Sunday, August 29, 2021

James R Benn on Road of Bones

 

LUCY BURDETTE: Today we welcome our friend James R Benn, the author of the acclaimed Billy Boyle series. He raises a question dear to all writers' hearts: What to call the darn book? Take it away Jim!

What's in a name? That which we call a rose,
By any other name would smell as sweet.

—William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (Act II Scene ii)



James R Benn: What’s in a name? That’s the question authors confront when choosing the title for their book. The truth is, any other name will not smell as sweet. No matter how good the writing between the covers, the title must grab the reader’s attention. A poorly chosen title—one that is perhaps clumsy or boring—can keep readers from cracking open the book. A title’s job, in my opinion, is to force a question. To stop the browsing reader in their tracks. To arouse their curiosity. 

For me, the title also has another job. It should reflect the theme of the book, to act as a constant reminder of the deeper thread of meaning I am weaving into the story. Some authors may not place so much emphasis on the title in their process. Some may pick the title after the manuscript is complete. But for me, it’s a symbol of what I’m writing about.

So, when I decided to set a Billy Boyle novel in the Soviet Union (thanks to Reed Farrell Coleman, but that’s another story), I began the search for a title as soon as I started my research.

It didn’t take long.

The R504 Kolyma Highway is a road through the Russian Far East, aka Siberia. It’s also known as the Road of Bones.

Title search complete. 

The road, most often called the Kolyma Route, is a gravel track, often covered in mud or ice. It was built by political prisoners during the Soviet Union's Stalinist era. Inmates of the Sevvostlag labor camp started the first stretch in 1932, and construction continued into the 1950s. The prisoners worked in horrifying conditions. Winter was long and bitterly cold, summer blisteringly hot, rampant with swarms of mosquitos. The Kolyma Route extends to Yakutsk, where the coldest temperature ever outside of Antarctica was recorded. 


As prisoners extended the roadway, it was used to bring in more prisoners to camps that comprised Stalin’s Gulag. The Kolyma Route stretches 1,260 miles through desolate, frozen wasteland, connecting Magadan on the Pacific Ocean to the city of Yakutsk, 280 miles south of the Arctic Circle. 





Why is it called the Road of Bones?

The roadway was built on permafrost. It is estimated that between a quarter million to one million slave laborers died in the process. Where to bury all those bodies? The Soviets solved the probably neatly, interring the corpses in the fabric of the road.

If the high estimate of the death toll is correct, that makes for 793 bodies per mile entombed within the Road of Bones.

As Joseph Stalin said, “Death solves all problems. No man, no problem.”



The Mask of Sorrow is a monument located on a hill above Magadan, Russia, commemorating the many prisoners who suffered and died in the Soviet forced labor system. 


Photo credit: Сергей Ковалев, via Wikimedia Commons.


There’s a recently freed Russian political prisoner in Road of Bones—the book, not the route—and his fear of being sent back to the camps is a driving force behind the story. The title helped to focus me on writing about the challenges of existence within the oppressive Communist system, and the chilling effect it had on Soviet citizens.


But wait. There’s more to the story. There’s a ghost. Or a ghostly woman, as The Siberian Times called her in 2018. Spotted at several locations at the southern terminus of the Road of Bones, she walks alone, refusing all offers of assistance, even in frigid winter weather. Her name may be Luidmila. She may be from Kazakhstan, and she may be headed for Kamchatka, a peninsula that extends into the Pacific Ocean. She’s been called a spirit of Siberia and the ghost of a prisoner who died on the road. Nothing is certain about her, so feel free to make up your own answer. 


That’s my story. Now tell me yours.

Everyone, what’s your favorite title?

Here’s my book title of the month. Hats off to Dennis Duncan and this brilliantly clever title:




Writers, how do you select your titles? Does it sound like I’m over-thinking all this, or does something here ring true?

Readers, does a unique or interesting title grab your attention? Or does this sound like a whole lot of folderol?




James R. Benn is the Dilys, Barry, and Sue Feder Historical Mystery award nominated author of the Billy Boyle WWII mysteries. He splits his time between the Connecticut shoreline and the west coast of Florida, with his wife, copyeditor Deborah Mandel.

About Road of Bones:

Billy Boyle is sent to the Soviet Union to conduct an investigation into a double murder. Teamed with a KGB agent, he has to navigate the dangerous currents of life in Stalinist Russia.

***In other business this week, Kevin Tipple is the winner of the Bouchercon anthology, This Time for Sure. Please email me raisleib at gmail dot com with your snail mail address.

