Book Titles 101

Some people don’t realize that a book’s author doesn’t necessarily choose his/her book’s title. I’ve been fortunate thus far in that the titles I suggested for my first 4 books (The Impersonator, Silent Murders, Renting Silence, and Murder in Disguise) were accepted by my publishers. My luck ran out with my upcoming book, which is the first in a new series set in the Roaring Twenties.

The background of the new series is Chicago; the year is 1924. The main character is a young mother whose husband has just been killed in turf war between Al Capone’s Outfit and Dean O’Banion’s North Side Gang. The only way she finds to support herself is as a shill for a fraudulent medium, sitting a the seance table pretending to connect with her late husband so as to convince others that the mystic is genuine. The other part of her job involves researching the backgrounds of the mystic’s customers through wills, newspapers, gravestones, and gossip, finding out those little no-one-could-have-known-that details the mystic can use.

So . . . I thought a good title for this first-in-the-series would be THE SHILL.

My publisher disagreed. In their view, the word is not sufficiently familiar to readers. I’ve conducted an informal survey at every chance I get and I’m afraid the publisher is right. More than half of the people I ask recognize the word, but that isn’t really enough. How about you? Did you know it?

Imagine my surprise when yesterday’s Word of the Day from the Webster Dictionary folks was my word–SHILL. They list it as a verb, not as a noun, but acknowledge its use as a noun. Here’s their definition:

1 : to act as a decoy especially for a gambler or pitchman

2 : to act as a spokesperson or promoter

Someone who shills today may very well be employed to simply extol the wonders of legitimate products. But in the early 1900s, when the first uses of the verb shill were documented, it was more likely that anyone hired to shill was trying to con you into parting with some cash. Practitioners called shills did everything from faking big wins at casinos (to promote gambling) to pretending to buy tickets (to encourage people to see certain shows). Shill is thought to be a shortened form of shillaber, but etymologists have found no definitive evidence of where that longer term originated.

See the full website here:

So . . . we dropped THE SHILL and replaced it with THE MYSTIC’S ACCOMPLICE. What do you think?

I’ve finished working with the editor to make some minor changes, changes that make the story much better, I might add. Next comes the cover art, my favorite part of the publication process.

Published in: on October 12, 2020 at 10:05 am  Comments (3)  

New Roaring Twenties Series!

Last month I signed a contract with my publisher, Severn House, for the first two books of a new Roaring Twenties series. The first should appear in the spring. I’m working on the second right now.

I’m setting this series in Chicago. As always, I’m enjoying the research, learning details about the 1920s that I can incorporate into my story. When I was wondering about snow removal in the city during those years, I discovered a photo of a snowplow. And then I learned what happened to the snow–where did it go? Into trucks that dumped it into the Chicago River. Thus my short snapshot of life during the Twenties, where I write:

Yesterday’s fierce wind had died down but the morning temperature was surely below freezing. One of Chicago’s new snow loaders chugged its way along our street. . . “Where do you suppose they take all that snow?” I asked idly, not really expecting a reply. But Freddy, wise to life in the street, replied, “To the river. They dump it in there.”


Published in: on September 14, 2020 at 2:06 pm  Comments (4)  

Secret Flask Hidden in Plain Sight

Here’s something every Prohibition-era drinker needed: a hidden flask. The “book” title, L’Antique Soif de Lire” translates roughly to Antique (or Ancient) Thirst of Reading. Hide your liquor in plain sight among your books and look like an intellectual at the same time! One thing confuses me, though–if this flask was actually made in France, what’s the need for subterfuge when France never had any prohibition laws? If it was made in the USA, then why make a French title? Maybe so the joke wouldn’t be obvious to the majority of Americans who wouldn’t have been able to read French?

Published in: on June 13, 2020 at 7:46 am  Leave a Comment  
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Happy Prohibition Day!

One hundred years ago today, January 17, nation-wide prohibition went into effect in the United States. In some places, nothing changed, because state-wide prohibition was already in effect in some states, but for most states and cities, it was a HUGE cultural shift that resulted in a crime wave like nothing anyone had ever seen.

          Barrels of beer emptied into the sewer by authorities

People had a whole year’s notice to stock up before the big day. Many private clubs and wealthy people bought as much liquor, beer, and wine as they could afford or had room to store. The mother of Mary Pickford, silent film’s greatest star and one of the richest people in America, simplified matters when she just bought an entire liquor store and had the contents sent to her house. But most people couldn’t afford to do that. They were the ones who had to deal with the bootleggers, gangsters, international smugglers, and bathtub gin makers. Others looked for loopholes in the Volstead act that would let them get hold of liquor legally. What loopholes? Like the one for medicinal alcohol–all you needed was a compliant doctor to write you a prescription for whiskey.

So in honor of this day in history, I’m having a glass of red wine from our own winery, Valley Road Vineyards, in Afton, VA., thankful that I’m not breaking the law. Cheers!


Published in: on January 16, 2020 at 5:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

The 1920s vs the 2020s

When I give presentations about the Roaring Twenties, I can’t help but compare that decade to the present. There are so many, many similarities, it’s almost as if we are re-living that era. Now comes an editorial in the Richmond Times-Dispatch saying much the same thing. It’s not too long. have a look:

The 1920s are remembered as the Roaring Twenties. How will our ’20s be remembered? Guess we have to live through them first, but it’s worth looking back at the last decade with this name. Those ’20s turned out to be consequential years that still shape our lives today.

The 1920s began, as our own will, with a presidential campaign. The winning candidate that year promised a “return to normalcy” — a word that earned Warren Harding jeers from grammarians but a landslide victory from voters. We’ll see in November what version of “normalcy” today’s voters prefer.

