The title of a book, along with its cover, is the writer's first chance to grab a reader's attention and tempt him to pick up the book. As I've mentioned before, the cover is pretty much out of my hands -- the Art Department and the Marketing Department at Random House deal with that. As for the title, I send in my idea for a title and so far, except in one case which I'll talk about later, the titles have been accepted.
In choosing a title, I look for something a bit tantalizing that, in some ways, reflects the content and tone of the book. And I usually check on Amazon to make sure that title hasn't been used recently. Titles can't be copyrighted so I'm free, if I want, to call a book Gone with the Wind or The House at Pooh Corner. But instead, I rack my brains, trying to come up with something semi-original.
It's not easy.
People often ask what me a particular title of mine "means." In the case of my first novel, Signs in the Blood, the answer is that I'm not exactly sure. I usually ask what they think it means and have gotten some terrific explanations, often involving horoscopes and/or planting by the signs as recommended by The Old Farmers' Almanac.
Alas, it's nothing that clever. As I recall, while I was writing Signs, I was researching the snake-handling Holiness religion that plays a large part in this novel and came across the phrase 'signs in the blood.' That sounds like a good title, I thought and made a note of it.
Unfortunately, I neglected to make a note of what it meant. And though I've looked, I've never found that passage again. But what I think it means comes from the fact that folks of the Holiness church call themselves "signs-following believers." (These aren't horoscope signs but the signs mentioned in the Bible -- "And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover," (Mark 16:17-18).)
So I suspect that 'signs in the blood,' refers to the fact that these beliefs tend to be passed down in families. Really, not much at all to do with the story I was telling. But nonetheless a mysterious sounding title.
Art's Blood was a mistake. I had the idea that I might try to use the word 'blood' in all my titles and, since this book had to do with art and artists, I came up with this rather lame pun -- art's blood -- heart's blood. It was meant as a working title, something to be replaced when I thought of a better one but my editor liked it so there it is. I don't like it because punning titles tend to suggest a cozy, humorous mystery -- which this isn't. Ah, well . . .
By my third book, I'd abandoned the idea of always having the word blood in the title. For one thing, a friend told me that the titles suggested slasher-type stories and for another thing, when I made a list of titles including blood, everyone of them had already been used recently, sometimes several times.
Besides, for once I had a great idea! I wanted to call this book The Booger Dance. That's the name of a Cherokee dance that plays an important part in this book, both actually and symbolically. And it's certainly memorable.
Unfortunately, both my agent and my editor reacted with horror to this proposal, feeling that such a title would have buyers hurrying away with averted eyes.
So, since my editor had suggested that this might be a good time to explore Elizabeth's past and perhaps uncover some old wounds . . .
In a Dark Season is pretty straightforward. It's set in November and a pivotal scene is on the Winter Solstice -- a dark season for sure. And the tone is rather dark as well.
The Day of Small Things came from a Bible verse -- I was skimming through Bartlett's Quotations, looking for inspiration and came across it. Not the most inspired choice but I liked the sound.
Next year's book, Under the Skin, deals with Elizabeth and her very different sister. The title comes from a poem by Kipling which contains the lines, "But the colonel's lady an' Judy O'Brady are sisters under the skin."
Here's an article about the original titles of ten famous novels.
You might want to make a note of this for next Thanksgiving. Or indeed, for any time. This is pumpkin pie for people who aren't all that crazy about pumpkin pie. This is fantastically good pie. And here's the recipe, from my much used Southern Junior League Cookbook.
2 baked pie shells ( I think it's worth the trouble to make them yourself)
3/4 cups milk 2 cups canned pumpkin 1 1/2 cup brown sugar 1/ 8 teaspoon salt 3/4 teaspoon ground ginger 1/3 teaspoon nutmeg 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 5 egg yolks 2 envelopes unflavored gelatin 1/3 cup cold water 5 egg whites 1 1/2 cups heavy cream 1/3 cup sugar
Caramelized almonds (see below) Whipped cream and grated nutmeg for topping
Heat milk with pumpkin, brown sugar, salt, and spices. Beat egg yolks slightly and slowly add hot mixture to yolks. Mix well and cook in double boiler till thick, stirring constantly.
