Friday, February 23, 2018

The Name Game

How do you come up with titles and character names? Do they change during the writing process?

by Paul D. Marks

For names I simply call up Ye Olde Name Generator (see pic). A complicated machine of many parts. I feed in the alphabet and it spits out glorious and diverse names, usually something like “Joe”.
Or I might play the name game, you know, “Shirley! Shirley, Shirley, Bo-ber-ley, bo-na-na fanna, Fo-fer-ley. fee fi mo-mer-ley, Shirley!” – Is anyone even named Shirley anymore? If I was setting something in the 1950s it might be the perfect name.

But seriously, he said in the deepest old-fashioned DJ voice he could muster, in the olden days I would look through baby naming books, at least for first names of both boys and girls. Today I look on the internet. There’s all kinds of resources there for names of various ethnicities, what names were popular in a certain year, etc., so if you have a story with a character of a certain age you can see what names were popular for boys and girls the year that character was born. Sometimes I’ll look at movie credits of different eras to get an idea as to names for various time frames.

And yes, names can sometimes change multiple times before a story is done, which is what makes the computer global change function so wonderful. Often a name will change at least once. Frequently, I don’t even have a name for a character when I start so use placeholder names. Often movie stars’ names. In a story I’m working on I used the name Joan Crawford for a character until I could come up with an appropriate name for that character. I don’t want to be slowed down by trying to think of names too early in the process.

Also, sometimes I might like a name so much I decide to hold it back for another work where I can give the character with that name more “screen time.” That also happened in the story I’m working on. I have a character and gave him a name I like a lot. It’s also a name that says a lot. Then I decided I liked the name so much I didn’t want this character to have it because he’s such a minor character who gets killed off before we really even get to know him. But because I like the name so much I’m going to change it in this story and save it for something else, where he’ll have more scenery to chew on.

I also have a character named after a real person in a real case in this same story. That name will also change before the story sees the light of day.

Some naming rules:

They shouldn’t be too hard to pronounce – you don’t want readers stumbling over them.

Don’t try too hard to be unique  – like soap opera characters that always have names like Raven Snow or Chastity Chamberfield, unless going for humor or irony.

Names can be symbolic, foreshadow things or can be ironic. In my story 51-50, the cop character, Cleaver, is purposely named after Ward Cleaver, the all-American father on Leave it to Beaver. I wanted to play against that all-American image of Ward Cleaver with a tough cop about to lose his sanity.

Names can be revenge for someone you don’t like – but be careful when doing this and disguise it well.

Names can be an homage.  In my short story Free Fall, the femme fatale is named Gloria, after film noir icon and femme fatale Gloria Grahame. In Broken Windows, the sequel to White Heat (not yet published), there is a character named Chandler – a woman cop – but we all know who that name pays homage to.  And in my story L.A. Late @ Night and my noir story Born Under a Bad Sign, there is a cop named Larry Darrell – which pays homage to Somerset Maugham’s character in The Razor’s Edge (my favorite book of all).  Not that he’s much like Maugham’s Larry Darrell, but still.

Names can give insight into the character – who they are and where they’re from – sometimes the story behind the name can give you a little extra info about the character – for example Michael Connelly’s Harry “Hieronymus” Bosch – a unique name with an interesting story behind it.

Sometimes names should break stereo types: In White Heat there is an African-American character named Warren. Someone who read the book said Warren isn’t a black name. But I named the character after a black Marine friend I’d had. Just because a character is black or Hispanic, or any other ethnicity, doesn’t mean they have to have an ethnic-sounding name.

Titles are pretty much the same. Sometimes an appropriate title just pops into my head out of the air. Sometimes it’s an overheard snatch of conversation, a well-known phrase or song title. Sometimes I just have to think about it. But again I don’t halt progress to worry about it. If I come up with titles that I think will be good for a specific project I’ll list them at the head of the story’s file. And keep adding to that list till the right one sticks. I have a file of story titles that’s something like 30 pages long. Sometimes I look at it, often I don’t have to.

I don’t have a file of character names, though I do have a handful of those jotted down in a file or two somewhere, but not as methodically organized as my title file. I tend to wing it more with character names.

