Names,  Research

That which we call a historical romance hero by any other name would smell like sandalwood and MAN

Naming characters has been on my mind recently. I’ve been cleaning up and doing the first round of beta revisions on the next Lively St. Lemeston book, and I always leave a lot of names of secondary characters to be finalized at the end. I’m also planning my next project, a novella for an anthology, so I’m choosing names for my central characters.

I take names very seriously, especially for heroes and heroines. I was on a writing date with a friend, working for hours, and I think she was a little taken aback to realize I was thrilled to have finalized three names! What can I say, I’m picky about names. Plus, the heroine and her best friend in the novella are both not originally from England, which means tracking down a different set of naming resources than I usually use.

So I thought today I’d share some of my favorite naming resources, plus the fruits of my recent research.


Resources, England:

The Guiness Book of Names by Leslie Dunkling includes lists of the top fifty first names for girls and boys in England and Wales for 1700 and 1800. I figure names on either list are fair game.

Homes of Family Names in Great Britain by Henry Brougham Guppy (possessor of an amazing name himself), 1890, includes lists of English last names organized by county, sometimes with notes on their origin. I love this book so much I had it printed and bound at the Third Place Books espresso book machine. Did I mention organized by county?

I stole this trick from Cecilia Grant: Debrett’s Baronetage of England, 1835, is a great place to find first and last names that I can be sure are appropriate for an aristocratic character.

When I’m choosing a title rather than a last name (e.g., the Earl of Tassell), I sometimes go with a last name, and sometimes with a place name. The Guiness Book of Names, mentioned above, has a lot of great place names in it, plus building blocks for creating your own. Wikipedia also provides lists of villages in UK counties. For example:

Genealogy sites are an amazing resource, and you can often find them for other countries, too! My favorite for Regency England is this Genes Reunited database of England and Wales death records from 1837 forward. Here’s a search for the name Clementia limited to people born between 1770 and 1790. As you can see it is great at recognizing related names, too!

Resources, Not England:

The thing about naming characters from other countries and cultures is that I don’t have intuition about the name. Even when I was naming the Jewish characters in True Pretenses, I discovered that Ashkenazi Jewish surnames (very familiar to me in their modern form) were completely different during the Regency. So I only chose last names that actually appeared in my research books, and I did the same for some first names (though not all–a couple of people who are only briefly mentioned have common Yiddish or Ladino names that I just hope were in use at the time, like Faige and Speranza). Obviously that provides less options, but I really didn’t want to fuck it up.

I followed the same method for naming an Indian secondary character/future heroine in my upcoming book, although I’m still hoping to find more good online resources for this before I write her book and have to choose dozens of names.

(For a good start at understanding the complexities of naming an Indian character without accidentally mixing and matching religion, location, caste &c., check out these tips from Alisha Rai and Suleikha Snyder. You can see them walking someone through the naming process too! Of course, that’s not even getting into whether the name was used in a particular time period.)

For naming the heroine of my novella, who was born in Portugal, I started with Behind the Name’s list of Portuguese girls’ names. Once I had a shortlist of names I liked, I tested their historicity by plugging them into this FamilySearch database of Portugal Catholic baptisms 1570-1910. (Obviously this only works for Catholic names!)

The name I eventually chose: Magdalena Da Silva. She goes by Maggie.

For naming her best friend (with benefits), I found this amazing database of eighteenth century Dutch Ashkenazi Jews (organized in lists alphabetically by surname which makes it fantabulously usable for my purposes). His name: Meyer Hennipzeel. He goes by Meyer Henney in England.


While paging through Debrett’s for my hero (eventually named Simon Radcliffe-Gould), I discovered some marvelous things.

Debrett’s contains a list of baronet family mottoes. I haven’t had time to go through it fully but my favorite on the first page is “Agitatione purgator. Cleansed by agitation. Russell, of Middlesex.”

I found a couple of family crests worthy of Monty Python. The Acton family, of Aldenham Hall, Shropshire, are represented by “A human leg and thigh in armour, couped, and dropping blood, all proper, garnished, or.” [Image]

And the Prices of Treggwainton, Cornwall, use “On a wreath of the colours a dragon’s head vert, erased gules, holding in its mouth a sinister hand erect, couped, dropping blood from the wrist, all proper.” [Image–and look, you can buy a set of Georgian silver dessert spoons with this crest on it!]

And of course, names:

Philadelphia-Letitia Cotton
Sir Peter Parker

And my absolute favorite…

…the Page-Turners! YES. There was an actual family named the Page-Turners. I want to name my hero this so badly, I can’t even tell you. I know it would be distracting but it’s SO FUNNY. I don’t think I would ever get tired of it.

portrait of Sir Gregory Page-Turner in a red suit, being stared at by a bust of Pallas Athena
Sir Gregory Page-Turner (1748–1805). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

This guy is a babe, I have to say. I also enjoyed this tidbit about his life:

“Sir Edward Turner, 2nd Baronet had a country house, Ambrosden House, built by the architect Sanderson Miller in the 1740s. Sir Gregory never lived at Ambrosden, thought the house too big and in 1767 sought to demolish part of it to make it smaller. This proved impractical so in 1768 he had the entire house demolished.”

Do you have a favorite historical name you’d like to see in a book? How about a favorite name resource?

