Would a Rose by any other Name: The Thorny Question of Titles

I have belonged to a writing group for nearly 25 years, and I cannot count the number of hours we have discussed the titles for our books over those years. For those members who were fortunate enough to be traditionally published (remember those days of yore when it was assumed that a traditional contract was the height of good fortune), the titles they came up with were always tentative because we weren’t ever sure they would be permitted to use them. In fact, when I think of the laughter that erupted as we threw out–often absurd––suggestions, I wonder if this was because we all had the sense that the agents and editors (the “grown-ups” who would instruct us what a good title should be), would have the final word. As a result, I think we felt that we didn’t need to be too serious in the endeavor or that at the very least we shouldn’t ‘fall in love’ with any title because it would break our hearts to have that title eventually rejected by those grown-ups.

But now, as an indie author, I am the grown up. And for better or worse, my book and story titles are entirely my own creation. Today, I thought I would reveal just what went into my choices.

By the time I decided to self-publish the first book in my historical mystery series, I had the benefit of those decades of brainstorming titles and a clear idea of what I needed to consider. First of all, I knew to choose a title that hadn’t already been used. I knew that titles, like covers, should convey the tone of a book and its genre or subgenre. Finally, as I read about the growing importance of online book retailers and search optimization, I concluded that a subtitle for my series with appropriate keywords would be a good strategy.

My decision to use the subtitle, “Victorian San Francisco” in all my books and short stories came after some thought. I had to discard my first ideas: “Gas Lamp,” “Gilded Age,” and “Victorian” because Victoria Thompson, P. J. Ryan, and Robin Paige had already taken these subtitles for their successful historical mystery series. That is when I decided to combine San Francisco with Victorian. Unlike “Gilded Age,” Victorian is a historical term that is known outside the U.S. However, by adding San Francisco, I would ensure that no one would buy the book expecting the story to be set in foggy England. What has been an unexpected benefit to this choice is that foggy, gas-lit San Francisco turns out to be a place that a lot of readers want to visit. I now had my subtitle.

MAIDS_800x1200x72dpiMaids of Misfortune, the first book in the series, my protagonist, Annie Fuller, widowed boarding house keeper and pretend clairvoyant, goes undercover as a domestic servant in order to ferret out the truth behind the mysterious death of a well-respected merchant.

The title had to be related to domestic service but not sound so academic, so I settled on “Maids.” I made the word plural since there were several servants in the book, one whose eventual fate was very unfortunate. So, Maids of Misfortune became the title. In addition to alluding to the female occupation, this title had enough alliteration to make it sound like a novel (not a scholarly treatise). At the same time, while the word “Misfortune” hinted that something bad was going to happen, it fit with the cozy tone of the mystery. Massacre of the Maids, for example, would not have conveyed what I wanted to convey!

Uneasy_Spirits_800x1200_72dpiThe second book in my series, Uneasy Spirits, explores 19th century “trance mediums” who purported to communicate with the dead, another one of those female-dominated occupations of the 19th century. The title satisfied all my requirements. “Spirits” referred to the occupation and the plot, “Uneasy” reflected the cozy tone, and the title had the alliteration that makes it memorable.

Next, came my two short stories, Dandy Detects and The Misses Moffet Mend a Marriage. Here, I confess that my sense of fun comes into play. The intention of these stories is to let some of the minor characters of my novels have their day. The stories are only tangentially mysteries (which is why the subtitles are “Victorian San Francisco Story,” and the alliteration is so over the top because I hope readers will get the hint that these stories are even more humorous in tone than the full-length novels.

dandy_detects_cover_800x1200_72dpi“Dandy” refers to one of my favorite characters, the Boston terrier who lives in Annie’s boarding house and provides comic relief in all my books. “Detects” refers to the fact that in this story he has the starring role in uncovering a crime.

misses_moffet_cover_800x1200_72dpiThe title of the second story, The Misses Moffet Mend a Marriage, despite the extreme alliteration, is actually a succinct description of the plot. Additionally, it references the occupation of Miss Minnie and Miss Millie Moffet, the two elderly dressmakers who are the featured in this story. And, this title makes me laugh.