Soften gelatin in cold water. Add to hot custard and stir till dissolved. Cool till it begins to thicken.
Beat egg whites till stiff but not dry. Fold into custard and cool a little bit but not till set. Whip 1 1/2 cups heavy cream, adding 1/3 cup sugar and then folding into pumpkin mixture. Chill till very thick and pour into pie shell. Chill (overnight) till set.
Top with more whipped cream, a sprinkle of grated nutmeg, and the caramelized almonds.
(The original recipe called for butterscotch sauce as well but I don't know, that just seemed excessive. So this is practically a diet version.
The pie can be frozen and is quite good that way. Also, the filling alone is a nice dessert, frozen or otherwise. )
1/2 cup sugar 1 cup slivered blanched almonds
Stir sugar and almonds in heavy skillet over medium high heat till light brown. Spread on greased cookie sheet. Break apart when crisp and store in airtight container. Also really good on ice cream.
Gene wanted a son but what he got was Nancy and Frances. He made do, teaching Frances to ride and shoot, Taking her hunting and fishing. She glowed in the light of his attention. Years later, Charley came along -- a son at last. Frances was deposed and returned to her mother's orbit. "Pretty don't hurt," her mother said, As Frances struggled with high heels and girdles, Longing for those carefree tomboy days.
(Tampa, Florida -- late Twenties -- my husband's aunt, grandfather, and mother.)
Back in August of '09 I visited the Mountain Magnolia Inn in Hot Springs (NC) because I knew I wanted to use it as a setting for part of my book Under the Skin. I planned to let Elizabeth and her sister Gloria spend a weekend there, participating in seances and a little sisterly bonding.
So now the book is written and I'm proof-reading the galleys -- including a seance scene set in the parlor of the inn. By one of those odd bits of synchronicity that make life so interesting, I was invited last week to attend a reception for the author Robert Morgan at the Mountain Magnolia Inn.
We sat in a circle in the same parlor where Elizabeth and her sister sat in a circle attending a seance. Mr. Morgan is a fascinating speaker but my mind kept going back to that seance and I kept half expecting . . .
So strange when my memories include fiction.
In the excerpt (from Under the Skin) below, you can see where reality and fiction touch.
After lunch and some free time – napping or meditation was suggested, we convened in the parlor. Dark shades were drawn at the windows and a temporary drape had been rigged over the arched opening that led to a smaller room, making the room dim, but by no means dark. Once again we took our places in a ragged circle. And once again I was at the end of the sofa with Gloria on my left. The chairs had been drawn in closer to the sofa, I noticed, so that we were almost elbow to elbow.
Giles waited, relaxed in the wingback chair, till everyone taken a place and then, in the most matter-of–fact voice imaginable, he asked, “How many of you have ever attended a séance?”
Several hands went up – Dawn, Ree, and Charlene.
“And how many of you had satisfactory experiences?”
Ree’s hand came down at once. Dawn’s hand came down, started back up, then came down again.
Giles nodded. “That’s interesting. Now to begin with, a few house-keeping details. We’ll be here for an hour or more – if anyone wants to visit the loo, this would be the time. And this is also the time to turn off your cell phones – right off. Not set to vibrate but entirely off.”
There was a fumbling in pockets and purses and several people left the room for the suggested bathroom call. People were talking to one another in low tones as Giles moved around the group, speaking to each person individually. Gloria glanced over at me, her eyes bright with excitement.
“Oh, Lizzy, I’ve got such a positive feeling about this! I really think-”
“What about smudging?” Charlene’s strident voice caught everyone’s attention. She was offering Giles a little bundle of something that looked like dried leaves. “At the séances I’ve participated in, we always began by smudging the room to get rid of any negative energy.”
There was an amused look on the medium’s face. “If you like,” he said. “I don’t find it necessary but if no one here has a problem with smoke, then by all means . . .” He made a polite gesture.
“Oh, but shouldn’t I wait till everyone’s here – in case any one’s carrying negative energy?”
Negative energy. I hoped that wasn’t me. I wasn’t a believer by a long shot but I felt that I could keep an open mind. I had done so in the past . . . and I remembered the time I’d been called to a neighbor’s house to stop a nose bleed by reading a particular Bible verse. I’d made a conscious effort to believe in what I was doing . . . or at least, not to scoff at it . . . to allow for the possibility. And it had worked. The nosebleed had stopped – whether because of or in spite of me.
