Good day, book people. I’m a curious reader. I often wonder how publishing companies or authors come up with book covers. Who decided that illustrated (or as I like to call them, cartoon covers) were the way to go with some genres? How does the author choose the perfect name for each character? Who comes up with the title and what’s that process like? See, told you…curious! Fortunately, most authors will explain the inner workings of their minds and writing processes. Today, we’re fortunate enough to have Charles Salzberg, author of Canary in the Coal Mine return for a visit and he’ll be sharing his process for titling his books. I hope you’ll enjoy what he has to say, add Canary in the Coal Mine to your never-ending TBR list, and follow the tour to learn more about this book and author. Thank you, Mr. Salzberg, for taking the time to come back and share your insights into titling a book, I’ll now turn the blog over to you.
A Rose By Any Other Name
Every book requires a title. Sounds easy, right?
Not so fast. For me, titles are particularly difficult. On occasion, they come easy. But that occasion is very rare. Sometimes, I’m lucky and it comes to me before I start writing a book. Other times, it doesn’t come till I’m halfway into it. And still others, even when the book is finished, I’m not satisfied with the title.
Titles are a tricky thing because in many instances the title is essential because it’s what first appeals (or doesn’t) to prospective readers.
Years ago, I got an opportunity to meet one of my writing heroes, Bruce Jay Friedman. I first found Friedman’s work when I read what I consider his comic masterpiece, Stern, which came out about the same time as another favorite of mine, Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. Friedman eventually made it out to Hollywood where he wrote screenplays like Splash. I got a chance to chat with him about writing and the subject of titles came up, and he told me this story.
In the 1950s and early ’60s, many writers who came to New York, found themselves working at the so-called men’s magazines—don’t think Esquire, think much lower-brow than that. Friedman wound up editing one of those magazines and one of his writers was a fellow named Mario Puzo. At the time, Puzo was working on a novel about the Mafia. When he finished, he went to his friend (and boss) Friedman and asked him what he thought of the title of his new work: The Godfather. Friedman thought a moment, then shook his head and said, “No. I don’t think so. Too domestic.”
Obviously, Puzo ignored his advice.
Several years ago, I had a student Joel, who was writing a memoir about his experience in Israel. He grew up in Chicago, and for some reason, he idolized the Israeli army—it was probably because of the rescue they pulled off in Entebbe. Anyway, he eventually moved to New York City to make it as a comedian and he acquired an Israeli girlfriend. I don’t know if that had anything to do with it, but he decided to move to Israel. Once there, he tried to join the Israeli army. At first, he was turned down, because although he was Jewish, his mother had converted to the Jewish faith. Once it was established that she was converted by an orthodox rabbi, he was allowed to join. Alas, the Israeli army he idolized as a kid wasn’t the army he was experiencing. He was 25-years old, but most of his fellow soldiers were 18 or 19 and, think Keystone Kops, didn’t know their right from their left.
Ultimately, he made it through basic training and he was assigned to a tank parked on the Lebanese border. Their job was to look for Hezbollah, their arch enemies. There were three people in the tank. He was the spotter, there was a driver, and then there was the fellow who actually fired their artillery. One night, wearing night goggles, Joel spotted something moving in the distance. He yelled out, “Hezbollah!” and the fellow manning the artillery cranked it up. But before he could fire, Joel saw the figure sit down and start scratching itself. It wasn’t a Hezbollah, but a dog! “Stop! It’s a dog,” he screamed, but it was too late. The tank fired and I’m assuming that poor dog was obliterated.
Fast forward years later and Joel finished his memoir of those years and called it, The Unluckiest Dog in Lebanon, which I think was a great title. He got a publishing contract and one day in class he said to me, “they’re changing the title.” “Why,” I asked. “Because they say people will think it’s a book about dogs.” “You should only be so lucky, Joel,” I said. “Because dog books sell very well.” The title they changed it to was The 188th Crybaby Brigade, which I think is nowhere near as good.
My own history with titles is spotty. Sometimes, they come easily, sometimes not. Several years ago, I was working on a novel based on a true crime. A man murdered his wife, three kids, mother, and the family dog and then disappeared into thin air. I was having trouble finding a title but finally settled on Skin Deep. It was a title I was never happy with because it sounded to me like a bad porn film title. The book was finished and I was walking down the street, listening to my iPod when a Tom Waits song called Keep the “Devil in the Hole.” I stopped in my tracks. That’s how Devil in the Hole was born, which I think is a far better title.
