Wednesday, June 22, 2016
What's In a Book Title?
In the past couple of months I’ve been thinking a lot about book titles. It’s the sort of thing authors do when they’re nearing the end of a book and haven’t yet named it. Nonfiction writers have it easy; they can always go with something drawn from the subject matter. With fiction, one has to be a bit more opaque.
I’ve written on this subject before, and to summarize my conclusions, a good title for a work of fiction should ideally convey a sense of the feel and tenor of the book. I don’t believe titles sell books as a rule, and the reality is that most books have rather prosaic titles.
Looking at the mysteries on the bookshelf in front of me, for example, I see: The Stone Wife (Peter Lovesey), Taken at the Flood (Agatha Christie), A Beam of Light (Andrea Camilleri), The Return (Hakan Nesser), and Finding Moon (Tony Hillerman). Well known authors all, but the titles hardly grab you by the lapels.
It Was Easy at First
For my first two mystery novels, I had decided on the title before I even started writing. The McHenry Inheritance was a straightforward distillation of the essence of a book that revolved around a challenged will, and Wash Her Guilt Away, taken from the well-known poem by Oliver Goldsmith, got to the heart of the murder victim’s character.
The third book was more of a struggle, title-wise. At the outset, I considered a half dozen possibilities, but wasn’t satisfied with any of them. Two thirds of the way through the first draft, I was no forrader, when, flipping through my Oxford Book of English Verse, I came across a sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning that ended with the words, “not death, but love.”
The sonnet itself dovetailed wonderfully with the themes of the book, and the final words of the poem made for a great title. So, Not Death, But Love it was.
Seems to Get Harder
The fourth book, which should be out in a few months, was even harder to name than the third one. Coming up with a title was like digging a ditch in frozen ground. I had a couple of ideas early on, but the more I thought about them, the less I liked them. Given that I still like the titles of my first three books, that probably meant the early ideas for Book Four weren’t right.
Finally, a breakthrough of sorts came when I was discussing the matter with my sister Susan, a poet of some renown in New York City. She asked me what the name of the town was, where the story took place. Alta Mira, I said. She suggested something like Bad Day at Alta Mira.
That title didn’t fit the book, but it got my train of thought on the right track. The book is about a mountain town undergoing a double trauma. Several female students have inexplicably gone missing from the local community college, and a high school cheerleader has accused the quarterback of getting her drunk and raping her at a party.
It occurred to me that the book’s theme is that the young women in town — its daughters, if you will — are in danger, and the book is about attempts to set right the wrongs done to them. So I came up with The Daughters of Alta Mira, and that one felt right the more I thought about it, so that’s what it will be.
Now all I have to do is come up with a title for Book Five.