Saturday, October 12, 2019

The Three Big Tasks


HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Catriona McPherson is so insanely perfect that I don’t even wanna take time away from letting you get to her post (but I will ) to tell you  how endlessly brilliant and fabulously wonderful and ridiculously talented she is and yes, I am totally gushing, punctuation be damned, because truly, she is a force of nature. Maybe she IS nature. Who knows. But she’s incredible, and her new book (more below) is thrilling and here’s how it all happened.
Part of it, at least.

Strangers at the Gate

Q: What’s in a name?
A: Everything. Literally everything.

There are three big naming tasks associated with any book. In ascending order of significance  and capacity to drive me crazy these are: naming the places (if I’ve made them up); naming the characters; naming the book.

Naming the book should be the easiest, because it’s the one I get help with – my agent, her staff, my UK editor, her staff, my US editor, her staff, the sales teams, the publicity departments, my friends, family, random strangers, and unsuspecting readers of blog posts (this is fair warning of what’s coming, okay?) – all get roped in. Also, it’s the one that’s not even up to me in the end. The book title isn’t a bit of the book; it’s a marketing tool for the book, and the thoughts of publishing professionals weigh heavier than the thoughts of a frazzled author who’s far too close and has never worked in marketing.

But that’s for later. The first and easiest (for me) task is naming places. There’s abundant help here, in the form of the Ordnance Survey Land Ranger maps of the real bit of Scotland I’m writing about (even if I’m putting a fictitious setting there). Because every hamlet, farm, hill, valley, trickle of water and bump in the grass throughout the UK has a name. And every one of these names is dutifully printed at one and a quarter inches to the mile.


Also, in the land of Drumnadrochit, Auchtermuchty, and Ecclefechan, no made-up name is implausible. That takes the pressure off marvelously.

So, in Strangers at the Gate, I’ve got: Simmerton – a town in a deep, dark valley that only gets sunshine in the height of summer (or “simmer” as it’s pronounced in Scots); Jerusalem – a house with its face turned (giro) to the sun (solem); Widdershins – a house not as unlucky as it sounds, because its name is nothing to do with walking anti-clockwise round a church but is rather a corruption of “widow’s portion”. In other words, it’s a dower house. And that gave me an idea for a cottage called Bairnspairt – literally ‘the child’s part’ – a house given to an heir under Scots Law.

So far, so low-stakes. Because it doesn’t even matter if the place names don’t resonate with readers. At least I don’t think so. After all, if I had set the book in a real place, as I sometimes do, I’d be stuck with whatever names I found there.

It’s a different matter with characters. I think the names of the people matter a great deal. They have to bring to mind the right era, the right social class, the right ethnicity, and beyond all that they have to “fit”. But why do they have to fit? Why should they? In real life, we get our names as tiny babies and don’t often change them no matter whether they suit us or not. I don’t know the answer to this, but I’m a slave to the truth of it, with multiple discarded character names and a finely-honed “global search and replace” habit.
(By the way, when changing a character’s name from Olive to Nora, watch out for scenes with pizza.)

So, in Strangers at the Gate, I’ve got: a young couple, Finnie and Paddy Lamb; Paddy’s mum, Elayne Lamb; Finnie’s parents, Eric and Mary Doyle; an elderly couple, Lovatt and Tuft Dudgeon; a single woman in her thirties, Shannon Mack; and a pair of retired church volunteers, Sonsie and Adam Webb.

What I don’t have are any Mcs and Macs. I always try to keep them down lower than they would be in real Scotland, because a novel populated by an authentic serving of MacToggles and McToories would be hard on the eye and the memory. (I might have gone too far this time, in cutting them out completely.)

As for the rest, Lovatt and Tuft are posh; Shannon isn’t. The Doyles are Roman Catholics of Irish descent; the Lambs could be, but not necessarily. Elayne, with her Y, has social pretensions. And Sonsie – it’s short for Sonia – is exactly the sort of woman who wouldn’t mind a pet-name drawn from a poem about a haggis.



I got very fond of them all. Which is just as well, because it stopped me paying back the advance, deleting the drafts and forgetting about them, instead of slogging my way to a title for the finished book.
While I wrote it, it was called The Cuts, after the very deep, very narrow, side valleys around Simmerton (and after some of the details of the murder). I loved that title. My propensity for typos was a worry – Can you imagine??? – but otherwise I loved it.

