Guest Chick: Greg Herren

I’m thrilled to welcome my New Orleans pal Greg Herren to what I hope will be the first of many Chicks posts. In addition to being incredibly fun and a great author, Greg is the Vice President of MWA – Mystery Writers of America. Go, Greg!

A Rose Is A Rose

Nothing makes me feel stranger than being on a panel of writers when the inevitable where do you get your ideas from question comes, from either the moderator or the audience. I generally sit there and listen to my co-panelists talk about all the wonderful and creative ways they find inspiration…and then it’s my turn, and I cringe a little because my honest answer is…well, it’s weird.

You see, I always start with a title. I know it sounds insane, but a title will come to mind, and once it’s there, my next thought after ooh, that would be a great title starts filling out the story from the title outwards.

My next book, which will be out this fall, began life as a short story called “Ruins”, that I wrote in college. It was based on a story my grandmother told me when I was a child—she told me many stories about the family history, and the history of the part of Alabama where I am from—and I always thought there was more there than a short story could do justice to. It was always in the back of my mind these past forty years or so (YIKES!); and I always knew I would turn it into a book. But I didn’t like “Ruins” as a title—besides, it’s already been used numerous times. So the idea continued floating around in my head, and every time I would be ready to start writing another book, I’d remember it, think, “Ruins is a bad title” and would file it away again somewhere in the back of my brain.

One day I was driving to work about three years ago and the song “If I Die Young” came on my car stereo and a lyric from the chorus resonated in my brain. As I continued on to the office, the story started forming in my head around that title—who the characters were, what all would happen, their relationships to each other—and even the opening sentence of the book: “Did you do this on purpose, or was it an accident?” When I got to work I opened a folder and started writing down notes as I remembered my thoughts and came up with new ones…but when I went to name the folder and typed out the new title…it still worked and I still liked it, but one of the words was wrong, so I changed it: Bury Me in Shadows. It was perfect; it set the tone and atmosphere the way I envisioned it, and other images came to me, inspirations from other sources—like a James Dickey poem about kudzu, and a line from The Haunting of Hill House. I added those to the folder so whenever I was stuck, I could remind myself of that precise feeling I was going for—even adding pictures of trees and forests covered in kudzu, creeks muddied with the red dirt of the region, towering pine forests, and even gravel country roads.

I know the title thing is weird—my colleagues inevitably look at me like I’ve grown a second head when I talk about it—and it even is evident in the two series I wrote. The Chanse MacLeod series titles were all Murder in the (insert location; over the years I used Rue Dauphine, Garden District, and Irish Channel to fill in the title) and the Scotty Bradley series titles were all alliterative, beginning with Bourbon Street Blues: Mardi Gras Mambo, Who Dat Whodunnit, Baton Rouge Bingo, and the most recent, Royal Street Reveillon.

I used to joke I would keep writing both series as long as I could come up titles for them—and I get Scotty title ideas all the time: Congo Square Conga, Redneck Riviera Rhumba, Cajun Country Canaille, Bayou State Boogie...I could literally go on for hours.

I also can’t write about characters unless I have the correct, fitting name for them—but that’s a story for a different blog post!

Readers, what kind of title draws you in? Do you have any favorites? Authors, what inspires your titles? And does a title ever inspire a book plot?

ABOUT GREG: GREG HERREN is the award winning author of over thirty novels and fifty short stories. He lives in New Orleans with his partner of 26 years.

ABOUT BURY ME IN SHADOWS: Bury Me in Shadows tells the story of Jake Chapman, who comes to rural Alabama after a bad break-up leads to an accidental overdose to stay with his dying grandmother–and starts uncovering family secrets that put his life in danger.


41 thoughts on “Guest Chick: Greg Herren

    1. Ellen here! I’m either dead on with a title or need massive amounts of help. I feel like there’s no middle ground. But for my Catering Hall Mystery series, I played around with puns on Mafia tropes. None survived as titles but they did give me story ideas.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I don’t know Greg, I find the answer fascinating!

