The Importance of Titles

No, this is not a post about the aristocracy. This is a post about book titles.

As readers, we can all appreciate the strange, poetical allure of Stranger in a Strange Land, or the yearning created by Time for the Stars. I definitely picked up Dies the Fire because of the title.

I called my first book The Sky Suspended. I took it from A.E. Housman’s poem Epitaph to an Army of Mercenaries, one I memorized as a teen with no idea as to its origins or real meaning. (It’s from World War I, and, according to this site, Housman wrote it in response to German sneers that the British Army was an army of mercenaries because the soldiers received pay.). I always thought it was about Italian condotierri. In my defense, I was ignorant because I didn’t have the Internet, and that was because no one had yet invented our collective brain.

Be that as it may, the poem stuck in my head and I mined it for the title. (If you go on Amazon, you’ll see that other writers have as well, applying it to tales of aerial derring-do.)

The benefits of this title for a book about lawyers, crowds, past asteroids and present mania for a newly discovered world, consisted of it resonating—at least for me—on a couple of levels. The government is trying to keep people from going to the new world, thus suspending the human desire to explore, and seek out, strange, new worlds. Also, as a lawyer, it carried connotations of rights, privileges, or licenses suspended, revoked, or otherwise kept in check. For a book about a lawyer who wants to see human settlements on the new planet and perhaps go there himself, it fit nicely. I will mine the same poem for the sequel. In the second book, of which I have a working draft, Calvin Tondini leaves the government for the private practice of law, hence the title Mercenary Calling. There will be corn on the cover.

What got me thinking about all of this was that I have a separate series, the Waking Late books, I’m also working on. (The functional ADHD I acquired in my job at the FAA carries over into my fiction writing, too: I have to work on more than one project at a time.). In the Waking Late series, a lost starship finds an imperfectly hospitable world where the stranded settlers struggle to build a civilization. Gilead Tan, who has been kept in cold sleep for centuries, wakes to find things not to his liking at all, particularly the civilization the original settlers built. A former space marine, he busies himself with addressing his concerns.

His story is one I had worked on a long time ago. I didn’t finish it, and it sat in a drawer with an entirely different main character and languished until a couple of years ago. I was sitting in the garden at the Freer Gallery at lunch, gazing around at the pretty architecture in the courtyard, thinking it looked sort of like a fairy tale, maybe Sleeping Beauty, and the name Sleeping Duty drifted into my head.

Oh dear, thought I. I love that. It would make a great book title. It would make a great title for that thing in the drawer. But that person whose name I can’t remember isn’t the main character. Gilead is the main character. And it’s not a friend trapped in the sleeping cells. It’s Gilead’s wife. So I wrote that one.

The title to the sequel, Out of the Dell, is perfectly fine, seeing as how Gilead and company have left the human biome of First Landing, but it doesn’t have the clever twist on a fairy tale that the first one did. I tried. It’s probably a mash-up of The Farmer in the Dell and Out of the Cradle, and since the team is outside the human-friendly valley of First Landing they are way outside their comfort zone. Literally. It has other cool stuff (thank you, ancient Romans), but no fairy tale title.

I’ve started working on the third Waking Late book. I knew roughly what was going to happen, but the book had no title. I felt strangely desolate. I asked people on a Facebook group whether they knew any nursery rhymes or fairy tales with blasters, soldiers, or sleeping people, that I could twist to my nefarious ends. L. Jagi Lamplighter brought up Do Your Ears Hang Low as a ditty with a soldier in it, and that took care of that: Like a Continental Soldier is the next book. (By the way, if you look that song up—on the Internet—you will find that in the original version something else hung low. Shocking.)

Weirdly, getting the name helped me realize a number of things about the plot. This is a book about a battle. That was something I knew but didn’t want to admit because it’s going to be hard to write. I don’t know anything about battles. But knowing the right title helped focus the actual nature of the story for me. Also, the ending wasn’t the ending. It was the middle. After that middle, which may prove hard on a number of people, Gilead and his crew will be in for some very rough times. As will I, because I have to research small battles with rifles, muskets, and swords. I need to find a museum where I can look at these things. I have to figure out what an advanced civilization might do to make sure its small population of settlers could defend themselves for generations. And there will be soldiering, because you can’t title a book Like a Continental Soldier without some soldiering.



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