Titles—a Chicken and Egg Question

Jul 15, 2020 | 2020 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze

by Molly MacRae

I like titles. I had the good fortune to grow up in a house full of books. Shelves full of them all the way to the ceiling. When I was learning to read, I loved picking out the titles of the books on the shelves well above my head—as though each title was a secret, and the titles strung together told a story of their own. So yes, I like titles, and now I like coming up with them for the stories and books I write.

No lollygagging, though; my titles have to do some work. Not necessarily heavy lifting, but at the very least they should clue a potential reader into the tone of the story. Someone looking for a lively, entertaining mystery might pick up Plaid and Plagiarism, the first book in my series about four women who run a bookshop in the Scottish Highlands. But someone looking for a Stieg Larsson or Stephen King read-alike probably won’t think they’ve found it in >Last Wool and Testament, the first of my Haunted Yarn Shop mysteries.

Another job for a title is to hint at the theme of a story. In the case of My Troubles, a collection of mystery short stories about the sisters Margaret and Bitsy and their elderly cousin Leona, this is usually a theme that’s separate from, or tangential to the mystery being solved. For instance, in “Missing Something,” pages of recipes are missing from magazines in Margaret’s shop, and then Leona’s car goes missing. More immediate in Margaret’s mind, though, are her worries about Leona’s memory lapses and Bitsy’s missing empathy. Most of the titles in the collection, from “My Trouble” and “It Takes Two” to “Fandango by Flashlight” hint at a theme running through all the stories—the dance we do to maintain familial relationships.mystery

A title might be a clue about the path the story is going to follow—a path that isn’t obvious until you reach the end and realize you’ve come full circle. “Ah, Paradise,” another Margaret and Bitsy story, does that, but I won’t tell you how.

I also ask my titles to toe the party line—or, in this case, the series line. Each of the Haunted Yarn Shop titles tells a reader what type of needlework or textile art the book focuses on, and each title is a play on a common phrase—Spinning in Her Grave or Plagued by Quilt, for example, or Crewel and Unusual. Each of the Highland Bookshop Mystery titles follows a pattern—two alliterative words, the first evoking Scotland, the second something nefarious or wicked—Plaid and Plagiarism, Scones and Scoundrels, Thistles and Thieves, Heather and Homicide.

For me, the right title for a book is just as important to a story as character and place names. I like coming up with all of them and, for whatever reason, I find it easy.

So here’s my chicken and egg question. Which comes first, the story or the title? For all the books, and even for most of the short stories, it’s been the title. Think of a title as a toehold for climbing into the story. My hope is always that if I build a title, the book (and readers) will come.

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The Boston Globe says Molly MacRae writes “murder with a dose of drollery.” She’s the award-winning author of the Haunted Yarn Shop Mysteries and the Highland Bookshop Mysteries. As Margaret Welch, she has written two books in the Secrets of Castleton Manor Library mysteries. Molly’s short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine since 1990. After twenty years in northeast Tennessee, Molly lives in Champaign, Illinois.

Disclosure: This post contains links to an affiliate program, for which we receive a few cents if you make purchases. KRL also receives free copies of most of the books that it reviews, that are provided in exchange for an honest review of the book.

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