Award-winning short-story writer Robert Lopresti has been writing fiction for almost 40 years. He is the author of Greenfellas and, recently, the nonfiction When Women Didn’t Count: The Chronic Mismeasure and Marginalization of American Women in Federal Statistics, among other books. Here he talks about his story “The Chair Thief” from the November/December issue and the role of titles in fiction.
I am delighted to have “The Chair Thief” in the November/December issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. But the question I want to address today is this: Why is it “The Chair Thief?” Why didn’t I call it, say, “Two Guys Harass A Co-Worker,” which is a more accurate description of the plot. (The commandeering of a prime office chair is just the last straw that provokes the trouble.)
Of course, conveying the plot is not the real purpose of a title. The goal is to sell the story to the editor and then to the reader. The title should be intriguing, but it must also relate to the story somehow. (For example, I could have called my tale “Marilyn Monroe Versus Dracula,” but readers would probably be miffed when neither of those worthies made an appearance.)
Years ago I wrote a story in which three strangers escape from a nasty mess by blaming it all on a completely non-existant fourth person. Since they don’t want the cops arresting an innocent bystander they make the fictional felon’s description as unlikely as possible. That meant then when the story appeared in AHMM the reader had to reach the last page to find out why it was called “A Bad Day for Pink and Yellow Shirts.”
The latest story in that series, by the way, is about a snowfall heavy enough to cancel school and it will appear as “A Bad Day For Algebra Tests,” unless editor Linda Landrigan changes the title.
Which editors have a right to do, of course. And I have the experience to prove it.
Back in the 1980s a title popped into my head: “My Life as A Ghost.” Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine bought the resulting story—my first sale there, hurray!—but changed the title to “The Dear Departed.” What can I say? I liked mine better. Maybe I’ll use it again sometime.
One day I was driving along listening to Bob Dylan’s song “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and I noticed his line about the streets being “too dead for dreaming.” I almost drove right off the road. What a title for a mystery novel! Too Dead For Dreaming.
So I wrote one, set in Greenwich Village during the great folk music scare of 1963. Unfortunately Dylan’s company wouldn’t give me the rights to use that line as a title, so I switched to Such a Killing Crime, which comes from a song that was out of copyright long before Bob was born.
With my second novel the choice was easier. A comic crime novel about mobsters trying to save the environment? It had to be Greenfellas.
Sometimes you can outsmart yourself. I published a story in The Strand about a woman buying a gift for her son, but the story was really about her obsession with the past and her hopes for the future. I called the story “The Present” but I doubt if anyone got the double meaning. Except me, of course. I thought it was brilliant.
And sometimes the problem with a title is not what it means, but the way it sounds. If it is a long phrase, you really want it to scan. I wrote a story about the race riots of 1967 and my original title was “Bullets in the Firehouse Door.” That captured what I wanted to say but it felt long and awkward. I came up with “Shooting at the Firemen,” and was very pleased with myself, but two early readers told me to drop the word “the.” Maybe it depends on whether you pronounce “fire” with one syllable or two? In any case the story appeared in AHMM with the shorter moniker.
I am delighted to report that I will have a story in the next issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine too. The title I used was “Train Tracks,” but I wasn’t thrilled with it and invited Linda to improve it. She looked at the first sentence: “The best day of my life started when I got arrested,” and suggested using the first six words as a title. I thought it was an improvement but, after much debate, we wound up back on the train tracks (which sounds dangerous). Maybe when you read it you can offer us an improvement.
Just for fun, here are some of my favorite titles of mystery novels. You can add your picks in the comments.
- The Big Boat to Bye-Bye, by Ellis Weiner
- The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
- Bimbos of the Death Sun, by Sharyn McCrumb
- Fletch Won, by Gregory Mcdonald
- Friday the Rabbi Went Hungry, by Harry Kemelman
- I, the Jury, by Mickey Spillane
- The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Arthur Conan Doyle
- The Last Camel Died at Noon, by Elizabeth Peters
- The League of Frightened Men, by Rex Stout
- The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover, by Kinky Friedman
- Mackerel by Moonlight, by William Weld
- The Man Who Would be F. Scott Fitzgerald, by David Handler
- A Murder Is Announced, by Agatha Christie
- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carré
- When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, by Lawrence Block
- Who the Hell is Wanda Fuca? by G. M. Ford