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What’s In a Name?

30 Mar

I’m horrible with names. I can shake someone’s hand and introduce myself, listen to them introduce themselves, and then, thirty seconds later, I can’t tell you who they are.

“The short guy over there, the one with the mustache. Yeah. What’s his name again?”

There are all sorts of mnemonic techniques to help recall names, but I’m the guy that needs repetition.

So you can imagine how tough it is for me to come up with titles for my stories. I hate cliches, and yet those are the lines that come most easily to mind, as anyone who read the original incarnation of Thieves’ Honor might be able to tell.  There were titles like “Endgame” and “Trial by Fire” and such. Cool enough, but overused.

What I ended up with was plain and not a little boring, although true to the episode content. I’m still considering a title change.

Shakespeare is an excellent source for place names and characters. I like to switch ’em up, use the name of a city for a character, turn a character name into a city. (Then again, I like using last names for first names, and so on.) If you’re familiar with Shakespeare and Tolkien, you’ll find winks and nods to their work throughout Thieves’ Honor. And if history is also one of your geeky indulgences, well, there’s a reference here or there to Rome or the American West.

And speaking of names, one of the first pieces of mail I received after moving here was a warrant. You might imagine my surprise — and distress — at receiving it. I thought, Surely I haven’t violated any traffic laws to the extent that the cops are after me.

(Is it sad that I can’t think of anything worse than a traffic violation to — ahem — warrant a warrant?)

Then I noticed the first line of the address: “Mary ______”, in care of my name and address.

Ah. That explained it.

She was married to my father for a short time several years ago, and was of less than an honest disposition. An addict, she stole from him, her kids, anyone naive enough to let her near anything valuable, in order to feed her habit. She ran off with another man — the father of one or more of her children, I think — and that’s the last I knew of her, until she tried stealing my mother’s identity. They briefly shared the same last name; I guess that made it easier for her criminal activities.

KB, c2011

KB, c2011

So, to quote the Bard, what’s in a name?

Everything.

It’s identity, meaning, story.

I’m more than my name, but much of what people know of me begins there: “Keanan Brand? The writer? Yeah, heard of of him. Can’t seem to settle down. Easily distracted. Lame sense of humor. Watches way too much foreign television.”

Sure, I could be called anything. The content of my character (to borrow from another great man) would remain the same. I could be Brian, James, Parker, Trey — and my personality, dreams, goals, intelligence, humor, and everything that makes me me, would be unchanged.

So, then, following that line of logic, why does a story title matter so much? After all, the story doesn’t change just because it has a snazzy name.

Yes, and no.

A title imparts something extra. It helps tell the story, providing theme, foreshadowing events, adding literary cadence.

In a fantasy series still trying to find a publisher, I used a non-rhyming poetic structure to title the parts:
Book 1
Part 1 — The Heir of Uartha
Part 2 — Blacksmith, Laundress, Healer, Priest
Part 3 — The Lady of Skarda
Part 4 — Captain, Farmer, Orphan, Spy
Book 2
Part 5 — Outlaws, Murderers, and Thieves
Part 6 — The Blood of Dragons
Part 7 — Keeper, Soldier, Dragon, King
Part 8 — The Sword of Ages

In truth, it’s more functional and straight-forward than poetic. I admire those writers who conjure the perfect, eloquent title. One of these days, I’ll get it right.

Every human being has hundreds of separate people living under his skin. The talent of a writer is his ability to give them their separate names, identities, personalities and have them relate to other characters living with him. -Mel Brooks

The creations of a great writer are little more than the moods and passions of his own heart, given surnames and Christian names, and sent to walk the earth. –William Butler Yeats

If you take different mythologies from different cultures, the names may change and the story lines may vary but there is always something in common. –Maynard James Keenan

George Orwell’s contention was that it is a sure sign of trouble when things can no longer be called by their right names and described in plain, forthright speech. –Christopher Lasch

I grew up hearing words like snakeroot, sassafras, mullein – things that had wondrous, mysterious sounds in their names. –Jan Karon

Titles are not only important, they are essential for me. I cannot write without a title.
Guillermo Cabrera Infante

I always have trouble with titles for my books. I usually have no title until the editor has to present the book and calls me frantically, ‘Judy, we need a title.’ –Judy Blume

Next, in importance to books are their titles. –Frank Crane

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