Monday, 28 April 2014

By any other name . . .

Shakespeare: A godsend for authors in search of a title
For a long time my first novel was going to be called The Shilling Rope. This had absolutely nothing to do with the plot, but popped into my head when I visited the archives at Berwick-upon-Tweed and was shown an 18th‑century hangman's bill. Among his charges was a shilling for the rope, which apparently did not change however much rope was required. 

The sequel, when I decided to write one, was to be called The Bastardy Bond. This was a term I came across when researching genealogy, the business of one of my main characters. But as I learnt more about publishing, I realised (duh!) that neither of these titles works for modern-day crime fiction. That said, I still think they're good titles and in the unlikely event that I ever turn my hand to historical fiction, I may use them.

A book's title has the same job as its cover design: it should entice the reader and suggest a little of what they can expect to find inside. Once I had taken this on board, I set about finding a proper title for Book One. The received wisdom (don't ask me where I heard this) is that crime novels sell particularly well if they have the word ‘death’ in their titles. Recognising that as a first-time, self-publishing author I need all the help I can get, I decided to come up with a title which included the word ‘death’.

First of all I turned to my dictionary of idioms. Among the many sayings using ‘death’ are:

  • In at the death
  • Catch one's death
  • Death trap
  • Kiss of death
They all sound horribly familiar, clich├ęd even, don't they? 
So my next step was to bring out my dictionary of quotations and look up ‘death’ in the index. Shakespeare, Tennyson and the Bible used this word a great deal! 

However, when I started reading the quotations in detail, I got a surprise. It became apparent that some of the best known and most effective crime fiction titles, although based on literary works and quotations about death, do not necessarily feature the word itself.

Agatha Christie did use ‘death’ and ‘murder’ in many of her titles: for example, Murder at the Vicarage, Death in the Clouds. The inspiration for titles like One Two Buckle My Shoe and A Pocket Full of Rye is obvious: nursery rhymes. (As an aside, my friend Bea Davenport’s next crime novel, out in October, is called This Little Piggy, demonstrating this can still be an inspired source.) But Christie also found her titles in more serious literature.

  • Pale Horse has its origins in the Bible. In Revelations you’ll find this: ‘And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat upon him was Death.’
  • By the Pricking of My Thumbs is from a speech by the second witch in the play Macbeth. The full quotation is ‘By the pricking of my thumbs / Something wicked this way comes’
  • The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side is from Tennyson’s ‘The Lady from Shalott’. The full quotation is ‘The mirror crack’d from side to side / “The curse is come upon me” cried / The Lady of Shalott’
The work of playwright John Webster, a contemporary of Shakespeare best known for his tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, has also provided several book titles, not all crime fiction:

·         Conference with the Dead (Terry Lansley)
·         Blood Flies Upwards (Elizabeth Ferrars)
·         Cover Her Face (PD James)
·         I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Maya Angelou, who doesn’t directly quote Webster but references the line ‘We think caged birds sing, when indeed they cry’.)

PD James takes this literary referencing even further. The title of her novel The Skull beneath the Skin is a quotation from TS Eliot about Webster in ‘Whispers of Immortality’: ‘Webster was much possessed by death / And saw the skull beneath the skin’. And in researching this post I found a book, now out of print, called By Death Possessed by the late Roger Ormorod.

So, did the title No Stranger to Death originate come from my wandering through The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations? Not directly, no. In fact, I had slammed the book shut in disappointment and gone to make a cup of tea. And then it came to me. Writing – in common with many other undertakings – can be like that. It’s only when you stop trying so hard that a solution to a problem shows itself. Which is perhaps why the title for Book Two came so easily: Too Soon a Death.

If you're a writer, how do you come up with titles? If you're a reader, do titles actually matter much when you're choosing what to read next? Do get in touch and let me know. I can be reached by leaving a comment below or clicking one of those buttons at the top of this page.

Shakespeare collection photo courtesy of


  1. Great advice!
    Laura Hedgecock