The Epic Hunt for an Epic Title For…an Epic?

List of potential titles from one angst-laden page in my Dead Wake journal

List of potential titles from one angst-laden page in my Dead Wake journal

From time to time a reader will ask me, who comes up with the titles of my books, and do I have any say in the process? I am happy to assert that in fact, for better or worse, the titles of all seven of my books have been my inventions. That is about all they have in common, however. One came easily, the rest were the product of a long and ugly process involving the creation of hundreds of test titles, with me periodically tapping my wife on the shoulder at 2:30 a.m. to try out the newest candidates. She has become adept at feigning sleep.

More often I test my titles on her when she is awake, at which point she is more helpful. I will print out mock covers with the titles in 48-point font, with smaller subtitles, and will lay them out on our bed and tell her to look at them quickly and give me her gut feeling. (I periodically ambush my daughters in the same way—a literary Scaramouche jumping into their paths brandishing titles instead of a sword, setting the pages down on the floor quickly, unexpectedly—“Ah-HA! Take a quick look. Just your immediate reaction. So. What do you think?”—then leaping back to my office.) Most of the time my wife is very helpful, but occasionally the process makes her giddy, like when she suggested that my book about a hurricane that destroyed Galveston in 1900 should be called Big Wind Over Texas, and then proceeded to laugh hysterically, for what she had in mind was the campfire scene in the Mel Brooks film, Blazing Saddles. She then came up with another candidate: Texas Blows. This caused more hilarity. She is a doctor who takes care of critically ill newborns. She does not get much chance to laugh.

Coming up with a title for my hurricane book was in fact a challenge. I tried out dozens of titles before settling on Isaac’s Storm, which I liked because, a) the storm was without doubt the most tragic and powerful event in the life of the book’s central protagonist, a hubris-laden Texas weatherman named Isaac Cline, and b) the weather bureau in 1900 had not yet begun assigning names to hurricanes so it seemed exceedingly clever to assign a name myself. At first my editor was skeptical. She felt it sounded too much like a thriller. To which I responded with an intellectually robust argument: “So?”

For every book, I keep a journal in which I jot ideas for narrative passages and potential titles. Lately I’ve also begun doodling and sketching, but that is more of a neurological tick than anything else, and it helps keep me calm on airplanes, and, as one daughter suggested, it might enhance the value of these journals on e-Bay after I’m gone. My journal for my newest book, Dead Wake, about the sinking of the Lusitania, has page after page of titles in long staggery lists, the result of an exercise in titular free-association, where I just write down any reasonably relevant title that pops into my head—though I have learned that when addressing high-school writing classes, especially those with a preponderance of boys, I cannot use the word titular.

The exercise of listing titles at random is extremely useful, mainly in that it helps determine which titles most certainly will not work. It helps me eliminate the melodramatic—“When the Sea Ran Red”—and the pretentious—“Requiem for a Queen”—and the excessively oblique—“On the Loveliest of Days”—and the Star Trek-ish—“A Periscope for Capt. Schwieger”—and the kind of title that bears an unfortunate allusion to something else, as when I briefly considered calling the book “Inconceivable,” until another of my daughters pointed out that this title might make me the object of mirth given the role the word plays in a repeated comic riff in the film, The Princess Bride. In the end I chose Dead Wake, which is an archaic maritime term for the disturbance that lingers on the surface of the sea long after a vessel has passed. I liked the way it resonated with various themes and scenes in the book, including the approach of the fatal torpedo, whose path was marked by a long track of compressed air bubbles.

Certain subjects by their nature tend to ease the titling process. I suspect Walter Isaacson did not spend a lot of time agonizing over the titles for at least four of his books: Einstein, Kissinger, Steve Jobs, and Benjamin Franklin, though I will bet you he obsessed at least a little over whether to use Ben or Benjamin. Nor do I think A. Scott Berg bled onto his keyboard trying to come up with Lindbergh and Wilson. However, I do suspect that some titles that at first glance seem rudimentary are in fact the result of a long process of fretting and arguing, like maybe Mark Kurlansky’s Salt and his earlier work Cod. These are simple titles, and possibly obvious, but one can imagine sitting in on a marketing meeting at Kurlansky’s publisher. “Mark, Mark, Mark. Salt? That’s not a title. That’s a syllable. We can’t go to sales conference with that. What about something like, The Mineral that Made the World Taste Good. Or Iodized Schmiodized. Maybe not those exactly, but you know, something with a little spark. Maybe an allusion to sex, with a world history ring to it. How about The Girl in the Salt Lick. You see what I mean? A little racy, yet not! But Marco, Mr. K-Man, Salt? Just Salt? Really?….Wait, Marco! Marcosolomio! Where are you going? We love you….ahhhh Christ.”

