And This is For the Title

Kieran Shields here, checking in for my first time on Maine Crime Writers.  I haven’t written many blogs, essays, or anything of this sort. Whenever I do, I’m always troubled by the image of a tree falling in the woods, and there being nobody there to read about it.  So for this one, I wanted to get off on the right foot and tackle an interesting subject.  I kicked around a few ideas and then thought, what could I call it that would catch peoples’ attention?  Maybe if I started with a really good title.  And then it clicked, I’d talk about titles; specifically the way a book gets one.

I quickly realized I don’t know the ways that other authors come up with theirs.  Do they come up with a title first in a flash of genius or do they leave that to the end when they can see the work as a whole and and pick the one best suited.  Perhaps it’s a collaborative effort with the publisher and the authors have to fight tooth and nail for the title they love.  I’m sure there are some pretty interesting tales out there of how our favorite books ended up with the titles they have.  But I can only speak about my own titles, and hope the stories behind them

Given how much of  a book’s identity is connected to the title, and how essential word of mouth can be in a book finding its audience, having a title that fires readers’ imaginations can be so important.  I certainly don’t have the kind of name recognition where my name would appear on a cover in larger print than the actual title.  I hope the get there someday, but right now, the title still takes top billing over me.  So, for something that important, it strikes me as a bit funny just how haphazard the process can seem.

My debut historical mystery was called “The Truth of All Things.”  I didn’t come up with that.  In my mind, it was titled “The Salem Inquiry.”  The story takes place 200 years after the Salem witch trials and features elements of the occult and witchcraft in the plot.  I wanted the title to capture the macabre feelings that people link with the word Salem.  My agents thought it sounded too much like historical non-fiction, so they recommended “The Truth of All Things.” It’s a phrase used by the villain in the book. Although it sounds sinister when he says it, I sometimes worry that people hearing the title for the first time might think it’s some sort of spiritual self-help guide.  Which, trust me, I would not be qualified to write.

When the book was being prepared for publication in the UK, my editor there felt that the title didn’t quite jump out and smack readers over the head with a clear picture of just what the story was about.  So he recommended calling it “The Salem Witch Society.”  He wanted the witchy element front and center, since apparently that sells well in the UK.  That matched up with my earlier feeling for Salem to be in the title.   There was only one problem.  People often expect the title to have a tangible connection with the words between the covers. And as my editor pointed out, the words “Salem Witch Society” didn’t actually appear anywhere in the book.   So, he asked me, “Would it be too crassly commercial to go back and stick that phrase into the book someplace?”

There was a momentary struggle with my sense of artistic integrity, but it didn’t last long.  The bottom line is there’s always some element of commercialism in putting a book out for readers to find and this didn’t strike me as all that crass.   Besides, I could have fun with it.  In the UK version, I have my more jovial, poetry-minded detective, Archie Lean, dub the team of investigators: “The Salem Witch society.”  The more analytical detective, Perceval Grey, then mocks the announcement, sarcastically voicing relief that having finally settled on a clever title, they might now actually go ahead and solve the murder.

My second book, a sequel, came out in January of this year, with the title “A Study in Revenge.” I knew that was a good one from the get go, since whenever I mentioned the forthcoming title, people responded with an intrigued ‘ooh.’   I took it from a quote by that most tasty sounding of all philosophers, Sir Francis Bacon, who noted how a man who makes a study of revenge keeps his own wounds green which otherwise would heal.  It fit in well with my story full of people who are in thrall to the past, whether by wounds they’ve suffered or by dreams of a past that never truly was but that they desperately want to make real.

In addition, the title was a nod to the original Sherlock Holmes story, “A Study in Scarlet.” I have to admit, when I checked Google and found no one had snatched up this title in the past century, I was quite pleased with myself. And I thought, well this name will stick, especially in the UK.

Oh well, I guess not.  So the UK title ended up as “The Devil’s Revenge.”  I fought for my title over there. Maybe I should have used more teeth and sharper nails.  Or maybe, and this can be hard for a writer to admit, just maybe, my idea wasn’t quite as brilliant as I’d imagined.

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10 Responses to And This is For the Title

  1. Ah, titles! Sometimes the easiest part of the process and sometimes the most frustrating. I’ve started using #6, #7, and so on for working titles in my series so I don’t get too attached to the title I like! One nice thing about reissuing backlist in ebook format–I got to change a couple of titles back to my originals.

    Great first post, Kieran. Welcome aboard.

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  2. MCWriTers says:

    Kieran, this brings back such memories! When I told my stand-alone novel to Ballantine, it was called The Stolen Child, from the Yeats poem. My editor hated the title. I scoured Bartlett’s and my books of poetry and sent her a list of 35 other possibilities. She didn’t like any of them. I was standing by the phone, feeling very dejected, when my then 13-year-old son Max walked by. He said, “What’s the matter, mom, you look unhappy.” I told him about my problem. “Oh well,” he said, “Just call it Steal Away.” I sent that to the editor, she loved it, and thus was the problem solved.

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  3. I have no idea what I did wrong in that previous post. Excuse the bad coding, please.

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  4. John Clark says:

    Welcome to the blog. Finding a catchy title is a real challenge. As a librarian, I can attest to the gratitude we feel toward authors with unique titles, especially when a patron comes in looking for a book with a title that appears 60 times in MaineCat and they can’t remember the author’s name. Those are among the more challenging searches we have to do. Thrilled you have a second book out and can say that your first goes out frequently at the Hartland P.L.

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  5. Barb Ross says:

    Welcome, Kieran!

    Both of my first two books have been (will be) published with the title I gave them. I know it’s beginners luck and try not to get too attached to them.

    We have tremendous “fun” titling Best New England Crime Stories every year, though the title I most want is still sitting in the slush pile of “maybe next time” names.

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  6. Deanna says:

    Welcome. I liked your original titles, but I am a reader, not an editor! Dee

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  7. Welcome, Kieran! I have read and enjoyed both of your novels, and look forward to hearing more from you on the MCW blog.

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  8. Kieran says:

    John’s comment gave me an idea for my next title. I’ll just call it “A Really Good Mystery.” Then when readers tell a librarian or bookseller that they’re looking for a really good mystery — my book shows up!

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  9. John Clark says:

    And it would be easy to look up…I checked and there are no books by that title listed in MaineCat right now…Who knew!

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