The Sea as Writing Inspiration

This month’s “Writing in Time” post was going to be about the beach and the sea as writing inspiration. But I ran into a problem. The beach left me completely uninspired. It’s not as if I haven’t done enough research. My family and I have gone to the North Carolina coast to visit my in-laws for years now. But the beach is relaxing, a giant sandbox for people of any age to enjoy. I’ve discovered I need settings that add tension to my writing, and the beach doesn’t do it for me.

But the sea … since I was twelve and went sailing with my cousin and her husband on their sailboat in Chesapeake Bay, I’ve been in love with ships and the sea. The might and the mystery of the sea fires my imagination. Below is inspiration for using the sea in speculative fiction, mysteries, and adventures.

Speculative Fiction

I’ve only visited the beaches on the east coast of the U.S. where European settlers first arrived, leaving behind four hundred years of recorded history. That history infuses the area, making it perfect for a tale of time travel.

In North Carolina, my family and I stay at Emerald Isle, a barrier island near a maritime archaeology site. Experts believe they are excavating the ship Queen Anne’s Revenge, Blackbeard’s flagship. In a speculative story, an archaeologist finds a way to Blackbeard’s time—a portal or some item salvaged from the wreck. Blackbeard discovers the way and travels to our time. The archaeologist has to get Blackbeard back to the 18thcentury.

A monster story works so well in the sea because, unlike stories of lake monsters, the unexplored depths of the oceans gives a hint of reality to the idea of giant, undiscovered forms of sea life. A fantastic story based on some fact has always appealed to me. “The Foghorn”, a short story by Ray Bradbury, comes to mind.


The possibilities for this genre are nearly limitless. How many middle grade mysteries have centered around an old lighthouse or sunken treasure? Tons, but that doesn’t mean current authors can’t put a new spin on classic settings.

For adult stories, the episode “Shark Mountain” from the PBS show Nature inspired me. It featured Howard and Michele Hall, a couple who run Howard Hall Productions. They produce and direct underwater films. Michele is also an underwater photographer and logistics coordinator for their expeditions around the world as they travel for their films.

I would love to invent a couple like the Halls. In a foreign country, the couple record or photograph something dealing with a crime but don’t know it. Their boat is searched, a colleague is attacked. When the local police seem unconcerned or corrupt, the couple conduct their own investigation.

To give a mystery an eerie atmosphere, nothing beats a deserted boat. The crew of a fishing boat finds a deserted ship. They can bring it in to harbor and then mysterious events start occurring, like someone following the captain or the fishing boat is vandalized. Or after the crew finds that abandoned boat, another ship begins to chase them and it’s a battle of wits for the fishing crew to reach port safely. That storyline combines mystery and adventure, which leads me to my next genre …


When a writer sets a story in nature, she can count on using that element for all kinds of plot twists and tension.

Two of my favorite nonfiction books are The Boy Who Sailed Around the World Alone and Dove, both by Robin Lee Graham. The first is a children’s books, stuffed with photos and the latter is for adults. Both recount the adventure of the author who became the youngest person to solo around the world starting when he was sixteen in 1965 and ending in 1970.

Those books alone provide a host of story elements from falling into the sea while working on the ship, to losing the main mast, to experiencing star-spangled nights on a still sea.

I could incorporate or adapt those real world experiences into a story involving a teen trying to sail around the world in the 21stcentury.

For more ideas about how to use August as writing inspiration, click on my 2019 post and my 2018 post.

How can you use the beach and the sea as writing inspiration?

Six Sources for Finding Names

To wrap up the month on naming characters and places, here are six sources for finding names.

Family History

If you have an amateur genealogist in your family, take a look at her work. My sister fills that role in our family and has uncovered relatives named Moses, Minerva, and Oral. Among the last names, she’s found Bonar, Righter, and Talkington. 

