Titles are hard

Picking titles for a book you’re writing is hard. My Elizabeth novel is especially tricky.

One of the pieces of feedback I got when I queried the project 2 or 3 years ago was that the title then The Princess’s Guide to Staying Alive was too lighthearted and playful for the content of my book. In an early iteration of the book, the beginning was more light and ironic. That is not the case anymore.

So, as I began rewriting I started thinking about titles.

I want to communicate that it’s historical fiction in the title. Maybe that’s not necessary, but I want the fact that it’s set in Tudor England to be somewhat clear.

I want to telegraph the danger, the secrets, the intelligence and the strength that run through the story. It’s about an illegitimate princess who also happens to be the smartest person in the realm. That contradiction is important to the story.

What I landed on a year ago was Bastard Princess. I know that can be a little shocking to read, but let me explain. Elizabeth was a princess when she was born, because Anne Boleyn was still married to Henry VIII. Catherine of Aragon had been divorced, and her daughter with Henry, Mary, was now declared illegitimate–a bastard. When Anne Boleyn was executed for treason, Elizabeth was likewise declared a bastard. And when I say “declared” I don’t mean whispered. I mean Parliament passed an official act. Ambassadors to England wrote back to their home countries and described Elizabeth as “the bastard Elizabeth.” People most likely called Elizabeth a bastard to her face.

Coupled with this is the fact that Elizabeth was the best, or perhaps second best, educated person in the kingdom. The best scholar from Cambridge came to tutor Elizabeth and her brother from a young age. When her little brother Edward, destined to rule, split off and continued his studies alone, Elizabeth was then tutored by the second best scholar at Cambridge. A good education isn’t enough–I know this as a teacher. Elizabeth was very intelligent and tirelessly hard-working. She spoke and wrote English, French, Italian, Latin, and Greek. At age 11, she could translate a text from English to French, Latin, and Greek.

If there was anyone who deserved the title of princess, it was Elizabeth.

I also kind of like the shock that Bastard Princess provides. Princess is ubiquitous word in our culture right now. It’s splashed over clothing and products. It’s how many people refer to themselves or their family members. But when you pair “princess” with “bastard,” your brain almost can’t compute how those two go together. Princesses are spoiled girls with empty heads, right? They aren’t dangerous or defiant. But Elizabeth was both in danger and defiant.

I am also a huge fan of Hamilton: An American Musical. Opening line? “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore…”

When I heard that opening line, I was surprised and intrigued. Lin-Manuel Miranda didn’t shy away from both Hamilton’s challenges and the insults lobbed at him.

Those were the same insults hurled at Elizabeth, changing “son” to “daughter.” And she rose above those challenges, those slurs, just like Hamilton did.

So, Bastard Princess it was.

Until I began to question myself when I began querying again. Nothing like querying to fire up the self doubt to the max.

Would Bastard Princess turn agents off? Would it turn librarians off who wouldn’t display it, lest younger kids read it out loud? Would teachers feel uncomfortable book-talking it?

Maybe. As a teacher, I know how important teachers and librarians are in putting books in kids’ hands. I’m cool with Bastard Princess, but would a teacher be cool with that in Tupelo, Mississippi where my in-laws live? Grrr. Maybe not.

To be fair, the working title is not often what the final title of the published book is. So the real question is would agents be turned off by the title? As the wisdom goes, don’t give an agent a reason to say no. They are overloaded with queries, and if they see a reason to pass, they will take it.

So, cut to me in my bed at 5:30 making a list of words and synonyms. I want to telegraph strength, danger, secrets, survival, intelligence. Here’s what I’m playing around with.

The Eloquence of Ashes

Princess from the Ashes (does it sound too young, like a book for a 5th grader?)

Ink and Ash

Only Ash Remains (too sad? too dark?)

The Shelter of Ashes

Acquainted with Danger (sounds like a Bond movie)

I tried a bunch of titles with words like withstand and persist and fire and storm, but they didn’t work as well. They sounded like the catch phrase for a sports drink.

I think I’m gonna sit on this for a while. Maybe see what comes of the first batch of queries. I’ve got a Manuscript Academy consultation coming up, and I can ask this then. Maybe something will come to me in a dream.

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