Three Little Words
It took me roughly 10 months to write the 100,000-plus words that make up my 8th novel. This was followed by a month of revisions and, most recently, an intensive copy-edit, so it's closing in on a year of work, which variously strikes me as way too little and way too much. (On the one hand, anyone who writes a book a year is invariably accused of "cranking" them out, as if we're just passing some non-toxic modeling clay through our little Play-Doh Fun Factories. On the other hand, some very fine writers produce multiple books in a year, making the rest of us feel like pikers.)
But the last three words were by far the hardest -- the title. I am not, by any generous assessment, adept at titles. A few titles have come easily, but they've usually been coined by someone else. (Charm City, the richly ironic Baltimore nickname whose origins remain somewhat mysterious, and In a Strange City, supplied by one E. A. Poe.) The most accurate title would be "What's on Laura's Mind," followed by the year, sort of like the annual collections of O'Henry short stories.
The work-in-progress began life in a folder marked "Replacement Babies." No, I never intended to call the book that -- in fact, the ugly phrase appears only once in the final version. But it was a phrase that helped shape my thinking about the book, a coarse comment derived from the rather heartless sentiments I had heard expressed about and to parents who had lost a young child: Just have another. As if the dead child were a consumer good, or a helping of dessert. Take two, they're small!
This title eventually metamorphosed into Missing Children, two words that appeared in the text, although separated by a colon. ("And yet Helen had detected a dark, Grimm-like aspect [to the neighborhood], although it had taken her a while to diagnose exactly what was wrong, what was missing: children.") The title made perfect sense -- to me. But then I had the advantage of having read the book. I was gently reminded that, for better or worse, the title comes first for most readers.
I began reading compulsively, looking for titles that centered on children, then on mothers and daughters. It was while I was tracking down a quote about daughters that I ran across this passage in Ecclesiastes:
Every secret thing -- whether good or evil. That hit the nail on the head. For this is a book filled with secrets, but most of them were kept for reasons that had little to do with fear or punishment or recrimination. It is a story where people often withheld information, or disguised their intentions, but believed themselves to be in the right. A little research on Google established that the title had been used before, most notably for Patricia Hearst's memoir. But I've long learned that original titles are hard to come by. Baltimore Blues has an out-of-print cousin, as I learned after it was published, and In Big Trouble made its way into the world the same month as Dave Barry's Big Trouble, a coincidence that made for one close call at Kate's Mystery Book Store.
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man.
For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.
And so, the end of the matter, all has been heard. Every Secret Thing will be published this fall by Morrow. I'm busy on my next book, in which Tess Monaghan returns. For now, the early pages are stored on my desktop, in a folder labeled: "Number Nine." Catchy, don't you think?
READING UPDATE: I haven't purchased a book for myself yet. That said, I managed to read Samaritan, by borrowing a friend's copy, and survived a long wait in Chicago's Midway Airport when I decided that my acquaintance with Lawrence Block entitled me to buy Hope to Die. Always good to be in Matt Scudder's company again. And once I had Hope to Die, how could I pass up Small Town? Peter Robinson is a friend, so I have a copy of his latest waiting for me at Partners & Crime. I also have been reading a raft of library books on Judaism, the immigration of Soviet Jews, the history of Baltimore's Jewish community and organized crime. Currently reading Blue Shoe by Anne Lamott. (Purchased last fall before the ban.)