When I'm writing a book, I start with a title--not always the title that ends up on the cover, but a title, nevertheless. For me, it's a kind of Rorschach, an idea-seed that grows into the book. Sometimes the title turns into plot, as it did in Widow's Tears and Cat's Claw. Sometimes it's all about setting, as in the Cottage Tale series: The Tale of Hill Top Farm, The Tale of Castle Cottage. Sometimes it's metaphoric--Blood Root, Bleeding Hearts--or refers to a time period: An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days.
When I began working on the Rose Wilder Lane project, my first title was Laura's Rose--a title that grew out of personal experience. In my mother's family, children were often referred to by their mother's name, partly because there were always a gazillion cousins by the same name. I was Lucille's Susan. My brother was Lucille's John. Hence Laura's Rose, which emphasized the strong bond between mother and daughter demonstrated by Rose's decade-long work on her mother's books.
But that title, I found out, was already in use. Back in 1986, Bill Anderson wrote a booklet called "Laura's Rose," long out of print. Titles can't be copyrighted, but when I asked him about it, Bill (who has done a great deal of good work on the Wilder materials) told me that he might like to reuse the title, so I dropped it.
A Wilder Rose came to me then, and I liked it even better: Rose was named for the wild rose of the Dakota prairies. Until she married, she was Rose Wilder. And one of her editors, commenting on an intemperate letter Rose had written, scrawled "Our wild Rose, at her wildest." A Wilder Rose seemed to me to describe a woman who was wild enough, in all ways, to challenge the fences her culture built around her: to become a global traveler in an era when most women stayed home; to live abroad; to become a best-selling author and a voice for a political movement.
And then I thought of a subtitle: Rose Wilder Lane, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Their Little Houses. Perfect, I thought. The novel is full of little houses: Rose's Albanian house, Laura's house at Rocky Ridge, Rose's Rock House (built for her parents in 1928), Rose's Danbury house. And about her house-building addiction, Rose once wrote to her friend, Dorothy Thompson, “Without houses, who knows? I might have been a writer.” Excellent choice, I told myself happily.
Not. The book was already in galleys (and the galleys were in the hands of reviewers) when I was cautioned that HarperCollins, the publisher of the Little House (TM) books might interpret my "Little Houses" (plural, referring to actual houses) as an infringement of their trademark on the Little House (TM) series.
Uh-oh. I checked with a lawyer who deals with such matters, and yes, indeed. The lawyer said this: "Trademark infringement applies not only to the use of the exact trademark but also to a use that is close enough to cause a regular consumer to be confused between the two." That seemed pretty definitive to me. And I definitely would not like to get into a wrestling match with a Big Publisher over two little words.
Long story short, I scrubbed the subtitle (as you can see on the revised book cover above) and spent a couple of days last week changing it in as many places as I could reach--in the file copies of the book/cover, on the Internet, in purchased advertising. Lots of extra work, but valuable lesson learned.
Oh, by the way: we're doing a quick giveaway of A Wilder Rose signed ARCs over at Goodreads. Go here to enter. Ends 8/7. If you miss this one, there'll be another. And another.
Reading note: "I did what I knew how to do. When I knew better, I did better." --Maya Angelou