I was alone.

So the process started, trying to find the book a new name. A squad of us brainstormed and brainstormed and came up with:

The Cuts – still no
A Walk in Darkness – too generic
Take One Step – sounds like a recipe
Every Step You Take – Great! Oh wait. Wasn’t that a song?
A Step in Darkness – Didn’t we already-? Oh, that was “walk”. Well, no.
At The Edge of the Wood – sounds too similar to other books
In The Dark Of The Wood – sounds even more similar to other books
A Walk in Shadow – worse than a step in darkness
A Walk in The Shadow of The Valley of Death, Through a Wood – let’s take a break, eh?

Until finally, April, my US editor, came up – apparently out of nowhere – with Strangers at the Gate, and we all went “Oooooooh!”.




I hope the inside of the book makes everyone go “Ooooooooh!” too.

And if anyone reading this blog has a brainwave about a good title for a murder mystery set in Dundee, in Scotland, in 1937, concerning a Punch and Judy Show and a women’s magazine publisher, I’d be enormously grateful.  Because it’s that time again already and I got nothing.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  Ooooooooooh. 
This is so fascinating--and I so agree. I made up a town for Trust Me, a suburb of Boston called Linsdale. Because it seemed like linden trees, which are beautiful but don't they whisper mysteriously? And they are thin, and elegant, but vulnerable. (Don't tell me if I'm wrong, this is how I felt about it.) And dale because is sounds like a pretty place. (Cypressdale sounded made up.)
And when a main character in The Murder List was Gianna Delaney, she was a total lump. When she became Rachel North--well, watch out, sister. Attitude. Why does that happen?
Tell us a terrific name, title, or place--and one lucky commenter will win a Catriona book! 
 



CatrionaMcPherson is the national best-selling and multi-award-winning author of the Dandy Gilver series of preposterous detective stories, set in her native Scotland in the 1930s. She also writes darker contemporary suspense novels, of which STRANGERS AT THE GATE is the latest. Also, eight years after immigrating to the US and settling in California, Catriona began the Last Ditch series, written about a completely fictional Scottish woman who moves to a completely fictional west-coast college town.
Catriona is a member of MWA, CWA and SoA, and a proud lifetime member and former national president of Sisters in Crime, committed to advancing equity and inclusion for women, writers of colour, LGBTQ+ writers and writers with disability in the mystery community.






89 comments:

  1. Congratulations on your new book, Catronia.

    I’m always surprised when an author says that characters’ names are difficult . . . it’s not the sort of thing that you realize when you’re reading the book. Somehow they always seem just right . . . .

    My choice for a terrific character name . . . Melisande

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    1. , Oh yes, that was great! and I agree, when a name works, it’s just…their name, right?

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    2. Thank you, Joan. If you don't notice them. That means we got it right!

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  2. Catriona, perfect timing on this post. I started reading Strangers at the Gate last night (well, it was around an hour or so ago, and the day changed over), and I'm already saying Oooooooh. I think it will be an outstanding read for the Halloween season. I will try to come up with a name later today. Time to get some sleep now. Oh, and I love the book cover.

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    1. If a book keeps you up, that is a good sign! xx

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    2. I did miss this, Kathy. Thank you for trying again! Cx

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  3. I always loved the W. C. Fields character named Egbert Souse. Pronounced soo-say. And place names? How about all those villages in Midsomer County.

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    1. Egbert Souse pronounced Soosay? Love it. And yes to the English villages. My favourite real ones are London Apprentice (in Cornwall)and Bachelors Bump (in Essex).

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  4. A perfect post from a perfect person - I agree, Hank!

    I am so with you on character names, Catriona. Names have shapes and associations. I'm always hunting through cemeteries for my historical names. Orpha is my midwife's teacher, and in the latest manuscript Zerviah is a Cape Cod midwife (in 1889). Here are two men's names that were real ancestors of friends of mine: Hilarius and Adoniram. Just had to use them!

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    1. Oh, amazing! But there are lots of incredible original names in contemporary life, too, aren’t there? It must be fascinating to make sure your names are historically accurate…

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  5. Ode to a Cat-ri-oh-nah

    How do I love thee?
    Let me count the books ...
    Etc.