Once my first novel, Swann’s Last Song, came out and I decided to make it into a series, I knew that all I had to do was somehow come up with something that had Swann in the title. Hence, Swann Dives In, Swann’s Lake of Despair, Swann’s Down, and Swann’s Way Out. After five in the series, I ran out of catchy titles using the word Swann, and so I shut down the series.
The title of my novel, Second Story Man, about a master burglar, came pretty easily. I liked it because not only is that what burglars are often called, but also because the book is told by three different characters, including the thief, thereby alluding to the “story” in the title.
My latest novel is Canary in the Coal Mine and unlike others, this one came pretty easily, because on the first page the protagonist, Pete Fortunato, wakes up with a bad taste in his mouth. This usually portends something bad which for me immediately translated into “canary in the coal mine” (miners used to send a canary into the mine shafts to make sure there were no poisonous gases. If the canary died, they knew not to go down there until it was cleaned up.)
On the other hand, I’m almost 20,000 words into my next novel and I still don’t have a title I’m happy with. ♦
Canary In the Coal Mine
by Charles Salzberg
April 18 – May 13, 2022 Virtual Book Tour
PI Pete Fortunato, half-Italian, half-Jewish, who suffers from anger management issues and insomnia, wakes up one morning with a bad taste in his mouth. This is never a good sign. Working out of a friend’s downtown real estate office, Fortunato, who spent a mysteriously short, forgettable stint as a cop in a small upstate New York town, lives from paycheck to paycheck. So, when a beautiful woman wants to hire him to find her husband, he doesn’t hesitate to say yes. Within a day, Fortunato finds the husband in the apartment of his client’s young, stud lover. He’s been shot once in the head. Case closed. But when his client’s check bounces, and a couple of Albanian gangsters show up outside his building and kidnap him, hoping he’ll lead them to a large sum of money supposedly stolen by the dead man, he begins to realize there’s a good chance he’s been set up to take the fall for the murder and the theft of the money.
In an attempt to get himself out of a jam, Fortunato winds up on a wild ride that takes him down to Texas where he searches for his client’s lover who he suspects has the money and holds the key to solving the murder.
Praise for Canary In the Coal Mine:
“Salzberg has hit it out of the park. Love the writing style, and the story really draws you in. As with Salzberg’s prior works, he has a knack for making his heroes real, which makes their jeopardy real, too. So, say hello to Pete Fortunato, a modern PI who thinks on his feet and has moves that read like the noir version of Midnight Run.”
—Tom Straw, author of the Richard Castle series (from the ABC show) and Buzz Killer
“Salzberg writes hardboiled prose from a gritty stream of conscious. Peter Fortunato is an old school PI to be reckoned with.”
—Sam Wiebe, award-winning author of Invisible Dead and Never Going Back
“Charles Salzberg’s Canary in the Coal Mine is everything a reader wants in a great crime novel, and then some. The rat-a-tat cadence of the noir masters, seamlessly blended with the contemporary sensibilities of an author thoroughly in control of his craft. I liked this book so much I read it twice. No kidding. It’s that good.”
—Baron R. Birtcher, multi-award winning and Los Angeles Times bestselling author
“Charles Salzberg has created a fantastic literary PI: Pete Fortunato. Rash, blunt and prone to violence, you can’t help but turn the page to see what Fortunato will do next. Canary in the Coal Mine is great!” —James O. Born, New York Times bestselling author
Published by: Down & Out Books
Publication Date: April 18, 2022
Number of Pages: 276
ISBN-10: 1643962515 (paperback)
ISBN-13: 9781643962511 (paperback)
ASIN: B09Q6418PX (Kindle edition)
Purchase Links #CommissionEarned: IndieBound.org | Amazon | Amazon Kindle | BookDepository.com | Bookshop.org | Down & Out Books
Charles Salzberg is a former magazine journalist and nonfiction book writer. His novels Swann’s Last Song (the first of the five Henry Swann novels) and Second Story Man were nominated for Shamus Awards and the latter was the winner of the Beverly Hills Book Award. Devil in the Hole was named one of the best crime novels of 2013 by Suspense Magazine. His work has also appeared in several anthologies as well as Mystery Tribune. He is a former professor of magazine at S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication at Syracuse University, and he teaches writing in New York City. He is one of the Founding Members of New York Writers Workshop, and is a member of the Board of PrisonWrites and formerly a board member for MWA-NY.
Catch Up With Charles:
Instagram – @CharlesSalzberg
Twitter – @CharlesSalzberg
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