A question was posed recently on a writing group from someone wanting to write a book but unable come up with a title. The general advice – which I would agree with – was not to delay writing just because you didn’t have a title but to get started and hopefully the title will come. But eventually, if a book is to be put on sale, it has to have a title and these can be tricky things. How can you sum up the essence of 80 – 100,000 words in just a few?
Kenneth’s Queen actually started out as The Nameless Queen and remained that way for the whole of the first draft. The folder where I keep all documents to do with this book still has that title. It seemed to be a title which summed up the themes of identity which ran through that book as well as describing the main character and reflecting on the fact that this woman who was present at this tumultuous time and undoubtedly participated in the events, helping to found a dynasty which would rule Scotland, did not even have her name recorded. However I abandoned that title upon finding another book with that name. So the name was changed to Kenneth’s Queen which I think was the right choice. As well as the alliterative sound, it does at least give to that unknown woman the one bit of her identity we can be sure of.
The title of my most recent book had a much more awkward history. The original title was The Italian Marriage, a nice follow up to The Saxon Marriage. But there were a few problems with this. Firstly, the Saxon Marriage got its title because it was the marriage uniting two Saxon dynasties – the ancient line of Wessex with the upstart royal family of Saxony. Eadgyth and Otto were both Saxons. But what would The Italian Marriage have been? For Adelheid, it would have been her first, fairly short marriage to Lothair of Italy. Her more significant marriage should surely be called The German Marriage. Secondly, I did not want this book as a sequel to The Saxon Marriage. Yes, it contains a lot of the same characters but Eadgyth and Adelheid were two individual women and the fact they married the same man should not take that away from them.
The next title was ‘All Roads’ as in all roads lead to Rome. But I never warmed to that title. Of course they had roads but even so, the word seemed too modern for a historical novel. Besides, the drive to Rome was Otto’s ambition not Adelheid’s. The first draft was completed but I was no nearer my title.
So, the next title was The Three Crowns referring to the crown of Italy, the crown of Germany and (spoiler!) maybe there would be a third crown Adelheid would gain. This summed up the story, it has a medieval feel to it but something was not quite right. Does anyone else enjoy the fabulous ghost stories of M. R. James? If so, they will be familiar with the three crowns in ‘A Warning to the Curious’. These are Dark Age crowns but they belong to an earlier period and a different dynasty – that of the East Angles, the Wuffingas. For me, those are the three crowns, not Adelheid’s. And I may want to use that title if (when?) I return to the Wuffingas.
I had set myself the deadline of having a cover to reveal for this book on Otto’s birthday and that was now fast approaching. The book was finished, barring a few final read-throughs. But there was still no title. So, I went back to my research and found a quote, the words Adelheid used to describe herself. “Adelheid, by God’s gift an ******* (spoiler!) and by herself a poor sinner and God’s maidservant.” So, at last, I had my title and could add it to the cover.
But something about that title just didn’t seem right. A long time ago, I read Leonard Nimoy’s autobiography and he referred to an earlier work which he had titled ‘I am not Spock’ and his publisher tried to dissuade it from him, saying it was a negative title. This title too seemed negative. And was it even fair to call her a poor sinner? Yes, she is a bit pre-occupied with sin and certainly, she was no saint… oh. Well, ok, she was a saint… So ‘a poor sinner’ did seem a bit harsh. It’s fine if that is what she wants to call herself, but is it really fair for me to call her that?
With just days to spare I looked at the second part of that quote. God’s Maidservant and this seemed a much better description. One which sums up in a couple of words a devout tenth-century woman, devoted to charities, who may have made some mistakes but whose unwavering faith sustained her through some dark and dangerous times.
But this throws up an interesting answer to the question, what comes first, the book or the title? I was aware of that quote before writing a word of the book and it strongly influenced how I saw her. So perhaps, even in this book, the title came first.
Or is the answer stranger still? These are Adelheid’s own words, a medieval woman speaking across the ages. Did this book, in fact, get its title more than a thousand years before it was written?