Mistakes Made Mutually: The Theatre of Mistakes

FeaturedMistakes Made Mutually: The Theatre of Mistakes

Theatre of Mistakes

Photo: copyright Lindsay Moran, The Theatre of Mistakes Archive

Revisiting a paper I wrote in 2009 after research with Jason E Bowman on the 1970s British performance collective The Theatre of Mistakes. This research also culminated in a set of ebooks on the collective created as part of a residency for Proboscis.

Mistakes Made Mutually

It would make a good novel, Anthony Howell said. The writer going between people who aren’t necessarily in contact, hearing what each one has to say, relaying the impressions of one to another, repeating opinion, being privy to multiple perspectives while individuals remain locked in their singular narratives of nostalgia or analysis. In short, the writer as a conduit for gossip.

The process of researching an entity as complex as Ting: The Theatre of Mistakes is well served by the notion of gossip as the subversive strategy of the excluded, as articulated by cultural theorist Irit Rogoff : “Gossip involves exchange not merely, not even mainly, of information, and not solely of understanding, but of point of view” (Gossip as Testimony – a Postmodern Signature). Professional relations within The Theatre of Mistakes were enhanced and complicated by interpersonal relationships that created ever-shifting dynamics. Some participants had remained friends; others hadn’t spoken in years. There was dissent, or silences; there was time and a death and a drifting apart. Gossip engages; it creates a mystique around its subjects. It occupies the spaces left by questions. Who threw the script someone else painstakingly typed into the fire? Who was ‘against agreement’? Who fell asleep while sat in the audience? What was the Secrets Piece?

This was always a company who knew its own value. Theirs is a history preserved in copious letters, program notes, scripts, posters, photographs, diagrams, drawings. The comb-bound book of The Street (1975) for instance is a blueprint for reading and recreating. It discloses a complex work: residents’ living rooms – sofas, rugs, televisions – re-located to the street; a chorus derived from snippets of overheard conversation; windows opened and closed triggered by actions below; people mirroring one another’s actions. However all this documentation is still only ever partial. It is participants’ and observers’ recollections that reveal connections between the real and the fictive. For instance: injured in a car accident during the Cambridge Poetry Festival where The Ting perform that April – Howard Tong returned to watch The Street and was quickly co-opted into performing again – a slow motion solo of a pedestrian knocked onto a car bonnet. Similarly, whilst a photograph of The Theatre of Mistakes’ Waterfall on the village green (1977 Silver Jubilee) depicts the watching crowd, it does not reveal that some respond by cheering, others by throwing apple cores. Peter Stickland recalls The Theatre of Mistakes was more popular abroad, so much so in Italy that a theatre manager doubled their fee – another ‘fact’ not legible in the documentation but one that explains the relative failure of American/British histories of performance to examine The Theatre of Mistakes’ legacy in depth.

In addition to using gossip and oral histories as strategies through which to interrogate The Theatre of Mistakes’ practice, Jason E Bowman and I also shared a desire to reflect its key principles: Mutuality, Chance, and Mistakes in the process of re-tracing its histories and their makers:

Mutuality. Anthony Howell, Fiona Templeton, and Mickey Greenall devise a Mutuality signature and stamp; there is a Manifesto of Mutuality. There are some exquisite Time Diagrams, coloured in gold and felt tip pen. The latter are Mickey Greenall’s work, Anthony is certain. Fiona is equally certain she made them. Mickey is no longer around to ask. In a sense it does not matter.

Chance. Choice by Chance, or die-throwing, is a conceptual presence from the inception of The Ting as a democratizing element and the preferred method of determining roles within the company. (The dice select Pat Murphy, Templeton, and Greenall to devise The Street and choose Templeton as its director, for example.) It’s perhaps as a result of sharing the responsibility for writing press releases and other promotional material that inconsistencies occurred in the naming of the ‘collective’ – variously called Ting, The Ting, The Ting: Theatre of Mistakes, The Theatre of Mistakes.

For the artist, chance functions to eliminate the ‘hand’ or the Modernist mark; it nullifies personality; frees the mind from clichéd associations by recognizing the potential of randomness: words placed alongside one another in unlikely combinations; images created by accident.

