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:


Susan C Shea said...

I wish I had consulted with you before each and every title...Brilliant logic and the results prove it!

Cathy Ace said...

Thanks Susan - I still spent sleepless nights on each one! :-)