Sunday, September 8, 2019

The Titillation of Titles, Part Two

Zoë Sharp

If you’re wondering where Part One is of this blog, I wrote that last weekend on my own website. It came about because of a question I received from a member of my Advance Reader Team about my titles—where they came from and at what stage of the story they were decided upon.

So, for Part Two this week I asked all my blogfellows here at MurderIsEverywhere to provide a quick story about their titles—if any had to be changed, and the story behind them. In a panic that perhaps nobody would want to take part, I also asked a couple of author friends for their stories, which are included here.

“My original title for my debut novel was probably silly—DEATH BY SILVER.  My publisher said that they didn’t want the word “death” in the title.  That word they told me diminished the type of story I had written.  We changed it to CITY OF SILVER.  I omitted the word death from the ensuing titles.  When the same publisher with the same editor was about to publish my fourth novel, I gave it the title STRANGE GODS, hoping to subtly communicate that the series would follow the Ten Commandments. They didn’t like that title.  They wanted a title with “death” in it. I asked, “Why?” My editor said the “fashion” in titles had changed. I held my ground and won because no one at the publisher could think of a better one than STRANGE GODS.

Conclusion: In publishing, Plus ça change, plus ça change! When it comes to titles, the answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind.

My titles are simple. MURDER IN / AT / BELOW—then insert the different quartiers of Paris.

The difficult thing though is that Americans don’t know or can’t pronounce some of these areas so I go for an easier roll off the tongue area. My latest book, MURDER IN BEL-AIR, was supposed to be called MURDER IN PICPUS—but that’s an ancient reference to fleas who brought the plague in this quartier and the name stuck. Not a very nice one. So I went with Bel-Air the name of the Metro stop. So many people thought it was Bel Air in Hollywood!

My recent mystery novel set in a fictitious princely state in 1920s India. Figuring out the title name was very hard—because I was trying to makeup the name of the state so as not to incur the wrath of royalty anywhere in India.

The challenge was I didn’t want to put together a nonsensical chain of syllables that sounded vaguely Eastern, but to use components of Hindi or Urdu. And most place names have a meaning related to a family or geography in order to be logical.

“Pur” means place of water, and a lot of towns and former princely states in India have a pur at the end—so I knew the state would be solid if I started with this building block. Then I found the Satara Mountains on a map—they were roughly in the western Indian region I was writing about. Sata plus Pur makes Satapur, and it just so happens that water and mountains figure pretty strongly in the book.

However, my title didn’t feel fully complete. I added in the semi-precious stone called a moonstone as a tribute to one of the first mysteries ever published, THE MOONSTONE by Wilkie Collins, which looked at the impact of British colonialism in a realistic way. There was going to be a missing gem reappearing in the story—and I switched it from the ruby I’d originally intended to a moonstone.


The book I have just delivered has been called THE RED, RED SNOW for all of its journey. Then THE RED SNOW was published, and I'm sure that my snow is redder than his! My friend wrote the book THE YELLOW SNOW, but it was complete p...s. The book has wolves in it. But wolves have so much in crime fiction.....patience, company, loneliness... my wolves are very quiet... so the Silence Of The.... oh no, I think that's been done.

Just months before THE TAMBOURINE GIRL was due to be published, a book came out called THE TANGERINE BOY. So that was that scrapped! The book became SINGING TO THE DEAD! (while playing a tambourine!)

The title of our first book comes from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. A CARRION DEATH starts with a human body dumped in the Kalahari being eaten by a hyena, so the title works at face value. But, actually, by a carrion death Shakespeare meant a human skeleton. The quote is "What have we here? A carrion Death, within whose empty eye there is a written scroll!" Stan acted in the play at school, and this line stuck in his mind. So as we drove around the bush and spotted something interesting, someone would say “What have we here?” And Stan would reply with the rest of the quote. Thus it became part of our joint bush lore. We had no doubt that it was the title we wanted for our first novel together.