Published in 1971, The Dice Man the autobiography of Luke Rinehart (MD) – himself a fiction created by George Cockcroft – investigates whether it is possible or desirable to break down the self into a multitude of selves by using die in the place of free will. It asks: is the loss of a coherent, stable self (schizophrenia) a position that can be maintained? Or, does that adherence to instability constitute a new coherent self? In being no-one, can we be anyone? In The Theatre of Mistakes’ Going (1977), each performer enacts all the other performers. Is there still a narrative if everyone is the same person? Is there still drama if emotions such as anger cannot be attributed to any one ‘character’ but are performed as part of a formal sequence? (These concerns also characterize Howell’s unpublished novel Lost Farm which sets out not to reveal the inner thoughts of any of its characters.) Yet the formality of Going, this elaborate deconstruction of form, is complicated again by context. When it is performed in the Pennsylvania State Penitentiary, Glenys Johnson says, prisoners read it as the rejection of their continuous re-submittance of applications for parole.

Mistakes. Traditionally, the performance mistake might comprise the missed cue; lack of synchronization; failure to enter or exit at the correct moment; limb raised to an incorrect height; faulty rhythm. It makes a comedy or a tragedy of technique: stumbled pirouettes, flat notes, collapsing sets, jokes without punchlines….   A mistake can be corrected/ atoned for/concealed.

The mistake, whether accidental or deliberate, creates a rupture in form. Assuming form is rarely read until it is broken, The Theatre of Mistakes were practiced at looking for the mistake, at asking: what are the best errors to make to highlight structure? The historiography of the mistake in their work alters. It begins as the only thing they can say; to being seriously on the surface (Homage to Pietro Longhi); to becoming the fully rehearsed mistake which has retreated from the surface (Going); to the mistake that occurs in the thinking before the work has even been devised (Homage to Morandi).

Equally, the act of research, of collating and ordering, of selection and interpretation is riddled with chance elements (Howard Tong and Miranda Payne live a ten-minute walk away from one another in London and didn’t know it; Christina Toren and Signe Howell are now both Professors of Anthropology; Lindsay Moran joins Facebook a couple of days before he is looked for); mutual creations; and mistakes or, rather, contradictions which threaten a singular narrative of The Theatre of Mistakes. The ‘mistakes’ in memories, (again, whether deliberate or accidental), the mis-remembered, highlight the futility of attempting to create one. So rather than writing a biography which begins something like this: Anthony Howell instigated Ting inspired by his interest in chance and seeing Robert Wilson in New York; his interrogation of systemic art; conversations with his then wife, Norwegian anthropologist, Signe Lie who introduced him to Norse Ting myth of meetings where weapons were left outside a ring of stones and anything could be said. Pat Murphy recalls Robert Janz inviting her “to a kind of inaugural meeting of the group Anthony Howell was organizing.” She thinks this was in July 1974….. Instead of that story, there are several competing narratives, equally valid: Anthony Howell and Signe Lie created The Ting; Fiona Templeton co-founded The Theatre of Mistakes; Anthony Howell and Howard Tong developed The Ting conceptually; the Ting’s early adherence to minimalism is due in part to lack of funds hence its aesthetic develops out of the quotidian: kilims Lie and Howell bring back from their travels deployed as props; vehicles people drive to Purdies Farm are the substance of Amikam Toren’s Ballet for Cars; Lie’s pregnancy inspires Birth Ballet Chorale (1974). And so on.

A focus on the mistake, the contradiction, the fault line is something The Theatre of Mistakes applied to their own form. In one of Anthony Howell’s many notebooks, there is a list written circa 1975. He recollects it transpired after a mutual group critique. It reads:

Miranda – Not reliable

Anthony – Dismissive and cursory

Mickey- Lazy

Fiona – Irritatingly meticulous

Howard – Too obsequious

Lindsay – Moody

Anita – Too young

Again, these scribbled notes destabilise official narratives of The Theatre of Mistakes and encourage other, more fictive, readings of the performers. From conversations with participants and observers, characters emerge. Poet and former Royal Ballet dancer Anthony Howell is always the protagonist: disciplined (see notation of The Waterfall); dictatorial; a generous mentor; a man who wrote impassioned letters (see Rape of the Mind); spatially aware; obsessive (see Orpheus and Hermes) depending on whose narrative you choose. Fiona Templeton: also a poet; the most conceptually sophisticated; influenced by the literary traditions of OuLiPo and Perec; the really beautiful one with the waist-length hair; adept at creating games. Peter Stickland the rebel architect who prefers not to rock the boat; Miranda Payne, a muse with a talent for invisibility who floats in and out of the company; Lindsay Moran, serious, pushes physicality to the limit; Mikey Greenall: all color and flamboyance; Anita Urquart: a hairdresser out of her league; Anthony’s mother Deborah: formidable, the first female veterinary student in the UK; performs in early Ting works at the London Film-Makers Co-Op and at Michael McKinnon’s studio dressed in full hunting gear…

The other ‘character’ that features heavily in conversations around The Theatre of Mistakes is Deborah’s farm, Purdies at Hazeley Heath, Hartley Witney in Hampshire. There are many glimpses of Purdies in photographs. For a decade, it is the site of intense periods of creativity. In the early years, it is the venue for weekend events as artists visit from London, creating and documenting artworks. Later, it’s where works are honed prior to autumn touring. Purdies: a large, Jacobean farmhouse with a long drive and stables; all the animals are female; Howard and Mickey sunbathe naked by a pool flecked with goose droppings; a hot summer of no rain and forests on fire; Anthony walks the Dalmatians; lying in hammocks strung beneath trees; there are performances in fields through the night to 2a.m., 4a.m.; cows for audiences; rehearsals in the barn; exercises at dawn; a string sculpture threatened by storms; playing shove ha’penny in the local pub; waiting for Anita to finish getting ready; an impromptu set when furniture sits on the lawn waiting for removal; Glenys finds a dead mouse in the toaster; Pat Murphy sits in “a big wooden barn with spaces between the slats of wood, so that the horse cantering in the field outside, would strobe past like a zoetrope or some early movie machine”; a mare giving birth; Miranda lives in a tent outside as she finds the house too claustrophobic; Deborah dives into the pool wearing nothing but a pair of nylons; signing on; fences to mend, trips to the cash and carry; staying up late to do the budgets; walking in huge circles on the local cricket pitch; flared trousers so wide Peter catches his foot in them and breaks an ankle; Fiona wearing a man’s suit in rehearsal; villagers calling them ‘Tesco rejects’ in an era when Tesco is a byword for scum; banned by The Cricketers Arms after a dance appears to cause rainfall.

By encouraging the mistake, the chance element, the creation of a mutually conceived narrative that does not rely on consensus but that welcomes contradiction, the anecdote, the perceived, the invented, the dreamt, and the distorted, we are able to contextualise The Theatre of Mistakes in a broader variety of ways (through an analysis of its audiences; the interface of its participants; its influences and legacies, and so on). Evoked, rather than defined, circuitous rather than linear, The Theatre of Mistakes, like all good gossip, refuses to be contained.

Marie-Anne Mancio             London 2009

Where shall we go next in 2016-17? and other news

Where shall we go next in 2016-17? and other news

hotel alphabet art history study tours autumn 2016-17

We are already planning our autumn 2016-17 season at hotel alphabet and we would love to have your input. If you think you might undertake an art history study tour in the future, participate in this very short (3 questions) survey here and help us select the destinations that interest you. Our ethos will remain the same: small, friendly groups (maximum 12) enjoying high quality, professional tuition and organisation on art history study tours aimed at the independent traveller (you book your own flights and accommodation). We also promise we won’t cancel a trip.

checking out….testimonials

We also wanted to provide a forum for people to leave feedback after an art history study tour or an art history guided gallery visit in London and to share recommendations for hotels, restaurants, and bars in any of our destinations (Milan, Rome, Venice, Naples, Florence, Paris, etc….) so now you can do that here.

