“Writers of historical fiction must be careful to keep their characters authentic.” What does that mean? Well, one method is to make sure your characters talk as they would have in their own time, not yours. The surest way to destroy a reader’s faith in your knowledge and writing ability is to have your Roman emperor say, “Cool, man!”
I recognize that I’m pretty old-fashioned about names, even in today’s first-name society. While I was teaching, I expected my students to call me Dr. Schriber or Professor Schriber. Even the personable young man who made a habit of popping into my office to say, “Hey, Doc!” made me cringe a bit. No one ever addressed me as Carolyn, at least not more than once.
Several years ago, an amateur reviewer commented that my first novel used stilted language; he pointed to the prevalent use of last names among people who knew each other moderately well. My response was that in the 19th century, people were much more conscious of social and age-related conventions than we are today. The use of proper names was a matter of respect. Think about what your French teacher tried to tell you about personal pronouns—vous for proper society; tu only in intimate relationships. The same principle applies to names.
Here are some of the conventions I try to follow when writing historical fiction set in the time of the Civil War.
In most English-speaking 19-century families, first names were used only among those who had grown up together—classmates or siblings. The requirement for first name usage had two parts—similarity of age and closeness of relationship.
Children, of course, called their parents and grandparents by their titles only: Mother, Father, Grandmother, Grandfather. Parents and grandparents could use a child’s first name. Other adults might refer to a child as Miss Betsy or Miss Ross, depending upon how well they knew her.
For lateral relationships—i.e, family relationships outside the immediate household—everyone used a title plus a first name: Cousin Betsy, Uncle Charles.
More importantly, first names carried such a suggestion of intimacy that they were never used in mixed company or in front of strangers. A husband might call his wife Nelly in the bedroom, but outside of it, he would address her or refer to her as Mrs. Fairfield.
Similarly, women friends in a private visit might use Laura and Ellen but would revert to Miss Towne and Miss Murray in front of their colleagues or visitors. Male friends reacted the same way, but sometimes addressed each other by last names only: Pierce, Saxton. And certainly, a man would always address a woman as Miss Ware until they were actually engaged or married.
In the Civil War South, conversations between whites and blacks had their own conventions. House slaves used white first names but always with the honorific Massa, or Missus, while whites addressed slaves by their first names only: “Is dinner ready, Rina?” “Yes’m, Missus Laura.”
Field slaves used their owner’s last name, as in Massa Pope.
Slaves did not have their own last names until the Civil War, when they started adopting last names of their former owners or people they admired. There were lots of Lincolns right after the war. But when they took a surname, they followed the same speech patterns as the whites used. One of my favorite stories concerns the butler who, after emancipation was announced, told one of the housemaids, “I isn’t Joe no more. My name be Mister Johnson.”
Keep your characters' names straight, and your book will have authenticity.