Probably one of the best things about my job is reading the fan mail that lands in my inbox. Every single little note, even if it’s just a question about the next book, makes my day a little brighter. I especially love to hear how my books have made a non-reader into an insatiable book fanatic. My other favorite type of fan mail comes from other writers, asking me questions and requesting any advice I can give. A common question is about naming characters…and other things I’ve made up.

Almost every name, whether for a character or something I’ve created, has a purpose. Ang’dora, for example, comes from “angel” and “dora,” which means “gifts” in Greek – so the Ang’dora is “gifts from the angels.” “Lykora” comes from “lykos,” which is Greek for “wolf” and some variation of the Japanese word for tiger (which I can’t find my notes on to tell you the specific word, although I can’t type in Japanese symbols anyway, so it’d still be somewhat translated).

The character names in the Book of Phoenix series have very specific meanings, but if you haven’t read the first book yet, explaining could give things away. I’ll just say they’re each named what they are on purpose. The secondary characters in the Soul Savers are either named because the meaning is relevant to that character or I’ve borrowed their name from someone I know who shares a couple of their traits.

The names for Tristan and Alexis, however, have the most interesting stories. Ever since Legends of the Fall came out (one of my all-time favorite movies), I’ve loved the name Tristan. I’d already had all of my boys by then, so it had never been an option for my kids. When I started writing and realized I needed to name the hero (I was a few scenes deep before I realized this), I didn’t want to just name him because I liked the name. However, when I looked up “Tristan,” I couldn’t have been more pleased. “Tristan” is a derivative of “Drustan,” which means “tumult” but altered with the Latin “tristis,” which means “sad.” That pretty much covered the Tristan of the beginning of the series.

Alexis was another of my favorite names. In fact, if I’d ever had a daughter, her name would have been Alexis. My grandmother’s email address for years, which she’d created when I was pregnant with my second, had been based on “Alexis’s great-grandma.” When I didn’t have a girl and we decided three under the age of three was enough, I knew I’d never have my baby girl Alexis. So, eventually we got a female Boxer and named her Lexi. That was the closest I had…until I started writing fiction again.

After writing those first few scenes and realizing I wasn’t just playing around but had an actual storyline in my head, I not only had to name the hero, but also my heroine. I was already in love with her by then – she had become a part of me. But I wasn’t going to name her “Alexis” simply because she was the closest thing I had to a daughter besides the dog. I knew even in those early stages when I was writing just for me that I wanted her name to mean something. I wanted it to be as perfect as possible for her character (while still being a cool name, of course). A name that meant “protector” or “defender” since that was her purpose in life, or, if I couldn’t find that, something fitting to her personality.

So I went to the Internet and started researching baby names. Do you know how many sites there are – and how many are filled with viruses??? Ugh. It was kind of a nightmare at first. I didn’t even know where to start except to look up names that randomly came to mind and hope that a) I liked it; and b) it came close in meaning. Quite unproductive! Then, luckily, I stumbled upon, which allows you to do a reverse-look-up – in other words, I could enter the word “defender” and get a list of names with that keyword in the meaning. I hoped and prayed and crossed my fingers that there would be a name I really liked, because I was beginning to grow weary of analyzing all of these names. I began to think that maybe it wasn’t so important that her name mean anything relevant to her character…or that maybe I’d just continue to call her “she” and “her” until I had the patience to return to the research. After all, I was writing in first person, so her name didn’t come up all that much.

So I entered “defender” in the field and clicked “Search.” And I held my breath. When the list came up, I gasped, blinked, then probably squealed a little. I remember clearly that the hair stood up on my arms, and I just sat there staring at the screen for a while. What were the freakin’ odds?

The very first name – and the only female name – that showed: Alexis.

There was a time I thought I didn’t have a novel in me, and now I have 7 published books, with more coming. Many more. There was a time I thought I’d never have my Alexis, but, apparently, I’d been wrong about that, too. She just came in a different form than expected.

And that’s what’s so amazing about this thing called writing. Things come together in the most unexpected ways. Sometimes it’s a little detail you throw in Chapter 3, although you don’t know why, but it becomes something major when you’re writing Chapter 20. Sometimes it’s something weird you experienced six years ago that seemed to have no purpose, but you can draw on that memory when you’re writing a particular scene. Sometimes it’s something you thought you’d never have, but you do get it in your stories.

When I receive those fan mails from writers asking for advice, I’d always said first and foremost, “Don’t give up. No matter how hard or insane it gets, if this is your passion, keep writing. Otherwise, a piece of you will die.” I think I need to add to that: “Be prepared for the unexpected. The coolest things happen when you least expect them.”