What’s in a Title?

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.

Early Titles

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’.

Why?

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.

Gay erotic romanceSimilarly, 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.

  1. Remote, barren, lost, alone, distant, private…
  2. City, village, moor, wood, forest, marsh…
  3. 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.

Deviant Desire

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.

The Stoker ConnectionYou 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.

Jackson

You can find all my titles on the Jackson Marsh author page on Amazon.

News From Home

News From Home

For this week’s blog, I thought I’d let you know what I’ve been up to at home. Writing, of course, and the second Larkspur mystery is coming along nicely, though slowly. That’s because of the amount of research going into it, but I am about two-thirds of the way through the first draft. Other than writing, what have I been up to…?

Thanking the Inspiration

I’m not sure if I have previously mentioned the inspiration for the character Joe Tanner in ‘Guardians of the Poor’ and the Larkspur mysteries. Neil and I have been watching ‘The Amazing Race’, a reality TV show where contestants travel the world doing challenges and trying to avoid elimination. I think we’ve now seen just about all the USA ones, the Canadian and Australian versions, and we’re starting to watch them again. Well, one of the teams in three of the USA series included a profoundly deaf guy called Luke Adams.

The research desk

His resolve and determination – being on such a demanding show without hearing – inspired me to start learning British Sign Language, and also, to include a profoundly deaf character in the new Larkspur series. I wanted to thank Luke for his inspiration, so joined a Facebook TAR fan group, and there, I was able to put my thanks as a post. I also wanted to send a personal thank you to an outstanding guy, and managed, this week, to connect on Twitter and send my personal message. He’s seen it now, and that, for me, was an ambition fulfilled.

Birthdays and Anniversaries

Two bunches of red roses

We’re just coming out of what I call ‘the Anniversary Season,’ and boy, do I need a night off. Neil and I married on his birthday four years ago, so his birthday, which was last week, coincided with our wedding anniversary. It also coincided with the anniversary of the day we arrived to live on this Greek island 19 years ago, and it comes two weeks after the anniversary of our first meeting 24 years ago.

We’ve had drinks at the bar with visiting holidaymakers we know, dinners out with friends, roses, cards and gifts. Neil bought me the rose painted on a stone you can see in the picture. Tbh, it’s all been wonderfully exhausting.

Going Further Afield.

We haven’t travelled since we managed a holiday in Canada at the start of 2020 (just before C19 landed on the world), and the furthest I have been is our neighbouring island of Rhodes.

Visiting Rhodes involves a ferry crossing

I was there again recently to see a doctor about a throat issue which turned out to be to do with too much stomach acid. During the consultation, I had a look at my larynx via a tube up the nose (which isn’t as bad as it sounds, strangely), and that was fascinating. One of the good things about living in Greece is that you’re able to see a specialist almost at a moment’s notice. I emailed on a Thursday and saw him the next Monday, had the full consultation and inspection, and it only cost me €50.00. I could have done it under the national health service and paid nothing, but maybe waited longer, but that was up to me.

While I was there, I read this short novel by Anthony Burgess. It’s not about the pop group, it’s about the last days of the poet John Keats who died in Rome in 1821, at the young age of 25. It’s a fascinating book with some lovely use of the English language. Recommended.

What Else?

Not much, really. Our washing machine has started to make a horrible noise when spinning, so we’re saving for a new one. The weather has cooled from the 40 + degrees of July and August, so that’s a relief. Both of us are working hard on our sign language as we’re nearing the end of course number one, and we’re using it with each other as much as we can.

And, of course, I am working away on the next book. It currently has two working titles, ‘A Vow of Silence’ and/or ‘Standing Stones’, but I’m not sure either is 100% on point. There is a lot in there about standing stones, ancient symbols, pagan rites and so on, and it’s mainly written from Joe’s point of view. That makes it a challenge for me, because I have to research and then imagine scenes from a deaf person’s point of view, but that’s exactly the kind of challenge I like.

That’s enough rambling for this week. I’ll be off now to post this, and then get back to chapter 20. If you’ve not started the Larkspur Mysteries yet, then number one is waiting for you. Guardians of the Poor – the adventures start here.

See you next week.

What Do I Call My Character?

What Do I Call My Character?

‘No One Can Take Away Your Name.’ So says a character in The Clearwater Inheritance, and it’s true. It also reminds us that when we create a character’s name, it becomes very difficult to change it, especially when writing a series. So, how do you get it correct from the start?

I saw a post in a Facebook writers’ group the other day where an author was asking for advice about naming her characters. She gave a brief outline of each one, and then asked, ‘What should I call them?’ A brief outline isn’t much to go on, so I briefly told her what I do when I need to name a character.

Below are my thoughts on the subject in greater detail, and some of the ways I go about naming characters.

It is important to ask yourself some questions.

When do your Characters Live?

