Call Me Ishmael (or, if not, Madam)
Titles are hard. Show me a writer saying otherwise, and I’ll show you someone pretending to be a writer for some reason, and doing it badly.
But it’s not always as hard as it’s been this time. The Turning Tide was called “New Book” while I wrote it. Then “Dandy Gilver 14” when I handed it in. I’ll reveal at the end of this post how I finally managed to name it. I gladly share the trick with any other stumped author.
Maybe that “14” has got something to do with it, eh? I started out effortlessly enough with the first few. Then, on book five, my editor at the time decided we were going to take a new approach. Every installment from then on was going to be called Dandy Gilver and a/the Crimey-word + Old-fashioned-word + This book-specific-word.
So, a book about Dandy undercover as a lady’s maid was Dandy Gilver and the Proper (Dandy-word) Treatment (book-specific-word) of Bloodstains (crimey-word).
And we were off! The DG title generator carried us through a lot of novels. Check these out:
Dandy Gilver and an Unsuitable Day for a Murder
Dandy Gilver and a Bothersome Number of Corpses
Dandy Gilver and a Deadly Measure of Brimstone
I made a strong bid, just shy of a tantrum, in favour of Dandy Gilver and a Danse Rather Macabre for the story about a ballroom-dancing competition, but I got outvoted and it became The Unpleasantness in the Ballroom, where we’re a word short but we do have a sweet echo of Dorothy L Sayers The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club.
The title generator played a belter on the nuns book: Dandy Gilver and A Most Misleading Habit. And the whole wheeze reached its pinnacle with the one about a production of Macbeth: Dandy Gilver and A Spot of Toil and Trouble. My mother-in-law pulled the generator lever that time and came up trumps.
Then the world turned and my editor left for another job, whereupon my new editor and I unplugged the title generator and went a different way. It was a relief at first, but when I got stuck on The Turning Tide, a book about a ferrywoman and a tidal island and a pair of mad biologists, I could have done with it. Dandy Gilver and the Deadly Seaside Potato. Or maybe not.
Lexy Campbell hasn’t given me much trouble yet. But it’s coming. Scot Free was a perfect title. Scot and Soda was okay too. Scot on the Rocks follows nicely. But what’s next? Scot . . . I mean, what’s left? Scot . . . of the Antarctic? Baio? Egg?
I’ll cross that pun when I come to it. Which is February. Eek.
The standalones started strongly and cohesively with As She Left It and The Day She Died. Then we got stuck. Terri Bischoff and I spent one long day brainstorming ourselves to near hysteria over standalone 3:
What I saw
What You Saw
What I Knew
Someone Saw You
What You Heard
What She Thought
I Thought They Knew
What I Heard You Knew
Someone Knows What You Did
What I Saw You Do
I Know Someone Heard You Do What They Thought
Until out of nowhere, either Terri or I said Come To Harm. And then drew straws to decide who was going to go to Amazon and check to see if it had been used already. I was sure it must have been. It sounds so much like a Harlan Coben novel, right? But he had evidently let it slip through his fingers and so it’s mine!
Probably my favourite titling story is House.Tree.Person. It’s called that because of the “house tree person” test for personality disorders and I always thought it was the ideal title. Terri loved it too. But when I pitched it to Little,Brown in London, my editor there said “It’s three random words. What even are they?” and gave me 30mins to think up a better one before she had to go into a sales meeting.
When I’d picked myself up off the floor I offered The Weight of Angels and she adored it. So did I. So much so that I went back to Terri and said how about it for America. (One of my fears is that a reader is going to buy the same book twice because of a US/UK title difference.) But it wouldn’t fly. Apparently “Angels” in a book title in the US makes people think it’s about angels. Britain is too godless for that to happen there.
Godless, but still bible-literate enough for Strangers at the Gate to work there. I love this title, even though it wasn’t my idea. My idea was The Cuts and I still like it. But my editor pointed out that you write a lot of social media posts with your book title in them, and I’m an awful one for typos. Think about it . . .
Which brings us to The Turning Tide and my hack for authors tearing their hair out to get a name for a novel. There’s a pub in the book and I had given it the name of the real pub that used to stand there: The Royal Oak. Then I thought to myself imagine if the pub was called something that would make a good mystery title too. Like Allingham’s The Beckoning Lady, or Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. That’s quite a precedent right there, isn’t it?
It won’t work every time. I can’t plug my books full of pubs or stately homes with names like The Rotting Corpse or Alibi Abbey, and it hasn’t helped me this next time. My new book has had three titles before it’s even at the publisher. Two were rejected – The Upstart and From the Cradle – and one was the perfect mystery title, lyrical yet ominous. I suppose that’s why Julia Spencer Fleming chose it. Curses.
So whatever my new book is going to be called it’s not A Fountain Filled With Blood. Watch this space!
And tell me about your favourite titles. Mine is Witches on the Road Tonight. I love that. Also Holly Hernandez and the Death of Disco (with just a hint of a title-generator running smoothly) How about you?
Catriona McPherson was born in Scotland and lived there until immigrating to the US in 2010. She writes the multi-award-winning Dandy Gilver series, set in the old country in the 1930s, as well as a strand of multi-award-winning psychological thrillers. Very different awards. After eight years in the new country, she kicked off the humorous Last Ditch Motel series, which takes a wry look at California life. These are not multi-award-winning, but the first two won the same award in consecutive years, which still isn’t too shabby.
Catriona is a proud lifetime member and former national president of Sisters in Crime.