The Problem of Titles by Judy Alter

Delia Jackson is a “difficult” character in Murder at the Bus Depot, the fourth Blue Plate Café Mystery. Indeed, café owner Kate Chambers finds herself often using the phrase, “dealing with Delia.” She can’t figure out if Delia is evil or confused, naïve or cunning—or maybe just bewildered by a world she doesn’t understand.
Struggling with the first draft, I decided “Dealing with Delia” was the perfect title, because it aptly described so much of the action. But it wasn’t perfect. The titles of the first three books in the series followed a pattern: Murder at the Blue Plate Café, Murder at Tremont House, and Murder at Peacock Mansion.  “Dealing with Delia” didn’t fit.
With wise counsel from seasoned writers, I went back to my original title, Murder at the Bus Depot.
Titles are always a problem. Sometimes the title comes before the story and gives the author the story. Other times, the title comes out of the blue midway through the first draft—those titles are particularly gifts. And sometimes at the finish the first draft, there still is no title. I’m in that uncomfortable place right now with an untitled Kelly O’Connell Mystery.
I’ve had my share of trouble with other titles. ” I called the first mystery I wrote “Dead Space” because it revolved around a dead space in a kitchen, a space walled off from the room in general but with no obvious use or reason. There is such a space in my kitchen—a spice cabinet, with shelves only deep enough to hold two rows of bottled spices, is flanked on one side by the microwave and the oven, on the other side by a deep cabinet. So what’s behind the spices? In reality, it’s an old chimney that may hold my house together. In my mystery, it’s a skeleton, but when I first tried out the title on friends, some though it was a paranormal—not my style at all! The book was published as Skeleton in a Dead Space.
More recently I titled a book, Pigface and the Perfect Dog. When Susan Hogan is threatened in a grocery store, she has the immediate impression that her assailant looks like a pig—pale pink face, tiny eyes, pushed up flat nose. The book didn’t do as well as I had hoped, and a few brave readers suggested it was the title. Pigface is a derogatory nickname, the kind of bullying we teach our children not to do. You can’t be too careful about the words you choose.
What are the guidelines for titles? I wish I knew. Some things, beyond the right word, that I’ve thought of. It should be cryptic but not too much so—you want the title to intrigue but also to give the potential reader some idea of what’s between the covers. In a mystery, even a cozy, the words murder, death, or die are signals to the reader. Mention of food, from sundaes to cupcakes, will signal a culinary mystery. And for craft readers, there are titles like Purl One, Kill Two. Instinct tells me that alliteration, the repetition of key sounds, intrigues some readers. Titles should probably be short, punchy, never too long.
I’m hoping other authors will join in with ideas for what makes a good title. Meantime, I’m going back to worry over that manuscript. It’s about racism that sweeps a city. Hmmm. There are already four books titled City on Edge and several others with those words in the title.
And that’s my final hint: Check Amazon and other sources for books with titles you’re thinking of using. You especially don’t want to use a title already used by a major author. Yes, I’ve done that one too.
--Judy Alter


Judy Alter is the author of six books in the Kelly O’Connell Mysteries, two books in the Blue Plate Café Mysteries; and two in the Oak Grove Mysteries. Pigface and the Perfect Dog follows The Perfect Coed in this series of mysteries set on a university campus. Judy is no stranger to college campuses. She attended the University of Chicago, Truman State University in Missouri, and Texas Christian University, where she earned a Ph.D. and taught English. For twenty years, she was director of TCU Press, the book publishing program of the university. The author of many books for both children and adults primarily on women of the American West, she retired in 2010 and turned her attention to writing contemporary cozy mysteries.

 She holds awards from the Western Writers of America, the National Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame, and the Texas Institute of Letters. She was inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame and recognized as an Outstanding Woman of Fort Worth and a woman who has left her mark on Texas. Western Writers of America gave her the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement and will induct her into its Hall of Fame in June 2015.

The single parent of four and the grandmother of seven, she lives in Fort Worth, Texas, with her perfect dog, Sophie.

Buy link for Pigface and the Perfect Dog:

Buy link for The Color of Fear:


This is really a fun book. Titles are interesting. In my case some come easily, some not so much. Had a title for one book because someone gave it to me, and until the last I didn't know how I was going to make it fit. But I did it. Thanks for visiting, Judy.
Thonie Hevron said…
You are so right. A book title should tell you what kind of book you're holding. I'm clear on your example of cozy mysteries, using crafting or cooking hints in the title. Romances are another example (covers can also give them away) and my genre, police procedural/thriller does as well. My three novels are named after the main crime the characters must solve: By Force or Fear is an element of stalking; Intent to Hold partly defines kidnapping and With Malice Aforethought must be an element present for murder. Most books in my genre have nighttime scenes and emergency lights with caution tape across the cover and are named things like "Code Blue." You know you're getting a police detective story.

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