If you’ve read my novel Skull and Sidecar, or even if you’ve only read its description, you might be wondering, What the hell kind of name is Gunn Flagely? And where did Nell Kelly come from? Well, wonder no more, friends!
A couple of years ago, I was on the phone with my grandmother. I hadn’t begun working as a freelance writer and editor yet, but we had moved into the house where we live now.Â I was in my old office, which is upstairs. It wouldn’t have been painted deep pink yet; it would have still been the pasty tan color that the renovators used on all the walls.Â
Gram had reached the part of the conversation where she told me how her friends were faring, health-wise. I always do my best to pay attention, but I’ll admit I often fail. I hear her, but I’m not listening carefully. My mind wanders. I look out the windows at the clouds above the elementary school across the street, or at the squirrels playing in the plum tree next to the front porch.Â
On this day, during this particular failure of mine to pay attention, Gram said something like, “You remember Gunn Flagely, from over in…” I did not remember a Gunn Flagely. There was no way there could possibly be a person with a name like that. But I was hooked on the name. I began to imagine this woman who, in her youth, wore a tweed riding suit and had a motorcycle. She had bobbed hair and fantastic lipstick.Â
I could not let her go. There was obviously a book to be written about her. But she needed a foil. Someone less audacious, less daring, less sexy.Â
Gunn Flagely needed a Nell Kelly, but I didn’t have a name for this character. I wanted her to be serious, studious, and feminist. She should be smart and strong, but in ways different from Gunn. The tension between them would come from their different ideas of how independent women should live their lives.Â
So this character needed a straightforward, no-nonsense name. I tried a few; none clicked. I don’t even remember what they were.Â
Between my North Portland neighborhood and the southeast part of the city where my friends lived is a home renovation and reconstruction business of many decades: Neil Kelly. Its headquarters has the name spelled out in big red letters on a two-story building that sits at a corner with a red light. I often get stopped there, and I often laugh to myself at the number of times I read that sign wrong and think it says Nell Kelly.Â
Oh, hey. Nell Kelly.
After spending years writing, revising, and publishing Skull and Sidecar, I now have trouble remembering what the actual name of the business is. Nell Kelly comes to mind far more often than Neil.Â
Once I had characters and names, plus a motorcycle with a sidecar, the rest of the book spooled out across the state of Oregon. There were plenty of dead and dreadful drafts in the early days, but these two women were always the twin stars that kept the story moving.Â