Whether titles or names, as Shakespeare said, Joe Shakespeare from Queens, “Rosie Tamborello by any other name would smell just as sweet as baked ziti.”


And now for the usual BSP:

There’s a fun and interesting article on Alfred Hitchcock in the Washington Post (and other places) from Associated Press writer Hillel Italie: Alfred Hitchcock Remains an Influence on Crime Writers. It includes quotes from Linda Landrigan of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Mike Mallory, SJ Rozan, A.J. Finn, Otto Penzler.......and even me! Enjoy!

Also, my Shamus-winning novel, White Heat, is being reissued in May by Down and Out Books. It’s available for pre-order on Amazon. Here is the new cover reveal:

Check out my website:


Thursday, February 22, 2018

Just Add Elvis.

"How do you come up with titles? Do they change during the writing process?'

By Catriona.

Like Cathy yesterday, I'm sticking to titles because the process of naming characters is so different from the process of naming books. A character name comes while I'm writing, like the fourth name of the cat, from profound meditation and rapt contemplation. (see T.S.  Eliot's "The naming of cats" here).

The name of a book, in contrast, comes once the book's written. And it comes in various ways.

A: from a message exchange between me and Terri Bischoff (Midnight Ink) that goes like this:

C: Hang My Hat okay?
Terri: Sales don't love it. What else you got?
C: Lexy, Last Ditch, Last Ditch for Lexy, Caledonia Dreamin', Lexy and The Last Ditch.
Terri: Nah.
C: I dunno. A pun?
Terri: Likes of plaid, tartan? Are you serious about the Jimmy Wig? Even with no hat in the title?  I like the woman floating in the pool.
C: I do love a drunk woman in a duct-taped inflatable. Oh! Oh! Oh! Loch Ness Monster inflatable!
T: LMAO. What's the title.
C: Oh yeah. Scot Free? Forget I said that.
C: No way. I was just thinking aloud.
T: I love it.
C: Oh God.

B. A short text exchange between me and Krystyna Green (Little,Brown) that goes like this:

K: House.Tree.Person is the worst title I've ever heard. It's just three random words. Can you give me something better in twenty minutes?
C: Ha!
C: (twenty minutes later) Angels Unaware, The Dance of Angels, The Weight of Angels.
K: Weight of Angels! Ta.

C: (emails Terri Bischoff): London is calling HTP The Weight of Angels. Waddaya think?
T: Won't work in the US market. Buyers will think it's real angels.
C: Real angels?
T: Inspirational Christian fiction.
C: Oh, jeez. It's really not.
T: House.Tree.Person is a great title.

C: Phone call with Francine Toon (Hodder & Stoughton)

F: Dandy word, crimey word, plotty word.
C: Dandy word, crimey word, plotty word.
F: Dandy Gilver and a Dandy word . . .
C: And a crimey word . . .
F: Dandy Gilver and  . . . unseemly, appalling, dreadful, distressing.
C: fearful, frightful, rather.
F: corpse, death, body, murder, crime, clue. And a plotty word.
C: Nun, convent, orphan, habit.
F: Ooooh, habit!
C: Dandy Gilver and The Rather Unseemy Habit?
F: But church people with bad habits? And an orphanage?
C: OMG. No way. That's dreadful. So not unseemly, or distressing, appalling and all that if it's habit.
F: Mysterious.
C: Misleading.

(Note: this book has been called The Nuns in every email since that day. )

The only one I still pine for was my working title on a book that ended up being called Growing Up Again. It was a time-travel caper - think Forrest Gump joins Friends Reunited on Groundhog Day - and I called it SAVE ELVIS. which is job one for a time traveller. Well, the publisher wasn't having it. I tried. I even handed out questionnaires to the core demographic readership asking which title they preferred. (They preferred Save Elvis.) But the publisher thought Elvis was a forgotten and,  even if remembered, then a sad, old, dead man. No good for a caper.