ETA: Joanna Bourne alerted me to this, for late 18th-century French names: The Guillotined. So cool!

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[…] Risky Regencies post is about historically accurate names, including resources and hilarious examples! (In particular, the Page-Turner family continues to […]

Mary Blayney
7 years ago

Impressive list of resources, Rose. Thank you for sharing. Your pursuit of accurate names is research at its finest. I give it some thought but now feel like a wimp compared to you!

Diane Gaston
7 years ago

Rose, I take naming my characters very seriously, too, Rose, so I’m excited that you shared your resources!
I make up names from this list
And I choose first names from a variety of naming sources.
When naming heroes, I try to make up a title name that sounds like a hunky hero first name, because in the Regency, people rarely used first names. So, for example, the Marquess of Tannerton in The Vanishing Viscountess, becomes Tanner even though his name is Adam Vickery.
I also google the names because I once named a hero after a popular British TV celebrity and I didn’t know it until my editors told me!

Phyllis Laatsch
Phyllis Laatsch
7 years ago

I’m writing 17th century French and while I can sometimes find lists of first names, a lot of the names are wacky and unpronounceable by English speakers. I tend to lean toward the modern spellings of saint names. Though I have a Nicolette (from the Romeo/Juliet type myth of Aucassin and Nicolette) and a Melisande because she was a character in Moliere and the name is pretty.

My hardest trick is finding names that don’t all have the same first letter. I had secondary characters named Herve and Henri and had to change one. I kept Henri, because when pronounced in French, it sounds a lot like “Ornery” and he’s cranky.

I also had villains named Xavier and Yves only because I hadn’t chosen names when they appeared and they became X and Y (Z was removed in the second draft).

My last names are often the names of small towns in a the region that I’ve decided to place them. Nicolette de Corbie is because Corbie was a village (with a defunct abbey) in Picardy (where the Nicolette story was from) and only a couple of days’ hard ride from Paris.

7 years ago
Reply to  Rose Lerner

I’m very pleased to hear that you authors (or your editors) are being careful to avoid using names starting with the same letter. This is my particular bete noir; I have been forced to stop reading books because of this, since I kept having to stop to identify which character it was. And as for having two people with the same initial letter in the same scene together! Ultimate nightmare.

I love learning how you find names! I don’t think I could resist Page-Turner…

Elena Greene
7 years ago

Wow what a cool post and interesting comments so far, too.

I am picky about character names, too. I often use a detailed British roadmap to help. Sometimes I flip through and stick my finger in at random, although that often yields something more funny than apt. Other times I mix up beginnings and endings of place names (thinks like -bourne and -hurst) to create a new name that doesn’t actually exist but sounds authentic.

However, I sometimes mess up. I have a minor character in my novella, LADY EM’S INDISCRETION, who is now interested in being hero of a new novella. I rather randomly named him Robert, but I already have a hero named Robert in one of my other books. And what’s worse, I’m not sure he’s a Robert. If I change it (updating the currently published novella to match) does anyone think readers would notice or care?

7 years ago
Reply to  Elena Greene

Oh, we’d notice and email you and be confused. Much easier to have him use a nickname in his novella (derived from his title, if he has one) or some other semi-plausible source. 🙂

Elena Greene
7 years ago
Reply to  GrowlyCub

Thanks, GrowlyCub!

I do not want to confuse anyone. I confuse myself enough as it is!

Gail Eastwood
7 years ago

Great post, Rose! Thank you for sharing your fav resources! I tend to go to the various peerage websites online, but I also sometimes pull out Fairbirn’s Crests of the Families of Great Britain and Ireland, for inspiration in making up names, or for checking to make sure I’m not actually using a real one! After I used the place name St Aldwyn as a surname in An Unlikely Hero, I was emailed by the earl who holds that title. Yikes! He politely wondered how I came up with it, and in truth I had picked it off the map in the area where the story is set. But I hadn’t used it as a title name, thank goodness! He was gracious, and yes, I sent him a copy of the book!

Georgie Wickham
Georgie Wickham
7 years ago

Thanks for that – I love the idea of the Page-Turners. And I know what you mean about names of characters mattering. I slaved over a scene with a secondary character called David, who kept insisting that, actually, he was Dudley. And as soon as he was Dudley, the whole thing worked.

Have you come across Richard Plantagenet Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville – 2nd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos? And (rather later), Leone Sextus Denys Oswolf Fraudatifilius Tollemache-Tollemache de Orellana Plantagenet (1884-1917), brother of Mabel Helmingham Ethel Huntingtower Beatrice Blazonberrie Evangeline Vise de Lou de Orellana Plantagenet Toedmag Saxon (1872-1955).

I’m working on the Earls of Verulam at present – family motto “Mediocria Firma” – which can be translated as “mediocrity is safe” (or, more generously, “the middle way is stable”).

Georgie Wickham
Georgie Wickham
7 years ago
Reply to  Rose Lerner

BTW – strangest Christian name of all time – the Earls of Plymouth. “Other” is the traditional name of the heir.

Rose Lerner
7 years ago

That IS wacky! Do you think it’s a variant of Uther?

Sandra Schwab
7 years ago

Thanks so much for sharing these awesome resources with us, Rose.

The Page-Turners! *giggles*

Rose Lerner
7 years ago
Reply to  Sandra Schwab

The Page-Turners will NEVER stop being funny to me.

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