Titles, the Torture Of

What makes a great title?

I suffered so much over my first title.

The hook in the first Maeve Malloy Mystery was the unexplained summertime deaths of homeless people. The thing is, if a homeless person survived an Alaskan winter, chances are they won’t die in the summer – much less one a week all summer long, as happened in 2009. Deaths of Homeless on the Rise as Anchorage Tries to Cope – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

The inspiration

With the title of Maeve #1, I wanted to highlight the unusual circumstances of the deaths.  In Anchorage we have 22 hours of daylight on summer solstice, June 21. Here’s a timelapse: https://youtu.be/vgB2XVG_S_o

I figured I’d name the book “Solstice Murder.” I was told the title wasn’t evocative enough.

So then I thought, maybe “Midsummer Murder.” Turns out it’s been done. Who knew? (I’m a huge fan of MM now.)

Series titles

I ultimately hit on Deadly Solution to highlight the multifactorial homeless problem and the lack of a public policy to address it. In the subsequent books, I kept up with the seasonal theme. Hemlock Needle begins on January 7, Orthodox Christmas. It’s about a young Yup’ik woman, a chief financial officer, who disappears during a blizzard. The title is a reference to the Native American myth about how Raven stole the sun.

Hell and High Water occurs during a “pineapple express” – the tail end of a hurricane that hits Alaska in late summer. It’s a country estate mystery, inspired by And There Were None, set at a tourist lodge on a remote island in Prince William Sound. Storm moves in. No one can leave. Bodies begin to drop. You get the drift.

I don’t know if they’re great titles, but they’re good enough titles, I suppose.

Help! Am still suffering

Am still writing and still suffering over my titles. Any and all comments are appreciated. Writers: how do you come up with a title. Readers: What kind of title makes you take a look?


Keenan Powell


Keenan Powell is the Agatha, Lefty, and Silver Falchion nominated author of the Maeve Malloy Mystery series, Deadly Solution, Hemlock Needle, Hell and High Water.

While still in high school, she was one of the illustrators of the original Dungeons and Dragons. Art seemed an impractical pursuit – not an heiress, wouldn’t marry well, hated teaching – so she went to law school instead. When not writing or practicing law, Keenan can be found oil painting, studying the Irish language, or hanging out with her friends at mystery conventions.

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  1. I try to connect the title with the theme.

    Except for the last one which I knew when I started writing, I’ve usually found them during or after writing the first draft.

    All my NYPD Detective Chiara Corelli mysteries include the word blood in the title which ties them together but limits my options.

  2. I like how James Ziskin did that in his Elly Stone series:

    Styx & Stone
    No Stone Unturned
    Stone Cold Dead
    Heart of Stone
    Cast the First Stone
    A Stone’s Throw
    Turn to Stone

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