What’s in a Book Title?
While promoting my novel Searching for Nora last week, I got an interesting question: how did I come up with the title?
Ah, the title. It seems like that should be the easiest part of the book to write. In the movie version of a writer’s life, you see the author slip a piece of paper into a typewriter, roll it into place and, click clack, type in the title. Then they start writing. Or, if they are going to be ambushed by writer’s block, they stop after the title. The title should be obvious. The title should be easy.
But settling on a title for my novel, which is a sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s iconic play A Doll’s House, proved maddening. My main character is Ibsen’s Nora Helmer, a charming, loving, unstable, desperate young mother who walks away from her family at the end of Ibsen’s play. My book tells the story of what happens to her, and along the way grapples with thorny problems such as a woman’s role in marriage and love, the fate of the marginalized, the loss of children and stability. Lots to convey in a title.
When I started writing, a good friend suggested Out of the Dollhouse. I liked it at first, but as the novel got more complex, that title seemed too derivative of Ibsen’s play, and too limiting. In my book Nora leaves the proverbial “dollhouse,” and then takes on the larger world, surviving through one adventure after another. She struggles to find a place to live, makes friends with radicals, goes underground and undercover, emigrates to America – and that’s just the first half. Along the way I developed a secondary story, set forty years later, about a young university student who becomes interested in the fate of a long lost feminist. By the time I was nearly finished, I had a big book, with two heroines and lots to capture in a title. Out of the Dollhouse just seemed too small.
I toyed with a million ideas: Nora and the New World; Beyond the Doll House; Under a Forgiving Sky; Different Hearts in Different Lands; the Widow of Kristiania; Torvald’s Wife; The Life She Lives; Lies and Liberation; and one I thought Mr. Ibsen himself might have chosen: Love or Honor. And that’s the short list.
One of my favorites was The True Story of Nora Helmer, which I thought was wonderfully ironic, because we can never know the true story of Nora Helmer, after all – she’s a creature of literature, not real life. But, as Jane Austen discovered, irony is often lost on readers, even in something as important as a title.
I soon came to understand that the title should serve a function, and it should do so clearly, without irony or puns or too many obscure references. People needed to read it easily, be intrigued, hear Nora and feel a flicker of recognition. Perhaps it could include a nod toward Ibsen’s play. My production manager suggested I come up with something short – no more than three words, preferably just one, because I was going to have to type the title a million times, say it often, hear it in my dreams. It had to be concise if I was going to survive that.
Concise, however, was a challenge. I’ve never been able to say anything in one word, so I focused on three-word options. When I complained I couldn’t say much in three words, my production manager gently suggested I could add a subtitle, but to keep it tight. Three words for the main title, followed by a bit of a subtitle. “Nothing scholarly,” she said. “You don’t want people thinking it’s a dissertation.”
I quickly decided the subtitle could carry the reference to Ibsen’s play, but I still needed a catchy main title. As a former newspaper reporter, I knew good headlines were built on verbs; so I wanted my title to have a verb, a little action rather than just an inert idea on the page. And then it occurred to me that the verb could link my two heroines. If someone was searching for Nora, that action could be the bridge.
Finding Nora! It seemed perfect. I ran it past my sons. “Nope,” they said. “Sounds like Finding Nemo.” Plus, the domain name was taken. Back to the drawing board.
I was hooked, though, by the idea of a verb linking the two heroines. If not Finding Nora, then why not Searching for Nora? This resonated with me because I had been searching for Nora the entire ten years I worked on her story. Writing the book allowed me to explore who she was, how she might grow into a better person, who she could become over time. Then I realized the book was the story of three searches: Nora’s search for herself; Solvi’s search for the missing feminist, and my search for both these intriguing heroines.
That is how the book became Searching for Nora: After the Doll’s House. So far, it seems to be working.
Wendy Swallow, Sept. 26, 2019
Creating the “Nora’s Journey” Photo Essay
While I was writing Searching for Nora, I often ran the story through my head like a movie, tinkering with scenes and enjoying the extended dream of the novel. When my husband and I talked about the book, he liked to imagine which actress would play Nora in the movie version, or where it might be shot. The entire time I worked on the book, Nora’s and Solvi’s worlds lived in my head, images at every turn.
But when you write, you have to rely on words to convey the rich texture of the world you see in your mind’s eye, and that can be a challenge. My sister Anne, an artist, read an early version and said she wanted more description of places and scenes, even of some of the characters. “What does Jens look like?” she said, asking about a ten-year-old boy in the story who immigrates to America. “I can’t see him.” How I longed to find a kid I could dress up in scruffy pants and little Norwegian boots so I could take his picture for the book. Instead I had to write passages that would bring him to life.
