Showing posts with label titles. Show all posts
Showing posts with label titles. Show all posts

04 June 2018

Songs of Love and Death

by Steve Liskow

Not long ago, Leigh Lundin discussed the Hollies' "Long Cool woman in a Black Dress," so today I'm carrying the idea of crime songs off onto an abandoned siding.

I saw a wannabe rock 'n roller PI as a series character from the count-off, so I started a list of song titles that might work for mysteries, too. It wasn't a new idea. Ed Gorman used several rock and roll gems, including "Wake Up, Little Susie" and "Save the Last Dance For Me." Sandra Scoppettone punned on big band classics: "Let's Face the Music and Die," and "Gonna Take a Homicidal Journey," among others.

That first novel collected over 125 rejections. During those several years, I changed the PI's name three or four times before he became Chris "Woody" Guthrie and major plot points even more often. The title went from Death Sound Blues (Country Joe & the Fish) to Killing Me Softly With His Song (Roberta Flack) and at least one other title before it became Blood on the Tracks, a Bob Dylan album. The biggest surprise came when I hit on an idea for a major clue: an unreleased song by the now defunct band.

That song had to tie several plot threads together and connect female lead Megan Traine, the killer, the victim, and the recording session itself. Amazing though it may seem, no such song existed. My music theory is spotty and I read music slightly better than the average squirrel, but I wrote lyrics that connected Megan to the dead singer. Writing words was fairly easy, especially when I remembered that the song didn't have to be very good. But why would a trained session rat like Meg mess up playing it?

I pulled out a guitar and experimented with chords until I found one that sounded so awful that anyone would spot it as a mistake. Then I figured out how that mistake could appear in a session with excellent musicians. That song became a turning point in Blood On the Tracks. I never wrote the music down (too difficult for my limited skills), but I still know what it sounds like.

A few weeks ago, Brian Thornton talked about the fine art of Making Shit Up. As crime writers, we only have to know enough to sound convincing. Then we make shit up. That's what I did with the song. And I'm a repeat offender.

"Hot Sugar Blues" gave its name to a short story in the MWA anthology Vengeance, written around the theme of revenge. I had recently written a guest blog about plagiarism in rock, artists "borrowing" or worse from earlier sources, and the idea was still fresh in my mind when I wrote the story. I modeled the song on a combination of Skip James, Charley Patton, and Robert Johnson, all of whom often used alternate guitar tunings. The story involved a white rock star who stole his breakout hit from a forgotten blues player in the deep South and got away with it...until years later when Karma came calling. That story was a finalist for the Edgar and one of only two stories that sold the first time I sent it out.

In the early 70s, the New Seekers covered Melanie Safka's "Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma," which suggested another plagiarism story. I never worried much about the melody, but I had far too much fun inventing lyrics with every line ending in the same rhyme or half-rhyme. I finally backed off on that idea and added other rhymes, but an early demo version of the song in progress leads Woody Guthrie to the truth again...and harmony is restored.

I have another story making the rounds now that tells a dysfunctional family story the heroine thinks is simply an old folk song until she discovers a tape cassette. She figures out that her relatives wrote the song about a local murder. More or less a parody of an Appalachian ballad, the five-verse song still sleeps in a pile of random scribbling on the corner of my desk.

I never wrote out the music, but, again, I know what it sounds like. If the story ever sells, I may ask one of my more accomplished musician friends to help me finish the darn thing. They'd end up doing most of the work, though. I'd compare them to George Martin working with John and Paul, but humility tells me that wouldn't float either.

Christopher Moore's great take on research is something like "How vague can I get before people know I'm making it up?" Every writer has a few topics he or she knows just enough about to fake his way into deep woods. Maybe it's music, painting, or photography. Maybe it's cooking, theater, or computers. Maybe it's lacrosse or bridge.

Who cares? When we're talking about mysteries, we all become the sorcerer's apprentice. We know just enough to get ourselves into trouble.

The real fun comes when we're trying to get back out.

29 August 2016

HELP! (I'm told it's called crowd-sourcing)

by Susan Rogers Cooper

I'm knee-deep in the newest E.J. Pugh novel. Unfortunately, I should be at least hip deep, if not tickling-my-tummy deep. Why is it that, now that I'm retired from everything but writing (outside jobs, motherhood and wifedom) that it's taking longer and longer to write a book? Well, there's always the “hey, I'm retired, I can do it tomorrow” syndrome, wherein tomorrow keeps getting further and further away. And there's also the “I don't have to write X number of pages today. I can catch up tomorrow.” See above about tomorrow. And this summer it's been “the grand kids are coming by in four hours. I really need to rest up” excuse. But with E.J., I'm getting there. Slowly, but I'll make it. I always – okay, usually – do. But then there's the big problem, the one where I'm going to need some help. I'm told this is call crowd sourcing.