Immersione nella Roma del vizio

Immersione nella Roma del vizio

Because you can never have too many books on Caravaggio…

Parkstone Art

Michelangelo Merisi (detto Il Caravaggio) fu senza dubbio uno dei più grandi pittori del XVIIo secolo. Benché Caravaggio sia stato famoso per il suo chiaroscuro e i suoi giocchi di luce, era anche riconosciuto per la sua vita tumultuosa. Cortigiano della Roma degli anni 1600, nervoso, sempre pronto a litigare, Caravaggio fu costretto a fuggire dopo l’assassinio di Ranuccio Tommasini durante un gioco. Da qua, comincia una vita sregolata, passando da Napoli, Malta o ancora Palermo. Profilo dell’artista ribelle.

Con le opere di Caravaggio facciamo un salto nel tempo. Ci ritroviamo nei bassifondi, nel volto nascosto della Roma dell’inizio del XVIIo secolo. Caravaggio ci mostra un’aspetto della capitale italiana molto diverso da quello che il Classicismo, ereditato da Michelangelo e Raffaello, ci aveva trasmesso. Con  Caravaggio (e anche se ha dipinto numerose opere religiose), immergiamo nel lato nero, nella Roma del vizio, della decadenza, della povertà.Testimono di una…

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Sex, Sin and Scandal in Georgian London

FeaturedSex, Sin and Scandal in Georgian London

Stella Tillyard has written of the cult of celebrity that developed in eighteenth century London, partly as a consequence of the proliferation of entertainment spaces and liberal publishing laws. Gossip became a currency and artists used their talents to create visual statements of their sitters’ allure (though portraits of aristocratic women exhibited at the Royal Academy were done so without reference to the sitters’ names). Amongst the most beautiful were the Gunning sisters Maria and Elizabeth who left Ireland in 1750 to secure husbands in London. Allegedly, 8,000 people turned up to see them at Vauxhall Gardens. The Duke of Hamilton was so taken with Elizabeth he insisted on marrying her the night they met; Maria married the Earl of Coventry.

Another woman who inspired devotion was courtesan Kitty Fisher (artist Nathaniel Hone puns here on her name: the cat fishes in a goldfish bowl in this 1765 portrait, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London). She staged a riding accident in Hyde Park as a way of displaying her pretty legs… read Marcia Pointon’s fascinating paper on her.

These women’s paths crossed on at least one occasion when Lady Coventry (Maria Gunning) asked Kitty Fisher for the name of her dress maker. “You had better ask Lord Coventry,” Kitty Fisher replied. “He gave me the dress as a gift.”


Hotel Alphabet Caravaggio Tour Planned for 2015

Caravaggio's masterpiece 'The Beheading of St. John' altarpiece in Malta
Caravaggio’s masterpiece ‘The Beheading of St. John’ altarpiece in Malta

Hotel Alphabet is planning a Caravaggio tour for 2015 that will replicate the artist’s journey from Milan to Malta: an incredible opportunity to see some of his major works and the landscapes through which he travelled. More information to follow but to be added to the mailing list email enquiriesha@gmail.com

Still Lives to Die For

FeaturedStill Lives to Die For

There is, quite rightly, a lot of fuss in London at the moment over the National Gallery’s show on Barocci touted as “the most important painter youve never heard of.” Sadly this is still the case for so many female artists of the Renaissance and Baroque era who rarely make it into the history books despite being feted in their time. (There are depressingly few in London’s National Gallery: no Artemesia Gentileschi, no Lavinia Fontana, no Sofonisba Anguissola and so on….)

One of my favourites is Milanese artist Fede Galizia (1578-1630) who was trained by her miniaturist father and was already considered a skilled artist by the age of 12. Ignore the inscription in her Portrait of Paolo Morigia (1592-95, oil on canvas, 88 x 79 cm,Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan) it was a later addition, but focus on the hand and the bravura

Fede Galizia Portrait of Paolo Morigia painting visible in this detail: note how the room is reflected in the glass? DetailDid Caravaggio see her work I wonder? Certainly Morigia was so impressed with his portrait he went on to become Galizia’s patron.

Though she made many portraits, two thirds of her catalogued paintings are still lives and she popularised the genre in Italy. Her works are typically small scale like this White Ceramic Bowl with Peaches and Red and Blue Plums (c. 1610, oil on panel, 30 x 42 cm, Silvano Lodi Collection, Campione). They may not have the complex symbolism of Dutch Golden Age paintings but they are superb at evoking textures – the softness of the peaches, the wisp of a leaf, the hard edges of the ceramic bowl – and are incredibly sensuous.

cer_bowlIt’s the same with this stunning still-life (1607, Oil on panel, 31 x 42 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). It is tiny but with so much attention to detail. See how that apple is turning brown as it’s exposed to the air?