When Growing Up Again was published there had just been a self-help book out called Growing Up Again: parenting our children, parenting ourselves. Deeply caper-free. And at the launch event, the bookshop staff - in all innocence - set me up in front of a display for a new Elvis biography. Oy. God bless my mum for her sense of humour too. She always bakes a book cake. Here's the cake for Growing Up Again:

I'm still glad it happened, though, because no title change since then has had the power to hurt me. Whether it's a skoosh like the upcoming Go To My Grave. which was my working title and is a go in the UK and US, or a struggle like Lexy Campbell Bk 2 (watch this space) it rolls off me like split mayo.

Scot Free: 8th April (US only) Midnight Ink
Go To My Grave: 23rd October Minotaur (US) Little,Brown (UK)
The new Dandy? We're still having Dandy word, crimey word, plotty word phone calls.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

CASES about CORPSES and a CALENDAR! by Cathy Ace

Q: How do you come up with titles and character names? Do they change during the writing process?

When I wrote the first Cait Morgan Mystery I knew I wanted to use a title that would be relatively easy to adapt for a series. Katherine Hall Page’s “The Body in the….” series and MC Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth’s “Death of a…” series used a framework to good effect, I thought, and I wanted to avoid the alliteration or puns that tend to be associated with truly cozy mysteries, because I have never thought of the Cait Morgan Mysteries as cozy, but as “traditional”. I looked around at the various series titles in the marketplace and saw that the words DEATH, DEAD, BODY, MURDER and KILLING were quite popular, so decided to take a step aside and use CORPSE in my titles. 

Then, what to add? What defining factor/s might be used repetitively? Since the first book dealt with the murder of a man who managed to winkle people’s secrets out of them, I decided upon “THE CORPSE WITH THE SILVER TONGUE”, and, as I played with the proposals I was putting forward for seven more books in the series, I quickly realized all my victims worked award-winning vintner had a GOLDEN NOSE; an extremely green-thumbed plantswoman had an EMERALD THUMB; a woman whose personal style was stuck in the 1960s had PLATINUM HAIR; a Welsh choirmaster had SAPPHIRE EYES; a card-sharp died holding a DIAMOND HAND; a man had a large birthmark giving him a GARNET FACE, and a woman who wore vivid lipstick had RUBY LIPS.

I was thrilled, and made my proposals along these lines. They were accepted - YAY!

Then, when it came to my WISE Enquiries Agency books, what I wanted to write was a “casebook” series, rather than a series of “mysteries” (insofar as private investigators work on cases, which are not – necessarily – “mysteries" or even murders). However, my publisher had other ideas, so the tag “Mysteries” was added, and I was left to use the word “Case” in the title. These books are “cozy” in that they are village-based, with recurring characters and they are really quite gentle, so I was happy to work with alliteration at least. 

The main case (there are several in each book, sometimes linked) in the first book centered on a dowager duchess who might, or might not, be losing her marbles, so I proposed THE CASE OF THE DOTTY DOWAGER. For the second book the main case allowed for the title THE CASE OF THE MISSING MORRIS DANCER. However, for the third book, my publisher didn't like my proposed titles of THE CASE OF THE BEWILDERED BOOKSELLER, or THE CASE OF THE MURDERED MINIATURIST, or THE CASE OF THE ARROGANT ARTIST - all of which related to cases within the book - rather, he wanted to focus not on the “problem” but the client; hence the title became THE CASE OF THE CURIOUS COOK. I got quite a few emails from readers asking why the book was called that, as there wasn't a cook featured in any of the cases, so I wrote polite replies pointing out that one of the commissioning clients in the book had once been a TV cook - named The Curious Cook by BBC Wales - before she became the joint owner of a bookshop with her father...where the main case originated. 

For the fourth I convinced them to come back to the nature of the problem, rather than the client, and  they accepted THE CASE OF THE UNSUITABLE SUITOR. As you can see, there’s a play on words throughout this series which – I think – works well for the sub-genre.

I will add that each publisher only ever referred to “SILVER TONGUE” or “GOLDEN NOSE” dropping “THE CORPSE WITH THE...”, or to “DOTTY” or “COOK” for the WISE series in all our communications. I have to say I can cope with that – but have always felt it disrespectful of publishers (and/or authors) to simply refer to a book by its initials in public communications (eg: Facebook etc). 

