I've been thinking about names quite a lot recently. A friend asked me why I had called my most recent book The Amber Heart. (She hasn't read it yet, otherwise she might have guessed!) But if I'm honest, this is a book that has had many different titles over the years, including Noon Ghosts and The Sorrel Horse. I still quite like Noon Ghosts but it didn't 'stick' for some reason although I used the title for a radio play set in Poland instead. One of my previous agents had an aversion to the word 'horse' in any title, so the Sorrel Horse had to go. When I was doing the last major set of rewrites to this novel, I began to see that the piece of jewellery which runs through the story and is central to the plot had to be amber: a heart shaped chunk of this precious resin, set in silver filigree. When I first visited Poland, my Great Aunt Wanda gave me a necklace which she had managed to hang onto throughout the war and beyond - a string of round golden beads, each with its own little fossil, some of them seeds and leaves, some of them insects. Wanda - along with many Poles - believed that amber had health-giving properties and urged me to wear it often. During the same trip, one of my cousins took me to a workshop where a friend of hers was working with big yellow chunks of amber, making a presentation flagon and matching beakers in silver set with amber. It was a commissioned gift for some communist party official. I remember him pulling a little face about it, but he loved his work and when he cut and shaped the amber, the smell that it gave off was the aromatic scent of ancient forests and wood smoke.
For all kinds of reasons, therefore, the title seemed very apt for this particular novel and my brilliant cover artist Claire Maclean managed to take the visual qualities of amber and run with them, to produce the beautiful image above.
I was also presented with a more pressing set of problems where the Amber Heart was concerned, and that was the thorny issue of Polish names. You may have had the experience of reading a Russian novel and having to refer back all the time to those cast lists that they print at the beginning. Besides, with a name like Czerkawska, I couldn't help but be aware of the potential problems. It began at my primary school, when everyone else knew how to spell their own name. But then they all had names like Smith and Jones and Watson...
When I was writing the Amber Heart, I took a conscious decision to hunt for names which might look familiar - or at least not wildly unfamiliar - to an English speaking reader, but which would still have a sort of Slav exoticism. This is why nobody in the book is called Malgorzata, or - my own name in its Polish form - Katarzyna. Even the surnames and place names are designed to look reasonable to somebody who is unfamiliar with Polish spelling. The Lisko of the novel is based on my father's birthplace. But that was called Dziedzilow. You see my problem! Once you know the rules of Polish, it's much easier than English to pronounce. But I'd be the first to admit that some words look like nothing so much as random collections of difficult consonants.
|A sorrel horse.|
Another challenge was mentioned by an Authors Electric friend a couple of weeks ago: the fact that indie published eBooks don't usually take account of the differences between US and UK spellings or usage. (For a funny and fascinating overview of the relationship between our two countries and the English language, read Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue.) For many years now, both UK and US readers have been accustomed to the Americanisation or Anglicisation of spelling and usage. It's one of those expensive things that conventional publishers do. Somebody suggested that perhaps authors should flag these differences up at the start of a book. And I suppose it is something that we might usefully do. But - ever hopeful - I suspect that we will all get used to it quite quickly. Which is probably a Good Thing.
The truth is, of course, that the eBook venture is a steep, albeit exciting learning curve. The cheering thing about all this is the way in which groups of writers like this one have managed to come together for mutual support, advice and encouragement. It turns out that years of freelance work have given us a very useful set of professional publishing and promotional skills. Together, we are even stronger. And with World Book Night coming up on 23rd April, watch this space for an exciting Authors Electric event.
Why not visit
to read a bit more about Poland?
Amber Heart is lovely - not least because of the idea that amber captures a moment in ancient time. You made the right choice.
BTW, if we're talking about pronunciation, could we have pronunciation notes on your own name? I'm sure the way I say it in my head isn't anywhere near correct...
(kind of!) or that's how my dad used to tell people to say it. I know it's a bit different in Poland, but it's pretty much how you'd say it!
I remember ensuring I had American spelling in my futuristic novel for my US publisher - only to find that the editor, in all good faith, had painstakingly changed it all back to the English spelling because she though that's what I wanted. Divided by a common language!
But then there's all that boaty talk - port and starboard and parellels and baggy wrinkles ...
The poor sorrel horse looks a bit overladen and downtrodden, I agree - but in most of these old pictures of this time and place the people do too! I've got one of a set of musicians, and it always hurts me to look at it - there's a look of extreme poverty that's upsetting.