I DON'T HAVE A TITLE.

If I give you a quick synopsis with pertinent points can you make a suggestion? Here's the deal. It's taking place on the University of Texas campus. E.J.'s twenty-year-old son finds his obnoxious, much-despised (by everyone) roommate dead in the room – stabbed to death while Graham (E.J.'s son) slept. Guess who becomes the chief suspect? We have other wanna-be suspects, too, of course. The roommate's less than loving mother; his ex-girlfriend who keyed his car twice and sent him Ex-Lax brownies; his BFF whom he belittled in front of the friend's parents; and the roommate's student adviser whose wife the roommate came on to rather aggressively at a party.

Are ideas flooding in? I usually don't have trouble with titles, but this one is giving me a run for my money. Do I want to name it something to do with UT? Campus life? Or just murder in general?

I DON'T KNOW!

As incentive for your cooperation the winner (or the one person who actually gives me a title, any title) gets a copy of the book when it comes out. I'm thrilled, are you? Is my sarcasm showing?

A woman in my apartment complex was recently told by another woman that I had thirty-some-odd (some very odd) books published. The woman looked at me and said, “Then why are you living here?”

Yes, it was a very rude question, but I only laughed it off. I didn't explain that there are only four people who actually become millionaires writing books, and only eight who actually make a livable wage doing it. I didn't explain the “claw” theory – the one that writing success is based on the machine you see in restaurant lobbies full of stuffed animals and you have to get that big old claw to grab on to the one you want – or any one for that matter – and it never does. Success is that claw, and somebody gets pulled up every million or so tries.

So the rest of us just keep writing. Why? Well, I don't know about you, but I do it because if I didn't there would be something very big missing in my life. I once said that if I didn't do this for a living, I'd probably write really great grocery lists. Well, I don't want to write really great grocery lists. I want to write stories. I want to make people ask questions, get anxious, and, sometimes, laugh their butts off. But still and all, I need a title.

Any title will do. Really.

24 May 2016

A Rose By Any Other Name ...

I've been so busy getting my house ready for sale (and it just went under contract!), that I jumped at the chance when my friend Sherry Harris offered to do a guest blog in my place today here on SleuthSayers. Sherry is the author of the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mystery series. Her newest book, All Murders Final!, came out in late April. Take it away, Sherry!

--Barb Goffman                        

A Rose by Any Other Name ...

by Sherry Harris

Which comes first for you, a title or a story? If you change the title, does the story change too? Last Friday I turned in the fourth book in the Sarah Winston Garage Sale series, A Good Day to Buy. Hitting send always makes me feel relieved and nauseated at the same time. An hour later I heard back from my editor. He loved the first chapter, would read the rest over the weekend, and hey, would I have any serious objections to changing the title to the planned title for the fifth book? What?!

I sold the series to Kensington on proposal, which means I came up with story lines and titles before writing the books. When I wrote the proposal, the titles of the first three books were Tagged for Death, Marred Sale Madness, and Murder As Is. Tagged for Death is the only title that stuck. Marred Sale Madness is hard to say so it became Deal or Die, which my editor wasn't crazy about so he came up with The Longest Yard Sale. And Murder As Is became All Murders Final.
 
When I sent the proposal in for the next two books, the titles were A Good Day to Buy and I Know What You Bid Last Summer. I had very specific plot lines in mind for each story. So when  my editor emailed about wanting to change the title of my next book, I closed my laptop (maybe with a little more force than usual), slightly concerned that the book I just wrote didn't match the proposed title. But my concern soon turned to intrigue. Could I pull it off? Ideas started percolating that might make the title work without massive rewrites. I called, emailed, texted, instant messaged, and sent smoke signals to my friend and freelance editor Barb Goffman. (Just kidding. Barb doesn't do smoke signals.) She came up with a great suggestion that worked perfectly with what I'd been thinking. 

Titles and matching plots are very important to me--especially with a title like I Know What You  Bid Last Summer. I wrote my editor and asked him if I could have the manuscript back. I told him I thought with some tweaks to the book, the plot would go along with the title. He agreed. I rewrote five scenes, and they weren't even complete rewrites, just plugging in a few things and changing a few paragraphs.