“TCWTSN” means nothing to me, nor do I think it conveys to a reader the amount of love, care and attention I have put into the book, nor is respectful of the amount of time they have spent/will spend reading THE CORPSE WITH THE SILVER TONGUE.

Recently, I published “MURDER KEEPS NO CALENDAR” – an anthology of twelve short stories and novellas, one relating to each month of the year. When deciding upon a title for this book I knew it would end up as one of a pair, so the title had to be “adaptable” in some way. I liked the fact that the proverb/traditional saying of “Death keeps no calendar” was first formally recorded and encoded in a book published by Welshman George Herbert (born in Powys, where the WISE Agency is located!) in the early 17th century, but the use of the word “Death” sounded a bit too close to “horror”, rather than “murder mystery” to me, so I changed the first word to “Murder”. I've also decided that the second anthology will be called “MURDER KNOWS NO SEASON”…which I think works well with the short story collection (it’s an anthology of four novellas, each relating to one season of the year).

As for character names…I have to admit that’s a whole different (and maybe much longer blog post). Suffice to say, my own attitudes, lots of research into popular/unpopular names at the year of birth in the right country, and (importantly) in the correct social strata, via google (and the fear of potential lawsuits!) play a part.

Cathy Ace is the Bony Blithe Award-winning author of The Cait Morgan Mysteries and The WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries.  You can find out more about Cathy, her work and her characters at her website, where you can also sign up for her newsletter with news, updates and special offers:

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Unnamed Post

How do you come up with titles and character names? Do they change during the writing process?

.... I'm having a hell of a time thinking of a title for this post.

TITLES:  Like Susan, I have a hard time with titles. A title should be original, a self-contained hook, maybe slightly ironic, possibly a play on words, should have a drumbeat to it, and hint at the essence of the novel. Easy!! 

No, it's not. Before publication it was fun thinking up titles. Just string together some groovy words and that's that. But now there's metadata to consider, and marketability, trendiness and overtrendiness. Self-consciousness creeps in. Every title I think of seems pretentious or bombastic or lame. Whenever I do come up with a great title, there's no novel to go along with it, so it gets jotted down on some notepad and lost.

Years before I got published my first novel began as "Sweethearts". Then when I was trying out for the Arthur Ellis contest (which it won!) it became "The Cold Girl's Song". At the last minute a friend suggested shortening it to "Cold Girl", which I went with. Horribly, post-publication, I began seeing "Girl" titles everywhere, and then articles about the proliferation of Girl titles, and nowadays scorn heaped on any book with Girl in the title. I swear on a stack of crime novels that I was not jumping on any bandwagon when I picked that title. That was long before The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or the Girl on the Train or Gone Girl were even twinkles on the horizon. I swear! Still, I wouldn't change it.

My second novel I wanted to call "The Swim", but there were concerns from my publisher about its non-searchability. At least that was the reason given. Maybe it was just a polite way of saying "no". So I thought long and hard and came up with "Undertow", which is actually better. I Googled it, and was amazed to find only one other book with that title, and it was from an earlier decade, and I don't think it was even a crime novel, so that was great. Or maybe I'm just not very good at searching Google. Anyway, lo and behold, soon after its publication an Instagram popped up on my feed -- I don't even know where it came from -- advertising a novel called, guess what, Undertow. And a great cover it had, too. Anyway, grumble.

My third is called Creep, because that was the only title that worked for me. As it was being processed by my publisher, a movie called Creep appeared on Netflix which, similar to my story, involves a man in a wolf mask. Rats! It's a pretty good movie, actually, and thankfully nothing like my story. 

My fourth will be called Flights & Falls, I'm hoping. The more words in a title, the easier it is to be original and the less chance you'll discover you're a copycat, so I'm going to try to think up at least three words for my titles from now on.

Finally, if I had more time I would compile a list of book titles I like, but I'm writing this as usual at the 11th hour - which is a title of a movie I think.
Photo by Huilin Dai (Unsplash)

CHARACTERS: I could go on for pages about this, but I'll be brief, as midnight approaches. The only way to choose character names is try not to think on them too hard. I've just written a short story called "Rozotica", and one of the characters basically wrote his own name down on the page with no help from me: Jarvis Milestone. It could not be anything else!

