I learned it from men, | the men so old,
Who dwell in the hills of home.
Harbarthsljoth, Poetic Edda
For some writers, book ideas come with a title tagging along, a happy puppy, if you will, inseparable from the story itself, accompanying it every step of the way. The story is a tennis ball filled with treats and the title just can’t help itself. In fact, titles are sometimes the first thing to come into existence.
I’m not alone. I know this. There are plenty of tweets and posts out there talking about title changes taking place late in the publication game or about the hair-pulling frustration of trying to find just the right one.
For me, I think this is related to the fact that I am a pantser. I don’t plan out my plot or my scenes. I only have a vague notion of where I’m going. I don’t write in chapters; I write in chunks and later designate which blank spaces in my manuscript will serve as chapter breaks versus mere scene breaks. (This, by the way, is mind-bendingly painful for me. I want to cry and eat ice cream. What’s that? No, no, I am NOT in the middle of that process right now….) But I digress. I’d be very interested to see if other writers who share my pantsing qualities are more likely to encounter difficulties finding that perfect title–or any title, for that matter.
The Song of the Ash Tree got a series title before anything else. I was nearing the end of my journey through the first draft of the third book and I had a few choices rattling around in my head. I was pretty sure I knew which one I liked best, but I was really hoping for some confirmation before I committed. We were, after all, talking about a long-term relationship. So I made a poll at my workplace and watched eagerly as the tally marks grew and grew and grew. And the result was clear.
My main fear with using The Song of the Ash Tree was (can you guess?) the similarity between it and the behemoth of series titles with Song in it: A Song of Ice and Fire. Not to mention that there are a lot of other books out there jumping on the Song train. Thanks for that, George.
But using Song fit. Perfectly. If we look to the Poetic Edda, we find the Vafþrúðnismál, the Skírnismál, the Þrymskviða, and others. You don’t speak Old Norse? Me neither. These are translated as The Lay of Vafthrúdnir, The Ballad of Skírnir, The Lay of Thrym, etc. OMG THEY ARE ALL SONGS. Basically I came to the conclusion that it would be ridiculous for me to not call my series The Song of the Ash Tree. (Yggdrasilviða? Sure, why not.)
Then came the hard part.
Titling the individual books became a nightmare. Everything I thought of was boring, only faintly meaningful, or reminded me of a six-year-old naming a teddy bear Beary. NOTHING IS GOOD ENOUGH I AM DOOMED.
I actually don’t remember how or why I began to look through the texts of the sagas for inspiration. With the benefit of hindsight, I can say that I really should have thought of it much sooner.
The Blood-Tainted Winter was born, as some of you may know, from a line in Beowulf. Actually, I have to admit that I only decided on it after doing a bit of a smoosh-job of two different translations of a few lines in Beowulf. I knew, you see, that I wanted to have a pretty little quote at the beginning of the book, like so:
biding with Finn
the blood-tainted winter,
BOOORING. I loved the phrase and I really, really wanted to use it. But I hated that my snazzy little quote would be not actually very snazzy but a bit of a snooze-fest.
So I looked at Seamus Heaney’s translation:
lived out that whole
winter with Finn,
homesick and helpless.
OH NOES. My prefect phrase doesn’t exist in Heaney’s translation. But at least the other words were a bit more vibrant. So armed with my trusty scissors and a glue stick (YES, LITERALLY), I made my own version, which is what appears in the opening pages of The Blood-Tainted Winter:
lived out that whole resentful,
homesick and helpless
And they lived happily ever after.
Oh, right Book 2 and Book 3 needed titles, too.
I ended up pulling text from the Poetic Edda for the titles for both 2 and 3. Book 2 generated two solid choices while Book 3 had…2.5? I won’t say three because the last option actually came from The Iliad and I really couldn’t bring myself to stray from the Norse stuff.
It was a tough choice to make the final decision for Book 2. I loved the phrase that lost out. I still love it. But it was a little more abstract and the winning option, I came to realize, actually fit really well with Raef as a character, not to mention the plot.
And so, it’s time to officially introduce the second edda in The Song of the Ash Tree:
The Hills of Home
What’s that? No, you don’t get to find out the title for Book 3, too. MUAHAHAHAHAHAHA.