Character name changes should never be forced

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.

WeWriWa—Resisting assimilation

Copyright Jüdischen Museum Im Stadtmuseum, Berlin;
Yad Vashem Photo Archives 5409/3083

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP.

As last year, my Christmas- and Chanukah-themed snippets come from Chapter 20, “Dueling December Holidays,” of the book formerly known as The Very First (which is set during 1938). The new and improved title will finally be revealed upon its release next year!

It’s now the eighth night of Chanukah, which coincides with Christmas Eve, and the Smalls and Filliards are having a joint holiday meal. Cinnimin’s mother tries once again to talk the Smalls into adopting secular Christmas symbols, but they steadfastly refuse.

Mrs. Filliard helped herself to more pierogi. “Are you sure you don’t want to put up a Chanukah bush and a few secular decorations? The Christmas season ain’t over till January seventh, Russian Christmas. Even many people who ain’t Orthodox celebrate Twelfth Night on January sixth with special foods.”

“We’ll never celebrate Christmas,” Mrs. Small said. “It’s your holiday, not ours.”

“Chanukah is about resisting assimilation,” Gary agreed. “The Maccabees fought against the Seleucids’ attempts at introducing Greek customs, language, and religion into Judea. If our ancestors had given in and accepted foreign religion and culture, we’d be as much in the dustbin of history as the Seleucids are now. The holiday is about so much more than the oil lasting for eight nights instead of only one.”

WeWriWa—Holiday decorating begins

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP.

As last year, my Christmas- and Chanukah-themed snippets come from Chapter 20, “Dueling December Holidays,” of the book formerly known as The Very First (which is set during 1938). The new and improved title will finally be revealed upon its release next year!

This is the opening of the chapter, when Sparky Small (birth name Katharina Brandt) and her older brothers start realizing just how predominant all things Christmas are during December in their new country. It’s particularly hard to avoid because they live with a Methodist family.

Sparky, her brothers, the Filliard girls, and Elmira came home from school on the first day of December to a wreath on the door and Mrs. Filliard and Lucinda unpacking all the Christmas ornaments and decorations. Six crates stood in the center of the living room, while small boxes, coiled-up strings of lights and other decorations, and individually-wrapped ornaments were all over the davenport, chairs, side tables, loveseat, and Lucinda’s new turquoise velvet Ottoman. A black and dark green plaid, circular cloth was draped over the back of the davenport, and a green metal object which somewhat resembled a bell was off in a corner.

“You’re just in time to help us with decorating the tree,” Mrs. Filliard announced. “Michael should have it very soon. He was supposed to be back by now, but it’s just like him to inspect each and every tree instead of sawing down the first big tree he sees. If he ain’t back soon, Pietro might have him arrested for trespassing.”

Gary could barely disguise his horrified expression. “Kätchen, Otto, and I must respectfully decline your invitation to decorate a tree, but I’m more concerned about Michael trespassing to get your tree. Did you really send him onto someone else’s property without permission?”

WeWriWa—A joint holiday celebration

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This year, my Chanukah- and Christmas-themed snippets come from Chapter 20, “Dueling December Holidays,” of the book formerly known as The Very First (which is set during 1938). The new and improved title will finally be revealed upon its release next year!

There have been a lot of religious conflicts during December 1938, as young immigrant Sparky (real name Katherine) and her family are inundated with symbolism of a holiday they don’t celebrate, and a variety of responses to their refusal to adopt Christmas as a secular holiday “everyone” celebrates. However, Sparky’s family has agreed to come together with their hosts the Filliards for a joint celebration of the eighth night of Chanukah and Christmas Eve.

This has been slightly tweaked to fit 10 lines.

Painting by Yelena Flerova

The Smalls had brought schnitzel, Kartoffelpuffer, chicken soup, brisket, candied carrots, bolussen, applesauce, and, best of all, plenty of Berliner Pfannkuchen, while on the Filliards’ side of the table sat roasted goose with stuffing; dried fruit compote; mushroom soup; gołąbki; pierogi stuffed with chopped mushrooms and mashed potatoes; kotlety; stuffed mushrooms; mazurek stuffed with dried almonds, chocolate, and apricot jam; chocolate sernik; zefiry; and several heaping platters of cookies. There’d be more than enough for everyone.

“You don’t know what you’re missing,” Mrs. Filliard said as she cut into a gołąbek. “You’ve been generous to share your food, and oughta taste some of ours in return.”

“Perhaps next year, we can cook by your recipes in our kitchen,” Mrs. Small said.

“It’s ‘with,’ not ‘by,’” Gary gently corrected her. “You’re making the mistake of directly translating a German expression into English. Sometimes being too literal results in improper English.”

“My mother and I made that mistake too, when we were learning English,” Mr. Filliard said. “That expression translates from Russian the same way it does from German, and it took a long time for me to realize I wasn’t being grammatically correct.”

Kartoffelpuffer are German latkes; bolussen are Dutch sweet rolls; Berliner Pfannkuchen are jelly doughnuts. Among the traditional Polish and Russian Christmas foods, gołąbki are cabbage leaves wrapped around a savory filling (usually including meat); kotlety are small, pan-fried meatballs; mazurek is a sweet, flat cake; sernik is cheesecake made with quark; and zefiry are similar to meringues.

WeWriWa—Enjoying a Thanksgiving feast

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes a few pages after last week’s, when Cinni invited Harry to be her family’s Thanksgiving guest after he was thrown out of the soup kitchen for fighting with his thuggish older brother.

No one was home when they arrived at Cinni’s house, so Cinni went next door to her easily-annoyed neighbor Mr. Valli to ask for help with cooking. Cinni discovered her family went to the Vallis for Thanksgiving dinner.

Cinni’s mother is quite displeased she was out so long getting a turkey. She’s much happier after seeing all the food Cinni and Sparky won, but discovering there’s yet another guest to cook for upsets her again. Finally, she starts cooking before it gets any later.

This has been slightly edited to fit 10 lines.

Mrs. Filliard fumed as she hoisted the turkey out of the wagon and pulled the stuffing out of the refrigerator.  While she prepared the turkey and other food under the Smalls’ careful directions, Cinni, Sparky, and Harry went into the living room to read comic books and listen to the radio.

It was 10:30 when supper was called, wonderful smells wafting all through the house.  These were the kinds of smells which were supposed to permeate the air much earlier on Thanksgiving, but better late than never.

“This is the greatest thing anyone’s ever done for me,” Harry said as he took a seat. “Remember, Cin, one day I’ll pay you back for tonight.  Don’t think I ain’t thankful just ‘cause I ain’t in a position to do something so nice anytime soon.”

“Of course I know you’re thankful, Harry; unlike some people, you know what being thankful’s all about.”

The Smalls intoned a blessing over the feast arrayed before them, and then everyone dug in.  It was the sweetest, most delicious Thanksgiving meal Cinni had ever had.