Vladimir V. Zhirinovskiy (born 1946), duma.gov.ru

Zhirinovskiy/skaya, Inessa’s dear friend Inna, who becomes co-director of their Kyiv orphanage as an adult, and later defects to Iran along with forty children, ten employees, and the elderly director. Inna’s little brother Vitya becomes Inessa’s second husband. Their namesake runs the arch-conservative Liberal Democratic Party, which is neither liberal nor democratic. 

Chernomyrdina, Naina’s best friend Katya, four years her senior, also the daughter of Sonya’s own best friend. She’s sometimes called Older Katya, to distinguish her from Lyuba and Ivan’s daughter Katya. Viktor Stepanovich Chernomyrdin (1938–2010) was Yeltsin’s Prime Minister, and famous for his malapropisms.

Yezhova, fiesty orphanage girl Naina, who totes a handgun her father gave her before she was taken away. She uses that gun to protect the citrine necklace her mother gave her. She and Katya defect in 1927, and join Sonya in Toronto several months later. Nikolay Ivanovich Yezhov was a total scumbag who played a major role in the Great Terror. Karma came calling when the same fate was delivered to him!

Khrushchëva, orphanage girl Svetlana, who appears in the first two books. Obviously named after Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchëv.

Lebedev(a), one of the main families, introduced through 17-year-old orphaned Nadezhda in 1919. Her uncle Ilya later becomes Lyuba’s stepfather, after several years of having a surrogate father-daughter relationship. Mr. Lebedev has ten daughters by his first marriage. General Aleksandr Ivanovich Lebed (whose surname means “swan”) was the candidate I supported in the 1996 presidential election. He came in third. I was so sad when he was killed in a helicopter crash in 2002!

General Lebed (1950–2002), photo by Mikhail A. Yevstafyev

Kosygina, a teacher at Aleksandrovskiy Gymnasium in the first book and future second prequel. Aleksey Nikolayevich Kosygin was a prominent politician under Khrushchëv and Brezhnev.

To be continued.