The Ballad of Daniel Durst, or; What’s in a Name?

Some character names come unbidden. Others are agonized over.

For Aubrey and Lindsey of Mr Warren’s Profession, it was very simple. I have a lifelong fascination with the arbitrary gendering of names and how a name’s gender can change throughout history. Many names we consider “feminine” today were often “masculine” in earlier centuries. The name Aubrey, for example, was used almost exclusively for boys until the song “Aubrey” by Bread hit the radio in 1973. The lyrics even remark upon the name being unusual for a girl.

And Aubrey was her name
A not so very ordinary girl or name
But who’s to blame?

Cue millions of girls born throughout the 70s and 80s getting the name Aubrey.

But before Bread, there was Beardsley. Specifically Aubrey Beardsley, a late Victorian artist who leant his pen-and-ink talents to illustrating, among other things, Oscar Wilde’s Salome. It is in his honour that Aubrey Warren is named Aubrey.

With Aubrey settled, his soulmate still required a name. I ran down my list of Victorian masculine names that had since leapt over to femininity and settled on Lindsey. Simple and satisfying.

For Hold Fast, I wanted to continue my habit of granting my masculine heroes names which had shifted from 19th century masculinity to 20th and 21st century femininity. Evelyn, absolutely unapologetic about who and what he is, received a name now considered unambigiously feminine. Morgan, however, keeping his true desires hidden not just from the world around him but also arguably from himself, received a name that still retains its gender ambiguity.

The protagonists of The Haunting of Heatherhurst Hall received the same treatment in reverse. The name Catherine has (to the best of my knowledge) always been considered feminine. Kit, however, is a nickname fit for anyone regardless of gender. And the genderless ambiguity of Alex as a nickname for Alexandra, Alexander, and any variation thereof, is almost a cultural meme.

And now we come to Oak King Holly King.

I struggled for ages with what to call the heroes of Oak King Holly King. One was a mortal clerk, the other a fae warrior. I knew I wanted the fae to have a name from the natural world. Beyond that I was stumped.

After hours of deliberation I finally decided I would give one character the name Wren, it being both a delightful bird and also a common enough given name for humans.

Unfortunately I originally assigned it to the fae.

It felt wrong from the start. Yes, the fae was fierce like a wren. But beyond that it didn’t sit right. And I still had no name for his mortal counterpart.

One morning, tearing my hair out over my laptop, I realised that if Wren was a good name for a human in my world, then it would probably suit a Victorian mortal. So I slapped the name Wren onto my mortal clerk and it stuck. Suddenly his character clarified; a wee speckled figure who appeared docile at first glance but would loudly and fiercely defend itself and its territory at the slightest provocation.

And since I already had a bird theme going, it seemed only natural to continue it and call the fae Shrike. This likewise gave both character and story the vital direction they’d lacked. An established method of attack (skewering), a particular appearance (masked), and a preferred habitat (thorns).

Naming the characters unstuck the story’s wheels and allowed it to roll out into the book you know now. Secondary characters came still easier. Daniel’s name is a reference to the BBC’s 2012 miniseries adaptation of The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens. In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment where the camera pans over the sign beside Mr Grewgious’s door, it reveals his clerk’s name as Daniel Bazzard. (Dickens himself never bothered to grant Bazzard a given name). Sukie is even more straightforward; I named her after my favorite character from Gilmore Girls.

I delved back into the world of Oak King Holly King to write its sequels in Tales from Blackthorn Briar. Daniel would finally be the protagonist of his own story. As I began writing The Ballad of Daniel Durst, I realised I knew Sukie was a nickname for something, but had no idea which name it came from.

Enter Behind the Name, one of my favorite websites for researching and collecting names for characters.

Looking up Sukie on Behind the Name revealed it was a nickname for Susan, derived from the Biblical name Susanna. In the story of Susanna and the Elders, the innocent Susanna is accosted by two lecherous old men. When she refuses them, they accuse her of adultery in revenge. She is arrested and about to be executed when a young man speaks up and demands her accusers be questioned. The elders are interrogated separately, which reveals a massive hole in their false story; one claims Susanna met her fictional lover beneath a mastic tree, and the other claims to have seen her with her fictional lover beneath an oak. As Wikipedia puts it:

“The great difference in size between a mastic and an oak makes the elders’ lie plain to all the observers. The false accusers are put to death, and virtue triumphs.”

Why repeat all this? Because the young man who spoke up in Susanna’s defense was named Daniel.

I had no idea of this connection when I originally named and wrote these characters. In retrospect it feels like fate. Their roles in Oak King Holly King and The Ballad of Daniel Durst are reversed; it is Sukie who helps rescue Daniel from the unwelcome advances of a lecherous elder. And through that rescue both Sukie and Daniel are able to find their happily-ever-after with each other.


Tales from Blackthorn Briar is the sequel to Oak King Holly King, featuring hurt/comfort and many happily-ever-afters – available now wherever fine books are found!

Shrike, the fae Butcher of Blackthorn, and Wren Lofthouse, a mortal Victorian clerk, are bound together by love and fate. Their continued adventures (and those of their friends) are told in this collection of fantastical tales following the story of Oak King Holly King, including…

• Wherein Shrike and Wren repay their debt to the Court of Hidden Folk.

Mr Grigsby’s Clerk
• Wherein Mr Grigsby finds a replacement for Wren – and perhaps more than he bargained for.

Jack in the Green
• Wherein a certain Horse Guard wanders into Blackthorn Briar.

Winter Solstice
• Wherein the Holly King surrenders to the Oak King.

The Holly King’s Peril
• Wherein Wren and Shrike discover danger in the wilds of the Fae Realms.

The Ballad of Daniel Durst
• Wherein Daniel embarks on his authentic life in a bold new land.

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