If you are planning to write about a family that covers several generations, studying your family’s naming patterns can help you build realistic-sounding names. In my family, we use middle names to honor someone while first names are usually ones the parents just happen to like. Five of my parents’ grandsons are named after grandfathers or great-grandfathers. My sister gave her daughter the middle name “Brooke” in memory of a college roommate

Social Security Baby Names

You can search baby naming trends back to 1880 on Social Security, perfect for historical fiction, or anytime you need to research the popularity of names in America.. This site does have one drawback. It doesn’t combine spelling variations. “Aiden” is much more popular than you would think from this site because parents spell it so many different ways, and each of those ways is listed separately.


I know that sounds grim, but I’ve found many interesting names while reading headstones in a cemetery. It also gives you a sense of history about a community if you read who lived and died there.

My oldest and I visited a cemetery this summer to find inspiration for names in our stories. That’s me looking at an obelisk headstone for a family named Van Deman. Sounds Dutch to me. Many of America’s earliest settlers were Dutch, so I could use that name for a family with old money. “Deman” looks a lot like “demon”. The family could be sinister, harboring a dark secret. But I’d change it to Van Daman so I don’t telegraph to readers that these characters are probably bad guys.

The next three categories are aimed at writers of fantasy and science fiction. But contemporary writers might still find inspiration. Maybe you have a character who is a professor of Celtic mythology and named all her children after the gods in those myths.

Scientific names for animals

Get a field guide. Flipping through my husband’s book on birds, I find Calidris, Striatus, Thula. Asio, Strix, and Zenaida. Tyto Albo is the name for barn owls. It also sounds like a great name for the hero of an epic. If I change it to Tyta Albo or Alba Tyto, I have a heroine.


A search through less well-known Greek, Roman, and Norse myths can provide names. I recommend dipping into mythologies that aren’t as well-known in America, like Celtic and Slavic. Just a few names I’ve found from Celtic and Slavic stories are Bres, Korrigan, Sadko, Morevna, and Caradoc.

Reverse and tinker with well-known names

I take a name like William and write it backwards, Mailliw. That’s unpronounceable. But I remove the “iw”, leaving Maill. Then I switch the vowels and change the “i” to “y”. I now have Myall, a name any English reader can sound out.

If you didn’t read my recommendation for the Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon, click here.

What other sources for finding names do you recommend?

The Art of Creating Character Names

Last week I wrote about the Golden Rules for naming characters. Today I will dig into the art of creating character names. Names can do more than label characters. They can be quick ways to define relationships, provide backstory, and above all, add another layer of reality to our fiction.

Choose Variety

In my YA mystery short story, “A Rose from the Ashes”, I had to name a lot of characters in a small amount of narrative space. Selecting names from a variety of different languages helped me differentiate between characters and aided readers in keeping the cast straight. My story is set in rural, southeast Ohio. 90-95% of the population is descended from European immigrants. Having lived in the area, I knew what languages I could pick from to create believable names.

My main character is searching for her father and has three candidates. I had to make those male characters distinct. One way was to give them last names from three different languages, Irish, English, and Polish. So I came up with O’Neil, Carlisle, and Malinowski.

In the U.S., English names can signify old money. I chose Carlisle as the last name for a wealthy businessman. He has three children, so I stuck to the English theme and named them Allison, Richard, and Sylvia.

The sheriff got the last name Malinowski and also has three kids. To keep the two sets of kids separate, I needed a different naming pattern. I introduce the Malinowski family at a church lunch, so I chose Hebrew names for the kids, Aaron and Micah. The oldest is called Rusty, which I will explain below.

Names provide backstory.

For some reason I can’t recall, I liked the idea of the sheriff going by the nickname Mal, based on his last name, Malinowski. That forced me to examine why he preferred a nickname to his first name. He probably hated his first name. What would be an awful first name for a Gen X guy? Walter seemed to fit the bill. But his mother is a character in the story, and she seems like a genuinely nice woman. Why would she saddle her son with a name like that? Because it’s a family name. So I created Walter R. Malinowski IV. His oldest son is called Rusty. It doesn’t take much thought from the reader to figure out why.

By digging deeper into the reason behind my name, I developed my characters.

Names define relationships.

