A Woman of Substance: One Way to Name Characters
Helen Ludlow is a character that’s been floating around my head for twenty years or so. Every once in a while she creeps up on me when least expected, reminding me that as yet she has not told her story. But, Helen, I'm writing you this time, I promise. Soon.
There are several real Helen Ludlows, I checked, and judging by their photos when you google Helen Ludlow they each have a wonderful presence. Like their name suggests, each looks like a woman of substance, full of longing and intellect, beauty and surprise. But I don’t know any of these real Helen Ludlows and I hope they don’t mind if one day I borrow their name. I mean no harm, but I need it because it’s perfect for what happens to my Helen.
Here’s how she came to be. Not saying it’s a good way to create characters, or the way I usually create them, just how I created my Helen Ludlow.
One day I was walking the streets of the Lower East Side, a favorite haunt, when I found myself on the corner of Hester and Ludlow Streets, the location of the pig market in one of Manhattan’s immigrant neighborhoods back in the day. It was the spot where pushcarts and day laborers jostled.
I listened for ghosts, trying to imagine what it was like to wait for work in 1900 in an unforgiving dawn with hundreds of hungry others, a sewing machine tucked under one arm, while the streets teemed with traffic and pedestrians shoved one another and jobbers shouted barely understood invectives and the American dream dimmed.
I looked up at the street sign and thought, Ludlow, Ludlow, what a perfect name for my character.
With the yoking together of name and character, I knew instantly what her fate would be and that it had nothing to do with Hester Street or the pig market or the twentieth century.
No, my Ms. Ludlow has a different story.
But she needed a first name, and as I stood there, the name, Helen, came to mind. Helen, of course, perfect: Helen Ludlow. Not Hester Ludlow, which would be her logical name. But Helen. Because of what happens to her, because of who she is and who she will become or strive to become.
Photo: Hester at Ludlow, Lower East Side, Manhattan, the location of the Pig Market in the early 1900s. See also, “A Generation Returns to Hester St., Where It All Began,” by Richard F. Shepard, New York Times, November 11, 1975.