I guess all authors have their own ways of coming up with names. Mine’s an accidental by-product of my lifelong love of maps and atlases. The surnames and place-names in my novels are mostly generated from the real names of towns, rivers and hills.
The beauty about an atlas is that I can get names with the same sort of feel by focusing on a particular geographical area. Names in Poland are hugely rich and varied, but they have a different quality to names in Holland and Flanders—or names in Mexico—or names in Turkey. Because I have some very detailed atlases, I can zoom in on villages and tiny landscape features that no reader will ever have heard of.
Still, I’m not after whole names but the roots of names. I write down every name or part-name that has a good, interesting sound—which may or may not be pleasant and mellifluous. Then I start developing, warping and re-combining them. What I’m looking for is a name full of flavour and suggestion that still rings true.
In The Dark Edge, I worked from Scottish and Irish names, and came up with places called High Slieve, Ruth-a-Gessy, Loinside, Cree, Winnifer Moor, Draive, East Lair and Lammerland (amongst others). Plenty of variety, a few deliberate oddities …
For first names, I often start from an old university directory of staff names, which has a wide mix of name types and national origins. Again, I play around with possibilities, developing and warping and re-combining. Even the oddly named characters in Worldshaker—Ebnolia Porpentine, Sir Wisley Squellingham, Sepahltina Turbot, for example—started life as bits of real names in a directory or (Squellingham and Porpentine) an atlas.
Sometimes a name falls into place almost at once, others take a lot of mulling over. Preparing for a novel, I keep a separate folder of possible names and roots for names. I find that the roots for names often slip across between place-names and character names, so I don’t like to categorize the possibilities until they’re fixed.
Fixing a name is a big step. For practical reasons, I’ve sometimes had to change a name at the last minute—e.g. when someone tells me it’s been used in another book. Nothing easier on the computer: I just run through the whole MS with the Find-and-Replace command. But getting the original name out of my head is almost impossible. A year later, I’ll still be embarrassing myself in front of audiences by referring to a character or place by a name that no longer appears in the novel.
When you fix a name, you fix something very important. Best get it right first time, because the connection will be very hard to break.