Mentor of the Month: Nathaniel Hawthorne (w/help from Jhumpa Lahiri): Where do titles come from?

There’s a line in “The Custom House”: Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.

For those of you familiar with Jhumpa Lahiri’s work, you’ll know she has a collection of stories titled Unaccustomed Earth–the stories cover the new generations finding their own home. So, it’s the perfect title, written by Hawthorne, years and years and many generations ago.

Now, my question of the day: Where do titles come from?

Nowadays, an author is incredibly lucky if they get to decide their own title (who knows if Lahiri got to pick Unaccustomed Earth?). But I think an author should still be able to figure out an acceptable, maybe even the perfect title for themselves. Though, perhaps, I am an author far too attached to her titles and won’t listen to anyone. Not you or you or you or you.

But how to pick a title?

Places where titles have come from in the past:

  • lines from other books or the book itself
  • quotations (which I guess includes lines from other books)
  • totally made up
  • references out in the world
  • lots and lots of other places

Where do you come up with your titles? How do you decide what’s important in the story/character/plotline that you want to convey as sooooo important that you’ll emphasize it by putting it right on top? What are some of your favorite titles?
Sidenote: Titles Jenny Likes (does not me she loved the books as much, but the titles helped her pick up a book)
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coehlo
Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
…and many others

3 Comments on “Mentor of the Month: Nathaniel Hawthorne (w/help from Jhumpa Lahiri): Where do titles come from?

  1. As you are well aware, I have trouble with titles. I fully expect that editors will always change my titles.

    Those that have intrigued me enough to get me to buy the book are (those that you haven't already listed, that is): The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, The Art of Racing in the Rain, Little Giant of Aberdeen County, As Near to Heaven by Sea and How the Scots Invented the Modern World.

  2. I've never had much trouble with titles, unless I start overthinking it. Always find it interesting when I hear an editor changed the title of a book. Why was that? And how did the author feel about that?

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