That election was also the first in which women were allowed to vote; the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified just in time. In this year’s centennial of women’s suffrage, we now have a woman presiding as U.S. House Speaker — for the second time — and a woman four years ago received more votes for the presidency than her rival (just not enough electoral votes). When the General Assembly convenes Wednesday, we’ll see a record number of women in the state legislature —11 out of 40 in the state Senate and 30 out of 100 in the House of Delegates. Moreover, Virginia will see its first women (all Democrats) as House speaker (Eileen Filler-Corn of Fairfax), House majority leader (Charniele Herring of Alexandria) and chair of the Senate Finance Committee (Janet Howell of Fairfax).

Published in: on January 6, 2020 at 7:58 am  Leave a Comment  

Is Drinking Going Out of Style? Yes, says The Economist

In an article in The Economist special New Year issue for 2020, Slavea Chankova writes about the 100th anniversary of Prohibition and how drinking is changing. Read the entire interesting article here. 

“THE VOLSTEAD ACT to establish Prohibition in America, a ban on alcohol which lasted nearly 14 years, took effect in 1920. Now, a century later, it is seen as proof (as it were) that trying to ban drinking, when it is already popular, is not a good idea. Prohibition gave rise to organised crime, as mafia gangs made fortunes from bootlegging. Enforcement of the ban was feeble because it lacked popular support. According to one estimate, there were at least 20,000 illegal bars in New York City during Prohibition. When police in Denver raided a bar, they found the local congressman, the mayor and the sheriff having a drink.

Yet Prohibition is still around, and not just in the Muslim world. In America it exists in nearly 500 predominantly evangelical counties, including that of Lynchburg, Tennessee—the hometown of Jack Daniel’s whiskey (visitors to the distillery can take home a “commemorative” bottle of the stuff). Even so, in most places governments merely try to dissuade people from drinking by making alcohol more expensive through taxes, and restricting its sale and advertising. Such policies work. But drinking is now in decline for an unrelated reason: a shift in social norms among young people, which is charting a new future for alcohol.”

(Continue reading.) 

Published in: on December 21, 2019 at 8:56 am  Comments (1)  

Lecture Notes

I’m working on a talk about Prohibition that I’ve been asked to give next month, and in reviewing the literature, have come across some interesting tidbits I thought I’d share.

Everyone knows that liquor taxes provided the federal government (and some local ones) with an important percentage of their annual revenue. I had forgotten quite how much. During the decades after the Civil War, liquor taxes comprised between 30 and 40% of the federal government’s  revenue. That’s HUGE. No wonder politicians were reluctant to consider prohibiting alcohol manufacture and consumption–they’d be out of business. And what on earth would replace that money?

Published in: on September 2, 2019 at 9:17 am  Comments (1)  

Prohibition in Sweden

Skansen, Stockholm, Sweden

In America, we tend to think of Prohibition as an American phenomenon. When I was in Sweden last month, I learned the movement was strong in that country as well, and at the same time.

This is a picture of a Temperance Hall. I saw it in Skansen, which is a Colonial Williamsburg-sort of outdoor museum in Stockholm. Some of the buildings have been moved there from elsewhere in Sweden, and this was one of those.

According to the information I read, the movement heated up in Sweden in the mid-nineteenth century, which is about the same time it strengthened in the U.S. It never reach the stage of the legal prohibition of alcohol there–I suspect Swedes are a bit easier going in that regard than Americans, who tend to want to pass laws to make others conform to their own religious and moral preferences.

Anyway, Stockholm is a lovely city, the Swedes are gracious and hospitable, and I urge everyone to visit if they can!

Published in: on August 25, 2019 at 7:45 pm  Comments (1)  

Inheritance Powder

One of the murder “weapons” I use in my mysteries is arsenic. This popular poison has been used for centuries (remember the Borgias?) and before the development of forensic science, it was hard, or impossible, to detect, especially when it was administered gradually. Death from arsenic poisoning could look like flu, cholera, or heart disease. One thing helped detectives: arsenic slows down natural decomposition of the corpse so digging up a body and finding it well preserved was a good indication of arsenic poisoning. I use that one in my as yet unpublished mysteries, THE SHILL, when an over-eager nephew bumps off his rich uncle. No wonder the substance was nicknamed inheritance powder!

Lab Bottle & Watchglass of Powder.
As2O3 , Arsenic (III) Oxide, Reagent & Powder. The compound is a highly toxic, known carcinogen which, as the drug Trisenox, was FDA approved in 2000 for treatment of acute promyelocytic leukemia.

White arsenic was the preferred form; it was difficult to taste when mixed with food or beverages, particularly alcoholic ones, which plays into my plots in the Roaring Twenties when cocktails came of age.

But not all arsenic deaths were murder–some were suicide and others were purely accidental. Women used it cosmetically–advertisements assured people that the stuff was perfectly safe. Can’t imagine why anyone believed that, since every household would have had arsenic around for mice/rat control.  

Published in: on July 25, 2019 at 11:54 am  Leave a Comment  

Who was Lois Long?

Lois Long was only twenty-three when she started writing for the new magazine, the New Yorker. The Vassar-educated daughter of a Congregational minister, Lois must have horrified her parents with her wild flapper ways. The stereotypical “minister’s daughter,” she covered the city’s nightlife scene with its speakeasy lifestyle, mixed race crowds, drinking and dancing, and flappers. But she didn’t use her real name–she signed her columns “Lipstick”–so maybe Daddy never knew . . . I got some good tidbits for my novels from her writing: for example, her choice of words and slang and her descriptions of the customers and speakeasies.

Click here to see the excellent Ken Burns 7-minute film about Lois Lang that includes some of her biting commentary on New York speakeasies.

Published in: on July 7, 2019 at 4:40 pm  Comments (2)