    I'm searching my poor head for the title of the Dandy Gilver book where the characters all had the same name. It must have been a poor year for auctioning off fame? I do love your names though, and I appreciated leaving out the Macs and Mcs. Otherwise it would be like reading some Russian novel, one where all the names sound alike and are unpronounceable.

    This morning I found a feather by my pillow. You do know I am marked for life by THE DAY SHE DIED.

    My suggestion for the next Dandy Gilver, the Punch and Judy one, is THE CROCODILE STOLE MY BABY!

    See you in Dallas in a couple of weeks.

    Love, Your favorite stalker

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    1. Hi Edith. Do you mean the nuns? Sister Something and Sister Something Else did my head in. Cxx

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    2. (That was Ann's comment, just to be clear!)

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    3. Not the nuns. The one about the family who owned a department store was it? All the women had the same name. I think.

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  6. congratulations Catriona! we're so glad to have you visiting. Tell us something about how it feels to write the lighter Dandy Gilver series compared with the darker books?

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    1. I can’t even believe her brain does it! Catriona, how do you switch over?

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    2. Honestly? It feels like a cool drink of water on a hot dusty day. For about three chapters . . .

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  7. Thanks for making me laugh, Catriona. The book sounds fabulous and I can't wait to get my hands on it.

    I agree with you on character names. I come up with what I think is the perfect one and my critique group says, "But it sounds too much like..." Charles Dickens came up with great character names. JK Rowling did the same. Severus Snape - it hisses right along like the snake that is the emblem of his House.

    Book titles? Impossible. I wish I could help you, but I often don't come up with my own until the book is almost finished.

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    1. I was at a book event yesterday, and a woman had me sign her book to Maeve O’Sullivan. What a perfect name! But it in a book, wouldn’t it sound to made up?

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    2. I've been trying to have a Tash for three books. I think I finally found her.

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  8. Congratulations Catriona! You are amazing and when I read your words, I read with hearing your voice.

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    1. Ha! I once said to a friend 'This one really isn't me at all" and she emailed me to say "You are a maniac. It's like you're sitting at my kitchen table telling me all this. It's hard not to offer your protagonist a cup of tea."

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  9. Catriona, I have to say, of the choices Strangers at the Gate hit it out of the ballpark for me too--and with that cover, I'd be reading the flap in a bookstore if I saw it!

    I'd have to give a tip of the hat to Jasper Fforde for best names ever for characters. Every once in a while, I'll read a book where the name of a character just seems wrong--and it throws off the whole book for me.

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    1. So agree. I have a doctor in real life… Her name is so wrong for her, that I really have trouble remembering it! Isn’t that so silly?

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    2. And that's exactly what a title needs to do! I am slowly learning not to say "But it doesn't fit the story" - it doesn't matter. Think of "Pillow Talk". WHY oh why oh why is not called "Party Line"? (Because PT is a better title, even if it doesn't fit the story.)

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  10. Fascinating about people/places naming. Yes, watch out for Search and Replace. I avoid names that could be syllables in non-offending words.

    LOVE the title. Did you talk about the layout on the cover?
    Strangers
    at
    the Gate

    vs

    Strangers
    at the
    Gate

    Also the different font size for the lines n the title?

    Curious minds...

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    1. I rarely notice cover art and layout, but I’m flipping terrified at THE GATE

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    2. Hallie, that would have driven me crazy. Even
      TRUST ME
      and
      TRUST
      ME
      are different, right?

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    3. RIGHT!
      The Gate - makes it sound like that's the name of a place. THE GATE

      When Gate is alone it sounds like a generic gate.

      That's if you're trying to be clever. And overthinking...

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    4. Oh my goodness. I'm so non-visual that there's a fair chance this image is a rough sketch from early in the design process. Hallie, I need to thank you. You've just delivered evidence that there's something in this life I don't over-react about. I'm going to tell my husband the news now.

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  11. Suggestion for the new book title:
    Broken Strings

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    1. Now that is a very interesting idea. It might not be the entire title but it's a broad smooth avenue of investigation. Thank you.

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  12. Hiya, Catriona! I'm very excited for this new book. Sad that I'll miss you in Dallas, though.

    I'm posting on the fly right now, but I'll share my acupuncturist's name: Carole Paine.

