The Titillation of Titles (Part 1)

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The title of this blog sounds as though it should actually be the collective noun—like a Parliament of Owls, a Wiggery of Barristers, a Decanter of Deans, or a Shrivel of Critics. (Honestly, I’m not making these up.) Perhaps a Shelf of Titles be more appropriate? Or, these days, a TBR of Titles?

In fact, the title was suggested by my fellow MurderIsEverywhere blogfellow, Jeffrey Siger. And the subject matter came about because of an email I received from a member of my Advance Reader Team, Patti Ruocco:

“One thing: when you have the time, I’d love to know how you come up with your titles, and how much of the story you know when the title occurs.”

I started to reply to this email but it quickly struck me that there was more to say about this and perhaps other people might be interested, too.

The first of the Charlie Fox books was KILLER INSTINCT. This title, it turns out, had already been used back in 1995 by tennis champion, Martina Navratilova and Liz Nickles. Fortunately, there is no copyright on titles, so I was able to call my debut novel the same. To my knowledge, the title has been used twice more. First by Joseph Finder in 2007 and next month James Patterson & Howard Roughan will be bringing out the latest incarnation.

I can’t remember at what point the title suggested itself for this book. I wrote it in fits and starts over a period of years. I believe it originally had THE at the beginning of it, but this was soon dropped. I felt it fitted in with the idea of Charlie discovering, after being a victim, that she had what it took within her to fight back. Indeed, earlier in the book one of the other characters tells her, somewhat disparagingly, that she’s got the moves but not the killer instinct to go with them. Needless to say, she proves him wrong.

I’ve always tried to make the titles have some connection to the stories, if not to be actually referenced during the narrative. RIOT ACT was about civil unrest due to racial tensions between two neighbouring housing estates and HARD KNOCKS was about a tough bodyguard training school.

I particularly liked the title FIRST DROP for book four. The story not only starts at a Florida theme park where Charlie is having the wits scared out of her on a giant rollercoaster, but I also felt it was a good analogy for the story. After all, once you’ve climbed the lift hill on that rollercoaster and hit the first drop, you can’t stop or get off. You simply have to cling on for dear life and hope you make it to the end of the ride.

By now, of course, I was firmly entrenched in two-word titles for the series. ROAD KILL was about ‘accidents’ befalling motorcycle riders and seemed an obvious choice once I’d decided on that theme.

SECOND SHOT was not so easy. I played with other titles, too, but by this time my US publisher had taken on FIRST DROP and dropped heavy hints that they’d like the next one to be a) set in the States and b) called Second something-or-other. As it turned out, SECOND SHOT suited the storyline right from the start of the book, as Charlie is shot twice on the first page. Of course, then the publisher wanted to follow this numerical sequence, ignoring the books that didn’t fit into it.

THIRD STRIKE took a bit of coming up with, but it fitted the story as it largely centres around Charlie’s consultant surgeon father, who is on the verge of losing his medical licence – or, as it would be put in the UK, to be struck off. I wanted to combine this with the ‘three strikes and you’re out’ idea as well. I seem to remember I was well into the story before the matter of what to call the book was settled.

But I was already thinking about the next title way before I came up with the story for the next in the series, although I’d been toying with the idea of Charlie getting involved with a cult of some kind for a while. When I was looking for a good name for this cult, Fourth Day suggested itself. Taken from Genesis, it is the moment God creates light and dark and the divide between them. Even if I hadn’t wanted to continue with the numerical titles (and by that time I’d changed US publishers so, strictly speaking there was no need to do so) I would have stuck to FOURTH DAY for this book.

FIFTH VICTIM was about kidnappings on Long Island. Charlie is trying to prevent her young principal from becoming the fifth victim of the title. Again, it was another one I came up with before I started writing. To a certain extent, it shows how far ahead I’m planning the series, even on a subconscious level. I could have stopped using numbers after THIRD STRIKE, but I’d already worked out the plots for the next two books, even in vague form.

Rather than Sixth anything, I finally moved away from those dratted numbers for book ten. I’d wanted to set something in post-Katrina New Orleans for a while, and I’d also wanted to do my homage to one of my favourite movies, Die Hard. Combining this with the city known as ‘the Big Easy’ made DIE EASY almost inevitable.

ABSENCE OF LIGHT is an oddity in the series in that it’s a shorter book than the others and a three-word title. That comes from a Buddhist adage: in the absence of light, darkness must prevail. I had the title before I began work on the book, and I knew at some point in the story Charlie was going to end up underground in darkness. Indeed, that’s where she starts off in the flash-forward opening scene.

The title for FOX HUNTER was a suggestion from a reader, Thomas Talinksi. When I checked on Amazon, the only books with similar titles were about show jumping from years previously. Besides, the premise of this book is that Charlie is hunting for someone and could very well be being hunted herself, so it had a double meaning.

As for the latest book, BAD TURN, that title took a bit of coming up with. It seemed to fit as not only is there the connection with the old saying about one good turn deserving another but also because it hints at the direction Charlie’s life might just have taken…

One of the most difficult books to put a title to was last year’s DANCING ON THE GRAVE. This started out as POINT AND SHOOT, although I never quite liked that one. Then it became FALLING SHORT OF GLORY, which I rather liked but people thought suggested it was about the American Civil War. Then fellow author John Lawton came up with a line from a Dory Previn song BEWARE OF YOUNG GIRLS. When I looked up the full lyric, I found the lines immediately following that one are: too often they crave to cry / at a wedding and dance on a grave. And I knew as soon as I read that, I’d got my title.

Of course, originally, I intended that book to be a standalone. It is now the first in a trilogy, of which I’m working on the second book right now. Only, this time, I do have the title up front. And for the third instalment, too! But you’ll have to wait to find out what they are.

This week’s Word of the Week is prorogation, meaning the action of discontinuing a session of parliament or other legislative assembly without dissolving it. King Charles I, on the other hand, dismissed parliament altogether in 1629 and resolved to rule alone. It did not end well for him.