I am currently writing in the 1880s and my stories are set in England. Recently, when working on ‘Guardians of the Poor’, I was inspired by a newspaper article from the time. Mentioned in it was a workhouse official named Edward Capps. I took his name and made him the master of the Hackney workhouse, partly to keep some realism, partly because I wanted a villain with a fairly ordinary, yet slightly odd name, and it is an easy one to read. His henchman in that story is called Skaggot, a far more Dickensian name, and one which reads like a cross between skag and maggot, neither of which are very nice words. Skag is slang for heroin and was in use in the 1880s, and we all know what we think of maggots.

It’s worth remembering that some names in common usage today did not exist in Victorian times, so it’s important to check what era you are writing in, and the name trends of the time. These days, we might find Christian names such as Brooklyn, Phoenix, Brighton and other places as that seem to be a trend. Similarly, names from popular TV shows crop up from time to time. For example, there was an influx of Charlenes and Scotts when Neighbours first became popular in the UK. If you look at censuses from the late 1800s you will find a wealth of Mary-Ann, Charlotte and Victoria, and James, Albert and William. Far more traditional.

What country is the character from?

In Greece, it’s traditional for a couple’s first son to take the name of his paternal grandfather. I am sure the same kind of tradition applies in other countries, and in classes of British society. Sometimes, a mother’s maiden name is used, or a grandmother’s or a more distant relative. One of my brothers is named after a great-great-uncle, my other brother has among his names one of my father’s names, Clayre, which is an unusual name, and none of us knows where it came from.

I have written characters from Ireland, so I needed Irish names, and these can be very different from English names. Some are the same or very similar, for example, I have a character named Karan, and that’s the Irish spelling of Karen, so details are important to bear in mind. Ditto characters from Scotland, Ukraine and Transylvania, and others who appear in the Clearwater Mysteries, have country-appropriate names. My Romanian count wouldn’t have been called Charlie Smith. He is Roman Movileşti from the House of Bogdanesti (or Musat) because he has a lineage dating back to 1392.

Names can also make excellent book titles

An aside. When writing ‘Deviant Desire’, the first of the Clearwater Mysteries, I introduced a character called ‘Fecker’. There’s more about that name below, but his real name is Andrej, and that’s all we know about his name to start with. Later in the story, he appears at Clearwater’s house and is introduced by the footman. I wanted to raise a slight smile among my readers, and so gave the footman the task of announcing Andrej with his full name. Therefore, the name had to be complicated, but appropriate, and I went for Andrej Borysko Yakiv Kolisnychenko. Admittedly, not easy to read, and he was soon known as Mr Andrej, but his name was important. If/when you read through the series, including ‘Banyak & Fecks’ and particularly, ‘The Clearwater Inheritance,’ you will come to see why Andrej has these names, and why they are so important to him. As his mentor says during one of the stories, ‘No one can take away your name.’

As well as considering the character’s country, you should consider his location. There are differences in Christian and surnames between someone who is East London poor and someone who is West London rich. You don’t want to use cliché though. Not every East End scallywag was called Charlie, Bert or Dodger, and not all barmaids are called Betsy, Maisy and Poll. Try and be inventive, and one way to do that is to use nicknames. More about that in a moment.

How old is your character?

As I said, names, like clothes, come and go in fashion. Remember that your character may be 60 now, but when he was born, there may have been a different trend for names. When I was popped out, Toby was hip but unusual, these days, it’s more common.

You have to think, ‘Who were the parents, and what would they have called him/her?’ This gives you character background and some backstory, and a name can say a great deal about a character’s ancestors and parents. Think of the trends at the time and what was popular. Such things can include, the TV programmes of the time, pop singers, royalty, politicians, explorers, anyone hitting the newspapers in your country at the time of your character’s birth.

Parents, after all, are the ones who do the naming.

Take my main player in The Clearwater Mysteries: Archer Camoys Riddington, 19th Viscount Clearwater, Lord Baradan of Hapsburg-Bran, Honorary Boyar Musat-Rashnov, to give him his full set of names and titles. Obviously, I don’t refer to him by all of them all the time. The official announcements happen only two or three times during 11 books, and most of the time he is known as Archer, Archie, Your Lordship or Lord Clearwater. It depends on the status between characters. Titled friends would call him Clearwater, servants, My Lord, his lover, Archie, and so on.

Archer was named by his father, a hideously military man, who was obsessed with the Battle of Agincourt. Archer’s brother is called Crispin as the battle was fought on that day, and Archer is named after the longbowmen who were responsible for the victory. He’s also got Camoys as a name because he was one of the commanding officers.

So, think ‘Who named this character’ bascule you can be sure it wasn’t you.

Fantasy names

Having said that, you do name your characters, and none of the above thoughts may apply if you’re writing fantasy. There, you can be extra-creative, but be careful. Make sure your names are easy to read. Marthigglysistbour from the planet Zyghrthithril ain’t that easy to visually digest. I am immediately put off a book if the title has in it a difficult-to-read name. The Kronghstyz Series of Sci-Fi fantasies might fill its author with pride, but for me, it would get me scrolling past.

