Which Comes First, The Novel or the Title

While I’m out of town visiting family and waiting for the arrival of the new grandchild, I thought I’d share a blog I wrote for Fresh Fiction in June of 2009.  A search tells me it never appeared here, so enjoy now.  I’ll be back with new blogs next week.

Which comes first, the novel or the title?

There is no question that authors are odd. We hear voices in our heads. We stare blankly at walls for hours, leaving those around us to wonder if we have, without fanfare, passed away. We save things other people toss out or never possess in the first place. Real estate circulars. Missing children inserts. Photographs that show nothing except, perhaps, the curve of a cheek or the shape of an eye. We keep files. Oh yes, we keep lots and lots of files. Jotted notes of overheard conversations. Newspaper articles about mortgage fraud. Three word phrases that might vanish in the night.

Authors are almost always asked where our ideas come from. No matter how many times I’m asked, I’m not annoyed by this question. In fact I can relate. Myself, I wonder about architects, particularly those who design hotel lobbies and airports. Where did those ideas originate, and can we please extinguish the source? Or artists. Take Jackson Pollock. What possessed the man, other than an urge to pour lots of paint on lots of canvas?

For most authors, ideas come from everything. There is no one trigger. For me, and I hesitate to admit to this, titles are often key. In the case of one of my newer novels, Happiness Key, title was paramount, if not the first thing that set me thinking.

The initial inkling that a book was percolating came on a trip down a Cleveland, Ohio street. I was struck by how much one house looked like the other. All were nearly identical, then as I drove a little farther, I saw one in the middle of the block that was completely different. A new facade, unusual landscaping, a porch where none existed elsewhere. I wondered about the people inside and the neighbors. I wondered how everyone got along, and what they thought of this renegade.

Fast forward to Happiness Key, which takes place in Florida, not Ohio. And the houses are not exactly the same, although they are run down. And there isn’t one renegade, but four women who are all, in their own ways, rebels. Hmm. . . Can you see the connection? A glimmer? Half a glimmer?

Although the Cleveland jaunt was the catalyst for my novel, the moment I realized I wanted to set this one on Florida’s Gulf Coast, where I had grown up, the book began to change. And ten seconds later, when the title occurred to me, the novel began to fall in place.

Happiness Key.  The key to happiness. What is happiness? How do we find it? How do we ruin it? And are we even capable of recognizing it when it lies in the palm of our hands?

There is no question authors are odd. Two words can become a novel. Of course there’s a lot of staring at walls in the interim. A lot of files. A lot of junk piling up on desks. Me, I’ve given up worrying about how it happens. That it happens is enough for me.

I hope it’s enough for my readers.

Leave a Comment