I am currently doing research for my next short story, and I hope those of you who have asked if the Chinese servant who played an important role in Maids of Misfortune is ever going to reappear will be glad to learn that the tentative title for this story is Mr. Wong Rights a Wrong.

BL_cover_800x1200_lrWhich brings us to Bloody Lessons, the title of my forthcoming new novel due out September 15. When you read the book (it is now available for pre-order and you can read an excerpt here), you will see that the female occupation that I feature this time is public school teaching––hence the word “Lessons” in the title. I also had in mind the fact that in this story a number of characters have some particularly difficult “lessons” to learn about life. As for “Bloody,” well, that is pretty obvious. Some of those lessons will be life threatening. And, as you should have gathered by now, I do have that fondness for alliteration.

 For those of you who are authors, I would love to hear how you go about choosing your titles. Was there ever a title you loved, but someone kept you from using it? For readers, when you see my titles, do they convey to you what I intended? –M. Louisa Locke

BLOODY LESSONS COUNTDOWN: 21 days until book launch,  15, 2013! You can pre-order for print and Kindle here.

5 Replies to “Would a Rose by any other Name: The Thorny Question of Titles”

  1. A title is often one of my earliest thoughts – a unifying theme I can use as a tether, in a sense, as I write. Most often, I end up using that working title in the end. I did once have an editor gag on one of my titles (and I gagged on her suggested replacement), but because I was self-publishing at the time, I stuck with my original title and have never regretted that call. I have one problem-child, however – a screenplay that has had two titles so far and I’m still a bit unsettled. I tend to the ornate in titles (such as your “The Misses Moffet Mend a Marriage”) because I’m much more drawn as a reader to open a book with a quirk in the title, but I realize that may limit my readership to people with my quirks!

  2. Great post – I also find titles, and the process of choosing them, fascinating. The title for the sequel to my first book (Can’t Live Without) was the one I’ve struggled with most. I had the obvious ones like ‘Living Without’ or ‘With Or Without You’ but the first was a bit lame and the second already used. After a lot of brainstorming I chose The Family Trap, which works for the story but also just ‘clicked’ with me.

    The title for my next book – my first cozy mystery – was much harder to get right. Cozies are hard – they need to say the genre quite clearly but not be too grim or explicit. Like you, I’ve gone with lovely alliteration: Murder at the Maples. I wanted murder in the title, but adding the name of the retirement village softened it, and I also like the similarity to ‘Marple’ 😉

  3. I have this penchant for three-word titles. I think this is because of my folklore and fairy tale interest… oral stories are almost always told in threes. It’s a good storytelling number.

    If possible I want the title to reflect the main character somehow… Catching the Rose, my first book, I now feel I could (and many should) rename because it doesn’t tell you it’s about the American Civil War, a woman looking for her childhood love, or anything. There’s a rose motif that represents the heroine, but that’s about it. And for young adults… I feel like maybe that’s working just a little too hard.

    My second book, Haunting Miss Trentwood, is a little more straightforward. You know it’s about a single woman who is being haunted. The hook is “father knows best, even after death.” Only by reading it do you realize the book is more Blackbeard’s Ghost than The Ghost and Mrs Muir, but there’s a healthy mix of the two.

    My next book, I’ve played around with The Rebel’s Touch, The Rebel’s Hero… and as yet, it’s just plain untitled because I feel the story and characters shifting focus.

  4. It hadn’t been until my “grade” was influenced by English papers in college that I really thought much about a title. Ever since though I have been very interested in how and why authors choose the titles that they do! It wasn’t until I got my first librarian position that I discovered how much fun it could be to discuss titles! One of my first programs as a librarian was the summer reading for teens. I had asked the readers to give the books they had read new titles as part of their involvement in the program. Some teens really spent a lot of time coming up with their new titles and would in most instances go into a lot of detail as to WHY they chose this new title and how it was in fact a better one than the one the author had chose!

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