Titles are important. They should convey not only a sense of the book’s subject, but also a feeling—will this be a funny read, or a contemplative one; is it a book I’d like to read at poolside, or in the dentist’s chair waiting for the Novocaine to kick in; will it transport me to an imaginary realm, or knock me flat with trauma and despair. Here are some of my favorite titles. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. The Long Goodbye. The Accidental Tourist. The Quiet American. The Art of Racing in the Rain. The Best and the Brightest. A Room with a View. A Tale of Two Cities. The Longest Day. Pride and Prejudice. Debbie Does Dallas. I am kidding about that last one. The list of good book titles is actually quite long, so I won’t bore you with more.

In the world of nonfiction, however, coming up with a primary title is only part of the battle. Next you need a subtitle. Most nonfiction books have subtitles; most novels do not, though of course there are exceptions to both rules. Take for example the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which is nonfiction, and Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, which is fiction. Finding a subtitle can be as daunting as finding the primary title, though I have found that devising a subtitle can be a valuable exercise very early in the process of writing a book, especially at the point of conception. The exercise helps isolate the essential nature of a book, and can reveal fundamental flaws in a writer’s thinking, because if you can’t come up with a workable subtitle, you probably don’t have a book. At the same time, you can’t simply skirt the problem by writing a 50-word subtitle that covers all the disparate elements of the subject you are contemplating, though some authors have come close to achieving this milestone. On those occasions when I teach non-fiction writing, I pass along my Law of Subtitles, which holds that if your subtitle is more than ten words long, includes the word “epic,” and uses the word “and” more than once, beware: you are probably deluding yourself into thinking you have a book, when what you actually have is a melange of material that does not really hang together as a coherent narrative.

I found the whole exercise particularly useful when contemplating whether to begin work on the book that became The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. In the course of a period of random research into historical murders, I had learned about a serial killer named H. H. Holmes and his hotel, with its acid vats and dissection tables, but Holmes’ story at first did not interest me, because I did not want to write crime porn. In reading about him, however, I also found a glancing reference to a world’s fair that took place in Chicago in 1893. With nothing better to do, I began reading about the fair, and was entranced. I realized almost immediately that I did not want to write about the fair alone, and certainly not just about Holmes. Rather, the book that suddenly crystallized in my mind was one that told both stories. What drew me was the juxtaposition of good and evil—the fact that Holmes’ killings and this gleaming fair occurred at the same time, only blocks apart. Holmes, I knew, had called himself “the Devil;” the world’s fair had been nicknamed the White City. The title came to me within 24 hours. The subtitle came later, after a lot more struggle: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. You will note that it is exactly ten words long, that there is only one “and,” and that I avoided the use of “epic,” though it certainly would have been easy to insert the word somewhere, possibly even in multiple places: Epic Murder, Epic Magic, and Epic Madness at the Epic Fair that Changed America.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I am not a fan of subtitles. In fact, a few years ago I became so appalled at subtitle proliferation that for my fourth book, about the strange intersection in the lives of Guglielmo Marconi and England’s second most famous killer, Hawley Harvey Crippen, I resolved that I would not have a subtitle at all. I called it Thunderstruck, which seemed to me to capture the climactic events in the book. In retrospect, I’m not at all sure that was the right decision. For better or worse, readers identify books that have subtitles as being nonfiction and those without as fiction. So I would not be surprised if readers were a little confused about exactly what Thunderstruck was supposed to be. They likely were further confused when they Googled the title and learned that it was also the title of a song by the rock band, AC/DC. This was a surprise to me as well, and underscored how important it is to check to see if something else has the title you wanted, like maybe a strip club or a company that rents goats to people who do not want to mow their lawns. Titles, by the way, cannot be copyrighted, so if I wanted to, I could rename my Marconi book Gone Girl, or maybe Eat, Pray, Love, or even Benjamin Franklin.  

One of my titles briefly made me a heroic figure in the school attended by my middle daughter. In the early 1990’s, I began working on a book that followed the travels of a handgun used in a school shooting in Virginia. I called this book Lethal Passage: The Story of a Gun. My daughter, however, began telling her friends I had written “Lethal Weapon,” which of course was the name of the wildly popular film starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.

Alas, we who are fathers of daughters are always doomed to disappoint.

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Erik Larson is the author of six previous national bestsellers—The Splendid and the Vile, Dead Wake, In the Garden of Beasts, Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City, and Isaac’s Storm— which have collectively sold more than twelve million copies. His books have been published in nearly forty countries.

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