The wealthy business man is Jason Carlisle and he has a brother Rick. Jason also has a son Richard. That tells the reader, without me explicitly saying so, that the brothers are close. I have a scene in which Jason teases Rick about his dating life and that demonstrates the kind of relationship they have, but the names are a quiet code that reinforces the idea.

Side Note: I just realized I violated my rule of not having names look alike with Rick and Richard. I’ll have to watch out for that.

Your turn. What names have you created for characters? Why? What memorable names have you come across in stories?

The Golden Rules for Creating Names in Fiction

Like I said last week, I think naming character, places, and businesses in fiction is an art. Before you hurry away to invent hundred of memorable names, keep in mind the two golden rules for creating names in fiction.

Names must be pronounceable.

Whatever language I write in, whatever audience I write for, I must create names that my readers can easily figure out the pronunciation for. When I was a teen, I read Murder for Christmas by Agatha Christie. The butler was named Tresselian. I had no idea how that sounded, so I either made it Tremayne or just bleeped over it.

Mario Puzo used the last name Corleone for his Mafia dynasty in The Godfather. Whether readers read it as Core-lee-own or Core-lee-own-ee, the name was easy for readers of English to get at least a close approximation. In his novel The Last Don, Mr. Puzo used the last name Clericuzio. I think I know how to say it, but as a reader I’d like a name that was easier to sound out. But being an extremely successful author, Mr. Puzo was in a position to dump a mouthful like that in his fiction.

Names must not resemble each other.

If I have a character named Bob, I should not have another one named Bobbie. Or Mary and Mason. Or Caroline and Carl. Or Mr. Terrell and Mrs. Terry. With so many names to choose from, I don’t have an excuse for picking lookalike names. It only confuses the reader and makes them reread sections when they get the name wrong. The more they have to reread, the more irritated they become.

Even when I write about an extended family, and they have a tradition of handing down a certain name, I still have to differentiate it somehow. Bob’s son goes by Robert, and Robert’s son can go by a nickname like Chip.

The only exception to the above rule is if the names that can be mistaken for one another are part of the plot. Mrs. Fleming has Mr. Flemish’s luggage delivers to her hotel room and discovers one suitcase contains a bag of jewels.

Have you read a story that violate the golden rules for creating names in fiction?

Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon

My theme for July is naming characters and places in our writing. I think it’s an art unto itself, and one I love to work in. I also think names are a critical component to making fiction seem real. J.R.R. Tolkien worked very hard at creating names for his fantasy characters. Names for elves do not sound like names for hobbits. That attention to detail is one of the reasons his books come alive to readers.

I’ve had The Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon for many years. The cover above is to the hardcover book I own, published in 1994. It’s proved an invaluable tool, listing male and female names for different languages, from Anglo-Saxon to Ukranian, along with their meanings. Ms. Kenyon also provides extremely helpful introductory chapters, concerning such subjects as how to choose names to fit particular genres and toponyms and resnyms.

What are toponyms and resnyms? Toponyms are names of places. Since I invented an 89th county in Ohio for my YA mysteries, I also have to invent the names of the towns, villages, roads, and geographical features in it. I live in the state, so doing research is easy. I need to choose names that would fit with real place names within the state. I came up with the name Marlin for the county because it sounds like Morgan, a real county in southeast Ohio. The Buckeye State has many place names that are English, Irish, Scottish, French, and Native American, so researching those trends should help me create believable toponyms

Resnyms are the names given to invented products or companies. For years, I’ve toyed with the idea of including a private detective agency in my mysteries and have always wanted to call it the Sentinel Corporation. I’ve imagined it as a national company, maybe a bit sinister. Sentinel sounds both protective and ominous to me.

The cover above is for the updated Kindle edition I have. This edition offers a greater variety of languages than the earlier edition, which focuses more on Europe. The Kindle version includes names from China, Cambodia, Thailand, and more.

I’m not the only member of my family who has found this books useful. My oldest has been reading it to find inspiration for an animal fantasy he’s writing.

Do you spend a lot of time creating names for characters and places in your stories? Why or why not?

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