Bertrada the Narrowfoot

On character names, pen-names and pen-homelands.

Finding the right name for my characters is one of the most challenging — and exciting — aspects of writing. Finding a pen name is an ordeal, but more about that later.

Some character names are easy to decide on. In fact, some of the inhabitants of my novels and stories had their names before I started writing. Like Jack, the hero of my first, soon-to be-reissued novel. A local author once opened my book (The Two-blood Legacy), peeked

© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons The statue of Queen Bertrada by Eugene Oudine (1848) at Luxembourg Garden, Paris.

inside and said, with scorn, “Jack? Why such a plain name?” I just shrugged, not knowing what to say. It doesn’t happen often, but arrogance and rudeness can make me speechless. I didn’t have the opportunity to explain that, for me, Jack was just the right name for a wholesome, handsome, courageous and down-to-earth man.

Her name is Astrid, and it perfectly fits her brilliant, logical mind and the volcano of passion beneath her cool demeanor, but my critic didn’t see her name, or perhaps he did, but found it plain, too. Some other names that I used in my books are Ariel, Ella, Arnaldur, Eamon, Morgaine, Rowena, Ahmed, Callie, Takeshi… and he saw only “Jack”.

Some other characters changed their names numerous times. One of them started her journey as Heather, then she was something else, then finally Violet, but I changed her personality during the re-writing, along with her name, so it made sense.

It also happened that I wanted to change a name, but it was too late – the nomen had already become the omen. It was as if that character truly liked his/her name and stopped me from changing it.

In the sequel, Guardian of the Realm, he is Brian and she is Elizabeth. My colleague would probably roll his eyes. But, this is what they are; they cannot be anything else. They told me what they wanted to be called, and they knew why. Brian is possibly derived from a Celtic word for ‘noble’, and he is, above all, a brave and honourable man. Elizabeth is a timeless name, outside of any limitations of style and fashion, rich, appealing, equally suitable for queens as for peasant girls. The name of the most beautiful woman that ever walked the earth, an Old Testament name and the name that almost every European country has a variation of. Elsbeth, Erzika, Elizabeta… My Elizabeth’s Russian piano teacher, Ms. Nikolaevna, always calls her “Yelisaveta”.

The story of how Elizabeth Chatwin got her middle name is also interesting.

Bertrada… Oh, how I love this name! Elizabeth’s mother was a scholar, a medievalist. One of her research subjects was early medieval women, among them the Frankish queen Bertrada of Laon, wife to King Pepin the Short and mother to Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman emperor and the greatest of all Carolingian rulers. A powerful grey eminence and woman of formidable diplomatic skills, she would help Charlemagne to unify Francia (most of western and central Europe) after his brother’s death and thus lay the foundations of the first European union. I couldn’t find out whose statuette she is holding in her left hand, but my guess would be Charlemagne’s.

A medievalist mother would indeed grace her daughter with such a powerful and beautiful name. It suits Elizabeth so well. She IS Bertrada, as much as she is Elizabeth. My novel had already been written when I noticed something peculiar: without any intention, I put in the same book a Bertrada and a fictional descendant of another Holy Roman emperor.

For the purpose of the story, I didn’t need Elizabeth’s middle name at all, but I loved it so much that I decided to keep it and mention it now and then.

Fabulous resources for names are books on baby names. For names a few generations back — census records, military records and ship lists. For specific names (from certain periods) — various web sites. When I started writing my first book, I found a website with wolf names from different countries and languages. I often check as well as, with dozens of different name categories. Recently I’m exploring, in particular, for Finnish names in search of the holy grail – my new pen name.

Why a Finnish name? Well, I am a self-proclaimed Finnish citizen. It’s not only because I like that country. Tired of 20+ years of answering the same question about my country of origin and my accent, when someone asks me now where I am from, I say, “From Finland.” After an, “Oh, nice,” there is not any further conversation. People don’t know much about my “pen-homeland.”

I’m leaving you with Elizabeth’s own musings over her middle name.

“… I’d thought Bertrada was a pretty name until, at the age of twelve, I’d learned that the woman I was named after was also known as Bertrada the Broadfoot. For the next four or five years, I’d lived in sheer terror that my schoolmates would somehow find that out and tease me. They hadn’t; medieval history had never been a favorite pastime of most school-age kids. Besides, my feet had turned out to be small and narrow, a fortunate fact I had been ready to prove on the shortest notice. It hadn’t been necessary however, and after those dreadful few years, I’d started loving again my old, beautiful and powerful middle name…”

Until next time, yours (this is my pen name only for this post)

Auli Lehtonen 




About jfkaufmann

Not unlike my characters, I lead a double life: by day I'm a mother, a friend, a colleague, and the queen of my kitchen. When the moon rises, however, I shift into my other self and, as Queen of the Night, I reign the magical world of my imagination.
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