As I prepared to publish Searching to Nora, however, I realized I needed images if I was going to make a splash on social media. And so I conceived of a photo essay called “Nora’s Journey.” Every week for the next year, I will post a photograph of an object or landscape from the book, along with a quote from the text. The photos, which illustrate Nora’s part of the story, will live as a slideshow on my website, searchingfornora.com. Here, for example, is a rosemaled chest — wooden chests decorated with a Norwegian style of painting flowers and roses known as “rosemaling.” Most Norwegians immigrating to America brought chests decorated with the rosemaling of their native regions in Norway. Several rosemaled chests show up in my novel. Here is the quote from the text I will pair with this photo: “There was little furniture beyond the rusted stove and a rosemaled wedding chest, which stood beneath the window. An open Bible lay on top, face down.” The photo and quote are designed to work together as a mysterious glimpse of the story unfolding in the book, designed to pique a potential reader’s interest.
Once I came up with this, I went into a creative frenzy trying to find items mentioned in the book that I could stage to look 19th-century, as well as places to photograph them. I had to be careful – no dry wall in the background, no modern conveniences to the side. I scoured second-hand shops for old items and fabrics, and pawed through my own collection of inherited pieces to find silver pickle forks and crumbling early editions of Chopin. My niece Mary, an inspired high school English teacher, came to visit and helped imagine photo after photo. We bought a couple of macaroons and shot them in afternoon light; we stacked old clothing on a wooden table and draped a string of pearls on top; we baked two little cakes and dabbed them with a bit of glaze to represent the cakes sold by the America Widow on the wharf in Kristiania. We had a blast, and along the way unlocked a whole new way of “seeing” the book.
You can find “Nora’s Journey” on Instagram, or on the searchingfornora.com website on the Blog page. If you would like to receive the latest Nora’s Journey photo (and blog), just sign up for my newsletter, The Weekly Nora, which can be found on the website’s home page.
Wendy Swallow, Sept. 18, 2019
Who Is Solvi Lange?
My new novel, Searching for Nora, braids together two tales. The primary story is set in Norway and Minnesota in the 1880’s, and traces what happens to Nora Helmer, the heroine of Henrik Ibsen’s iconic play A Doll’s House. The secondary story is set in Norway as well, but in 1919, and features a young university student named Solvi Lange. She’s a lonely girl with a rebellious spirit and a fierce yen for the truth. She sprang to life so I could view Nora through the prism of time and turn-of-the-century social change. Solvi and her friend Rikka are some of the first women to attend university in Norway, and they represent a new generation of European women testing the waters of equality. Unlike their mothers, they can vote and work in offices. They ride bicycles and walk the streets unaccompanied. They wear shorter skirts, cut their hair. And they dream.
Solvi has a dream, though it takes her awhile to understand it. She wants to change the world and correct social wrongs, and she wants to do it through photography. As a writer, I’ve always been curious about people who make art, especially visual art, which demands a different kind of creativity than playing with words and sentences. By the end of World War 1, the field of photography was coming into its own, spreading with the popularity of smaller, easy-to-use cameras. Solvi inherits a fine German-made camera from her father after he dies, and soon starts taking picture of housemaids. At first she takes formal photos of them to give their beaus; but in time she moves into the kitchens and sculleries where they work, photographing their labor and working conditions. And the more she sees, the more she’s disturbed. She’s an upper-class girl, raised in silks and lace, but by the time she leaves for university she wants a different life, out from under the bourgeois conformity of her family.
Both Nora and Solvi set out on journeys of self-discovery. They are just two generations apart, but their worlds are quite different. Yet, like women everywhere, they are seeking to understand the ties of family, to find someone worthy of their love, to pursue something that will give their life purpose. Both Nora and Solvi are compelled to leave home, to leave the doll’s life originally set out for them. And once they do, they take on the world.
Wendy Swallow, Sept. 6, 2019
Launching My Book
My new book, Searching for Nora: After the Doll’s House, officially launches today, which is exciting but also a bit harrowing. It’s like sending your five-year-old off on the school bus for the first day of kindergarten. Will your kid do well in the big world? Will she make friends and prove helpful to others? Will she come home crying or jump off the bus with a smile?
