Mary Miley, historian, and author of five mysteries set in the Roaring Twenties

Miley began her fiction career with The Impersonator, winning the Mystery Writers of America Best First Crime Novel award, and currently optioned for a television movie.

A graduate of William and Mary, she worked at Colonial Williamsburg and taught history at Virginia Commonwealth University for many years. She retreats to her Virginia winery for getaways, where everything she does would have been illegal during the Prohibition era.

You think it’s easy, naming characters? Ha! It’s harder than naming your own baby. In fact, it’s one of the hardest things about writing—for me, anyway. I was talking with an acquaintance the other day who said, “How about using my name in your next book? I don’t care if I’m a villain or a hero—or even just a walk-on part.” It put me on the spot. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but choosing names for characters doesn’t work like that. It can be a daunting prospect—especially for authors who, like me, write historical novels.

First and most important, the name has to fit the era. My mysteries are set in the Roaring Twenties, so names popular in the 1950s or 1970s or today may not work well at all. Authors who set their books in the medieval era or Revolutionary Russia have an even tougher time.

One place I consult for ideas is the Social Security website, where the most popular names of any given decade are listed. If I have a character who is 35 years old in 1925, I look at the records for 1890 to learn which names prevailed. I don’t necessarily use the most popular names on the list, but I definitely want a name from that list. For example, the top 5 names for boys in 1890 were John, William, James, George, and Charles; the top 5 for girls were Mary, Anna, Margaret, Helen, and Elizabeth. There is zero overlap with today’s popular names (Liam, Noah, Oliver, Elijah, and William; Olivia, Emma, Ava, Charlotte, and Sophia). I also take into consideration naming styles of the era. In the 1920s, it was common to use –ie or –y endings on nicknames for men, not just boys. Thus, lots of grown men were called Freddy, Tommy, Jimmie, Johnny, Timmy, Frankie, Eddy, Wally, and so forth. You don’t hear those much today, do you? Also common was the use of nicknames that bore no resemblance to the given name, like Slats, Studs, Lucky, Stretch, Fats, Porky, Babe, and Lumpy. This is particularly true in the criminal underworld; think of Bugs, Scarface, Hymie, Killer, and Snorky—all real gangsters.

But first names are a breeze compared to last names. For those, I need to consider not only the era but the likely ethnicity of the character. The Roaring Twenties was a time of heavy immigration from eastern Europe, so many people in urban centers had last names that were Italian, Jewish, and Polish. If I’d been writing about an earlier time, the names might have skewed to German, English, Irish, and Scots. I have to also consider professions: police forces in 1920s Chicago skewed toward Irish, so I named the cop in my latest book Kevin O’Rourke. In the early part of the twentieth century, servants were often Irish immigrant girls or African American women, which is why the young Irish housemaid in my current book is called Ellen, and the Black cook is Bessie Jackson. Their employer’s name is Weidemann, a German name representing the German immigrants of the previous generation. Unlike today, when African Americans often use names that have African, Muslim, or biblical origins, in the early 20th century, they chose names that closely resembled those used by European-Americans.

In writing my current book, I muddled my way through several names before settling on Maddie for my main character. She was born in the 1890s in Chicago to immigrant parents from French Canada, so I gave her a French name, Madeleine, which I Americanized with a nickname to Maddie. She married an Italian immigrant I named Tomasso Pastore, so she now has a multicultural name—how very American!

Another fun tool I use to help me with ideas is the online random name generator. This site lets me choose the gender, the ethnicity, the country, and the age of a person; then, it spits out an appropriate name. So if I needed a name for a minor character who is an Australian male living in America today and in his fifties, I get . . . (drum roll please) Eddie J. Adcock. Sounds good to me! Check it out at

Some authors, like my friend David Baldacci, auction the naming rights of their characters for charity, promising to use the winner’s name in their next book. It’s a nice fund-raiser, but it’s risky for the author. I guarantee you, the author worries about the winning name! What if he or she ends up having to use a name that doesn’t fit any of her characters? I’d love to auction a name for charity, but I can’t risk getting stuck with something that didn’t exist in the 1920s. It’s really more appropriate for authors who write contemporary fiction.

I explained a little of this to my friend and promised him I’d keep his name in mind for future books. But, off the record, it won’t happen. His name is far too modern for a Roaring Twenties mystery, and that’s the era I love.