When I finished, I was happy, relieved even. The plot for book five is going to have to change, but I didn't really want to write the back-and-forth story (last summer, this summer) that I'd envisioned. We've already scrapped A Good Day to Buy as the title for the fifth book so if anyone has a suggestion for a title where "buy" can be plugged in for "die," let me know. Fair warning--my editor has already rejected Buy, Buy Love and Buy Another Day.

Readers: Do you have a favorite book title?
Writers: Which comes first for you, title or plot?


06 October 2014

What Are You Reading?

Jan Grape
by Jan Grape

I didn't think I had done much reading this summer but looking back, I did.

 First, I was on the Shamus Committee to pick the Best Original Paperback. The Shamus is given by the Private Eye Writers of America. I always enjoy reading for awards because I quickly learn how important a great first line, first paragraph and first page actually are. I think we sometimes forget those important elements as writers. But I think you absolutely have to grab the reader immediately.

As a book seller for nine years, I quite often watched as customers picked up a book. I believe we all know the book cover and title are extremely important. My friend Bill Crider titled one of his early Sheriff Rhodes books, SHOTGUN SATURDAY NIGHT. I can't recall his other titles but I never forgot that one. And I really enjoy Bill's work and that character. Another friend, Susan Rogers Cooper wrote two titles that I remember well, THE MAN IN THE GREEN CHEVY and HOUSTON IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR. All three titles are memorable and intriguing. You better believe I'm going to pick-up a book with a title like that and read the back jacket and maybe the first page. And most likely I'll buy that book. The only other title that really intrigued me was on a non-fiction book, HOW TO SHIT IN THE WOODS. That book was in the visitor's center of the Rio Grande Gorge, near Taos, New Mexico, where I volunteered three summers. I think it still remains their best seller.

After reading a number of the thirty-five or forty book our committee chose our nominees and our winner (you'll have to wait until the PWA banquet at Bouchercon on Nov 14th to find our who won.)
I did purchase a few books that I really wanted to read. One paperback I bought was CITY OF BONES by Michael Connelly. I  always enjoy Michael's books, especially the Harry Bosch novels and I had read it before but the new TV series featuring Harry Bosch and starring Titus Williver as Harry is the main storyline. It had been quite a while since I read it and I wanted to get back in the "Bosch world" and be ready for the upcoming TV shows. The title is another memorable one and the mystery of the bones of a child found, by a dog, located up in the Hollywood Hills presented a page-turner for sure. To add even more suspense the skeleton had been buried around twenty years earlier.

A hardcover that I bought new, which I seldom do anymore since I live on a fixed income, is Alafair Burke's ALL DAY AND A NIGHT.  I'm sorry to confess that I have not read Alafair before...been intending to, but somehow just hadn't. However, I began to be interested in her as a person on FB. She is bright, witty, beautiful and very likable. I wanted to see if I might possibly like her books. I called my favorite mystery bookstore, Murder By The Book in Houston, as Alafair was going to be there and ordered a signed copy. And I must tell you, I enjoyed the heck out of it. Ellie Hatcher is a homicide detective for the NYPD and is a wonderfully strong and strong-willed female character. Exactly the kind of woman I like to read about. She and her police detective partner work with a female lawyer who believes the man in prison is NOT the serial killer. I love the back and forth between the women and between Ellie and her partner. This book kept me on the edge of my seat.

Next is a book by Les Roberts, titled WET WORK. His editor asked me to read and review if I wanted to do so.  I read it and it's very compelling. The main character, first seen in THE STRANGE DEATH OF FATHER CANDY is a anti-hero, Dominick Candiotti in that he's a paid assassin for the Brownstone Agency.  The agencies leader, a man with the code name "Og" is the boss of a shadowy CIA-type black ops group. They hire assassins to kill traitors, dictators, despots of the world, pedophiles, drug kings, the scum of the earth. Turns out that Dominick is one of the best assassins. He learned his trade in Viet Nam. But he grows weary of the killings, the violence.  Og calls again with a new hurry-up assignment and Dominick says, "no, he's quitting." His boss is NOT happy, trying to make Dominick see that you don't quit the agency ever. Suddenly, he's the mark. Brownstone assassins are after him. Dominick has to use all his skill and cunning and brains to stay one step ahead of the people sent after him. The story takes us from one U.S. city after another as Dominick tries to save himself and try to track down his nemesis  Og. This is one thriller you will not want to put down.