Names to suit characters

This is one of my faves. I love checking out what names mean or thinking about why characters are called what they are. I do this a lot, sometimes just to amuse myself with obscure references and meanings, sometimes because it suits the story.

Jasper Blackwood

This morning, I wrote a newspaper article from 1882, and in it, mentioned a local policeman. ‘It seems to me the man were murdered,’ Inspector Trawlish of the Cornish Constabulary said. The name came out of my fingers rather than my head, but I wanted something vaguely Cornish-sounding and thought of fishing. Trawler would have been too obvious for a detective, but Trawl-ish sounds like he’s not very accurate in his work, so I went with that. Later, I also had a tea rooms owner and she popped out as Mrs Killraddock. I don’t know why. Probably because it also sounds Cornish (and the story is set there in 1890), but looking at it again, I imagine Mrs Killraddock being not very good at cooking kippers. ‘Don’t ask her to make breakfast, she’ll kill yer ‘addock.’

Meanwhile… In The Clearwater Mysteries, Silas Hawkins is named after the priest who delivered him and slapped him into life, Father Patrick. However, Silas’ mother wanted the Priest’s name before he was ordained, and that was Silas. To have called him Patrick O’Anything Irish-sounding would have been a cliché.

Thomas Arthur Payne

Thomas Payne is named because he is from a part of Kent I know well and there, there live a large collection of families called Payne. Simple. It also provided me with a play on words when Tom Payne and James Wright become involved in the detective agency. They were going to call it ‘The Wright-Payne Detective Agency’ until Silas pointed out another meaning.

If you want to find the best examples of names suiting characters, you only have to read Dickens. He was a master of characterisation through naming as you can see with Uriah Heap, Mr Bumble, Uncle Pumblechook, and who can forget Dick Swiveller from The Old Curiosity Shop? Come to that, what about Master Bates (Charlie), one of the boys from Oliver Twist?

We’ll say no more, and move on.

Nicknames

I like to give my characters nicknames for two reasons.
1) It’s what happens in real life, and
2) They can help define characters and relationships.

In the Clearwater Mysteries, Silas calls Andrej, ‘Fecker’ because, in Silas’ Irish accent, ‘He’s a very handsome Fecker.’ The name stuck. Similarly, Fecker, shortened to Fecks, calls Silas Banyak. In the Ukrainian village Fecker comes from, a banyak was a small cooking pot into which you’d put all kinds of stuff to produce one meal. Thus, for Fecker, Silas is a mixture of all things bubbling away and always on heat. Banyak was also the name of a faithful horse that brought him halfway across Europe, so the name also symbolises Silas’ loyalty to his friend.

Beware the Obvious

To finish with, here are a few things I suggest you look out for when inventing names.

  • Make sure they don’t all start with the same letter. Archer, Andrew, Andrej, Allan, Alice and Amy all appearing on one page, even in one novel, is confusing.
  • Ensure the name are time and place appropriate
  • Remember who named them. Two of my characters are named after places. Jasper Blackwood got his surname from the workhouse where he was placed as a baby. Dalston Blaze got his name because he was an unknown child rescued from a fire in a place called Dalston. He was entered into the workout register as ‘The boy from the Dalston Blaze’ and the name stuck.
  • Ensure that you proofread and keep the names consistent (says he!). It’s easy to miss a letter or not see a typo. I often write Adnrey instead of Andrej and never see it.
  • Tip: When I am reading through a full MS and come across a typo, I immediately do a search/find for that misspelt word. That way, I can pick up any other instances and correct them before I miss them again.
  • Don’t make names too complicated, even if it reads perfectly well to you.
  • Try and say something about your character in their name (see Dickens)
    Keep a list of names used so you don’t repeat yourself. This can be tricky in places and times when something like 50% of males were all called by the same name, but you’ll find a way around it.
  • Consider nicknames, but make sure you explain, subtly, that Silas is also called Banyak, and Andrej is also called Fecker, or Fecks, etc.
  • Keep nicknames consistent with the character using them. For example, only Andrej calls Lord Clearwater ‘Geroy’. It means noble in his Ukrainian, so it would be inappropriate for others to use it. Only Andrej’s closest finds are allowed to call him Fecker, so nicknames can also show relationships between characters.

Resources

And finally, another tip.

There are hundreds of baby naming websites out there, simply search for ‘popular boy/girl names,’ and you will be set for life. If writing in the modern-day.

If writing in the past, census lists, passenger lists, ‘popular Victorian names’ searches, and so on will all be invaluable.

If writing about Irish characters, or wherever, do the same thing. ‘Popular Irish names…’ or search for names of Celtic saints, if you want something mystical and old. Countries, place names… Be inventive, find them on Google Maps.

Save a bookmark file named ‘character names’ or something, and put in there the links to websites you find that are of use.

There, those were my random thoughts on naming characters. I’m off now to work on chapter 17 of the next Larkspur Mystery (still untitled), where I will be inventing more names because I’ve got something like eight murder victims to think up.

It’s all part of the fun.

Thanks for reading and I’ll be back next Saturday.