“I wasn’t proud of what I did, but I was proud of how well I did it.” It’s 1924, and Maddie Pastore has it made. A nice house, a loving husband with a steady job—even if it is connected to Chicago’s violent Torrio-Capone gang—and a baby on the way. But then Tommy is shot dead and she learns her husband had a secret that turns her life upside down. Penniless and grieving, Maddie is sure of only two things: that she will survive for the sake of her baby and that she’ll never turn to the mob for help. So when she’s invited to assist a well-meaning but fraudulent medium, she seizes the chance. She’s not proud of her work investigating Madam Carlotta’s clients, but she’s proud of how well she does it. When Maddie unearths potential evidence of a dark crime, however, she faces a terrible dilemma: keep quiet and let a murderer go unpunished or follow the trail and put herself and her baby in mortal danger. . .(Cover Flap)

And before I go, one more thing . . . who doesn’t love illustrations in a book? I sure do, but unfortunately, adult novels seldom contain illustrations—a map, perhaps, or a genealogy chart are the most readers can hope for, considering the cost. So in order to overcome this visual wasteland, I set up a Pinterest page for The Mystic’s Accomplice, where I post illustrations of Maddie’s Chicago in the 1920s, although many buildings no longer exist.

Because I weave real people through my stories (people like Al Capone and Johnny Torrio), I include photos of them, plus photos of the objects mentioned in the story. Please take a peek at the page and let me know what you think!

Mary Miley

The Impersonator (St. Martin’s: 2013)
Silent Murders (St. Martin’s: 2014)
Renting Silence (Severn: 2016)
Murder in Disguise (Severn: 2017)
The Mystic’s Accomplice (Severn: 2021)
Spirits and Smoke (Severn: 2022)



  1. Madeline Gornell

    My first comment didn’t seem to go through? Trying again… Really enjoyed your post, like selecting name. Madeline “Maddie” (smile)

    • George Cramer

      Hi Madeline,

      Unless you are a regular visitor, your comments are screened for viruses. That’s the reason for a bit of a delay.

      Thanks for visiting and commenting.


  2. Madeline Gornell

    I really enjoy naming characters! Enjoyed your post.

  3. Marilyn Meredith

    I write in modern times, and now moms are giving their kids unusual or old fashioned and biblical names: in my family we have Aleena, Avyanna, Aria, Achilles, Asher, note all the A names, Jeremiah, Olivia, Eleanor, Madeline. When I’m picking names I like to look at all the graduation programs I’ve collected and pick a first name and last name that fit the characters.

  4. Violet Moore

    Great naming process to make fictionalized characters fit with the historical period.

  5. Michael A, Black

    I found your reflections on writing very fascinating. The Roaring Twenties is a great and underused era for fiction writing. I love the pulp and a lot of them were written back then but you have the added benefit of looking back with a retroactive hindsight. Good luck with your series.


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Heidi Noroozy – Traveler, Translator, Writer


I write multicultural fiction inspired by the places I have visited around the world.

As a student in Leipzig, East Germany, I sampled Hungarian wine at the Auerbachs Keller, the underground restaurant where Johann Wolfgang von Goethe set scenes from his tragic play, Faust. While living in Switzerland, I biked around my family’s Bürgerort (ancestral village), explored the Jura Mountains near Neuchậtel, and never passed up an opportunity to sample Swiss fondue. These days, I regularly travel to Iran, where I have pondered the ancient past amid the ruins of Persepolis, baked translucent bread with Kurdish women in the Zagros Mountains, dipped my toes into the azure waters of the Caspian Sea, and observed the dichotomy of a publicly religious yet privately modern culture. My work has appeared in World Literature Today, Nautilus Magazine, and several anthologies and has been translated into five languages.

What brought you to writing? When I was in college, I studied languages and world literature and wrote stories on the side. When graduation approached, and it became time to put some thought into a career, I decided to combine my two loves, language and writing, and become a translator. I had a vision of translating works by my favorite German novelists. But the reality is that we all have to make a living and, as any writer will tell you, literature doesn’t pay the bills. Not even literary translation. So I became a patent translator and continued to write stories on the side.

Do you write in more than one genre? I write short stories and novels, but the short form is my favorite. I’ve written murder mysteries, capers, thrillers, and political satire. More recently, I’ve begun to write literary fiction as well.

What kind of research do you do? My stories usually begin with a place. I never leave the house without a small Moleskin notebook in my pocket. Perhaps some detail or snippet of conversation will come my way, and I whip out that notebook to jot it down. I’ve written entire travelogues in my little notebook while on extended trips to faraway locations.

Research always gives me a good reason to travel. When writing my short story, “Trading Places,” which was published in the online magazine, Nautilus, I went back to Leipzig for the first time in thirty years to check out locations for my setting. Set in the city’s socialist past, the story is about a graffiti artist who paints satirical political slogans all over town in an attempt to inspire a workers’ uprising, similar to the Polish Solidarity movement. I discovered that the city had changed a lot since my student days, so I enlisted the help of a local friend to scout out places that still held the old socialist atmosphere. And I filled my Moleskin with personal stories I learned from the people I met along the way.

