In March of 2004, a 14-year old girl in Naples died during a clash between two rival Mafia clans. She’d been standing outside of her house, chatting with her friends, when a man grabbed her and used her as a human shield. A single bullet through the back of the head stole her young life. She was an innocent bystander, a pure soul.
The girl’s name? Annalisa Durante.
Durante? Sound familiar? I’m sure it does for some of you reading this. It’s what I ended up naming the fictitious town in North Carolina where my novel, Sempre (Forever), is predominately set. Finding a location for the book was one of the most difficult decisions I faced when writing it. I pondered many real towns, investigating them and even making plans to visit them in order to do some research, but in the end nothing seemed to fit. So I created my own, a small town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, beautiful and simple, quiet and innocent. It’s a place that’s mostly wholesome and welcoming, where everyone knows each other, but it’s a place that’s threatened by the evil that exists outside of it. Evil that occasionally invades it, even though most of the citizens are ignorant to that fact. They don’t know just how close they are to danger. They don’t recognize the real-life horrors that exist right next door.
After creating the town came the task of naming it. I went through a few simple mountain town names, cliché ones even, but again nothing felt right. I agonized over it for weeks before I asked myself, what do you call a place where an innocent girl, trapped in an unimaginable horror, victim to the brutal Mafia, finds the life she deserves? What do you call a place that represents freedom, and love, and justice?
When I looked at it that way, it seemed obvious. I named it Durante as a sort of homage to the beautiful young girl who lost her life all those years ago in Italy.
I’m a believer that everything should have meaning. If it doesn’t, what’s the point? Even if the reader doesn’t know the story behind it, the writer does, and the feeling we pour into it, the love we use when crafting it, shines through in our words. We treat things we care about better, so we should care about everything? Even something as simple as a name. Because a name, while little more than a label sometimes, has a way of expressing things that a million words can’t adequately explain.
A creative writing professor once asked us in a class, “If you don’t care about your words, why should the reader?” That’s something I’ve always tried to remember when writing. If I don’t break my own heart, how can I expect to break yours? If I don’t get excited, how can I expect you to? If my stomach doesn’t flutter, if I don’t laugh, if I don’t swoon or get angry or want to throw things, how can I expect you to feel any of those emotions? And if I used a throwaway name, how can I expect you to see what it represents as anything but disposable?
So I try to put my all in everything I create, hoping that it comes through in my words, even if the meaning behind it is unknown. I find it takes me a lot longer, but I think it’s worth it.
As Carmine says in the upcoming (still, unfortunately, unnamed) sequel: “Just because it’s the easy way doesn’t mean it’s the best way. Sometimes it’s better to put in the fucking work.”