    Like Art, titles are a struggle. My last book stayed “LH5” until I turned the last pages in to my critique group. Now it’s LIE DOWN WITH DOGS, but I’m not sure that title will make it to publication in 2022. We’ll see.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Ohmygosh, Greg! We’re simpatico! When I’m cogitating over a series, I don’t write a word until I can come up with at least 20 titles. I want to make sure any idea is sustainable for the long haul. And like you, that question about where authors get their ideas always baffles me. Where DON’T I get ideas?? I can read a 4-inch newspaper blurb and come up with a handful of story questions and what ifs. I can sit in an airport or restaurant or hotel lobby and make an entire backstory for someone with an interesting face sitting near me. I can take a mundane memory from my childhood and inject sparkly glitter to make my life much more interesting than it was. I honestly thought everyone did that until I mentioned it on a panel one time and found out what a weirdo I am! Of course, I’m proud of being a weirdo and bestow the moniker freely on those who please me.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. It’s funny, now that I’m thinking about it, I’ve realized that for my Mystery Writer’s mysteries, I’m also working in the cover image for story ideas and titles. I have chairs on each cover. FICTION CAN BE MURDER has a cozy reading chair. FOUL PLAY ON WORDS has a lot of action in a hotel so it has a chair from a hotel room. METAPHOR FOR MURDER has a pivotal scene around a firepit so it has an Adirondack chair on it. And, of course, I have a list of other types of chairs in my notes for future books!

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Hi Greg! Loved this post! I have two books in my series that I wrote to title, and I must say they were the easiest and most fun to write. And like Ellen, I’ve had several times when I needed massive amounts of help to get the right title. So glad to get a peek into your process! Thanks for sharing, and thanks, friend Chicks, for hosting Greg and his entertaining guest post!

    Liked by 4 people

  5. I always find it interesting to hear where ideas come from. In the little bit of writing I’ve done, I always struggle with titles, so the fact that you get your titles first really impresses me.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. WordPress is not allowing me to leave a comment, so I’m tagging onto you, Mark, to leave it as a reply.

      I’m now in the middle of brainstorming for a new book, so this post came at a fortuitous time, Greg. I do have a title, so this post provided great inspiration for how to come up with story ideas! Thanks! And thanks, too, for visiting the Chicks today!

      Liked by 4 people

  6. I knew your brain worked in wonderous ways….. I hear a sentence or a phrase and I’m off and running, but never a title. To me, titles are the hardest things to come up with ….though they usually end up coming from a sentence that works its way into the book. Very interesting post.

    Liked by 4 people

  7. What a fascinating post, Greg! I don’t believe I’ve ever started with just a title, but I think it’s so wonderful when others do. (However, I did once have a dictionary definition that inspired a whole story.)

    Although I like stellar covers, I admit that I’m kind of a title seeker when browsing books. Great titles really do grab me!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Welcome, Greg! I’ve reached the point in my series where I either really struggle with a title or write the book around it. All of the titles are “[something] in Cherry Hills” (my fictional town), and after using up the most common ways for people to die (Murder, Poisoned, Strangled, etc.), I have to get more creative. As for character names, my last book had a repeat character from a few books ago, and I had her name wrong all the way up until almost the final draft. Thank goodness for search-and-replace!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I ended my Chanse series because the “Murder in the” was getting repetitive…and after seven books it seemed weird to do something else. I think there’s still some life in Chanse MacLeod though.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi Greg and thanks so much for visiting us. Love the title conversation…and love your titles!

    For my first series, I had a whole bunch of requirements, like the words had to be in a particular order (The ___ of ___ ) and had to invoke something academic and something crime-y and match the book focus too… it was a constant challenge! There was even one time the book was done and I didn’t have a title for it yet. So very stressful but when I deep dived into coming up with one, I ended up coming up with two, so I went into the next book with the title already determined and that felt great. Much prefer your method!

    Thanks too for serving as MWA vice president. So appreciate the work of you and your colleagues.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh, thank you! I keep waiting for them (MWA) to realize what a huge mistake they’ve made and replace me!

      I think out of all of my books the titles have changed maybe two or three times from what I originally called them when I started them–which was disappointing as I take great pride in titling my work!


  10. Greg! Welcome, and thanks so much for being here.

    FANTASTIC post! I love that titles inspire your books, and I puffy-heart-love great titles like yours.

    I can’t say that a title has inspired any of my plots, but opening (and closing) line ideas have. The trick is figuring out what happens in between!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Opening lines are really important to me, too! A couple of times I realized that despite how great that opening line was, it wasn’t the real starting place…which was dismaying!


  11. Greg, great post, and so nice to “meet” you. Sorry I am late to the party–not a very good first impression, I’m afraid. Coming up with a title first and brainstorming from there sounds like the perfect process to me. In fact, I am going to try it, because I have a title kicking around my mind and an assembled cast of n’er-do-wells–but no plot. Luckily, my title is vague, so I should have lots of options if I use your method. Thank you, Greg! And thanks also for visiting us at Chicks–hope you’ll make a return visit soon.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s