18 November 2016

It Starts with a Title

by O'Neil De Noux

Can you write a story from a title? Sure. There's a YouTube video of John Lennon claiming his young son Julian rushed into the house once and pointed outside and said something that sounded like LUCY IN THE SKY WITH DIAMONDS and John wrote the lyrics to the song. I saw another YouTube video in which Lennon said something else about how the song was written but both times he claimed he wrote the song from the title. And not from a drug-induced hallucination.

Looking back, I realize how many of my stories started with a title and nothing else. Inspirations from something heard or read.

Two of my New Orleans police stories came from old New Orleans sayings - "Love and Murder" (goes together like beans and rice) and "Women Are Like Streetcars" (wait ten minutes and another will come along). Two of my stories came from a word that made me stop and look in a dictionary. The first was "Erotophobia" (fear of erotic situations). That story's been printed five times, including in two BEST OF anthologies. The second was "Romanesque" (a medieval architectural style). I applied it to a woman and it was printed twice, once in another BEST OF anthology.

My wife walked into my home office once with a catalog (either a Victoria's Secret or Frederick's of Hollywood). She declared, "Did you know they make a bra called the Kissable Cleavage bra?"

I told her no and thanked her for the title. She rolled her eyes as I opened a new word file and called it KISSABLE CLEAVAGE IDEA. It didn't take long to figure this needed to be a private eye story so I gave it to my part-time lothario PI Lucien Caye. "Kissable Cleavage" has been published three times, including in THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST NEW EROTICA, VOL. 7 Caroll & Graf (US) and Robinson Publishing (UK).

It isn't alwasy easy. Writer-Editor-Publisher Maxim Jakubowski, father of London's MURDER ONE bookshop, explains, "Half of my books/stories begin with a title and somehow I have to come up with the subject and/or plot to suit it! And further, I've seldom managed to get a single piece of fiction started without knowing the title from the outset and only rarely has it changed in the writing process! I wouldn't recommend this way of doing things, but it works, albeit sometimes rather painfully, for me at least."

Reading Harry Whittington's 1958 mystery, WEB OF MURDER, I saw the lines - "Once a man breaks a law, he can expect consequences. Not just some of them. All of them." My story "Expect Consequences" was published twice.

My Cajun grandmother used to sing in French while she quilted in her work room. After I became a writer, I asked an aunt about one refrain that resonated with me. It sounded lovely in French. The English interpretation was - "the heart has reasons of which reason knows nothing." I challenged myself to write something from that saying. I wrote a 7200 word short story, "The Heart Has Reasons," which was published in ALFRED HITCHCOCK MYSTERY MAGAZINE. The story was awarded the 2007 SHAMUS Award for Best Private Eye Short Story.

Los Angeles mystery writer Paul Bishop, author of the CROAKER novels, among many others, explains, "I almost away have to have a title before I begin a novel. I'm unsettled otherwise and the writing does not go well."

I guess my favorite is another wife-inspired story. One evening she came into the living room and spied me watching an Agatha Christie movie I'd been catching every time it came on. She asked, "Is that Death on The Nile?" Only I heard "Is that Death on Denial?" My story "Death on Denial" featured a gun moll, a hit man and a old gangster who repeatedly watched DEATH ON THE NILE, over and over. That story has been published five times, including in Otto Penzler's BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2003 (Houghton-Mifflin).

In each case there was no story, no plot. It started with a title. How many of your stories or novels started this way?



  1. Clearly the right title is gold for your and yours do sound terrific.
    I either get the title- or I get the story, but rarely both together.

  2. I think the only two times I started with a title and sold the result, the title was changed before publication. Go figure.

  3. O'Neil, I love hearing the stories behind those titles--great column!

    Like Rob, I usually don't start with a title. It seems to come to me during the process, and often changes several times before I'm satisfied.

  4. O'Neil, sometimes the title comes first, sometimes it comes in the middle because I need a name for the file and sometimes it comes out of the story at the end. Most of my story titles stick with the publishers. Woman's World magazine is the only publisher who makes title changes, and that has been about 30 % of the time. They don't ask, they just do it.

  5. Usually get the characters first and then I have a plot idea. Sometimes I have the story finished and struggle for a title, other times not so much. Terror on the Turnpike started with an idea and title at the same time. Roundup Time started with and idea and a title at the same time also, but that doesn't happen enough to suit me. I guess you could say titles are not my thing. LOL Kindling a Flame in the Dark was changed to Kept in the Dark by the publisher. Both worked for me.

  6. All of them. I usually get the titles from country songs. My story "The One I Loved" is out for rejection at the moment, but if not this will be the third time the story has been published. I'm working on a story now called "Jealous Heart".

  7. I second RT's comments. I rarely have a title changed by the editor, except at Woman's World, and there almost half my titles have been changed. In their defense, it might be because it's a weekly publication and I'm sure a lot of soundalike titles come in. One good thing about short stories, though, is that if a title (or anything else in your story) gets changed by the editor, you can just change it right back when you resell the story elsewhere.

  8. I almost never have a title when I start a novel or story. There are two exceptions--the first was MISTRESS OF LIES, which was determined by my publisher before I started writing the book and the second was my short story, "Don't Fear the Ripper." I'd been asked to write a particular type of story for an anthology and decided I'd write one about Jack the Ripper. The title wasn't far behind and I had that in place before I had any idea what the actual story would be.

  9. I can think of only one short story where I started with a title.

    My girlfriend had been taking the back roads from Disney through the ritzy, over-policed burg of Windemere, Florida, home of Tiger Woods, among other notables. Windemere is a well-known speed trap where you can get a ticket not only for driving too fast, but also too slow if they think you’re a smartass. She’d escaped tickets before, once by batting her eyelashes and again by offering a cop cookies.

    Then one evening a woman cop stopped her. Guys already know eye-batting and flirting never work with a policewoman and, as Carla learned, a dame with a ticket quota never heard of female solidarity. Carla returned home grumbling that the cop probably had no love life, which resulted in my title “Nobody Loves a Woman Cop.”

    I made a note of that title and eventually a story came to me.

  10. I think about half my short stories start with a title. And I've used song titles (or variations on them!) in maybe way too many of them. Like "Mr. Brownstone" (from Guns 'n' Roses,) "Goodnight Sweetheart" and "Night Work If You Can Get It," a funny vampire tale. Other stories didn't have a title and I wound up having to grab for one out of the ether. I've also used variations on famous titles, Jacques Futrille's "The Problem of Cell 13" became my "The Problem of Cell A307."

  11. Though I have written a few stories where I had the title first, most of the time I start with the opening scene and title comes to me sometime during the writing process. Sometimes, lots of titles come to me during the writing process, all of them equally bad, and I'm stuck using the least bad.

    I've had several of my titles changed--most often for the better and often by editors of the confession magazines--so I've learned not to be wedded to my titles.


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