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What’s in a Name? Everything! by Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Plotting and Planning
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Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger

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Writing a novel is complex. It’s a job. A very real one when you have a publisher to answer to who is all about selling books. And that means working well with an editor who has that final goal consistently in sight.

When I finished the outline of The Woman at the Gates, my editor returned her comments essentially saying that she loved it, “but I wonder whether readers will be able to deal with the name ‘Ilarion.'”

I was crushed. Ilarion Kovalenko, the warrior-like Ukrainian figure I had dreamed up was absolutely clear as day. I heard his voice. I wrote down everything he said – on napkins, on the backs of receipts, in the margins of newspapers. I knew what he looked like. I knew everything I had to know to make him leap off the page for readers. But my editor wanted a new name.

You might think, “What’s the big deal? Just give him a new name and keep the notes.”

Here’s the thing. When I have a name in my head, I start doing a Google images search. Mine was this: 1940s Ilarion blond Slav warrior. And I search for a photo of someone who will just land it for me. I had already done this. Which was why I was already hearing Ilarion’s voice in my head.

I stared at those photos, and I sent my editor a list of possibilities.

Ihor Kovalenko.

Nestor Kovalenko.

Ivan Kovalenko.

She picked Ivan. And I made the stupid mistake of thinking it should just work because it was also an “I” name.


All those mini dialogues I’d scratched down were no longer working. Ivan was simply going to be a different person. Period. End of story.

Or just the beginning, I suppose.

Yes, there is a lot to a name. And I knew this. I’d learned it over ten years ago when I was writing The Reschen Valley series.

I was at a writing retreat and working on the first draft of the first book. I write in consecutive chapters. I’d reached a chapter where I was writing from the male protagonist’s perspective. Up to that point, we’d met him but he was presented via my female protagonist. Now I wanted to write from his point-of-view. And nothing was coming. He wasn’t speaking to me. At all. Total silence. Nada.

I shared my frustration with my writing group and someone asked what his name was.

“Pietro Grimani.”

“Peter. Like the rock. Is he a rock?”

I frowned. “He’s pretty hard to pin down as a character. That’s the journey he needs to take. He has to figure out what he stands for.”

“Doesn’t sound like a rock to me,” my colleague said.

I thought about it and said, “No. He’s an Angelo. Angelo Grimani.”

And WHAM! The first sentences for his chapter started rolling.

For The Girl from the Mountains, I had Magdalena Novák’s name before I had the story. I knew what I wanted to happen but the first scene I wrote, she was already a very strong and brave character and that was not what I intended for her arc. I wanted Magda to grow into the super strong female protagonist via all her antagonists: the Second World War, the terrifying German officer König, the life of a partisan on the run, and so on. I had to reveal her flaws early on. I just didn’t know what they were. I did my Google images search and up popped a woman with a very large birthmark on her face. And holy moly! I knew everything about Magdalena Novák!

I understand that this all might sound like hocus pocus, or maybe you might suggest I talk to a professional, but I’ll share one little tidbit from real life and maybe you will understand that names are everything.

One of my friends is raising her five-year-old son on her own and my husband and I happen to be the godparents. How she gave birth to him is a story itself. My friend’s relationship with her boyfriend had fallen apart, and after years, she made the very personal decision to get pregnant via in vitro. It took years and four attempts. In the end, she carried a child who was not biologically hers.

She’d chosen the name, as many people do, before his birth: Daniel. However, from day one, I couldn’t get Daniel over my lips. To me, he was a Michael. Mikhail or Mikhailo to be exact. For her, Daniel was a great international name that also represented her Russian Jewish roots. On many occasions, my husband and I remarked how, to both of us, Daniel was very much a Mikhail.

So, I looked it up. Daniel, in Hebrew, means “God is my judge.” Then I looked up Mikhail: “Who is made by God.”

I don’t know about you, but I got shivers. How else do you explain the miracle of that boy?

(c) Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger

About The Woman at the Gates:

1944, Germany: Gazing through the barbed wire fence, up to the pale blue sky, Antonia dreams of home: cherry orchards, golden fields, and the man she loves, who she may never see again…

Resistance fighter Antonia is out in the forest behind her family’s beloved farm when the Nazi soldiers arrive. As she sees her sister Lena and her young nephews herded towards the trucks, guns pointed at their heads, she faces a split-second, heart-wrenching decision: to stay hidden, stay free and continue the fight. Or to give herself up and go with her family to protect them—no matter what lies ahead.

As she clutches her nephew’s little hand in hers, her other arm tight around Lena, she knows she has made the right choice. And as the truck rattles towards a brutal labor camp, and they start to wonder what fate has in store for them, Antonia’s only thought is of how to escape.

Because before they were captured, Antonia worked tirelessly to free her country from those who had turned her homeland into a bloody battleground. By her side had been clever, handsome Viktor. The man she was to marry, whose love shone like a light in the darkness of war surrounding them.

Antonia does not know if Viktor has been caught or executed. But she knows she must try to find a way back to him and she cannot wait any longer to be saved. Her precious nephews will die without proper food and they could all be killed at any moment.

The world outside the camp gates is full of danger, but they have to find a way through them first. And that is their only hope, even if it costs Antonia her life. The Nazis have taken everything from her, but they can never take away her courage…

A heartbreaking, inspiring and totally unforgettable story of the unbelievable courage and determination of extraordinary people in the darkest days of war. Fans of Kristin Hannah, Fiona Valpy, and The Tattooist of Auschwitz will be gripped from the very first page until the final, heart-stopping conclusion.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger was born in Minnesota in 1969 and grew up in the culture-rich neighborhood of “Nordeast” Minneapolis. She started her writing career with short stories, travel narratives, worked as a journalist and then as a managing editor for a magazine publisher before jumping the editor’s desk and pursuing her dreams of writing and traveling. In 2000, she moved to western Austria and established her own communications training company. She has won several awards for her short stories and novels and now primarily writes historical fiction. During a trip into northern Italy over the Reschen Pass, she stood on the edge of Reschen Lake and desperately wanted to understand how a 15th-century church tower ended up sticking out of the water. What stories were lying beneath? Some eight years later, she launched the “Reschen Valley” series with five books and a novella releasing between 2018 and 2021, in parallel to her WW2 novels and short story collections.

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