What’s in a Name?

Quite a lot, apparently. For a very long time, I couldn’t think of a name for the novel I’m working on. One of my sons was quite bothered by this. When the subject would turn to my writing, he’d ask me if I’d thought of a title yet. The novel wasn’t real until I came up with something. After a while, I did think of one: The Secret War. It’s what people called the Cold War, the time period in which my book is set. The hero is a guy who works at the National Security Agency. The secret war is his business. Most of my book is set in Germany, in 1969. My hero’s been to Germany before, just as the war was ending, and he’s hoped never to have to go there again.  The novel opens just as he learns he’ll be going back.  The book is a mystery and mysteries are always about secrets — in this case, the secrets are about what people did during the second world war.

Every once in a while, though, I find myself wondering if I got it right. This is one of those times. And that’s why lately I have been thinking about the names other people have given their novels. In my not very systematic review of titles, I noticed a Person, Place, Thing tendency among novelists. Most titles are nouns, and most often they are simply the name of the main character: Don Quixote, Huck Finn, Sula, Madame Bovary, Daniel Deronda, David Copperfield, The Cat in the Hat, the Woman in White, the Great Gatsby, Jane Eyre. And even a title like The Beautiful and the Damned refers to a group of people.

And when titles are not the name of a character, they are the name of a place: The Mill on the Floss, Howard’s End, The Old Curiosity Shop, Barchester Towers, The Street, Austerlitz, Wuthering Heights.

Occasionally, you find a person and a place combined: The Vicar of Wakefield, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Brown Girl, Brownstones.

As for things; generally they’re things and people combined– how about The Eustace Diamonds? Humboldt’s Gift?

There are also titles that are basically verb forms: On the Road, To the Lighthouse, Passage to India, the Voyage Out, Digging to America, even As I Lay Dying — all novels that employ some sense of movement and journey in their titles. The Odyssey is the ur-title here.

Perhaps exhausted by what might be a Victorian tendency toward Person, Place, Thing naming, modern writers often favor quotations. I don’t know if this is a sign of some kind of exhaustion of originality which might be fodder for the deconstructionist I did not become — but I give you: The Sound and the Fury, A Separate Peace, For Whom the Bell Tolls… wait a minute, Vanity Fair — maybe this is not so modern after all. But what about 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, Jane Smiley’s theft from Wallace Stevens?

And don’t forget novels with titles that are attributes: Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility. Still, this might be seen as a version of title as character because each of these attributes belongs to a woman who’s important in the novels. It’s just a clever way of doing it.

This look at naming was an interesting exercise, but not as helpful as I’d hoped in making sure I’ve done a decent job naming my book. The one I have now, The Secret War, doesn’t have much in common with the great books I’ve just mentioned. Neither a place, nor a name, nor an attribute, nor something or someone in motion.) So, I turned to titles from the Golden Age of the Mystery for assistance.

Dorothy Sayers: Murder Must Advertise, Strong Poison, Gaudy Nights. Hmm. Clever, but not really person, place or thing.

Agatha Christie: And Then There Were None, Five Little Pigs, Murder on the Orient Express. Nursery Rhymes, puns, straight across Murder….

I could say more, but I have the suspicion that mystery writers title their books differently than literary fiction writers — possibly they rely more on a title that’s a bit of a mystery itself, a title that’s a sort of sleight of hand, as a pun is, a title that partakes a little of the mystery form itself. And that, after all, is what The Secret War delivers — it has several meanings (the cold war, the secrets about the war the main character discovers…) These kinds of titles make this promise to the reader — the mystery will surprise you, things will appear one way but will actually turn out another. This theory is still unformed, and more research will need to be done. But this is my preliminary finding, for what it’s worth.

And now, I turn to you, Dear Reader. What are your favorite title categories? Can you think of another good title for my mystery? How do you think of things to title your blog posts? Meditate on titles for a moment, and see if you can resist making up titles of your own.


9 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. My dear, I have a confession to make – when I was 11 and decided I’d be a writer when I grew up, the first thing I did was to find a ruled notebook and fill it with the titles of all the books I would one day write. I made over 2,000 titles in the end, never wrote a word of any one of the stories… Nowadays I find titles very hard indeed and leave it to the very last minute. I love titles that are part of a quotation (of course can’t think of any away from my bookshelves). Finding a title for blog posts seems to come easy though, have no idea why this should be. Anyhoo, I think that The Secret War is a fantastic title – crisp and clean and enticing. My order is in with amazon already.

  2. Litlove, you are in excellent company. Wallace Stevens, the great poet lawyer and one of my favorite writers, did exactly the same thing. Wrote a list of titles and never wrote a single poem to go with them. Sometimes, a title is enough.

    Maybe blog posts are easy to name because the whole form is so breezy it just doesn’t matter much and you can have fun with it.

  3. Well, I know my (well, probably) favourite title: ‘Gods ways are obscure and seldom pleasant’ (translated from Dutch). Another one of my favourite titles is ‘The world according to Garp’, a title that’s enough to draw you into the book. I guess the best titles are intriguing titles.

  4. I was looking through the titles of early C19th noveIs a few weeks ago. My favourite of these is a book from 1805 probably by Helen Craik called ‘The Nun and her Daughter’ which is just brilliantly sensational. But I also like those ridiculously long, descriptive titles that you just could not get away with today, like:

    ‘The Banker’s Daughters of Bristol; Or, Compliance and Decision: A Novel’ (1824),


    ‘Royal Intrigues: Or, Secret Memoirs of Four Princesses, involving numerous and interesting and curious anecdotes connected with the principal courts of Europe.’ (J.P. Hurtsone, 1808)

    Or just give up, as Mrs Lewellyn did with her 1813 novel, and simply call it: ‘Read, and Give it a Name: A Novel’.

  5. I loved your breakdown of titles! I don’t know much about naming novels, but I find I’ve GOTTA give my images a caption or title. Of course that’s an individual thing in many ways. Some undoubtedly feel the work stands on itself or they don’t want to “prejudice” the viewer. For me, it’s like putting my final stamp on it, ties it up with a bow.

    Where do I get the title? Usually there is a theme as I work on it. The title presents itself when it’s ready!

    As for novels, well one favourite was “If on a winter’s night a traveller’, which I guess fits into the “quote” category.

    Thanks also for your kind comment on my ‘revolution’ against the camera’s perfection. I think we sometimes forget how evocative the blurry, obscured image can be. Usually when the viewer (or reader) has to fill in details themselves, it becomes far more powerful.


  6. I hate coming up with titles. I have two novels, both about half complete (meh), The Exile and The Arca (formerly From the Trenches to the Jersey Shore).

  7. I think the difference between titling a blog and a novel are just the difference in length and complexity. Tougher to encapsulate the world of a novel in a couple words or a short phrase!

    The novel titles that intrigue me are ones taken from dialogue or narrative in the body of the work itself. Some phrase upon which the story turns but is not necessarily an obvious choice. But when you reach that point in the novel where you find the title and the context is plain to you, well, as a reader I enjoy that.

    For example take the cop thriller “3 Quarters” by Denis Hamill. Somewhat mysterious title that becomes clear as you read on.

  8. taking a quote from your book is a good idea. Halfway in the novel when it comes up, we readers get that “ooohhh, that’s what it pertains to” feeling buzzing in our brains. But when it comes down to it, forget about the title and just make sure it’s part of Oprah’s books and you’ll sell like crazy : )

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