We asked the Agatha Award nominees in the Best Short Story Category the following question: what can you tell us about your title?
Art Taylor: “Better Days,” which appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, is the sequel to another story, “A Drowning at Snow’s Cut,” published in EQMM in 2011 and inspired by a boat trip that my dad and I had taken along the North Carolina coast. The father and son in these two stories are not my dad and me, I should stress, and “Better Days” wasn’t inspired by anything as specific as that boat trip. The title, however, is direct from my dad—a nod to something that he often said during tough times, about his confidence that there would indeed be better days ahead. “A Drowning at Snow’s Cut” was my dad’s favorite of my stories, but I never found out what he thought of “Better Days.” While I know he read the story, he died last June before we had a chance to discuss it—adding a sudden, unexpected poignancy to the title and the hope behind that phrase.
Barb Goffman: “Alex’s Choice” was originally called “A Bicycle Built for Woo-Woo.” I had been so proud of that title because the story involves a time-traveling bicycle so the pun worked perfectly. But, as was later pointed out to me, the title might make the story sound light, and this story is far more serious than that. So I eventually settled on “Alex’s Choice.” The story is about a twelve-year-old whose parents died in a terrible accident a decade before. That child now has the chance to go back in time to try to save them but is unexpectedly forced to make a choice that no one–let alone a child–should have to make. I expect the title will bring to mind the novel/movie Sophie’s Choice, which also involved a choice no one should have to make.
Cynthia Kuhn: One of the things I always love to discuss with students in classes is how their understanding of titles changed during their reading of a particular text. It’s fascinating to consider shifting perceptions of what at first seemed to be cut-and-dried. And that happens in the writing process, too. “The Blue Ribbon” occurred to me about halfway through the first draft and I put it in as a placeholder, thinking I’d replace it at the end of the process. However, as sometimes inexplicably happens, it began to shape the rest of the story on multiple levels, almost as though it were putting down roots.
Kaye George: The anthology was about those weird group names for animals. I had wanted to commit a crime with bees for a long time and found out that a group of bees is called a “grist” of bees. You’d think it would be a hive, right? Grist brought to mind grinding things up, and that helped with my story. This one was written for a set theme, which I like to do. I called it “A Grist of Bees” at first, but wanted to hold some of it back, figuring that most people don’t know that group name. So it became “Grist for the Mill.” I still tend to think of the other title first, but then I correct myself.
Shawn Reilly Simmons: I like titles that can have more than one meaning, and “The Last Word” fit perfectly for this story–which I came up with when I first sat down to write it. The setting is an upscale restaurant in New York where two old friends are sharing an elegant meal. The first is the chef-owner of the restaurant and the other his old friend from culinary school who is now a restaurant critic who has written a scathing review of his old friend’s establishment. I liked that the phrase “the last word” can mean the epitome of luxury or having the final say in a matter, and both definitions directly relate to my story.
Dear Readers, what are some of your favorite titles–of short stories or novels? What is it that you like about them? OR Do you have any questions for the nominees?