The final book on this short list is one whose title I will always remember, TO HELL AND GONE IN TEXAS by Russ Hall. If you like reading about Texas and good guys and bad guys, then this is a book for you. It starts off with two brothers, Al and Maury who've not been speaking for twenty years. Maury seems to think and act as if he's God's gift to women and all women want him. And it does seem that they do. Which is the major cause of the brother's feud. Maury managed to get to Al wife and that cause a riff that so far hasn't healed. But right now, Maury is quite ill and someone is trying to kill him. Al, who is a retired deputy of Travis County has his lovely Hill Country lake home,  where he can fish, feed the deer that come around and ignore the world. All good things must come to an end and the Austin Police Detective, Fergie and the nurse who has been taking care of Maury talk Al into letting Maury stay at Al's house. Maury is in such bad shape he has to be sedated.

In the meantime, someone takes pot shots via drive-by boating, hoping to kill Maury or Al, but not succeeding. Then someone takes a match to the lake house. It's saved and now Al is trying to get Maury to explain what has he been into that someone actually wants him dead. Maury isn't inclined to talk. Al finds out that ICE and a Mexican Mafia are both interested in Maury.  To add a little extra tension, Al discovers than all that time spent alone might have been wasted. He finds himself coming alive with Fergie, they've known each other since high school and who knew things might change. However, unless Al can figure out the source of Maury's problems, things are liable to get tough as Hell.

Hope everyone has had a good reading summer. Now it's time more reading and cooler weather.

22 November 2013

Playing With Titles

by R.T. Lawton

Writing can be fun when you play with the words, especially when you put layers of different meanings into those words. Take for instance, the title for a story. Those few words give the reader a certain expectation as to what the story is about, and maybe what type of situation the protagonist will find himself or herself in. That title may even lead the reader to expect a certain ending.

But, it can be like when a comedian tells a clever joke. In this case, he frequently leads the audience down an expected path, and just when the audience is leaning a certain direction to go with the flow, the joke-teller reverses course and provides an unexpected punch line. The words of the punch line still fit the body of the joke, however the audience gets a surprise and ends up laughing at how they were fooled.


In my Holiday Burglars series in AHMM, I like to play with the wording in some of my titles. The first story in this particular series was "Click, Click, Click." It's about two burglars, Yarnell and Beaumont, who are in the process of breaking into the house of an ex-con. This ex-con hides his money and drugs inside wrapped Christmas packages placed under a decorated Christmas tree. Naturally, the title words are lifted from a song that goes something like this: "Up on the roof top, click, click, click, down through the chimney comes old Saint Nick..."

Yarnell and Beaumont however, cut the glass on a back door to make their entry instead of coming down the chimney. And, since they counted the number of houses from the rear instead of from the front of the block, they inadvertently break into a house belonging to an upstanding member of the National Rifle Association. The awakened home owner then steps into the living room unbeknownst to them with a loaded revolver in his hand. Now, the CLICK becomes the sound of a large hand gun being cocked as well as the song's sound of reindeer hooves up on the roof.

In "Grave Trouble," the definition of the word grave is assumed by the reader to mean serious. For this story, Yarnell and Beaumont are wearing Halloween masks to hide their identity from any security cameras while breaking into the basement of a jewelry store. But, because they left their tape measure behind, they are slightly off in their calculations conducted inside the storm drain and therefore end up in the basement of the funeral home next door, thus leading to the other meaning for grave.

For "Independence Day," which makes Americans think of the Fourth of July, Beaumont finds himself selected for jury duty. The case for trial is on a fellow burglar, one who owes money to Beaumont. Should Beaumont work to find the defendant guilty because of a prior double cross he committed, or should he try to set the burglar free so said burglar can pay the debt he owes?

And, my favorite, "Labor Day." By now, you have probably figured out where this one is going. Yarnell and Beaumont have burgled a top floor condo during the Labor Day weekend. As they descend, with their loot, in a rickety old elevator, people get on and off at various floors. After everyone else has gotten off, the last passenger still on, with our two burglars and their protege (The Thin Guy), is a pregnant lady. As they are about to have a safe getaway, the elevator manages to jam between floors and sure enough, the pregnant woman goes into labor. Someone has to deliver the baby while police and firemen are trying to open the elevator door. Oh yeah, a news crew is on scene waiting to interview the rescued occupants.

Anyway, I get a kick out of putting double meanings into some of these titles. Guess if I'm lucky, the reader will get some laughs out of these stories. And, if they go back and think about the wording in these titles, maybe they'll get a kick out of them, too.