When a potential reader looks at a book product page in one of the on-line bookstores, the first two things they are likely to notice are a book’s title and its cover. A good title can not only capture a reader’s interest, but it can signal the genre and sub-genre of the book, the setting and time period of the story, and it can even reveal a little about the plot. In addition, if the book is part of a series, the title can help brand that series.
I am going to discuss the titles of both my novels and my shorter works in my mystery series to demonstrate how a title can achieve all of the above.
In 2009, when I published my first novel, Maids of Misfortune: A Victorian San Francisco Mystery, I knew it was to be the start of a series of mysteries that featured different occupations held by western women who worked in the late nineteenth-century. As a result, I wanted to come up with a title that would both indicate the specific occupation featured in the book and hint at the actual mystery plot. I then decided to let a subtitle set the story in a particular time (Victorian) and place (San Francisco).
I have followed this pattern for all the other full-length books in the series as my way of establishing a brand that future readers would recognize as mine.
I debated a bit over the subtitle, which would become the name of the series,. When searching in the book store on Amazon, I discovered the term Victorian was used more frequently than any other for novels set in this period. In addition, since Annie, the widowed boarding house owner who is my chief protagonist, lived and worked in San Francisco, I decided to include the city name in the subtitle. I’m very glad I did because feedback has made it clear that historical San Francisco, like London, New York, or Paris, is of intrinsic interest to a good number of readers.
As for the main title of this first book, I called it Maids of Misfortune because the key female occupation I was examining was domestic service (Annie, my protagonist, goes undercover as a servant to investigate a death in this first mystery.) The use of the term Misfortune was my way of referencing both the difficulty of being a servant and that this was a mystery.
In my second book, Uneasy Spirits, I followed this same pattern, with one of the words in the title––Spirits––referencing the occupation that I featured (in this case, women who made a living as part of the Spiritualist movement) and the other word––Uneasy––signaling there was something mysterious going on.
The third book, Bloody Lessons, is about women teachers, so the word Lessons relates to the occupation and the word Bloody indicates that there was going to be some sort of violence in the story.
In the fourth book, Deadly Proof, the word Deadly references the fact that Annie is investigating a death in this book, and I sued the word Proof, which is a printing term, because the book examines women in the printing industry. I was especially pleased with the multiple meanings behind the word Proof because Nate, Annie’s fiancée, was hired to provethe innocence of an accused woman and because a specific piece of evidence (or proof) plays a role in solving the murder.
In the title of the fifth book, Pilfered Promises, Pilfered relates to the occupation (women working in a department store that was troubled by theft), and Promises relates to a couple of important plot points. In the title of the sixth book, Scholarly Pursuits, the two words together point to the focus of the book––women in academia––while Pursuits hints at the way that some of the characters in the book were pursued (harassed) in this academic environment.
I think you get the picture.
I can’t assume that readers will necessarily notice all these double meanings and connections simply by reading the main title. But I do hope that as soon as they read the product description, they will see how the title relates to a specific female occupation, and that as they read the book, they will begin to think about how the title relates to the mystery plot itself.
This hope was also behind the title I settled on for my most recent novel in the series, Lethal Remedies. This book is about women in the medical professions, but it also includes a discussion about how some of the therapeutic methods being used in this period were often fatal. And, of course, the subtitle, A Victorian San Francisco Mystery, insures that people won’t think that this book is about anything contemporary—such as Covid-19. A concern I didn’t have when I came up with the title months before the virus even existed.
Except for the title of the first book, all the rest of my full-length novel titles are made up of two words. Sometimes this has presented a challenge, but I do think it has become an important part of my series branding. I also think the double meanings and contradictions between a word that seems innocent (like lessons, promises, remedies) with more ominous words (bloody, deadly, lethal) hints at the fact that these mysteries have humor and are, at heart, cozy mysteries. This is important because I don’t want a reader to buy the book thinking they are going to get a dark, noir view of the Victorian period.
This first title, Maids of Misfortune, introduced another branding method I’ve used––alliteration––to also indicate that my works are cozies. I’ve used alliteration consistently in my shorter works.
From the beginning, my goal for writing short stories and novellas has been to give secondary characters from the novels a chance to become star players in minor mysteries. In the case of my first short story, the character is Dandy, a small Boston terrier, who helps solve a crime, hence the title, Dandy Detects. But this title also conveys, because of its alliteration, the fact that it fits in the cozy category of mysteries.
I didn’t start out planning to brand my mysteries as cozies—all my efforts went into the historical mystery brand. This may have been that I associated cozies with contemporary mysteries and cozy mystery wasn’t even an Amazon category at that time. However, as my books began to garner reviews, I could see that many of the elements of my stories that attracted readers were the same elements associated with those contemporary cozies. Annie, my main protagonist, who is an amateur sleuth, runs a boarding house, and her employees, boarders (including the animals) and her friends and family are like the residents in a small town or village that characterize cozies. In addition, the mysteries have minimal on-stage sex or violence, and there is also large dollop of humor. The titles of these shorter works and their use of alliteration helped me establish this sub-genre, just as the subtitle continued to establish that the mysteries were historical mysteries.
The short story, Dandy Detects, was followed by The Misses Moffet Mend a Marriage (featuring the two elderly seamstresses who lived in the boarding house) followed by Mr. Wong Rights a Wrong (in this case it was a servant my protagonist met in Maids of Misfortune who was the star.) Recently, the boardinghouse cook got her own story in Beatrice Bests the Burglars. I have just published the short story, Mrs. O’Malley’s Midnight Mystery, about the mother of one of the friends of the boardinghouse maid, Kathleen. Kathleen, herself, got to feature in one of my three novellas, Kathleen Catches a Killer, and I even gave Annie’s judgmental sister-in-law a chance to shine in Violent Vanquishes a Villain. The Boston Terrier, Dandy, now has three featured stories, the first short story, Dandy Detects, a novella, Dandy Delivers, and another short story, Dandy’s Discovery.
While my mysteries, even the shorter works, are historically accurate, and do deal with serious subjects, I don’t think that after looking at the titles of these shorter works, a reader would mistake my mysteries for gore-filled, sexually explicit dives into the darkest underbelly of Victorian society. And I seriously hope that readers who are fond of my series are as tickled by the whimsical alliteration as I am.
I know from my author friends that we all spend a good deal of time agonizing over our titles. Are they catchy? Are they unique? Do they convey the information we want about the genre and sub-genre, the time and place? Do they fit the brand that we are trying to establish? One of the most liberating aspects of being an indie author is that I get to choose my own titles—something that authors of traditionally published novels don’t always get to do. But, then I have no one to blame if the titles don’t work.
So, I would love to hear from readers. Have I been I successful in achieving my goals? And for those of you who are authors, I would love to hear from you about how you have used your titles to create your brand. What has worked, what hasn’t.
Meanwhile, I hope you are all staying safe and well, and if you are into audiobooks, Maids of Misfortune is on sale for July, $1.99 on Apple Books, and only .99 cents on the new source for discounted audiobooks, Chirp.
M. Louisa Locke, July 6, 2020