Once again, James Scott Bell has reeled me in to his topic du jour over at The Kill Zone. Today he waxed eloquent about the treacherous path from idea to story. Seems he had an idea for a full chapter some years ago, so he wrote it down. Then he set it aside as other projects commanded his attention. Eventually, though, he went back to it and extracted a novella from it. That brought to mind a similar experience of mine.

Approximately 25 years ago, a friend of mine said, “When I write my novel, I’m going to start off with this line: I moved into the Napoleon House on the day XXXXX died.” (I forget the guy’s name who died, but he was well-known around the Napoleon House in New Orleans) The line struck me as a good one. I loved the idea of tying a new-day-dawning event with someone’s death. I was well into my first novel at the time, but this line stayed with me.

Fast forward to 2009. I’m ready to start a new novel. I’m casting about for ideas. I know that, since I can’t really make up stories in advance, I’m going to have to wing it, as always, letting my characters tell the story while I merely write it down. That line, which had festered in the outer swamps of my memory, awaiting reclamation, finally showed itself and I jumped on it.

I changed it around a little, turning it into, “I got back to Key West on the day Aldo Ray died.”

Of course, I now had to add tens of thousands of additional words to complete that story, and I had no idea what those words would be, but the line got me going. I asked myself, “Who’s coming back to Key West, why is he coming back, and what’s the deal with Aldo Ray?” Ray was a movie actor from the 1950s, usually assigned to tough guy roles, so I took it from there and before you could say “Key West noir”, the book had taken flight.

Which brings me to the title.

I had actually completed the first draft without a title. I had absolutely no hints as to what this novel would be called. I was getting desperate and my title-idea well was virtually dry. Fortunately, I was playing professional poker at the time at Bellagio in Las Vegas and that would be my salvation.

In Las Vegas cardrooms, if a player wants a new deck, he/she requests it from the dealer. The dealer then calls out to the floorman for a setup, which is casino parlance for a little box containing two new decks of cards. One day, a player at my table made such a request and the dealer hollered out, “Setup on fourteen!”, since we were playing at table fourteen at the time. Something snapped inside me and I mentally transformed that to “Setup On Front Street, and I had my title.

I’m just glad we weren’t sitting at table five or something. I’d probably still be searching.

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  1. Joyce Ann

    Hmm. . .Never having played poker in a Las Vegas card room, I didn’t identify your intended meaning for “Setup.” I inferred “Setup” implied either the basic beverage in a mixed cocktail or deceptively manipulating someone into an unanticipated situation. Perhaps, a double entendre was intended. However, you are correct asserting a book’s title and the opening sentence should be an unyielding hook–the only chance for the proverbial “first impression.”

    You may have been reminded of this tonight during the jail cell scene in “Boardwalk Empire” as the only captive knowing “letters” obediently shared the opening line of David Copperfield–“Chapter 1: I was born” with his cell mates. I believe you have mentioned other great openers in previous posts. For example: “Call me Ishmael.”

    When anyone expresses distress about not knowing how to start writing (most recently research or scientific papers), I often pop-off my favorite opener: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” But, WOW, how often does that dynamite last line come to mind: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” (Dickens was cleverly “duplicating” to the end.” (Please see ttp:// Lines_from_Novels.pdf for a list of the 100 best last lines in novels.)

    [BTW: Do you think– “. . .planted” in the outer swamps (implying primordial) of my memory, awaiting “germination.”–seems different than “festered. . . .”? (To me, your version sounds painful and icky.)]

  2. Patti Abbott

    Titles are tough. As are last lines.

  3. Mike Dennis

    Last lines are the toughest of all, Patti.

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