When I was pregnant, my husband and I negotiated about what to name our child. He was flexible about boys’ names, but wouldn’t budge on the girl’s name. He wanted a little red-haired daughter named Madeleine -- he had had some kind of mystical vision about her and wouldn’t consider any other name. Our discussions went something like this:
Me: How about Colleen?
Me: How about Rose?
Me: How about Kathleen?
Guest column by Heather Newton, author of
Under the Mercy Trees (Harper; Jan 2011), a novel
that received a starred review from Booklist and
was called "a stirring debut" by Publishers Weekly.
She lives in Asheville, NC, and is currently
wrapping up a collection of short stories.
See her website and writing events here.
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 couldn’t imagine her being anyone else.
THE RIGHT TITLE BRINGS A BOOK TO LIFE
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 the title didn’t accurately tell what the novel was about. Yes, brother Lenny in the story had disappeared, but 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 “[Something] 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.
THE RIGHT TITLE OFTEN REFLECTS THEMES
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 long list but nothing satisfied my agent or me. It occurred to me that old-time hymns might be a good source of title phrases, since the novel is set in the rural south. Fortunately my mother, a devoted shape-note singer, was coming to town for a family party. I told my agent I’d 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.
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 didn’t have time to do it that way. We hunted for phrases about grace, redemption, 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 published a novel by that title.
THE RIGHT TITLE IS WORTH THE WAIT
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 e-mailed 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 responded, “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.