Giles was in front of me now, bending down to speak close to my ear. “Don’t worry, Elizabeth. I feel sure that you’ll be a stronger link than you might have imagined. If you can only look past the trappings . . .”
He nodded toward Charlene who, now that everyone was assembled, had lit the little bundle of leaves and allowed it to flare up before she blew the flame out. Now she was waving the smoking bundle back and forth and muttering something as she walked clockwise around the room.
“The trappings and the terminology, as I said yesterday, are simply constructs – a way for us to deal with something far beyond our understanding.”
I nodded and started to say that I’d do my best but he had passed on to Steve and Dawn. It helped that Giles was so ordinary, that he didn’t spout a lot of metaphysical stuff. Or, at least, if he did spout, I could comfort myself by thinking of it as a metaphor.
“Thank you, Charlene,” he said as the henna-haired woman completed her circuit of the room and stood at the doorway, one hand holding back the drapes while with the other she seemed to be shooing the smoke out of the room. “Well done. And now . . .”
With a scant tilt of his head, he motioned her toward her chair. As he took his own, a little shiver of anticipation ran round the circle.
“Now,” said Giles, speaking in that low tone that had each of us straining forward to catch his words, “I should tell you that while there are many different ways to conduct a séance, my . . .” he hesitated, “my particular method has proved to be satisfactory again and again. I will ask you all to keep that in mind as we proceed.
“For those of you who’ve never participated in a séance, you should be aware that spirits may communicate by knocking or rapping or some other non-verbal sound. Or the spirit may speak to one of you in your mind -- and not necessarily to the one asking the question. If we’re very fortunate, the spirit may speak aloud -- through one of us.”
“Wait a minute. Not just through you . . . but any of us?” Steve looked alarmed at the thought and Giles hastened to assure her that it was only a remote possibility.
He gestured at our circle. “We’ll begin the session by joining hands. It helps us to focus but, contrary to what some believe, it’s not a requisite. As the time goes on you may find that maintaining that hand clasp is causing fatigue which is working against your concentration. If you find this happening, please, let go. It will do no harm. Are there any questions?”
Giles looked around the circle of expectant but silent faces. “Very well, then. We’ll begin with a few minutes of silent meditation. Each of you should concentrate on the spirit you hope to contact, as well as the question that you have for that spirit. At the end of this period of silence, I’ll ask one of you to begin and we’ll all bend our minds to trying to contact that particular spirit. Remember, we’ll have two more sessions today and two more tomorrow so there’ll be ample time for each of you.”
So saying, Giles put out his hands and closed his eyes. Somewhat self-consciously, the group joined hands and we began.
The only meditating I’ve done has been in a bathtub of hot water. And it’s been of the ‘think of nothing’ variety. But this . . . would I be a spoil sport, a big old load of “negative energy” if I didn’t try to contact someone? And which someone would it be?
Sam. Of course that’s who Gloria felt was the logical choice. She has said something earlier about how good it would be if I could have ‘closure’ with Sam. Maybe so. But how strange it would seem, assuming this contact occurred, to be speaking to my beloved late husband almost on the eve of marrying his best friend. Certainly there were unresolved questions I could ask – several battered at me. But did I want the answers? Moreover, did I want Gloria to be privy to my doubts?
No, I did not. Sam, wherever he was, would not be on my calling list. But then, who . . . ? My mother . . . no . . . Papa . . . oh, how tempting, but, again, too personal. And for all I knew, he could still be alive – no point seeking someone who hadn’t crossed over, as they say.
At last I settled on Gramma. If anyone was going to speak to me or send me a message, I thought I’d like it to be Gramma. So I composed myself to meditate on Gramma, her comfortable plump figure, usually with an apron over her dress, her soft brown eyes, her . . . and I wandered off into days of remembered bliss . . . Gramma . . . Gramma . . .
“Let’s bring our meditation to a close now. We’ll begin by all concentrating on the spirit that Xan is hoping to contact. Xan, will you give us the name?”