Still-Life, 1607Or this one (nd, Oil on panel, 28 x 42 cm, Private collection) where a succulent cherry is about to drop from the bowl, every bit as animate as the butterfly in mid-flight.

stillifeThe composition so balanced that your gaze flits from one side to the other, caught in the tension of the moment.

The Next Big Thing

FeaturedThe Next Big Thing

Kerry Dwyer (author of Ramblings in Ireland) has very generously tagged me here as one of her authors in The Next Big Thing. So here are the questions I was asked about my forthcoming novel:

What is the working title of your next book?

Bouche. It means ‘mouth’ in French and is part of the name Boucher so it encapsulates some of the novel’s subject and themes.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I lecture on the artist Francois Boucher and have spent a fair bit of time in the Wallace Collection in London where there are several of his paintings. I was sat on the landing of the Grand Staircase looking at Boucher’s fabulous The Rising of The Sun and The Setting of the Sun and realised I wanted to write about him.

What genre does your book fall under?

Literary historical fiction.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

No idea. Probably some beautiful French actors.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

It is the story of an artist obsessed with perfection.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I don’t know yet but I love the immediacy of e-publishing and discovering this incredibly supportive community of authors, bloggers, reviewers on sites such as goodreads and smashwords.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I haven’t finished it yet but it will take a few months. I write very slowly.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I still haven’t got around to reading Tracey Chevalier’s The Girl with The Pearl Earring but the premise of taking an artist and elements of a known biography and then departing from it is similar.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Several things. One was the paintings. I always strive to make my writing sensory and Boucher’s works are all about pleasure and overwhelming the senses. Then there was the fact that my first novel Whorticulture was dark and, though I don’t think of it as a pessimistic book, it is fair to say that male-female relationships in it are all characterised by oppression, need, or compromise. So one of the challenges I set myself with Bouche was to see if I could write a straight love story and to create a sympathetic male character. Francois Boucher the man is often wrongly confused with Boucher the artist so he has been characterised as lecherous and adulterous but there’s evidence to suggest he had real respect for his wife Marie-Jeanne Buzeau.

The other source of inspiration was a fascinating doctoral thesis Conchyliologie to Conchyliomanie: The Cabinet of François Boucher, 1703-1770 by Jessica S. Priebe. After reading it I realised who my version of Boucher was going to be.

What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

In comparison to the antebellum world of Whorticulture which was full of violence, Boucher’s C18th Paris is refined and artificial. So the love story is set against all the intrigue and machinations at Versailles, the debates in the literary salons, the ambitions of the artistic community in the Louvre… The art historian in me is making sure the details are accurate so anyone interested in art history might enjoy Bouche too. Key paintings feature so the reader could go on a Boucher trail. These include his portrait of Madame de Pompadour. She is just one of many fascinating characters in his sphere – Louis XV, the Irish prostitute Marie-Louise Murphy, Diderot the philosopher, Boucher’s pupil Fragonard who painted The Swing

 The Next Big Thing tags

As part of ‘The Next Big Thing’ I am to tag five other authors over the coming months. My first is Jason Parent. I reviewed his psychological thriller What Hides Within and it is one of those superb, dark books that you’ll never forget. Read his interview here and here.


Mary Seacole

NPG 6856; Mary Jane Seacole (nÈe Grant) by Albert Charles ChallenThink of Victorian nurses and Florence Nightingale comes to mind but London’s National Portrait Gallery holds a tiny portrait of another celebrated nurse who fought far harder for recognition: Jamaican born, Mary Jane Seacole. Seacole (nee Grant) (1805-1881) was mixed race (her mother was a Jamaican nurse; her father a Scottish soldier) and experienced discrimination in Victorian England. She accompanied relatives to London when she was young and later recalled:

