Friday, June 12, 2015

Digging Up a Name: Using Obituaries as a Writing Source

by Rebecca M. Thomas 

I love thinking about names.  I’ve named all my cars, the dog’s array of toy animals, the four little bronze sculptures on my desk, every character in my as yet to be published novel.  Right now, I’m ruminating on names for my cello, but I can’t decide if I’ve got a girl or boy instrument. (No, please, let’s not go there.)

Anyway, names and naming are always fun, but finding just the right name for a person – or a place – can sometimes be challenging, if not downright frustrating, or even crucial to a specific text. 

So, when I want to get past the baby name books and websites, I turn to one unfailing source not only for naming ideas but also for story ideas and historical detail – the newspaper obituary column.  That’s right.  All kinds of fascinating, useful, and inspirational names and information lie buried (sorry, couldn’t resist!) on these pages. Here you will find hundreds of names each day.  Names of the deceased, of course, as well as the names of their many and varied relatives and the places they have lived and worked.  And you’ll read their life stories, which are a mother lode of accurate historical data, detail and tidbits that could enhance a multitude of writing projects.

This is what you’ll discover:

·       Names suggesting specific time periods
·       Names reflecting ethnic or national origin
·       Common or fairly straightforward names
·       Names derived from everyday words or objects (You’d be surprised what words turn into names!)
·       Unusual names; obscure names
·       Names so intriguing that they can evoke their own story
·       Names that trigger your own memories, possibly leading to important additions to your writing
·       Names conducive for naming fictional towns, streets, neighborhoods, undiscovered planets or  worlds
·       Names of cities, counties, countries ... both known and obscure…or possibly defunct
·       Endless list of names of places where people worked—places still here and those long gone
·       Descriptions of real people’s involvement in historical events, with levels of detail and trivia footnotes found nowhere else
·       Photos of people from many times and places, offering an abundance of inspiration

If you’ve never thought of an obituary as a source for your writing, I encourage you to give it a try.  I guarantee it won’t be wasted time.  Above all, your most important takeaway will be the sense of carpe diem you experience.  After all, these stories are already finished.  There’s still time to tell yours.

ABOUT REBECCA M. THOMAS: Formerly director of field services for several Washington, DC-based national associations, followed by years of freelancing as a health writer with publication through multiple venues including The Washington Post and, Thomas now works part time as a personal trainer while developing a book based on growing up Southern Baptist in the 1950s & 60s.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.