Miles Kington: Mrs Gaskell and the fine art of inventing a fictional name

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Knutsford is the small plump Cheshire town where Mrs Gaskell lived, and on which she based her fictional town of Cranford. I went to Knutsford once, to take part in their Festival, and was interested to see that a number of strong elderly women still seemed to be in charge, to none of whom I dared admit that I had never read a word of Knutsford's famous daughter.

I still haven't, though I saw the first episode of Cranford on Sunday, so I have made a small start, and I am already full of admiration for Mrs Gaskell in one respect at least; she came up with a damned good name for a fictional town. "Cranford". It sounds just right. It sounds real. It sounds a lot more real than real-life Knutsford. "Knutsford" sounds like an uneasy mixture of Danish (Cnuts) and Saxon (ford).

Making up a place name is one of the hardest jobs an author can tackle. To be any good it has to be 10 times as convincing as the real thing. In Wessex, Thomas Hardy was surrounded by wacky real place names like Queen Camel and Huish Episcopi, but he would never have got away with using them, so he came up with fictional names like Emminster, Kingsbere, Port Bredy and Casterbridge, which all have the advantage of being a bit humdrum and ordinary.

Ambridge, the fictional town in The Archers, has the same good ring to it, the ring of banality. It's boring enough to be convincing. Not so "Borsetshire", the native fictional county of "The Archers". That's too boring. It smells of a committee decision, of mugs of instant coffee, of the strenuous lack of imagination that surely went into it. It also sounds like "Dorset" with one letter changed. It's not as bad as those fake counties beloved of Victorian and Edwardian novelists, such as "Blankshire", "Loamshire" and "Mudshire", but getting on that way.

Barchester, Trollope's invented cathedral town, is nice and dreary. So is Springfield, home town of the Simpson family. So is Melchester Rovers, fictional football team of Roy of the Rovers, not to mention Emmerdale, vaguely pale and northern. And they all have the same pattern, do you notice? Always a name of two halves. The second half is invariably a geographical term like -dale, or -brook, or -ford; -bridge, - ton or -down. The first half is usually a fragment of an old name like Bar- or Mel- or Cran- or Ayles-. Add one of the first sort to one of the second sort, and you can keep on coming up with new combinations. Crandale, Ashbrook, Casterford, Melbridge, Alverchurch, etc, etc.

What I suppose you ought not to do is make up something which turns out to be the real thing all along. I have just checked the list of five names I made up there, in a British gazetteer, and although there is a place called Ashbrook, the other four seem genuinely fake enough. (I also noticed that there are several real places called Cranford. I hope they were named after Mrs Gaskell's book).

What you must also not do is invent a place which sounds, quite unexpectedly, like a Jewish American film director. One of the first names I came up with using this formula was "Melbrook". All right by itself, but it would be fatal to write something like: "As evening fell over Melbrook's familiar features . ."

Yet the advice to use a banal made-up name sometimes backfires. For Punch, many years ago, I once had to write a series of children's rhymes about the horrors of the summer holidays, and one of them was about the check-up at the dentist. I made up a dentist called Mr Brown. Must be lots of dentists called Brown, I reckoned. I concocted a verse which went something like:

"Pain is noble, suffering good!
I'd share it with you , if I could!"
Says Mr Brown of Bradford Town,
As he brings his drill-piece down.
So, children, go and get your filling;
Begrudge not Mr Brown his shilling!"

Unfortunately, there was a single dentist in Bradford called Brown, and he sued Punch for damages and won.

Tomorrow: more home thoughts from abroad, especially places like Gotham and Atlantis and Megalopolis.