“Strangely enough, some of the most vivid of my recollections are the efforts of the London street-boys to poke fun at my and my companion’s complexion. I am only a little brown – a few shades duskier than the brunettes whom you all admire so much; but my companion was very dark, and a fair (if I can apply the term to her) subject for their rude wit”

On her return to Jamaica, she studied Creole medicinal art with her mother and, before marrying Edwin Seacole in 1836, travelled widely including to Cuba, Haiti, and the Bahamas. Widowed by 1844, Seacole continued to travel and soon became an expert in treating cholera. When there was  a huge outbreak of cholera during the Crimean War, she went back to England in 1854 to ask the War Office to send her to Crimea. However it was the inexperienced Florence Nightingale who was sent and Seacole was twice rejected when she asked to join her. Undeterred, she travelled to Balaklava independently and set up her own hospital (the British Hotel) as well as treating the wounded directly on the battlefield.

In 1856 a British soldier wrote to The Times complaining that while Florence Nightingale had become famous, the contribution made by Mary Seacole was in danger of being forgotten. He was probably right because unlike the many records of Nightingale, this little oil on panel portrait (measuring a mere 24 x 18 cm) from 1869 is the sole image we have of Seacole. The artist Albert Charles Challen depicts her wearing the three medals she was awarded for her service. Aside from that nod to her professionalism, the portrait is wonderfully human, giving a hint of the warmth that led soldiers to nickname her “Mother Seacole.” Compare it with the more formal portraits of Florence Nightingale in the same room (Room 22).

Seacole also published an autobiography – Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands (1857) which you can read online. Here’s an extract from Chapt XIII:
“I have never been long in any place before I have found my practical experience in the science of medicine useful. Even in London I have found it of service to others. And in the Crimea, where the doctors were so overworked, and sickness was so prevalent, I could not be long idle; for I never forgot that my intention in seeking the army was to help the kind-hearted doctors, to be useful to whom I have ever looked upon and still regard as so high a privilege.But before very long I found myself surrounded with patients of my own, and this for two simple reasons. In the first place, the men (I am speaking of the “ranks” now) had a very serious objection to going into hospital for any but urgent reasons, and the regimental doctors were rather fond of sending them there; and, in the second place, they could and did get at my store sick-comforts and nourishing food, which the heads of the medical staff would sometimes find it difficult to procure. These reasons, with the additional one that I was very familiar with the diseases which they suffered most from, and successful in their treatment (I say this in no spirit of vanity), were quite sufficient to account for the numbers who came daily to the British Hotel for medical treatment.

That the officers were glad of me as a doctress and nurse may be easily understood. When a poor fellow lay sickening in his cheerless hut and sent down to me, he knew very well that I should not ride up in answer to his message empty-handed. And although I did not hesitate to charge him with the value of the necessaries I took him, still he was thankful enough to be able to purchase them. […] How often have I felt sad at the sight of poor lads who in England thought attending early parade a hardship, and felt harassed if their neckcloths set awry, or the natty little boots would not retain their polish, bearing, and bearing so nobly and bravely, trials and hardships to which the veteran campaigner frequently succumbed. Don’t you think, reader, if you were lying, with parched lips and fading appetite, thousands of miles from mother, wife, or sister, loathing the rough food by your side, and thinking regretfully of that English home where nothing that could minister to your great need would be left untried – don’t you think that you would welcome the familiar figure of the stout lady whose bony horse has just pulled up at the door of your hut, and whose panniers contain some cooling drink, a little broth, some homely cake, or a dish of jelly or blanc-mange – don’t you think, under such circumstances, that you would heartily agree with my friend Punch‘s remark:–

“That berry-brown face, with a kind heart’s trace
Impressed on each wrinkle sly,
Was a sight to behold, through the snow-clouds rolled
Across that iron sky.” ”

Nineteenth Century Slang



One of the most entertaining aspects of historical research is exploring slang. Incorporating it into dialogue is a skill – there’s a temptation to over-use all the wonderful words you’ve discovered and, before you know it, your text reads like an archaic secret code. Then there’s also the challenge of making sure the meaning is apparent to the contemporary reader. But it’s also very satisfying to find just how many expressions are still current.