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    1. No! There's a Doctor Sprinkles at my place. I always wonder if he gets a lot of children.

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    2. My half-brother is a doctor. My maiden name is Holliday. So yes, he's Dr. Holliday

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    3. There was an actual dental practice in town -Payne and Payne.

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  13. Catriona, whoo hoo, just pre-ordered, so I will get to read it before B'con! I am so with you on the names. Why is one name right and another not? And in a series, after many books, you start running the risk of repeating yourself. Of course in real life I have at least ten friends named Carol, for instance, and many lovely Steves, etc., and it doesn't confuse me. But it would confuse the reader, sigh.

    Titles, however, are the worse, but you've got a great one with Strangers at the Gate. Goosebumps. I struggled and struggled with A Bitter Feast, but now I can't imagine it being called anything else.

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    1. Thank you, Deb. Jane Austen got away with a ton of Jameses and Roberts. But every time I try to name a son after a father my editor says nuh-uh.

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    2. I had an Ellie and a Meredith, and It drove me crazy. Too many e's. I made her Margaret, that worked.

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  14. Ooooooooh! Well, when I was a child I thought the name of the street we lived on was the coolest thing ever - Lollipop Lane! Could it get better than that? Can't wait to read the latest. Ooooooooh again!

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    1. There was a lot of tooth-sucking in my home village when the residents of the new houses drove through a name change from Cemetery Road to Ferrymuir Lane.

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  15. Congratulations on coming up with STRANGERS AT THE GATE, Catriona. Before I met you at Malice, the only other Catriona I knew of was the actress who plays Claire from Outlander.

    Speaking of names, I thought Dandy Gilver was a cool name.

    It is really interesting to come up with names for title, place and character. I love the creative names in Shakespeare stories. And the names in PG Wodehouse stories.

    For me, I like names that are easy to pronounce.

    Love the titles that Agatha Christie comes up with for different books. Some of the titles are borrowed from nursery rhymes.

    And I love maps in novels.

    Reading your post about coming up with a title reminded me of a conversation that I had during consultation with a literary agent at a writing conference. She reminded me that the title had been used in other books.

    When you look for a title, do you google to see if that title has been used before?

    Diana

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    1. I do, Diana. And I cross my fingers when I'm waiting for the results to load. I couldn't believe, a few years back, that there hadn't been a COME TO HARM. It sounds exactly like a Harlan Coben title. (But it's not. It's mine!)

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    2. Yes, I was SO happy when I came up with No Good Deed. But--already used, sigh. So it became Truth Be Told.

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  16. Book Title: Mystic Firth.
    Name: Beverley Wilton

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  17. Good Morning Catriona- I've preordered Strangers at the Gate! Then, in a (fruitless) effort to offer a title, I hit the wikipedia for the history of Punch and Judy then skipped over to Dundee, Scotland. Now my mind is spinning and I can't wait to see what you weave together. Thank you for writing. My little corner of the world is so much better for it!

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    1. And you agree? There's nothing. (Except see the comment above from Kay - BROKEN STIRNGS.) SOrry to have hijacked your morning and thank you for the order!

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  18. Titles are tough. some write themselves and some the editor and I were wracking our brains right down to the wire and I"m still asking myself if one was the best choice. Two books later! Yours is a great title because it provokes curiosity: who are those strangers? Friend or foe? And whose gate is it? And..and.. and...So yes, I'd pick it up off a bookstore display.Another recent title that impressed me is She Rides Shotgun. It suggests a lot in just three words and I wanted to know more immediately. I loved the whole post. Yes, character names are so important and I think it's fun to work out. Sure, IRL people don't choose their names, but still, they do evoke some reactions for the reader. (Can you write a tough woman named Bambi?) And they tell a whole lot about background of the character. Endicott Peabody (a real person) isn't going to be from the same family as Bubba Jones. Now, that book about 1937 and a woman's magazine and Punch and Judy? Cant' wait!

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    1. My friend found a Euphemia Clatchie in her family tree. I instantly purloined her! And my favourite title in recent years is WITCHES ON THE ROAD TONIGHT. Brrrr.

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  19. Your title is captivating. Congratulations! A title that I had in mind is Farewell Love.
    A name that caught my interest is Jackie Small.

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    1. Jackie Small is fab - I'm not even sure whay; which makes it even fabber.