Do names change during writing? Yes. As characters morph, so must their names. 

The tough ones are the main cast - they'll be written in stone so you have to think carefully. I'm glad that after working at my novels for several years, and just before getting published, I realized my protagonist's name was bleh, and decided to change it. The perfect name came to me on a road trip, and for better or for worse he'll be with me for the foreseeable future... Cal Dion.

(A brief explanation re the photo. My search on Unsplash for NAMES gave me a lot of pictures of MANES, and it's very late so I picked the best.) 

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Reek of Wrong Titles and Character Names

Q: How do you come up with titles and character names? Do they change during the writing process?

- from Susan





A: Titles are tough for me. When forced to submit one I think is lame and that surely my publisher can improve, I’m rattled when they say, “Oh, I like that.” I admire authors who come up with good ones, time and time again. But nobody does it for me, alas, so I struggle. If anyone out there wants to chime in when the next book is close to submission, I will be absurdly grateful.

Names are another thing. They matter so much to me as a writer, to the book’s credibility, to the reader’s satisfaction as being believable. Because my lazy brain tends to sample and re-sample typical Anglo-Saxon options, I have taken to looking at online resources: names from a specific year – unpopular as well as popular – , surnames from other countries that may help readers see my characters as coming from a particular culture, and the occasional need for a name that starts with a letter not already used by one of my characters.

Mrs. Poliver

Right now, I’m struggling because the protagonist’s name I settled on after two other choices starts with the same letter as her surname, which I love and don’t want to alter, and her fiancé’s, which I will change. I wasn’t crazy about it anyway. He is Anglo-Saxon and from a prominent New York family, and of another time, so there’s more research ahead of me. From Charles to…? (No, not Percival or Peregrine. I’m not trying for humor.)

I recently read a book I liked quite a lot, except that the protagonist’s name grated on me every time the author used it. To me, it seemed absolutely wrong for who she was, her age and her background, and my bias kept me at a distance from the story as a result. That’s an entirely subjective reaction. I don’t for a minute blame the author, whose own history, nostalgic recollections, or family names might have given her a completely different reaction to the name when she tried it out. No names will please everyone all the time. Late at night, scrolling down lists on Google, I remind myself of that. And I thank the Word programmers for the search-and-replace function, which makes the change of name after a ‘eureka’ moment so easy.

So, names matter. Title matter. And if I knew exactly how any why they matter to readers and editors, I’d share it with you. But I bet you know perfectly well when an author hits the mark: The Reek of Red Herrings, anyone?

Friday, February 16, 2018


"I gotta hit that IKEA in Westeros."

In my castle, the toilet tank is the space reserved for literary prominence and has been so going back to when I was a little prince of the South Side realm. If I wasn't in the bathroom with a book, I was in the stacks of Carter G. Woodson Public Library looking for one to bring back to the bathroom. I gave myself a Chicago Public School's equivalent of a twelve-year education ignoring the screams and pleas of my brothers to give up my seat in study hall if you know what I'm sayin'. I just thank my lucky stars I'm living in a place that isn't plagued by errant moisture three hundred sixty-five days of the year so they can remain there. Sure, I may not be able to get a drink of water in Southern Cali after the next five years, but by then I will have learned to moisture farm my own sweat 'n whatnot like dood in Waterworld because I came here to stay, but I need housing prices come waaaaaay down. Should this place become a wasteland, a la Mad Max: Fury Road, I bet I could finally afford that frickin' down payment. I'll be Immortan Dan, Lord of Post-Apocalyptic Baldwin Hills. We'll see them try to gentrify it then.

