In one of Paul Reiser’s stand-up routines, he told a particularly obscure joke and received only a few chuckles, while most of the audience merely stared, blinking in puzzlement. “That’s okay,” he told them. “Some of these…are just for me.”
Do you toss things into your stories that are just for you? Names that have meaning but will probably go undeciphered, allusions that could only be understood by a handful of readers, references that couldn’t possibly be grasped but by you and a couple of friends?
Not all my characters have meaningful names; some of them just sound right. But in my (unpublished) first novel my protagonist was a middle-aged man who was so skeptical and reductionistic that he had gradually cut himself off from belief in anything he couldn’t touch and quantify. I wanted him to be mundane in the literal sense of the word, so I made him a professor of geology. And I wanted a name that reflected that pedestrian, materialist nature, so after a long browse in the phone book, I named him Walker Clayborne. (I also dug out an astrology computer program and found him a birth time and date that made him a triple Virgo, the most intellectual of the three Earth signs.)
In my work-in-progress, one of the main characters is a biologist who specializes in the rain-forest canopy. She is named Miranda but goes by Mira, which is an anagram of Rima, the bird-girl of the trees from Green Mansions. Well, some of these…are just for me.
A character in Shock and Awe is named Lamont Richter. I think "Richter" is a nice, harsh-sounding Germanic name, but also has an association in most people's minds (or at least the minds of most people in the Western US) with the Richter scale of earthquake fame. I decided to name him "Lamont Richter", because he's somewhat elegant and old-school, and I think "Lamont" reflects that; but those who care about earthquakes may also catch a hint of the Lamont-Doherty Seismographic Network and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observation Lab.
Long, long ago, Lawrence Block wrote a series of comic thrillers featuring Evan Tanner, a hero whose sleep center had been destroyed by a wound received in the Korean War. In one of the Tanner novels, The Scoreless Thai, Tanner is being shown the ins and outs of Bangkok by a CIA agent who points out key drops, including a tobbo shop. A tobbo shop? Whazzat?
A “tobbo shop” is a typesetting error for “tobacco shop.” Block decided to let the error stand, just to add a touch of (faked) authenticity, and noted that the way the world of words works, he might very well find a novel some day in the future making reference to “the notorious tobbo shops of Bangkok.”
In my novel Tomorrowville, my protagonist is taken to a futuristic (well, come to think of it, it is the future), 24-hour drug‘n’drink bar. Above the door is the sign Tanner’s Tobbo Shop (We Never Sleep). And inside, at last the waiting world (all five of us, I'd estimate) learns what a tobbo shop is.
Contrived? Yes. Silly? Certainly. Obscure? You bet. But it gives me a sort of glow of pleasure, and I think it reads sensibly in the story even if you have no idea where it came from.
Similarly I put the words of acquaintances into the mouths of my characters, or have my characters actually quote them in the form “This psychologist I know says…”
And don’t even get me started on little writing stunts I pull just because I want to break some “rule” I’m tired of hearing.
I rationalize this sort of behavior by using Hemingway’s theory that the iceberg of a book should be seven-eights underwater—that the reader can sense things the author knows yet has not put on the page. Roger Zelazny operated on this theory as well--he claimed that every one of his novels had an "invisible" chapter, one he wrote but deliberately excluded. In my rare moments of lucidity, I suspect this is all masturbatory behavior, and that the only argument that can be made for it is that it keeps my butt in the chair long enough to get some work done.
Do you guys do this sort of thing? Are “Some of these…just for you?” Or am I weird? Or maybe both?