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  20. Years ago we lived in the Western Reserve of Ohio. An elderly married parishioner had the perfect name of Arabella Gildersleeve.

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    1. Oh! I could absolutely have an Arabella Gildersleeve in my California books. Do I have your permission?

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    2. I’m sure Arabella is no longer with us, so why not?

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  21. Arrghh. I just got up and dressed and hung out with my parents for a bit and came into my study and - 35 comments! I love you JR people.

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  22. Hi Catriona: Welcome Back. I just ordered Strangers at the gate; hope it comes soon.
    Title for the new book. Seeing as Punch Magazine (British political satire) was around in 1937, How about Punch reads Punch? or Two holed Punch if a gun is involved.
    Names that are real that I like Thomas Citizen (Ellis Island worker was bored that day) Queen Elizabeth MacDonald; Drumlin,Grabben and Horst -- these are geological formations that I think would make great names for Dwarfs.

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  23. Punch magazine! Genius. And yes, those Ellis Island "Friday at quitting time" names. They must have been horrible at the time but they can be entertaining and/or amazing now. There's a guy at my bank called Chris Majestic for that reason.

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  24. Catriona, it looks like you might have missed my comment from early this morning, second one above, so I just wanted to repeat that I've just started Strangers at the Gate, and it has immediately grabbed me. It is such a perfect read for this time of year, with its spooky atmosphere. I wish I'd scheduled you to do something on my blog before or when the book comes out. If you have any Halloween stories from your youth floating around, send them my way, and I'll post it.

    Titles can be so intriguing. I love it when they absolutely resonate throughout the book. I have tried thinking about your Punch and Judy and lady magazine publisher book title, and it's combining the two that has me stumped. The Punch and Judy one brings Knock-out Punch to mind or just Knock Out. OK, adding the woman publisher, The Well-Read Knock-Out. Nah, but I'm working on it.

    And, I have to agree with you, Hank, that Catriona is an amazing force that I can quite picture as Mother Nature, but a good, kind one who brings only brilliance to our world.

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    1. I am emailing you with blog stuff! Thank you for the kinds words about the book.

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    2. Thank you so much, Catriona! You are amazing!

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  25. Replies
    1. See now I thought for ages and didn't come up with any punch puns at all. Thank you.

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  26. All you had to do was ask for examples and my brain froze!
    Oh well.

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    1. Exactly. When we all try together we go by the "no idea too lame" rule, but still sometimes everything seizes up.

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  27. One of my favorite mystery writers is Christopher Fowler with his Peculiar Crimes Unit, not least for the wonderful titles! The Memory of Blood is one from a few years back--about Punch and Judy puppets, among other things. I'm looking forward to your new stand alone!
    -Melanie

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    1. The Memory of Blood is a good one. I'm going back to the brainstorming team with Punch Drunk, Cut Strings, Knock-out Punch and That's the Way to XXXXX It - I don't know what the missing word is.

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  28. I've been in an internet holding pattern all day. Hope this goes through...

    I have a hard times with names, my dyslexic self keeps getting in the way. And my own name is either mispronounced and/or spelled incorrectly so often, that I really want to get other's name correct. There are some names in the family that no one seems to be interested, help yourself: 1)Gaskey Edris Cagle, 2) Desmond Roosveldt Isaacson. (Seems great granddad admired President Teddy but couldn't spell his name.) I have a second cousin named Dezerae - her mom used to call her Dezzy for short.
    Yup, those are really names in my family. Name for a place...hmm...how about Little Mouse? I have no idea where it came from but there it is.

    I haven't had the pleasure of meeting your books yet, Catriona, but I look forward to meeting them soon. Sounds like you'll be in Dallas, look forward to meeting you then.

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    1. Oh, those are all fabulous! Something about Little Mouse is so perfect, and Dezzy comes to life instantly. I would love to use that…

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    2. Little Mouse is a place I'd like to visit. But Dallas first!

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  29. Punch and Judy title: Whack-a-mole

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    1. Ummm, it might not quite hit that Golden Age tone, but it made me laugh!

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  30. Hank, this was lovely. Thank you for having me. I have passed on the title thoughts to the publisher and I'll let you all know what happens next. I'm looking forward to finding out who won the giveaway, but happy reading whatever you're reading, Cx

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