Here (courtesy of Marc McCutcheon’s Everyday Life in the 1800s) are a few of my favourites; some made it into Whorticulture (my historical novel about prostitution in antebellum America), some didn’t:

cut shines: play practical jokes or tricks

full chisel: at full speed

a huckleberry above a persimmon: a cut above

ornery: mean

not by a jugful: not at all

some pumpkins: great

suspicioned it: suspected

tuckered out: exhausted

wake snakes: to raise a ruckus

Choosing Names for your Characters

Choosing Names for your Characters


A barista in my local Starbucks says when he asks for customers’ names they often create alter-egos like “Superwoman”. The whores in Whorticulture understand the power in choosing your own name. It’s one of the easiest ways to reinvent yourself.

For the writer, choosing names for your characters is a fun but important part of the creative process. If you get the name right, if you find the perfect name for your character, the kind of name that makes it impossible to think of that character as anyone else, then it becomes impossible to separate it from the novel. Which is why it’s easier to remember the surnames of some iconic characters – Holly Golightly, Jay Gatsby, Holden Caulfield, Scarlett O’Hara, Emma Bovary, Mr. Darcy – than of people you know!

Parents take care in naming their children because they know a name has its literal meaning, a host of connotations that can change over time, and all kinds of derivatives that other nastier kids will figure out. The popularity of a name at a given time can tell us about a nation, a mood. (How many Catherines, Kates, or Elizabeths will there be in the UK after the royal family celebrations of wedding and Diamond Jubilee?) It can set the tone. But the author has other factors to take into consideration. So how do you go about it?

1. Recognise that the perfect name is a fiction. Many authors experiment with names in draft version. So even Scarlett was originally “Pansy” right up to the point just before Gone With The Wind went into print; Mickey Mouse was Mortimer Mouse; Shakespeare’s Falstaff was Oldcastle. Trust in the process to let the character’s name reveal itself to you if it isn’t there at the start.

2. Decide whether your names should be self-conscious. Artists like Hogarth invented names to comic effect to give clues about characters’ behaviour – Silvertongue the sleazy, seductive lawyer; Squanderfield the gout-ridden Earl who loves to spend. Dickens emulates this practice in his novels with names becoming a shortcut to defining personality. This can feel a bit lazy – like telling us a character wears a Rolex, drives a Porsche, and drinks Bollinger – rather than showing us traits through the things they say or think.

3. Think about whether a subtler approach is suitable. Look at the meanings of names and decide whether you want to use these ironically (baby naming sites are useful here so sign up even if it feels odd being bombarded with other irrelevant motherhood related info.).

4. Make it accurate. When you’re writing historical fiction, it’s important character names are true to their era. The internet has made it easy to research passenger lists, census returns, etc. and this is how I found all my characters’ surnames in Whorticulture. First names must also be accurate. Remember you have to have an idea of your characters’ parents too. What name would they have chosen for your character and why? (e.g. How does your character’s name compare with their siblings’…?)

5. Remember who’s telling the story. Context is important, particularly if you have a narrator. So we never learn the name of Abigail’s cousin in Whorticulture, she just thinks of him as Cousin; in Katharine’s story, she dislikes Mr. Royce so refers to him as Royce; in Seraphine’s story, she doesn’t disclose her real name.

6. Make it easy for the reader. Odile and Odette would be more confusing on the page than Black Swan, White Swan on stage. In Whorticulture, characters reappear in other stories as ‘bit parts’ so it was important that their names were reasonably distinctive so the reader would recognise them.

7. Trust your instincts. Some names just feel right. (Sorry if that’s not very helpful.) I like to speak my names out loud when I’m deciding. In Whorticulture, when Abigail considers whether Jerome is husband material, it’s his name she begins with: Abigail Seften. The words linger like snakes’ hiss. Cyrus Hinckley doesn’t sound that heroic; Jerome felt like a charmer’s name.

8. Keep an open mind. Allow for serendipity. I didn’t have a name for the little girl whose letter opens and closes Whorticulture but a chance conversation with a stranger in the French House in Soho (London) led to the name Sarah Sea Storm. I can’t quite remember whether this was really the name of my fellow drinker’s daughter or just a name he liked but it is a beautiful name and I loved the rhythm of it. And sometimes these chance encounters throw up the best names.