Thursday, October 29, 2015

Memorable Titles

Writers are bedeviled by different aspects of the writing biz. For some, it's developing a gripping plot; for others it's creating sympathetic characters. And for still others, it's the title. Most of us have working titles on our computers, but the day always comes when we have to come up with something memorable, catchy and relevant. Hemingway, no slouch in this department, thought Fitzgerald the best at creating these short verbal tags.

When I began writing the Anita Ray series, I decided to use a consistent format for the title. I would use the name of a deity that reflected some of the issues in the story, and in a prepositional phrase if possible. Coming up with a tag for the first book, Under the Eye of Kali, gave me the idea, and I've enjoyed playing around with deities and phrases since then.

The idea for this post came from a series of messages on DorothyL. A number of posters mentioned titles that led them to purchase the book. That got me thinking about memorable titles--the ones I actually remember as humorous, intriguing, or well crafted. This is a sample of those as well as the ones mentioned on DorothyL. I don't dissect them here because that seems too much like analyzing a joke. Instead I offer a little humor on what has turned into a delightful and warm and sunny Thursday.

If you have a favorite title, I hope you'll add it in the comments.

Below are some fun titles, and below that is a link for more on titles.

The Case of the Blood-stained Egg Cosy, by James Anderson

Started Early, Took My Dog, by Kate Atkinson

Let the Dog Drive, by David Bowman

Cast, in Order of Disappearance, by Simon Brett

Killer Hair, by Ellen Byerrum

The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain.

The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesteron

The Moving Toyshop, by Edmund Crispin

Skeleton in Search of a Cupboard, by E.X. Ferrars

Smallbone Deceased, by Michael Gilbert

The Man with a Load of Mischief, by Martha Grimes

Death and the Pregnant Virgin, by S.T. Haymon

Carrying Albert Home: The Story of a Man, His Wife, and Her Alligator, by Homer Hickam.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John le Carre

If I'd Killed Him When I Met Him, by Sharyn McCrumb

Bimbos of the Death Sun, by Sharyn McCrumb

A Morbid Taste for Bones, by Ellis Peters

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks

I Still Miss My Man (But My Aim Is Getting Better), by Sarah Shankman

Leave a comment with a memorable title. And my thanks to DorothyL.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Free-associating a Plot

Once when I was struggling with the editing of a manuscript by a well-established scholar who tended to wander and leap through her discussions of art, a colleague said to me, We learn a lot through free associating. I thought about that today because I have been free-associating my way through several thoughts, watching a story develop.

A sculptor in India who is also a friend named her current exhibit in Mumbai “Where the Green Grass Grows,” an allusion to Walt Whitman’s long poem Leaves of Grass (1855). I rummaged through my own library, which includes a small collection of poetry, and did not find a copy of the poem. I found an anthology in the public library and began to dip into it, stopping at a poem by Wallace Stevens, who died in 1955, regarded as one of the most difficult poets of the last century. When I approached his work in college, I agreed. He baffled me. But I turned the page to “Sunday Morning, I.” The first two lines read “Complacencies of the peignoir, and late/Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair[.]”

Any mention of oranges caught by sunshine puts me in mind of an incident many years ago when I took a lunch with me during a daylong stretch of work in the Boston Public Library. I don’t remember every item, but I do remember putting things together early in the morning, a few crackers, slices of cheese, some celery and carrot sticks, and an orange. I grabbed it at the last minute, not sure if I would eat it or not. In the library, after a long morning of work, I arrayed my meal on the paper bag and ate.

After a few minutes I noticed a man watching me. When I looked up at him, he smiled and moved away. I finished my lunch, all except the orange, which I slipped back into the bag. At the end of the week I opened the Boston Globe to an article about the simple ways people manage their diet. He described my lunch, listing each item and its nutritional value. At the end, he added, “and the orange for color.” I don’t know if the man I caught watching me was the writer or not, but I blushed as I thought of myself being caught out. I did indeed take the orange with me for its color.

Being observed and observing in turn brings to mind another incident. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts holds an excellent collection of paintings by Winslow Homer. One in particular, “The Fog Warning,” always draws a crowd. A group of about a dozen people standing in front of the artwork thinned out until only one man was left. With his dark beard and cap, he peered at the image of the seaman in the dory, who was looking over his shoulder at the mother ship as he rowed against the oncoming storm. Two young women drew opposite the museum visitor, leaning close to each other as they whispered and pointed from the bearded viewer to the bearded seaman. The similarity between the two men and their postures was unmistakable. It looked as though the seaman’s brother had come to take a last look. No one noticed me, as far as I know, standing a few steps away and taking note of the triangle of art and admirer and witnesses.

These three pieces seem to want to be linked together into a story, and it would be easy to do so. Is the villain the watcher in the library, and is he the man being watched in the museum? Is the woman eating lunch in the library one of the two young women in the museum tracking the watcher from the library? Is there some clue to be found in a book of poetry? Once a decision is made, the writer, like a prosecutor, returns to the individual scenes and shapes the narrative to lead the reader to the predetermined conclusion.

Fiction is everywhere.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Anita Ray Short Stories

Some of the best fun I have as a writer is coming up with situations for an Anita Ray short story. These allow me to explore the culture of India as well as work out a crime and its solution. Modern India is a mix of traditional and rapidly modernizing features, with people who live as their ancestors did several hundred years ago and scientists who are the match for any in the United States today. Figuring out the interplay of these different worlds in one of my favorite challenges.

Dorothy L. Sayers talked about the tactile pleasure in plotting the mystery, planting clues and red herrings, and moving characters through the story. The Anita Ray stories have the added pleasure of giving me an opportunity to talk about a culture and a people that I have loved since I was a young girl.

At the beginning of the year I set myself a few goals, one of which was to blog each week. Mostly I’ve met that one, though every now and then I miss one or two weeks. One of my other goals was to self-publish the Anita Ray short stories published earlier in anthologies and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. I may eventually gather these in one collection but right now I want to repost them as individual stories, available as eBooks for $0.99 each. I enjoy using my own photographs for the cover, and matching cover and story.

I posted “The Secret of the Pulluvan Drum” in January 2015. In this story, Anita is impressed with a young woman who has just opened her own shop despite her family’s opposition. Anita is excited for her, but when the shop suddenly closes, she is worried. She quickly learns that the new shop owner has died. She has no suspicions until she visits the family to offer her condolences and comes away feeling very uncomfortable as well as suspicious. The Pulluvans are a caste little known today outside of the world of anthropology but these small groups have ways of organizing their lives that can teach us about how much is possible in the way humans live. If you're interested in reading the rest of the story, go here:*Version*=1&*entries*=0

I posted “The Silver House” just this month. Anita wants to know why a well-off man known for his generosity to local temples would fall into a canal and drown, especially when the path along the canal was very familiar to him. He walked it for most of his life. He had recently had made a special offering to a temple, a perfect replica in silver and gold of a miniature house, which the silversmith called the finest work he had ever completed. If you're interested in reading the rest of the story, go here:*Version*=1&*entries*=0

There are a total of fourteen Anita Ray stories to date, and I will be posting them over the next year, at the hoped-for rate of one each month.