Back to my poor man's Bibliotheca Banheiros. I was a little guy and the only one in the house who seemed to gravitate toward reading as a means opposed to a consequence. Once my parents tried to play it bourgeoise and, instead of beating my ass, made me go to my room and read a book. When they realized it was no punishment at all, I got my ass beat. Read that book, tho'. Read a bunch. That's why I needed the bathroom. Everyone else in my house was loud and angry and obnoxiously self-centered, yet as the bathroom was the second most sacred space of the average Chicago cottage subordinated only to the Holy Fronchroom of St. Overdownderenwhatnot —"Ay, no eatin' in the fronchroom! Take 'dat overdowndere 'n whatnot!"—I was safely ensconced in quiet comfort. I'd drop ass and, boom, knowledge!

I read books to learn, my favorite past time next to D&D, comic books, movies I somehow was able to watch that were nowhere near PG, and the indulgence of some crime and science fiction here and there. Now I read books for work, whether occasionally reviewing them for Foreword Reviews, reading reciprocally, or helping writer friends with their WIPs. I never say I read for fun, because that's like breathing for fun. I'm always breathing. I'm always reading. It's life. Living is fun. Th following are the current tomes on the king's throne:

Sheena Kamal's THE LOST ONES is a book you'd find on the same table as a Steig Laarson "The Girl With The…" whatever. It falls into that slot really nicely. Once you read deeply of its story, about Nora Watts, a not-so-reluctant investigator who reluctantly takes a case involving a missing fifteen-year-old girl in Vancouver. Sheena leverages her considerable experience as a community worker and activist on the streets of urban Canada, which seems to get a free pass because they have a sexy Prime Minister and the get better press than their neighbor to the south. This brilliant new author manages to provide you a protagonist/narrator you won't like, who could give less than two shits whether you do or not, and help you realize angels belong in heaven, devils in hell, which is where Sheena sends Nora Watts to find Bonnie, coming across even bigger demons, quite a few belonging to her. I'm loving it. It goes right next to the Poo Pourri.

Nathan Singer's BLACKCHURCH FURNACE is described by Criminal Element as "a scathing satire of faith, family, and all that we hold dear, where the only thing you can believe in are the voices in your own head … and they are every bit as crazy as you are" It's available from Down & Out Books. I met Nathan Singer at Murder & Mayhem Milwaukee 2017 and if you think I can be mildly engaging on a writing panel, this cat held it down. His manner is easy going yet authoritative, which is proving to be true of his prose. I also dig the way it tips its hand that all is not as it seems. I'm blurbing it, because I'm a big deal now (haaaaaa!) and I'll be offering up my impressions soon, despite my rule to recuse myself from reviewing the work of my peers. This one sits next to my face care products. Ay, yo. So I exfoliate and moisturize. Why don't you??

I come from a place where you can' t talk out of your ass. If you speak or write on a subject, you need to know the ins and outs of it, no funk-faking, especially when it involves other people's cultures, otherwise, them's fightin' words. BUT HE WAS GOOD TO HIS MOTHER: The Lives and Crimes Of Jewish Gangsters by Robert A. Rockaway is my current research reading. The next Elliot Caprice novel occurs at the three-way intersection of race, class, and crime in 1956 Chicago. I expand into the balance of cultures that made the Chicago Outfit powerful and secretive, as opposed to the racial and cultural strictures imposed on New York's mob, which was inclusion and mutual appreciation. This book is a labor of love which explores the choice of Jewish Americans to participate and flourish in organized crime, covering not just notable figures and folk tales, but the inner conflicts, contradictions, benefits and tragedies of this choice on individual gangsters as well as Jewish folk from Skokie, Illinois to Israel. I'm finding it illuminating and emotionally moving, which will be evidenced in the subplot in my next novel. This one went straight to my Kindle, and as it's research, it sits in my hands when I'm studying. Yeah. Let's call it studying.

If you want to add to your own reading list, the folks at Down & Out Books arranged for the e-book edition of A NEGRO AND AN OFAY to be priced down to $2.99 during February. The sale extends to all platforms, Kindle, SmashWords, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, the barbershop where you get your bootlegs. Load up some black history unlike everything you've been taught in school, and some shootouts and car chases and whatnot. Take it with you on your own throne if you wanna.


For those interested in the works to which I frequently refer, check out these titles at your local bookseller, your local library, or online where you enjoy purchasing your print and e-books. As always, thanks for your support and encouragement.

Works By Danny Gardner