Naming Names

by jkatejohnston

6 October 2018

Dear Max,

Well. I finished the first draft of the second book in my law series. Begun: January 18. Finished: October 4. Pages: 334. Words 92,290, most of them intelligible and all written before work or during my lunch break, for which I think I deserve a prize. (Writers’ Retreats are for sissies.) (I would love to go an a Writers’ Retreat–and spend the whole time reading, watching TV and eating my head off. But writing all day? What a joke.)

My plan is to let the draft sit for a couple of months, then read it all the way through and then re-write it, starting with a blank screen and the printed draft on the desk beside me. Even with the parts I don’t change much, it can’t hurt to run them through the typewriter again.

What happened with the first book is not a polite question. I need to be more energetic about getting it properly rejected so that I can publish it myself. I submitted the entire manuscript to that crime publisher called Fahrenheit, attached a query letter/email full of boasting and cringing and resentment. And I haven’t heard anything.

Let’s return to a more cheerful subject. Writing problems.

Names. You can’t have a Ms. Hodge and a Mr. Lodge in the same book, let alone the same courtroom. Hodge is non-negotiable. That’s the me-character, and Hodge was my grandma’s maiden name, not to mention Johnson’s cat. So Hodge shan’t be changed; no, no, Hodge shall not be changed.[1]

You can’t have a Maggie and a Mattie. (Duh.)

I don’t know why I find it so hard to change the names, but maybe it’s a good sign. The people are real enough to me that those names belong to them. It would feel contrived to call them by names other than their own.

Also, and more complicatedly, the bad guy in the second book is a cop named Elena Cortez, and she’s the only Hispanic character in either book. I asked Teresa if she thought that was wrong, and she said without hesitation, yes. I knew it was, but I was hoping she’d give me a way out.[2]It shouldn’t be that hard to just change the name because there’s almost nothing about the character that relates to her Hispanic heritage. But I’d have to change her looks, and I don’t want to.

Here’s the first description of her. It’s at a hearing on the defendant’s motion to reveal the identity of a confidential informant. The way these work is the Judge and the DA and the cop who is running the informant go into the judge’s chambers without the defense attorney. The cop testifies about who the informant is and what the cops know about him. Then the judge is supposed to figure out whether the informant knows anything that’s helpful to the defense. If the informant does, then the DA has to turn over his name and contact information to the defense attorney.

The problem is that most judges don’t bring a very adventurous spirit to the inquiry. Facts that might look exculpatory to the defense attorney (if she were present) usually appear irrelevant or misleading to the judge and DA—so the defense attorney never learns about them. Another way to put it is that the judge’s lemons might be the defense attorney’s lemonade, but you can’t make lemonade if the judge won’t give you the lemons. Any yet another way to put it is that it’s hard to find anything exculpatory if you start from a presumption of guilt.

Sorry. Back to my little scene. Besides running the confidential informant, this cop, Elena Cortez, has also gone undercover herself, posing as a drug-seeking inmate. So we already know this character from a transcript of the tape-recorded conversation that she had with the defendant in the jail. All right, here’s the scene.

Judge Thorne, Bill Hurt and the DEA agent who’d called herself Helen when she was undercover came out of Thorne’s chambers, followed by the court reporter with all her gear. Sister Liz was sitting next to me at counsel table, and she gave “Helen” a little wave. In anyone else, it would have been sarcastic, but I was pretty sure that Liz intended it as a sincere greeting. They made eye contact, and Agent Elena Cortez dropped her gaze.  

I was seeing Agent Cortez for the first time, and it was an astounding sight. She was beautiful—so beautiful that it must have caused problems for her. She looked like the young Frida Kahlo, not the one in self-portraits that you see on mugs and tote bags, but the young woman in black and white photographs, absurdly handsome, aristocratic, hot. And now I remembered Liz’s remark from the transcript. Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world. And her name really was Elena.

So even DEA agents hovered around the truth when they lied. My clients always did that. Maybe that’s why they had a tendency to get caught. Or maybe undercover agents were trained to stay close to the truth because it was easier to sustain.

So, there’s Cortez.

The other problem with the name is that my fingers keep typing Cortex, and if don’t make the mistake myself, spellcheck tries to make it for me.


Notice how all these writing problems are the fixable, practical kind. I don’t have much to say about the problem of, Is it any good?

I regard that as none of my business. I’m doing my best. Other people can figure out the answer to that one.



[1]A description of Johnson with Hodge is on pages 1037-1038 of the Modern Library Life of Johnson.

[2]Marvin Mudrick’s remarks on the subject are on pages 214-217 of the original edition of Mudrick Transcribed.