Saturday, August 15, 2009

Anatomy of an Outline, Part VI

A Sense of Entitlement

At some stage in the outlining process you will want to think about titles. This can come at any point. The Dog of the North as a title existed long before the story it told; The Last Free City lagged some way behind; ; Dragonchaser was cropped from Dragonchaser and Lady Iseult's Delight at a late stage.

Ryan David Jahn blogs about this very question over at Guns and Verbs. In general I don't feel happy starting a story without having a title, even if that remains provisional until the book is finished. A title gives a reassuring solidity, a sense of something concrete behind it. It also, as Will Atkins pointed out to me this week, focuses the writer on what the story is about: Betrayal in the Boudoir would be a rather different take on the court of Louis XIV than Colbert's Conspiracy. (Neither sounds much cop: The Man in the Iron Mask is much better but I'm 150 years too late on that one).

For the time being, my story remains The Inheritance Powders: allusive without being obvious, with the focus on the central mystery, the poisonings. I stumbled across it in my reading, the internet supplying me with a link to the introduction to Strange Revelations by Lynn Mollenauer. This included the marvellous summary:

...magical remedies, love charms, and poisons known as “inheritance powders.” The inheritance powders, usually made from powdered toads steeped in arsenic, lent the Affair of the Poisons its name...
Naturally I filed this away for future use.

The obvious title would have been The Affair of the Poisons, but this risked confusion with Anne Somerset's factual account of the same name - and is any event more suitable for history than a novel.

My initial choice settled upon Hall of Mirrors, a perfectly serviceable choice. Ostensibly it refers to the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, but of course there are overtones of illusion, chicanery and deceit, all of which are likely to feature in the novel. There are counter-arguments, though. The phrase "hall of mirrors" is perhaps too much of a commonplace to be an ideal title for a novel; and the Hall at Versailles was not completed and opened for court functions until 1684 - after the conclusion of the Affair of the Poisons. There are ways around this latter point, but it's probably not a good idea to try to fit the story around the title at such an early stage.

So The Inheritance Powders it is, for now at least.


RDJ said...

I don't know what others will think, but I like it. Got a nice ring to it, and a nice rhythm.

Alis said...

I think The Inheritance Powders is a brilliant title - definitely intriguing enough to make the bookshop browser pick it up to see what it's about.

Tim Stretton said...

A good title needs to do both of the things Ryan and Alis mention - have the right rhythm (if the title's leaden, what does that say about the book?) and hook the bookshop browser.

Glad this one seems to press the right buttons!

David Isaak said...

Titles tend to come late to me. And tend to be changed even after that.

My pal David Thayer for a while called every one of his works-in-progress "An Aztec in Central Park," until, alas, he wrote a book where that title was entirely appropriate, and therefore it was removed from circulation.

Although I'm a bit ashamed to still be reffering to my novels as "Untitled" a couple hundred pages in, I consile myself with the fact that everything from "The Great Gatsby" to "A Farewell to Arms" to "Gone With the Wind" all got their titles after they were completed. Web Admin said...

I agree, that's a great title, Tim. As a historical novel, this definitely draws you in from the beginning.

Usually, like David, my titles come last or if they come earlier they are usually changed at the last minute. I suppose book 3 of the secret war is the exception, but only because "the fortress of black glass" was the first title I came up with when I started making notes on the series.

I think you know when you've got the right title, it just fits... Like The Inheritance Powders.

Unknown said...

I think The Inheritance Powders is a strong title, but for what it's worth, I prefer The Affair of the Poisons. Even if there is a non-fiction book with the same title, how many people are going to have heard of it?

Tim Stretton said...

Neil, I think ultimately my objection to The Affair of the Poisons is that it directly reflects the name history gives the episode - it would be like calling a novel "The Gunpowder Plot". I prefer something which isn't so completely transparent about the wares advertised.

(Also never a bad idea to have a title which won't get swamped in a Google search...)