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It's a story written in the past tense, but once I named the characters I found myself saying 'is' instead of 'was' and couldn't decide if it was right or wrong.

IS:

Mom loved our movie nights and made sure there was one at least once a week. Her name is Sarah Marsh. My last name is Bertrum. Bertrum was my mom's maiden name, but after she married Brice's father, Weston Marsh, seven years ago, she changed it.

WAS:

Mom loved our movie nights and made sure there was one at least once a week. Her name was Sarah Marsh. My last name was Bertrum. Bertrum was my mom's maiden name, but after she married Brice's father, Weston Marsh, seven years ago, she changed it.

'Was' just looked so bizarre to me, but is it the correct choice in this case?

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    Both passages are written from the point of view of someone in the present who is remembering an event from the past, and both work fine depending on what you mean to convey. The first passage tells us that, presently, your mom is still alive and that your name is Bertrum. The second passage suggests that your mom is no longer alive and that your name, once Bertrum, is now something else. (It is possible, in the second passage, that Mom is still alive and that she currently has a different name, but this would be clearer if that were stated explicitly, as in "Her name at that time ....") – user66965 Oct 23 '15 at 15:55
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    @Surlawda That analysis (while accurate) does use the context. When taking about someone you have lost contact with, the implication of using was isn't nearly so strong (but you generally don't lose contact with your mother, so that makes that implication so strong). After that, the second was has such strong implications because of the first one. Saying "her name was X. My last name was Y" doesn't suggest (that strongly) you changed your name of you're talking about someone you used to know. – Jasper Oct 23 '15 at 16:12
  • When discussing the personal attributes of some person (or physical attributes of some thing) in the past, "is" should only be used if the person is still alive (the thing still exists) and the attributes still apply. Otherwise use "was". But "was" is almost always "safe", unless you're talking about very recent events. – Hot Licks Oct 23 '15 at 19:52
  • (Note that my previous comment applies to discussions where the narration is being performed in the present, in the conventional fashion. There is a style (never could remember the terms) where one narrates the past as if it's occurring in the present. With such a style, "is" is used almost universally.) – Hot Licks Oct 23 '15 at 21:37
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I don't think you're using is to refer to the past. It sounds like the names are what they are at the time the speaker is telling the story, even though the events of the story occurred before the telling of it. That may be why the "was" version looks bizarre to you. It would have made sense to say:

Her name was Sarah Bertrum.

because she has changed it to Sarah Marsh at the time the speaker is telling the story. But it doesn't make sense to say:

Her name was Sarah Marsh.

assuming she is still alive and that is still her name.

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Sorry, I don't like either. I would stay in the past within the same paragraph. You can accomplish this through avoiding "be" verbs. For example:

My mom, Sarah Marsh, loved family movie nights and worked hard to make them special. 'Family' was sometimes a vague concept for me since, seven years ago, she changed her last name from Bertrum, my last name and her maiden name, when she married Brice's father, Weston.

Personally, I would use separate paragraphs for who they are versus what they do, but brevity is not a strength of mine

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