Novels, after all, are like people: complex and idiosyncratic, with hidden beauties and often obvious flaws. Not everyone likes every person, and not every person likes every novel. At some point in the process of writing a novel, however, authors learn to follow their own vision, despite what the critics might say. Because every editor and reader will want it a bit more like this, or a bit more like that. By the time you launch your book, it should reflect your best effort to knit together the writerly knowledge and advice you’ve absorbed with the story you want to tell and the wisdom you bring to bear. Hopefully that is what you’ve accomplished.
But that’s a high standard, and when you launch you may not be sure you’ve met the mark. Because you won’t know until you have readers. To live, a book needs readers. When you launch your novel, you’re asking people to listen to your story. You’re inviting them into the world you have conjured, that’s been living in your head and heart for years. And once they give you their attention, it better be a damn good tale.
So here is the tale I wanted to tell, the story of a strong, complicated woman who struggles against the patriarchy of her day to find her own true self. She travels from the gutters of 19th century Norway, to the challenging emptiness of the Minnesota prairie, searching for family, love and purpose. Along the way, a second story of another Norwegian woman from another era is braided together with the first, a story that reflects and expands the original. My two heroines – Nora and Solvi – have lived in my imagination for years. May they now live in yours.
Wendy Swallow, Aug. 28, 2019
Finding Nora in Norway
What does Nora Helmer look like? If you’ve seen Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, you may have an image in mind. But what was Ibsen’s vision of her? He tells us through Nora’s own words, and how men respond to her. She jokes about her “ravishing appeal” and uses her beauty to get what she wants. She’s clearly very attractive, vivacious and dynamic. She’s a woman men notice and women envy.
To develop Nora’s character in my novel, however, I needed concrete details. While researching in Norway, I looked for a woman who could serve as a model, because I wanted my Nora to be real. Everywhere I went, I looked into women’s faces — on buses, in the streets, shopping in stores, but to no avail. Day after day I was disappointed. Maybe it didn’t help that I had a strong image in mind already. I wanted my Nora to be a dark, honey-blonde, and vain about her tawny mane. But there were more brunettes in Norway than I expected (possibly attributable to the genetic diversity the Vikings brought home with them), and the blondes I spotted often didn’t fit the rest of my Nora vision. I wanted a woman who was tall and curvy, with a face full of character. Possibly a strong nose or chin, and eyes the dusky blue of the Norwegian sea. And for some reason I wanted her hair to be pinned up.
The last day in Norway, I began to despair. I considered abandoning my Nora vision because I didn’t want to create a Nora that didn’t exist. I started looking around for alternatives, but none was right — too short, hair too curly, eyes too grey, chin too weak. Perhaps my vision was too idealized.
Then, as I was riding the bus to the airport in Bergen, a woman climbed aboard. She was an airport officer of some kind, in a blue uniform. She had deeply set blue eyes, high cheekbones and smooth, burnished skin. She held her chin level, her shoulders back. She was a bit taller than me, with a lovely figure, strong but feminine. On her feet were smart black boots, and on her head a small blue cap. And under the cap was a knot of dark blonde hair.
I couldn’t stop staring, and I saw that others noticed her as well. Nora lived! Nora worked airport security in Bergen! She was perfect. It would have been rude to take her picture, but I can still see her, my Nora, swaying gently as she holds onto the overhead strap. She got off before me and I never saw her again, but it didn’t matter. I took her image home, dressed her in a gown with a bodice and bustle, and put her to work.
Wendy Swallow, Aug. 21, 2019
Why Write About Nora Helmer?
I wrote Searching for Nora because I couldn’t stop wondering what Nora Helmer – heroine of Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House – might have done after slamming the door on her family and bourgeois life. Would she set up house-keeping in a garret and send for her children? Flee to Denmark to become a bohemian and pose for painters? Or walk to the harbor and buy a ticket to America?
It’s hard to say what Nora would have done, partly because Ibsen gives us no clear answers. She’s one of the iconic women of literature, and yet she only steps into her full power at the very end of Ibsen’s play. For a few short minutes, she casts off her simpering ways and faces her husband as an equal for the first time. It’s riveting drama, and propels Nora out of her home.
To modern theater audiences, this bold act feels like liberation. But I sensed Ibsen was saying something more nuanced.
When I looked into the historical realities, it became clear that leaving her marriage in 1879 (the year the play premiered) would have been nearly suicidal for someone like Nora. She has no property, no money, no right to see her children or even to be allowed in their company. Nothing.
All she has is her finishing-school education, her charm and her will.
But what a will!
I had to write the story to see what she would do.
Wendy Swallow, Aug. 15, 2019