I opened my eyes to see Xan, quivering like a greyhound as Giles looked at him. Xan took a deep breath and made his request.
“My brother . . . my brother Rob. Robert MacNaughten.”
“Thank you, Xan.” Again Giles’s gaze swept round the circle. “Let us all hold that name in our minds and silently ask Robert to come among us.”
And so we did. At least, I did. Mindlessly concentrating on the name Robert MacNaughten, over and over, I could feel Glory’s hand trembling in my left hand and Dawn’s, still and icy in my right. Somewhere in the distance I heard the muffled rattle of a diesel truck starting and forced myself back to the task at hand.
Robert MacNaughten, Robert MacNaughten. . . Beneath this mantra ran a magpie jumble of thought MacNaughten sounds Scottish, Xan must be short for Alexander. . . Robert MacNaughten, Robert MacNaughten, Xan wants to talk to you. . . I wonder if this is an older or younger brother we’re calling and how long he’s been dead. Oh hell, I’m wandering . . . Robert MacNaughten, Robert MacNaughten . . .
I had closed my eyes in order to concentrate better but the absence of sight only seemed to sharpen all my other senses: the sound of the group’s breathing and the prissy little sniff that appeared to be habitual with Dawn, the lingering smell of the smoke from the burning sage of the smudge bundle . . . dammit, I’m wandering again . . . Robert MacNaughten, Robert MacNaughten . . .
What happened next is hard to describe. At last my busy mind shut down and it was as if the words Robert MacNaughten were being played on a continuous loop. I was conscious of nothing more than the fact that my breathing had become very slow and steady and I had the feeling of being connected to something – almost as if I were a conduit of some sort. There was a central core of empty space and my being was wrapped around it and I was cherishing it and protecting it even as the words Robert MacNaughten pulsed through that core and . . .
A cascade of sound erupted from the piano standing in the bay of the room, a glissando – if that was the word for a tumble of notes from high to low, as if the pianist had run his thumbnail along the piano keys -- and my eyes popped open and my head turned in the direction of the sound.
Again and again, an unseen hand made the instrument ring out. The notes crowded upon one another, deafening, maddening, till I felt that I would have to cover my ears but just as they seemed to reach an unbearable frenzy, Giles spoke.
“Robert, thank you for joining us. Xan is here. Will you speak with your brother? One note for yes, two for no.”
All eyes were turned toward the piano and I heard a muffled sob that must have come from Xan. “Rob,” he begged, “Rob, will you-”
A single plangent note rang out, reverberating in the stillness of the dim room.
Monday I went grocery shopping and yesterday and today I've been getting ready for Thursday's feast-- making chicken broth and cranberry sauce, stirring up a double batch of thyme and pumpkin dinner rolls and putting them in the refrigerator for a long slow rise, mixing up a big mold of my grandmother's cranberry, celery, and pecan gelatin salad . . .
The turkey -- from the grocery store, not one of the wild one we watched all summer -- is defrosting in the basement. I've made some smoked salmon and cream cheese spread to go with the Bloody Marys before the feast. I've even made some almond brittle to top the pumpkin chiffon pie I'll be making later today.
There'll just be seven or eight of us this year -- and as I work my way down the list of things to do, I think of a piece I wrote about five years ago. Apologies if you've read it before.
It's Not About the Food
It’s the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and I’m at the grocery store.The weather is cold and snowy and I’ve skipped painting class to get ready for Thursday.My shopping cart is piled high with raw ingredients – a 20 pound turkey, celery, onions, kale, cranberries, butter, whipping cream – okay, there are two bags of cornbread stuffing and several cans of pumpkin puree and chicken broth, but in my mind, these are raw ingredients.
In the checkout line, I study the tabloids; I have only the vaguest idea who Jen and Brad are so I turn my attention to the shopping cart ahead of me – paper plates, plastic cups, pre-made pie crusts, a can of lemon meringue filling (I mentally taste the artificial flavoring and my worst fears are confirmed as six jars of pale brown gravy slide down the belt.)There are two large bags of frozen broccoli florets and I silently congratulate the benighted shopper for not having succumbed to the lure of the canned green bean, mushroom soup, and canned fried onion casserole.But I am inwardly appalled at the idea of a Thanksgiving dinner with such uninspired ingredients.Then the cashier says to the tired-looking woman, whose groceries these are, “Big family Thanksgiving?”
