Living in old New England I've long been fascinated wandering through cemeteries. The peculiar to our times names always intrigue me, so strange to the modern ear: Ardacton, Tryphena, Fravel, Clymenia, Sturgeon (isn't that a fish?). Others seem to be timeless, beautiful, honorable: Sumner, Caleb, Hannah. Many archaic names are surnames that were passed along as given/Christian names. And yes, these archaic names do have a place in our colonial fiction, and other period fiction.
Character name selection is a very fun part of writing for me as I develop the role. Most will agree that the name needs to fit the personality, suit the story, and be realistic to the setting (locale and time period). But where do we find these names? As I said, walking among the dead is one option, but you needn't rush off to an old east coast cemetery in person as there are many cemetery records now transcribed online.
Grave Matter that has recorded countless epitaphs of my own ancestors. The way I would use a site like this for name ideas is go find the location and time period, say 18th century Salisbury, MA, where I'll find the Old Colonial Burial Ground. Say I need names found in Connecticut, The Barbour Collection of Connecticut Town Vital Records: Suffield 1674-1850 should give me some ideas. This seems like it might be time consuming, but you can always tuck some of the great names you find away in a file (Evernote works great!). In American Marriages before 1699 you'll find not only a primer on the original colonies, but an extraordinary list of names. Looking for a name for a soldier who might enlist in the American Revolution? The Colonial Ancestors is one such website that provides names of those who took the oath of allegiance at Valley Forge. A Google Books resource like History of Boothbay, Southport and Boothbay Harbor, Maine. 1623-1905 is another place to find names targeting a specific communtiy during a specified time period as is Boston Birth Records from A.D. 1700 to A.D. 1800. Doing some internet searches or a trip to your an area library will get you going in the right direction.
Naming Practices. The 18th century tradition follows as such although this could be confusing depending on your queue of characters: First daughter after mother's mother, second daughter after father's mother, third daughter after mother. First son after father's father, second son after mother's father, third son after father. For more information about using historic naming patterns see this excellent article: Name Your Historical Fiction Characters Using Real Historic Conventions.
Well, it all may sound like overkill just to find a few decent names, but I think authors and readers alike will agree that the name of characters are vitally important. It's also important when incorporating the uncommon names to be sensitive to the reader's expectations. Elvira? Madonna? O.J.? Eh, we may want to reconsider and make use of something with a less cliche ring to it. But then cliche sometimes works when applied to your sweet protagonist Patience, your brooding hero Gideon, dangerous antagonist Absolom, the bitter cousin Mehitable, the eccentric privateer Fortunatus. You get the picture, your readers will too. What a fun way to exercise our creativity and originality when naming our dashing captain of the militia or our lovely and spirited protagonist. I'm sure there are many memorable names that come to mind from the novels you have read. Feel free to share some of your favorites when you comment.
Now for a little more fun, name the five characters in this picture and include in your comment. Or dare you not cast your precious names around so frivolously?
18th century Think Baby Names: Male
18th century Think Baby Names: Girls
Colonial Names for Girls
Colonial Names for Boys
Hot Baby Names for1710
18th century names
Behind the Name
Behind the Name: Surnames