Wednesday, June 22, 2016
In the past couple of months I’ve been thinking a lot about book titles. It’s the sort of thing authors do when they’re nearing the end of a book and haven’t yet named it. Nonfiction writers have it easy; they can always go with something drawn from the subject matter. With fiction, one has to be a bit more opaque.
I’ve written on this subject before, and to summarize my conclusions, a good title for a work of fiction should ideally convey a sense of the feel and tenor of the book. I don’t believe titles sell books as a rule, and the reality is that most books have rather prosaic titles.
Looking at the mysteries on the bookshelf in front of me, for example, I see: The Stone Wife (Peter Lovesey), Taken at the Flood (Agatha Christie), A Beam of Light (Andrea Camilleri), The Return (Hakan Nesser), and Finding Moon (Tony Hillerman). Well known authors all, but the titles hardly grab you by the lapels.
It Was Easy at First
For my first two mystery novels, I had decided on the title before I even started writing. The McHenry Inheritance was a straightforward distillation of the essence of a book that revolved around a challenged will, and Wash Her Guilt Away, taken from the well-known poem by Oliver Goldsmith, got to the heart of the murder victim’s character.
The third book was more of a struggle, title-wise. At the outset, I considered a half dozen possibilities, but wasn’t satisfied with any of them. Two thirds of the way through the first draft, I was no forrader, when, flipping through my Oxford Book of English Verse, I came across a sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning that ended with the words, “not death, but love.”
The sonnet itself dovetailed wonderfully with the themes of the book, and the final words of the poem made for a great title. So, Not Death, But Love it was.
Seems to Get Harder
The fourth book, which should be out in a few months, was even harder to name than the third one. Coming up with a title was like digging a ditch in frozen ground. I had a couple of ideas early on, but the more I thought about them, the less I liked them. Given that I still like the titles of my first three books, that probably meant the early ideas for Book Four weren’t right.
Finally, a breakthrough of sorts came when I was discussing the matter with my sister Susan, a poet of some renown in New York City. She asked me what the name of the town was, where the story took place. Alta Mira, I said. She suggested something like Bad Day at Alta Mira.
That title didn’t fit the book, but it got my train of thought on the right track. The book is about a mountain town undergoing a double trauma. Several female students have inexplicably gone missing from the local community college, and a high school cheerleader has accused the quarterback of getting her drunk and raping her at a party.
It occurred to me that the book’s theme is that the young women in town — its daughters, if you will — are in danger, and the book is about attempts to set right the wrongs done to them. So I came up with The Daughters of Alta Mira, and that one felt right the more I thought about it, so that’s what it will be.
Now all I have to do is come up with a title for Book Five.
Wednesday, June 8, 2016
One of the less lovely aspects of self-publishing is that the author has to do it all. There’s no publishing house to provide the backup of cover design, writing the dust-jacket blurb, formatting the book for printing, etc. You can, of course, hire people to do some of this, but the results can be unsatisfactory.
I’ve always taken the lead role in designing the covers of my mystery novels. I flatter myself that I have an above-average visual sense, and I have worked with photographers and graphic designers throughout a 40-plus-year professional career. So I usually come up with a concept for the cover, along with supporting items to get the project started, before turning it over to my go-to graphic designer.
One of the things I like to do in this regard is take a photograph that can serve as a basic template for the cover design, and it was in the course of doing so that the story you are about to read unfolded.
The Best Laid Plans
For the cover image for my fourth novel, I needed an image of a football field. I wanted the image configured in a certain way, with the field in the foreground, a yard-line number showing clearly, and the goalposts in the background.
Such a photo no doubt exists within the stock archives available to graphic designers, but it could be hard to locate, and subtle distinctions in terms of what I wanted could result in a number of false starts.
So I decided to take the picture myself.
One of the high schools in our area has a football field with southern goalposts backed up by a row of trees. With no identifiable background, it could pass for anywhere. Monday night after dinner, Linda and I set out for that field to get the photo from the exact angle I wanted.
We got to the high school, parked, and walked up to the athletic field. It was nearly deserted, the light was perfect, yet the picture I wanted was impossible. With football season long over, the field had been converted to soccer, and a huge soccer goal directly under the football goalposts ruined the shot.
Marines to the Rescue
Off to the side of the field, on the track that circles it, I saw a group of young men in shorts and T-shirts, with a slightly older man holding a clipboard. Thinking he might be a coach at the school, I went up and asked if he knew how long the soccer goals would remain where they were.
It turned out that the clipboard man was not with the school, but rather was a Marine Corps recruiter, who was testing several applicants to see how physically fit they were. He asked me what I wanted, and I explained that I needed to get a photo of the football goalposts without the soccer goal underneath them.
“Oh, we can move that for you,” he said. And he ordered his recruits to push the soccer goal out to the 30-yard-line so I could get on the field and take my picture. The goal was on rollers, but was big enough and heavy enough that Linda and I couldn’t have done it. For seven husky Marines-to-be, it was a piece of cake. I got my cover photo, they pushed the goal back, and we all got about our business.
So when Book Four comes out this fall, there will be a line in the acknowledgements reading, “Thanks to the U.S. Marine Corps, Santa Cruz Recruiting Office, for visual assistance with the cover image.” This is the story behind that acknowledgement.