***And Robin Coxon is the winner of A Time to Swill. Email Sherry with your snail mail address to arrange the drop! sherryharrisauthor at gmail dot com.

42 comments:

  1. James, the reason for the name for the Road of Bones is terribly sad, but this sounds like an exciting adventure for Billy Boyle . . . .
    Yes, unique titles certainly do grab my attention . . .

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  2. Titles can certainly grab my attention. I love a good pun, which is a good thing since I read so many cozies.

    Thanks for sharing the story behind your title. So much tragic history in the 20th Century. Unfortunately, the 20th Century wasn't unique in that regard. It's just so close to us that it seems more real, I guess.

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    1. Yes, we are close enough to the Second World War that everyone can make even the most tenuous of connections. It's just a generation or two away, and that does make it real. Thanks for dropping by!

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    2. Mark I am glad that someone likes puns but I am so over them, which is too bad because I'm sure I'm missing some good stories. In the beginning I thought they were so clever and now. Not so much.

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  3. Intriguing title, James. It make me want to know more, to read the book.

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    1. Then the title has done it's work! Thanks for dropping by, Finta.

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  4. Titles are the hardest part of writing. Mine often come from a phrase in the book itself and hopefully contain some insight into the theme and make the reader want to know more. As a reader, a catchy title does intrigue me and if it makes me want to know more - book sold.

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    1. Yes, it is tough. But when the right title comes along - boom! You know it.

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  5. I think a title is important but sometimes I have no idea what the words even mean so I am not tempted to read the book and discover them. Unless, however, the book is written by a favorite author, in which case I don't care what the title is.

    Is it true, as I have heard, that sometimes the publisher or someone else with the authority does not like the title the author wanted, the title the author had in his head for months? Then they insist on changing the title? That has to be hard I would think.

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    1. That has definitely happened to me, Judi! the marketing arm of publishers gets in mind what the brand of a series should be, along with what might catch potential readers' interest. I hope for the best, and object only if I really dislike a suggestion!

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    2. I have had one title changed, early in the series, and it's still my least favorite.

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    3. Curious now, Debs. Most of you titles are perfect!

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  6. I've been a huge fan of the Billy Boyle series since Book #1. The story behind your title is fascinating. And horrifying. And intriguing. Therefore a terrific title for a crime novel.

    On whether your publisher can change your title... that's reason #1001 why authors benefit when they have a good agent, because what the publisher can and can't do with your work is spelled out in the contract. (Authors usually know a lot less about contract negotiating than they do about titles.) Having said that, often publishers are pretty smart about book marketing and it behooves the author to listen before proclaiming NYET.

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  7. Ah, titles. One of my cozy series has the required puns (latest is No Grater Crime...), but I am terrible at punning! I crowdsource those. (And, sorry, Judi. It's just part of the territory.)

    Road of Bones is a stunning title, especially considering the facts. *shiver* I'm writing a historical mystery right now for which a title still hasn't come to me. Maybe that's why it's moving so slowly.

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  8. While a book's title might catch my eye as it sits on a store bookshelf, it is not the determining factor is whether or not I buy a book. As I've said a few times in the past, it is the story synopsis on the back of the book that will be the deciding factor for me to pick up a new/new-to-me author and their books.

    As for the Billy Boyle series, I'm sadly only a newcomer to the series having read the first two books in the series. However, I quite enjoyed both of them and have added the series to my list of those I want to catch up on. Book 3 (Blood Alone) is on my coffee table as I type this.

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    1. Thanks, Jay - Blood Alone is a good example of a title that jumped out at me. The book is set in Sicily, and while researching I came across Mussolini's dictum - Blood alone moves the wheels of history. Horrible, too true, and it was the perfect title for that book thematically.

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    2. Jim, all of you titles relate to the story. Jay, Blood Alone is one of my favorites.

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  9. The Road of Bones, just one more horrific reminder of man's capacity for inhumanity.

    Titles are important, and it amazes me how many good ones there are. Apt, catchy, and memorable. Not an easy task, but you certainly nailed it in this one, James.

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  10. For me, titles are the way for a book to get from the shelf into my hands. If the title doesn't grab me or intrigue me or amuse me, it's less likely for me to open the book to read a few sample pages. Like a headline in a newspaper, a book's title should make me want to know more, having given me a hint about the core of the story.

    It's fascinating to me that, when translated, a book's title can change radically. James: I wonder what your book's title might be in its Russian translation...

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    1. Mr. Google says: Doroga kostey - but I have no idea if that's right or not.

