What’s in a Title?
I am currently working on the first draft of the second Larkspur Mystery, and I’ve still not landed on a title. Titles usually come to me easily, but not this time. So, I thought, today, I would chat about some of my titles, explain where they came from and perhaps, that will give me inspiration for Larkspur Two, as it’s currently called.
Years ago, when I was young and everything was in black and white, I wrote a story. I was unemployed waiting for a new job to start, but the start date was delayed, and I had three months sitting around in a garret room (honestly) with very little money, so I sat and wrote all day, in longhand. It was a simple story about a young man running away from home and discovering London, falling for another young man who turned out to be a rent boy, and the friendship and eventual love affair that ensued. Towards the end, the pair went to Kent, had the best time of their lives, then came home, and a tragedy happened. I called that story ‘In From the Garden’.
No idea, really. It just felt right, but later, I realised that the two MCs had in fact come back from the garden of England, as the county of Kent is known, so maybe it came from there.
Similarly, the title of my first published book just came to me, and because I liked the phrase, I kept it. ‘Other People’s Dreams’ is about a rich man hiring four young, cute gay guys to crew his boat around the Greek islands. The job comes with a generous package of benefits and pay, but there are ‘certain strings attached.’
The inspiration for the story came to me when I was sitting on a beach here on Symi. I was on holiday here then, on my own, and was watching a yacht coming into the otherwise deserted bay. As it came close, I saw the crew were taking down the sails, and then I noticed they were all naked, and they were all men. ‘That’s someone’s dream,’ I thought, and suddenly, I not only had an idea for a story but also its title. That boat and the boys aboard were someone else’s dream. Simple.
The Mentor Series
Setting about a series of books that took older/younger and coming out as the key themes, I thought up another story that was mainly based around sex. This was another person’s dream, that of Camden, the MC, who is hired to mentor four younger gay men in a deserted house. His role is to help them develop their writing and personal skills, and overcome sexual inhibitions. I wanted the location of the story to be somewhere out of the way, and the title to reflect this, and that’s how I came up with The Mentor of Wildhill Farm.
Then, I thought, I’ll write a second one in the non-related series. (They are similar in theme, older/younger, coming out etc., but not with the same characters.) I knew it had to be The Mentor of… something and realised I had three words to come up with. One describes the atmosphere (wild), the second is a geographical feature (hill), and the third is the location of the story (farm). So, I made a list of suitable adjectives and locations.
- Remote, barren, lost, alone, distant, private…
- City, village, moor, wood, forest, marsh…
- House, estate, hall, ridge, castle, abbey…
From that brainstorming exercise, I came up with three titles for three more Mentor books, the Mentor of Barrenmoor Ridge (I wanted to convey a barren landscape and rock climbing), of Lostwood Hall, and of Lonemarsh House. Each first part of the location reflects the younger man/men of the stories; wild, lost, alone, abandoned.
I was rather pleased with the subtlety, but I didn’t plan it.
What was more planned, and what took longer to arrive at, were the titles of the Clearwater novels, and of all of them, Deviant Desire took the longest to drop into place.
I think it started out as ‘Deviant Gaslight’ or something equally bizarre. I wanted to convey the Victorian era, shadows and deviancy, but then I wondered how the light from a gas lamp could be deviant. I sifted through all kinds of ideas as I was writing it because titles often come to me during the first draft. I must have entertained Dark Shadows, and then remembered it was a TV series, and how can shadows be light? I have my notes beside me, and in them, I see I also considered Deviant Lamplight, which was its title at the end of draft one. The word ‘deviant’ was clearly important, and as I went through the second draft, I asked myself what and who was I talking about? Silas was deviant (any gay man then was considered deviant), and he had a desire for sex, later for Clearwater, and their love would have been called a deviant desire, so that made sense. But the villain also had a desire for revenge and a desire to kill, and that, of course, is also deviant. By the end of draft two, I’d settled on ‘Deviant Desire’, and I am pleased to say, it is my best-selling novel to date.
Like the Mentor titles, the Clearwater series started out with a formula. In this case, an adjective and a noun, and I wanted all the forthcoming titles to have an adjective on the same theme as ‘deviant.’ I have a list somewhere, cribbed from a thesaurus or two, and from that list I came up with the words which best suited the story.