Our third book focused on the Bushman peoples of the Kalahari. An important personality in Bushman mythologies is Kaggen, a god with awesome powers, but with the character of a trickster.  In some stories, Kaggen is described as a mantis, giving the latter a special role in Bushman mythology.  So, in the title, we were trying to convey not only murders that took place in the story, but also the inevitable disappearance of the fascinating Bushman culture.

I live in alliterative hell.  My first book was titled MURDER IN MYKONOS, and my second ASSASSINS OF ATHENS. With neither did I intend on creating a title theme, but I had, and since then it’s been tougher coming up with titles than plots. I’m up to #11, and with any luck this one will represent my escape from the Alliteration Labyrinth, a particularly appropriate happening for a book based on the Greek island of Naxos to which Theseus had fled with Ariadne.

My title story actually involves a book that won’t publish until 2020—I’ve been looking forward to writing the eighth Hiro Hattori mystery because the book is set in Edo—the city that would become the capital of Japan and is now called Tokyo. The city was famous for its fires (accidental and due to arson) during the medieval era, which were so common that they were called the blossoms of Edo. Since the mystery involves an arsonist, it seemed logical to set it in Edo, and the original title was in fact BLOSSOMS OF EDO in reference to the famous fires. 

Ultimately that title was considered too feminine (based on the plot, which is fairly gruesome, I agreed) so the title is now FIRES OF EDO—though I do give a nod to the original title, and the saying, in the text.

No book cover available, so how about this
cracking shot of Susan instead?
I don’t always get my own way with titles. Some of my best have bitten the dust at editorial level, doubtless for sound commercial reasons. My favourite title is A LITTLE WHITE DEATH—which is a twist on a Cassandra Wilson song, A Little Warm Death—but the book began life as IT’S THE GIRL IN THE BATHROOM SINGING, a line from Brian Patten's Ode on Celestial Music…gently vetoed by my editor, Ion Trewin. So, I rang Brian and asked his permission to quote the full poem between the title page and the text, where it sits to this day. The drama the poem depicts is acted out about a hundred pages later.

Ah, the truth is, I'd settled on the title a good long while back—even dropped the phrase into LONDON RULES, as a trailer.

But titles are the one writing superstition I have. I never tell anyone what the title is until I've finished writing the book, even though I often know what it is years beforehand (I'm currently two titles ahead). And as it seems rude to say "I'm not telling you" when asked the question, I often pretend not to have thought of one yet.

With JOE COUNTRY, (a) it just seemed right, and (b) there's a private joke in operation. My first three titles in the series were animals; the next three are parts of an address—street, city (ie London), country…

(Like I said, it's a private joke. I don't expect anyone else to notice.)

If you’re interested in my own titles, where they came from, why the series goes numerical in the middle and then stops again, and which titles, if any, were changed at the last minute, see my last week’s blog.

My grateful thanks to all those who took part.

This week’s Word of the Week is gammon, which aside from its usual meat-related definition has taken on another meaning. Apparently it is used in the UK to mean an older middle-class white man whose face becomes flushed due to anger when expressing political (typically rightwing) opinions.

Coming up for me is a joint event next month at the Rochdale Literature & Ideas Festival with Martin Edwards. On Thursday, October 17, 6-7pm, we’ll be presenting ‘A Brief History of Crime’ at The Royal Toby Hotel, Rochdale.

Before that, on September 27, the next Charlie Fox crime thriller, BAD TURN: #13 will be published in ebook and print formats. It is currently available for pre-order, at a reduced priced for the ebook. Early reviews are very encouraging!


  1. Fun column, Zoë, but you seem to have a problem with titles, as well. The 'Part' in "The Titillation of Titles, Part Two" clearly should have been 'Tract' or 'Tier'. I turn it over to our ascendant alliterative author: Journeyman Jeff.

    1. Good point, EvKa. I should have thought of that...