The Tell-Tale Title — Guest Maya Corrigan

Thank you, Sherry, for hosting me on the Wicked Cozy Author blog. Though my Five-Ingredient Mysteries are set in a historic town along the Chesapeake Bay, the most recent one has a New England connection. Its title derives from a story about a murder, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” by Edgar Allan Poe, who was born in Boston and whose first book was published there. More about that book at the end of this post, but first I want to explain how the title, The Tell-Tale Tarte, was born and how it affected the tale.

For a work of literary fiction, you can choose any title you want. For a culinary mystery, your choices are constrained. Ideally, the title incorporates food and the suggestion of wrongdoing, crime, menace, or death. Puns are also common, though not essential, in culinary mystery titles.

With all those parameters, I obsess about titles. My extended family also gets involved. At Christmas Eve dinner a few years ago, they vied with each other to name my next book. Some good puns came out of the exercise but, alas, nothing that belonged on the cover of a culinary mystery. Many of their suggestions had the pun and the food but no hint of a crime: The Lambshank Redemption, The Merchant of Venison. In others, the element of violence was too strong for a cozy mystery: Chili Con Carnage.

I go through bouts of title brainstorming and keep a list of possible titles. I also have a list of subjects I want to explore in the series. After I’ve decided on a subject, I check my title list, hoping to find one that will match the book’s topic. As an example, for the second book in my series, I wanted to write about frauds against retirees, which matched well with the title, Scam Chowder. Then, of course, I had to make bowl of clam chowder an integral part of the plot.

The subject I planned to explore in my latest book was the possible exploitation of an aging famous author by those in the publishing industry who make money off him. The The Tell-Tale Tarte ended up touching on that situation, but another subject overshadowed it as I outlined the book. With its title, the book had to have something to do with Poe. He was a good fit for a mystery related to publishing. He struggled to get his work published and to earn enough from his writing to fend off starvation. The irony is that his first book, “Tamerlane and Other Poems By A Bostonian,” has become the Holy Grail of American book collecting, the most expensive rare book by an American author ever sold at auction. That book is mentioned on the plaque commemorating Poe’s birthplace in Boston. There are only a dozen known copies of it, and one of them figures in the plot of The Tell-Tale Tarte.

The event that embroils my sleuth, Val, and her grandfather in the search for a murderer occurs at a book club dinner party, when Val serves the French dessert, tarte Tatin. The book’s title didn’t affect just one scene or one plot point. The cast is made up of people inspired by Poe two hundred years after his death: the aging writer whose riffs on Poe’s stories are bestsellers; the author’s entourage, including his publicist and his writing protégé; an actor with a one-man Poe show; and a Poe scholar.

Coming up with a title that integrates well with a story is part of the publishing journey, and sometimes the title turns the story in an unexpected direction.

Readers: Have you ever picked up a book because the title grabbed you? Do you have a favorite title? Writers: is titling a book a challenge for you?

Maya (Mary Ann) Corrigan writes the Five-Ingredient Mysteries, By Cook or by Crook, Scam Chowder, and Final Fondue. In the 4th book of the series, The Tell-Tale Tarte, the search for the murderer of a Poe performer takes a café manager and her grandfather to a local “House of Usher” and to the graveyard where Poe is buried. Each book includes five suspects, five clues, and Granddad’s five-ingredient recipes. Before taking up a life of crime on the page, Maya taught university courses in writing, American literature, and detective fiction.


25 Thoughts

    1. An evocative title, and a book I should read. Thanks for commenting.

  1. I also have to crowd-source my cozy titles, Maya! The new book sounds fabulous. I wrote a short story that’s a riff on the “Tell-Tale Heart,” which came out in our anthology, Edgar Allan Cozy!

  2. Wonderful choice, Maya, and I laughed to imagine your whole family getting into the quest for the latest title! All the best with your clever series 🙂

    1. As Sheila says below, publishers know how to title. Thank you again for inviting me to Wicked Cozy Authors, Sherry!

  3. I’ve long since given up any investment in titles–out of 30+ books I think my various editors have accepted three. I assume a publisher knows what sells. But I’ve always loved punny titles. I’m sure you’ve noticed that when you mention the title at an event, people laugh. And then they remember it when they get to the bookstore!

    1. Congratulations on 30+ books! In only one of my five books was there any back-and-forth with my editor about the title.

  4. My favorite thing about the cozy genre is the puntastic title tie-ins to the stories. 🙂

    I’ve picked up a ton of books because the titles grabbed me but I could never pick a favorite one – there’s too many delightful, funny ones to narrow it down.

    Titling is something I’m great at … for other people. For myself, I struggle. Happily, my editor is a genius at them so no matter what crappy word combination I reluctantly slap on the manuscript because I couldn’t come up with anything better, she turns into a brilliant title.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Aimee. I know how much you enjoy punning. You’re right that punning for other people’s titles is easier than doing it for our own titles. Maybe we know too much about what we’ve written to encapsulate it in a few words.

  5. Titles are the bane of my existence. I usually go through three or four before one sticks. All my short story titles have gone without objection – I’ll see what happens if and when I ever get a novel published. 🙂

    1. Thanks for your comment, Liz. The titling ordeal is worse for a short story writer because it comes around more often than for a novel writer.

  6. I think all of those rejected titles are great, although I think Chili Con Carnage was used by Kylie Logan in her Chili Cook-Off Mystery series. Still, I’d pick up any of those titles you rejected.

    Then again, I’m a sucker for a good pun.

    I love the fact that you work hard to incorporate something from the title into your book. Sometimes, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Not that I complain too much since titling things is something I am horrible at.

    1. Hi Mark, Thanks for telling me about Kylie Logan’s title. I guess it IS a good cozy mystery title. Before I included the title in the blog post, I googled it and the first few pages of hits all related to a shoot-em-up video game, even an Amazon hit. I should have searched Amazon books for the title.

  7. I am so impressed with how much effort you put into matching the title with the book and incorporating the theme throughout the book. So often a title is catchy, but has little to do with the book. And the cover art is unrelated as well. The Tell-Tale Tart avoids all the pitfalls and certainly makes me want to read the book.

    I don’t have a favorite title, but I love the really cleaver puns.

    1. Hi Ginny, Thank you for your comment. I hope you enjoy the book. It was a lot of fun to write.

  8. I often pick up a book because of its title, Maya. So far most of my titles have been picked by my publsihers. Oftern they are some combination of titles I mentioned but rarely are they the exact one I submitted. I figure my job is mostly about what is between the covers and the publisher has experts to handle what is on the cover. At least tht is what I tell myself when I am having trouble thinking anything up!

  9. You have some great titles and covers, Jessie. Your publisher definitely knows what to put on the outside!

  10. I often pick books because of a title or a cover. Once I start a series, if I like it, I will read them all. So, if you keep those titles enticing, I will keep reading all your series. I have not read Tell Tale Tarte, but have read the others in this series. Scam Chowder, pulled me into this series.

Comments are closed.