Finding a suitable title for a character can be a problem. Unless you are searching for irony, it should bear some resemblance or clue to the person's identity, as well as their class and origin. Care must be taken not to drift too close to someone of prominence or notoriety (unless you intend to depict a fictitious relative, such as the beastly lieutenant Pigot, in The Jackass Frigate), and it is also important that you do not copy any attributes of a person with the same name. Westwood, the marine officer in The Patriot's Face was named after my dentist who, as far as I know, has no special interest in air rifles, and is a far more gentle, and indeed gentile, soul than the obsessive captain. Sometimes a character will begin with one name, only to find the moniker changing as they develop – often several times – and their rank or social standing might also be adjusted at the same time.
The name for one of my first principle characters, Shepherd, captain of HMS Vigilant, was taken from a man I was privileged to know for only a short while. I depicted no physical likeness, and the personality was also very different, but they did share the same rank, as the original Captain Shepherd was also a Royal Navy officer. Let me tell you the story...
It was over twenty years ago, on our first holiday as a family; we had rented the guard room of a castle set on the Somerset / Devon boarder. A splendid place certainly, and steeped in history, although the owner turned out to be every bit as fascinating as any building. We soon discovered a shared interest in the Georgian Navy and Mr Shepherd, as he chose to be known, leant me a copy of A Social History of the Navy, Michael Lewis' seminal work, a first edition of which now sits in my reference library. It was when he was showing me about his private museum that we discovered the common link.
On the wall was a picture of Collingwood, Nelson's friend, second in command at Trafalgar, successor to him in captaining Badger, and the subject of one of the young admiral's first letters after the loss of his right arm at Tenerife (Dear Coll, do not expect long letters from me...). Collingwood belonged to a small group of men who were particularly conscious of the toll our ships were taking on the oaks of England's forests – up to forty acres to build the frame of a third rate ship of the line. They took it upon themselves to help provide for the next generation by carrying acorns, and scattering them wherever they went. Nowadays such folk would be labelled “green” and probably derided and even in the period they may have suffered a degree of mocking, (although the fact remains that we did not run out of oaks!). Whatever, I mentioned this to Mr Shepherd who agreed, laughed quietly, then brought out a handful of acorns from his own pocket.
I later discovered that, when promoted to post captain rank, and commanding HMS Argonaut he served in the Far East, and saw his ship through several kamikaze attacks, although he spent longer telling me, with evident pleasure, how he had been able to equip the entire cruiser with refrigerators, so that his men could enjoy an almost constant supply of ice cream. Before then, he mentioned briefly, he had been a commander aboard King George V.
When I returned home I sent him one of my most precious books, an early biography of Nelson, to borrow. He returned it with a long letter that I still keep. Written in impeccable copperplate one paragraph begins. “It is blowing a proper sou'westerly at the moment. Reminds me of the time we were limping back to Ireland, desperately short of fuel in KGV after sinking the Bismark.”
I was proud to name my first principle naval captain after him, and since then wherever I go,
whenever I can, I carry acorns.