A beautiful smile illuminates the weary shopper’s face.“Yes, we’ll all be together,” she replies softly, as though caressing each word.
Her happiness is transcendent and suddenly my perceptions swing around in a dizzying 180 degree shift.It’s not about the food.
My page proofs for book number six arrived! It appears They've decided to call the series The Full Circle Farm Mysteries.
I don't know -- it sounds kind of cozy to me. What do you think?
This is the last chance to catch mistakes. A professional proofreader is working on another copy -- nonetheless, some errors will probably slip by.
I'm working my way through, trying to read it word by word -- not easy for someone who tends to read very, very fast. Some people swear by reading their proofs backward -- the thought makes my brain hurt, Besides, I'm not just reading for typos and such; I'm making sure it sounds right.
SoI'm catching a few typos, changing a word here and there -- and now and then saying to myself, 'Dang, this is better than I remembered!'
No, I'm not still canning maters. But I was reminded of a story I've always loved -- and only heard the end of a few days ago when my friend Chick, who was also a friend of my mother and father, came to lunch.
The story, as I originally heard it, was that thirty-some years ago, long before I'd met Chick and when we had first moved to the farm, Chick encountered my mother at a party in Tampa.
Making small talk, she asked my mother about her daughter's move to the mountains. Many Tampa people had summer homes in NC -- perhaps ours was like that? . . .
"Oh, said my mother, no doubt rolling her eyes, "Vicki leads a very different life. . . (ominous pause) . . . she cans!"
Well, that much has always cracked me up. But now Chick has told me the rest of the story which seems, somehow, even funnier.
"But," protested Chick, who makes all sorts of lovely jellies and jams, "You know, I can . . "
Unmollified, my mother lifted an eyebrow. "Tomatoes?"she sniffed.
"Law, it's been many a year since the last of the family died . . . and there it sits. Got a good roof yet but the woods'll take it afore long . . .
"It was a young cousin from away heired it. Come by one summer, oh, a good many years back of this, and told Lawyer Morgan he aimed to 'renovate' the place. Folks saw the young feller - a nice-looking somebody, they said -- that first day carrying his plunder up the steps in the late afternoon."
"Several days went by afore anyone noticed they hadn't seen him no more. I believe it was old Miz Honeycutt down the branch who finally called the sheriff and said maybe someone had ought to take a look...
"Well, the feller's pickup was still there and all his things in it. Sheriff's deputy rapped on the house door and it swung open. . . law, he said that he went up and down in that house but nare sign of that feller did he find. Said they was a sleeping bag laid out on the bed and a shirt and britches folded up on a chair beside it . . .
"Signs of a struggle? Naw, not a bit of that. But that boy was gone, clean as a whistle. The deputy unzipped the sleeping bag looking to see was there blood or such but there weren't none -- just a undershirt and a pair of drawers laying there kindly collapsed -- like whoever had been wearing them had swivlled away to nothing. They never did find out what went with that feller. And don't no one go near that place any more . . . especially after after dark."
And a series of sky shots from Tuesday evening as I left the house around five to go to teach my class. The western sky was beautiful from our porch (there was even a brief rainbow from a passing shower), more intense down at the lower place where I switch from the Jeep to the little gas-efficient Honda Fit and quite spectacular by the time I hit the hard road at the end of our half mile driveway. (As always, click on a picture or on the slide show to biggify.)
Here's a nice idea that's been flung up on the Internet recently -- take your (or somebody else's) child to a bookstore on December 4th!
Let them pick out a book for immediate purchase . . . or make a wish list for the holidays . . . or perhaps, select books for giving to others.
I have fond memories of almost monthly visits to the book department of Maas Brothers -- a large department store in Tampa, Florida -- back in the Fiftiesand being allowed to purchase the latest Nancy Drew.How nice to be able to pass on a similar experience to a young reader!
This is a new idea, just getting started -- but what a wonderful gift for a child -- to be introduced to the joy of book owning and to the special thrill of being surrounded by books, any one of which might become a lifelong friend.