Twisted Tracks refers to the deviancy of both hero and villain, the laying of a tempting trail into a trap, and the climax which happens on a moving train.
Unspeakable Acts was a gift because I wanted a story set around a theatre, and chose the Royal Opera House, where not only were entertainment acts performing, but where the star couldn’t speak what he’d been ordered to speak by the villain. The villains were also involved in what Victorians called ‘unspeakable acts’, i.e. gay sex, and the Cleaver Street brothel. (Based on the Cleveland Street Scandal of 1889.)
Fallen Splendour came about because I wanted to base the mystery around a poem used as a coded message. One of my favourites is ‘The Splendour Falls’, an insert into a longer poem by Tennyson. He was alive at the time the story is set, so I dragged him into the story too. I liked the word ‘fallen’ because its reference to ‘fallen women’, as they were known then. Silas is a ‘fallen man’, you might say, and if the truth about Clearwater was known, he too would ‘fall’ from grace.
And so it went on.
Bitter Bloodline is about an ancient, bitter feud and Bram Stoker (in my world, then working on the beginnings of Dracula). Bitter also refers to the taste of a certain wine from the region of Transylvania, which plays a part in the story.
Artful Deception revolves around a piece of art and also refers to the way the characters outwit each other with theatrical devices.
From then on, the titles change. Things had happened in the series, and issues were resolved (no spoilers, but if you have read them, you might remember who has left the stories by then), and so, I was freer to play with the titles.
Home From Nowhere came to me during the writing and still gives me the same chill when I read the title as I felt when I wrote a short scene between Jasper and Andrej (Fecker). Fecks asks where Jasper is from, and Jasper tells him his background.
‘You come from everywhere,’ Mr Andrej said. ‘But you come from nowhere. Like me.’
That led to the title, and I wanted to use it at the very end of the story. However, watch out for doing this because it is such a cliché. It’s as much a cliché as characters in film repeating themselves for emphasis. ‘I know, son…(beat)…I know.’ Eek! Cringe, don’t do it. Similarly, finishing a novel with its title gives me the same creeps, so I changed it slightly for Jasper’s final speech.
‘I feel like I’ve been nowhere all my life, but now I’ve come home.’
Bless Jasper. He and Billy are each one half of a pair, and that’s how One Of A Pair came about. There is another play on words in there, and you will understand when you read the book.
At this point in these reis, I sidestepped to go backwards and explore how Silas and Fecker met. I reckoned a clever title wouldn’t be right, so I went for the simple Banyak & Fecks, their nicknames for each other. The title gave me the structure of the book. The nicknames come about during the story, but they are not the characters’ original names. Thus, the first quarter of the book is titled ‘Andrej’, the second, ‘Silas’, the third, ‘Andrej and Silas’, and it’s not until we come to the last quarter we get them fully-fledged as ‘Banyak & Fecks’. By then, they have become an inseparable pair, forever locked in a bromance, avoiding the Rippe’s knife and unknowingly about to step into Deviant Desire as two of the main characters.
In book nine of the series (not counting the prequel), I returned to the formula of the start of the series with Negative Exposure. The title refers to several aspects of the story; photography, posing naked, the risk of being found out… And in book ten, the only one without a figure on the cover, I couldn’t think of anything better than The Clearwater Inheritance. That was because it reflects not only to the main plot, the inheritance but also suggests something is coming after, and that something is the Larkspur Mysteries.
You know, I’ve waffled enough for now, and still haven’t explained the Stoker Connection, The Blake Inheritance or Curious Moonlight, but I hope, by now, you’ve had an insight into how I come up with my tittles.
Except, it seems, for Larkspur Two.
Standing stones, ancient symbols, disappearances, a deaf main character, the wilds of Cornwall… There has to be something in there. I’ve just not got it yet.
Oh… By writing this, the word ‘signs’ has dropped into my head as a frontrunner, but Signs what or what Signs…? This is how my mind works, and I’ll leave you while it hopefully works some more, and I find the title. I am up to 80,000 words in the first draft, and I’ll tell you more about it soon. For now, I’m off.
Have a good week.
You can find all my titles on the Jackson Marsh author page on Amazon.