Where do you place your settings—real or fictional locations? I use both real and fictional places. In Trading Places, I set the story in real-life Leipzig, but some streets and businesses no longer exist or have been renamed since German reunification. I am currently working on a novel that takes place partly in New England and partly in Iran. The early chapters are set in a fictional town in Vermont because I wanted the flexibility to alter the setting to fit the needs of the story. The Iranian portion of the story unfolds in two real places (Tehran and Shiraz) and one fictional village on the Caspian Sea. I chose the real places for authenticity, but again I wanted more flexibility for the Caspian Sea setting, so I made up a town. However, it’s based on a real village situated on the shore of the inland sea. I simply added a few features that don’t exist in the real place and changed the name.

The photo is of an Iranian fish market near the Caspian Sea.

How do you come up with character names? I collect names all the time. I keep lists of them on my computer, and when I come across an interesting one, either through my reading or in real life, I jot it down and add it to my list. Websites of baby names are a great resource, especially for foreign names. Often they list the meaning of the name as well. This can be fun when picking Iranian names, which sometimes refer to mundane objects or abstract concepts: Mozhgan (eyelashes) or Arezou (wish). I named one hot-tempered character Atesh (fire) and gave the name Noor (light) to another, who helped the protagonist find what she was seeking.

Has an association membership helped you in your writing? I’ve been a member of Sisters in Crime for many years, and it is likely the reason I am published at all. It is a wonderful group for both support and learning craft. Also, I always run my work past several beta readers, both in a critique group that meets twice a month (on Zoom at the moment) and others with whom I exchange completed manuscripts by email. Many of these readers are people I met through Sisters in Crime.

The former Stasi headquarters in Leipzig, Germany, now a museum.

How can our readers contact you?


My Cold War short story can be read here:



  1. Glenda Carroll

    This was a fascinating interview. I often use a real place and change it up just enough so readers are kept guessing where it is.

  2. Jenny

    Hi, Heidi. So nice to read this interview and learn more about you and your writing process. (I didn’t know that you wrote short stories! Shame on me.)


  3. Debra Bokur

    Hi Heidi! I too, collect names and bits of conversation while traveling. I’ve been accused of being a professional eavesdropper in train stations, airports and foreign cafes—but I think it’s part of being a writer. So glad to hear I’m not alone! And, for the record, I love Leipzig.

    • Heidi Noroozy

      Hi Debra! Leipzig is a very different city today than it was when I lived there. Much for the better. I go back there on every trip to Germany to revisit old haunts and long-standing friends. I still think of it as my German home.

  4. Madeline Gornell

    Glad to meet you, Heidi! So impressed by your traveling savvy, (I’m a poor traveler) and interesting how your traveling and writing intersect! Much success!

    • Heidi Noroozy

      Thanks, Madeline! At least you can travel vicariously through books.

  5. Alec Peche

    I agree with Heidi that Sisters in Crime is a great organization to further our writing careers. It’s interesting to use real cities in your books as there is so much information on Google Earth and so far I haven’t needed to re-organize a city for purposes of the story.

    • Heidi Noroozy

      Yes, Alec, I use Google Earth too for settings. It’s a great resource.

  6. Ana Manwaring

    What a fascinating life Heidi has led. I can’t wait to read her books (I’m ashamed to say I haven’t yet) . As alway, George, your blog interviews are interesting and illuminative. Keep ’em coming!

    • Heidi Noroozy

      Ana, you will have to wait until I’ve actually published a novel! In the meantime, there are som short stories of mine here and there…

  7. Vinnie

    So fun to learn more about you, Heidi. After high school, I was an exchange student in Switzerland. Your travels to Iran really fascinate me.

    • Heidi Noroozy

      Vinnie, I love Switzerland! I’m Swiss on my dad’s side and still have some cousins there. A few years ago, I visited my family’s ancestral village. In the archives at the church there, I discovered that my family traces its roots back to the year 800. The Swiss are meticulous record-keepers.

  8. Michelle Chouinard

    I also carry a little notebook when I travel, and I love that places tend to be the starting points for your stories! I always mean to jot down names I like, but never seem to do it, I need to get more disciplined about that…

    • Heidi Noroozy

      Michelle, I’m afraid that name collecting has become a bit of an obsession for me. No discipline necessary. I’d be lost without my little black book.

  9. Michael A. Black

    I envy your ability to read the works of foreign authors in their native languages. I’ve never cared much for translations, due to the fact that so much is dependent on the translator, but I’ll bet yours are first rate. Good luck

    • Heidi Noroozy

      Thanks, Michael. For a long time, translation was not taken seriously as a profession, at least in the English-speaking world. That’s changing now and the translations have also improved. Some of the major writer’s organizations, like PEN and the Author’s Guild, support translators. The Man Booker International Prize now recognizes translators as well as authors, which helps raise the profile of the profession and promote good translations.


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