What’s In A Title? Everything.

When I was pregnant, my husband and I negotiated about what to name our child. He was flexible about boys’ names, but would not budge on the girl’s name. He wanted a little red-haired daughter named Madeleine. He had even had some kind of mystical vision about her, and he would not consider any other name. Our discussions went something like this:
Me: How about Colleen?
Him: Madeleine.
Me: How about Rose?
Him: Madeleine.
Me: How about Kathleen?
Him: Madeleine.
You get the picture. And then when our daughter was born, and she did have red hair despite all the genetic odds, the name Madeleine settled on her as soon as I held her in my arms and I could not imagine her being anyone else.
The right name brings a person to life and allows you to see who they truly are and all the potential stretching out in front of them. The right title does the same for a novel.
For most of the many years it took me to write my novel, its working title was “Looking for Lenny.” I got points for alliteration, but in addition to being uninspiring, the title didn’t accurately tell what the novel was about. Yes, brother Lenny in the story had disappeared, but in truth the novel wasn’t so much about what had happened to him as it was about his family members’ struggle to come to terms with regrets of their own. The title set readers up to expect a mystery, and some were disappointed when instead they got a family drama.
The next title I tried was “Solace Fork.” I wanted to combine the family’s surname with some term that evoked place. All the good titles with “[Fill-in-the-blank] Falls” were already taken, so I chose Fork, which referred to a central place in the story where water branched, and also to a choice my main character had to make. I assigned “Solace” as the family surname to hint at the peace I hoped my characters achieved by the end of the novel. The title really didn’t work at all. The fact that the “Quantum of Solace” James Bond movie came out around the same time didn’t help, and I had to do all kinds of contorted revisions to try to get the title to fit the novel, which should have been a clue that I hadn’t chosen the right one.
When I found an agent, she sent me back to the drawing board to come up with a title that would reflect the novel’s central theme of redemption and second chances. I brainstormed a list of several dozen, but nothing on my list satisfied my agent or me. It had occurred to me that old-time hymns might be a good source of title phrases, since the novel is set in the rural south, but I hadn’t been able to find much on my own. Fortunately my mother, a devoted shape-note singer, was coming to town for my sister’s birthday party. I told my agent I would get my mom to bring all of her Sacred Harp hymnals with her and we’d spend the weekend on one last marathon quest for the perfect name for my book.
My mom arrived, laden down with hymnals. My idea was that she and I would read the lyrics silently to ourselves. My mom, however, loves a good sing, and proceeded to sing each hymn she turned to, until finally I had to tell her gently that we just did not have time to do it that way. We hunted for phrases about grace and redemption and rebirth and being washed clean. At one point she suggested “Sufficient Grace” and my ears perked up, until I remembered that writer Darnell Arnoult had just published a novel by that title. Finally, we came to a hymn called “From Every Stormy Wind That Blows” by Hugh Stowell. It spoke of “a calm, a sure retreat” to be found “beneath the Mercy Seat.” The words “mercy seat” grabbed us, and I put “Mercy Seat” and “The Mercy Seat” at the top of my new list of titles. That night, the rest of my family came over, and the womenfolk sang Mr. Stowell’s hymn. We sounded pretty darn good if I do say so myself.
In the morning, frowsy with sleep, my mom wandered into the kitchen and said, “I’ve been thinking. How about ‘The Mercy Tree’ instead of ‘The Mercy Seat’?” I loved it. That Monday I emailed a list of possible new titles to my agent, including “The Mercy Tree” and “The Mercy Trees.” My agent added the finishing touch when she emailed back, “How about ‘Under The Mercy Trees’?” For the first time ever, with this title, I could envision the cover of the book. And when I went back through the novel to see what revisions I might need to make for the title to fit, I hardly had to make any–the mercy trees were already in place, waiting for me.
My novel, UNDER THE MERCY TREES, has been accepted for publication. In the spring of 2011 I will hold the finished book in my hands, and I will not be able to imagine it ever being called anything else.

Copyright 2009 by Heather Newton

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One Response to What’s In A Title? Everything.

  1. robert says:

    Well! The Lord sure does move in mysterious ways! Great essay, and a fascinating tale about the search for a book title. I guess it should involve something evocative, but not too esoteric. 🙂

    It was your reference to Hugh Stowell's beautiful prayer hymn that caught my attention this morning–today marking the 145th anniversary of his death. You can find out more about him, and the significance of the mercy seat, on my daily hymn blog Wordwise Hymns for this morning.

    Congratulations on getting your book accepted for publication. Will you forgive a brief "commercial" in return? With the arrival of fall, we begin to think of the Christmas season up ahead. If you do not have a good book on the subject of our Christmas carols, I encourage you to take a look at mine, Discovering the Songs of Christmas. In it, I discuss the history and meaning of 63 carols and Christmas hymns. The book is available through Amazon, or directly from Jebaire Publishing. (Might make a great gift too!)

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