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  11. Road of Bones would catch my eye immediately, if I weren't already quite hooked on this series. It is ominous but also puzzling, an excellent reflection of the book. Another one that had that effect on me was She Ride Shotgun by Jordan Harper. Sounds like a crime. Sounds like tough guys. But..."she"? That is a surprise. And it was proved to be all of that and more.

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  12. On the subject of publishers changing titles - that only happened to me once. The debut novel in this series was originally A Strand of Corpses (taken from an eerie early Norse poem). Laura Hruska, the founder of Soho Press and my editor, took issue with it, basically calling it pretentious. We went back and forth and couldn't agree on anything. Finally she said, with more exasperation than inspiration, 'Why don't we just call it Billy Boyle?' "Fine" I said, just happy to be done with it. And she was right. It was the perfect title for the first book. And I got to put the poem in as an epigram.

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  13. Jim, OMG, this book is fabulous!I have been a fan since book 1 and I could not put it down! You make it so clear that Soviet citizens lived in such fear and terror of their own state, that it was the driving force behind all that they did. Congratulations on a truly great book!

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  14. Totally fascinating! I'm sending this to several friends who, I think, will be very interested.

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  15. Really looking forward to reading the latest Billy Boyle! Yes, the title is important. If the title doesn't grab my attention, the book cover had better take up the slack. In your case, both are stellar!

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  16. Now moving Billy Boyle to my TBR tower. Thank you for dropping in. I like evocative titles "snow falling on cedars" "come and find me" or "the sound of broken glass". Now Road of Bones invites a second glance. Children's book titles tend to be more concrete, no? Charlotte's Web, Peter Pan, Bunnicula, The very hungry caterpillar. Titles like these make it easier for a child to chooss, as the know what the book is about.

    Your history lesson about the Stalinist years was heart breaking. I am thankful you showed a memorial statue. I do wonder about the ghosts along the way.

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    1. Very perceptive point about children's titles.
      Although I wonder if we'll see The Little Girl in the Red Jacket anytime soon ;-)

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  17. Oh, I love this. Brilliant. Chilling. And you know I am such a fan.
    And the index title is perfect!
    I am easily wooed by a great title--I will be drawn right to it.
    I have recently loved the title "The Office of Historical Corrections" which is a novella and stories by Danielle Evans. It could be so funny--or so chilling.

    Congratulations! Cannot wait to read this! (and hugs to your wonderful wife!)

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    1. Okay, you got my attention with that title, Hank! Have to check it out. Thanks!

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  18. This title is so evocative, I would pick it up even if I didn't read this series. A title that grabbed my attention was The Left-handed Booksellers of London. Right away I wanted to know more.

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    1. I loved that title, too, Flora, and bought the book as soon as I saw it, without knowing anything about it. Loved the book, too!

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    2. Another great title. Oh boy, the TBR list is growing . . .

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  19. Shiver inducing title, fascinating story, Jim. I'm a big fan and can't wait to read this latest installment.

    Like you, I have to have a working title, and I spend a lot of time (maybe too much time!) trying to come up with the right one. I like them to be evocative, and to have more than one layer of meaning. Of course, then sometimes readers say, "Why on earth is it called that?"

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  20. Thank you, Deborah! Then there's the temporary working title, when you're not sure but have to call it something. I'm about to start a manuscript entitled 'Murder at Seaton Manor' but I know that's going to change.

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  21. James, the Billy Boyle series is in my top five series I want to read (and it's a long list). I keep thinking that this is the year I will be able to fit it into my books I review and start reading what I know are great stories. I so hope that the end of October or in November, I can at last begin the journey of Billy Boyle.

    Titles are important to me. From the deeply meaningful to the light alliterative, I'm a fan. And, the author that wins hands-down for titles is our own Hank Phillippi Ryan. My favorite titles are those which are thematic, and Hank's are thematic in more than one connection. Her titles always show the reader how the words can apply to multiple areas. The Wrong Girl, The Other Woman, The First to Lie, Truth Be Told, and more. I love the interweaving of her titles into the story.

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    1. Kathy, you are in for such a treat! This series is one of my absolute favorites! Be sure to tell us when you start to read them.

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  22. Yes, titles are definitely what catch my attention if the author is new to me. The reason for this road's name of sadly fascinating. The number of people who died - horrible.

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  23. Thanks to all who stopped by so far - and the great reading recommendations!

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  24. Titles are so important. I love this post, James. And Road of Bones for a title is genius!

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