Nostalgia City Mysteries

By Mark S. Bacon

Category Archives: book titles

‘Hearts of the Missing’ and the Tony Hillerman Prize

0

By Carol Potenza, guest writer

During late March of 2017, I received a call from an unknown New York area code. I answered with a wary hello and a woman introduced herself as an editor for St. Martin’s Press. She asked me if I’d remembered entering my manuscript into the Tony Hillerman Prize earlier that year. Then she asked me if I was sitting down. My book had won the prize over seventy-five other submissions.

Hearts of the Missing was released on December 4, and is the first of what I hope will be a series of mysteries with sleuth and protagonist, Sgt. Nicky Matthews, a law enforcement officer on the fictional Tsiba’ashi D’yini Pueblo in central New Mexico. Winning this prize has changed my life, but I’m actually not here to discuss that because it’s a given. I want to talk about what the Tony Hillerman Prize is and why it should be a top priority for writers unpublished in the mystery genre.

Tony Hillerman (1925-2008) was the author of 18 mysteries set in the Southwest. The first of these books, The Blessing Way, was published in 1972, and the final book, The Shape Shifter, in 2006. So popular were his books and beloved his characters, that for years after his death people would ask his daughter, Anne Hillerman, if there was just one more manuscript—maybe in a drawer somewhere—he’d left to be published posthumously. What a legacy. Hillerman’s mysteries feature Navajo police officers Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Sgt. Jim Chee with the Navajo Nation as his setting. Hillerman’s books have won or been nominated for awards like the Edgar (Dance Hall of the Dead, 1974), the National Book Award (Listening Woman, 1980), the Spur Award (Skinwalkers, 1987), and a Nero (Coyote Waits, 1990). Many of his books have been adapted into movies and for TV.

The Tony Hillerman Prize for the Best First Mystery set in the Southwest is sponsored by Macmillan Publishing and the Western Writers of America and honors the spirit of the Hillerman mysteries. Full-length manuscript submissions are due early in January every year (for 2019, January 2). The winner receives a single book publishing contract with an advance of $10,000, no agent necessary. Two major stipulations need to be followed. (1) The story’s primary setting must be in the Southwest and include one or more of the following states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and/or Utah. (2) The winner can’t have published in the mystery genre. Since first awarded in 2007, eight prizes have been given and eight novels bearing the Tony Hillerman Prize seal have been published. To maintain a high standard of quality, some years the prize is not awarded.

Tony Hillerman Prize Winners

Christine Barber: The Replacement Child (2007)
Roy Chaney: The Ragged End of Nowhere (2008)
Tricia Field: The Territory (2010)
Andrew Hunt: City of Saints (2011)
CB McKenzie: Bad Country (2013)
John Fortunato: Dark Reservations (2014)
Kevin Wolf: The Homeplace (2015)
Carol Potenza: Hearts of the Missing (2017)

So mystery writers, polish up your best novel set in the Southwest and submit to the Hillerman Prize. Most of the winners have gone on to publish more books. That’s what I hope for my future.

———-

Hearts of the Missing is Carol Potenza’s debut novel.  She teaches biochemistry at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. Before teaching became a full-time position, she conducted plant genetic engineering research, also at NMSU, and worked briefly on the Jornada Experimental Range north of town and at a drug-testing lab.

She loves the desert Southwest and the beauty of New Mexico is the inspiration for her books.  She and her husband whose family has lived in the state for generations have traveled throughout New Mexico from the ancient pueblos of Bandelier National Monument to the Lincoln County Courthouse where Billy the Kid escaped by murdering two deputies, from the Plaza in Santa Fe to the depths of Carlsbad Caverns.

A kill switch by any other name: How about ‘Gone with the Wind’?

3

Coming up with an appealing, intriguing title for a book can be a daunting task.  Years ago when I sold my first book—on business writing—I worked hard to create a clever title.  My publisher changed it. 

The expression about judging a book by its cover, and by extension its title, is a cliché because it’s what people do.  Think of the memorable books you’ve read and they probably had memorable titles.  Not always, but it helps.

When I was ready to send in the manuscript for my recently published mystery,  therefore, I threw myself into the work of creating a heart-stopping title.  Actually I’d been thinking about the title all the while I wrote the book, but now that it was finished, I brainstormed nonstop.  I also solicited help from writer friends, and Desert Kill Switch was the top choice.

Mostly out of curiosity, before I sent my manuscript to my publisher, I did a search for “kill switch” on Amazon.  I discovered that within the last four years no fewer than six mystery/suspense books have been released with the title Kill Switch or The Kill Switch, one from a famous New York Times best-selling author.

How can multiple new books have the same name?  Copyright protection does not extend to book titles.  I could have named my book Gone with the Wind.

Disappointed, I went back to brainstorming.   A friend and I came up with dozens of optional titles: Nostalgic Cars and Corpses, Desert Death Drive, Desert Death in High Gear, and on and on.  One of my favorite optional titles was Nostalgia City Road Kill.  Can you imagine, however, how many books have the words road kill in the title?

I took another look at the other six kill switch books. None seemed to talk about the kind of kill switch that’s the focus of my book. In fact, the words kill switch rarely appeared in the books. I was persuaded the other authors were not talking about the same kill switches I was.

So what is a kill switch?  In my book, it has to do with car sales.  A relatively small number of auto dealers in the US install GPS trackers and kill switches in the cars they sell to people they consider high-risk borrowers.  Here’s how it works:  Miss a payment, sometimes by as little as a few days, and the dealer throws a switch.  Your car is dead.  If you bring your loan current, you can drive again.  If you don’t, the dealer uses the GPS location and comes to get your car. No repo man needed.

I emphasize that a minority of dealers use kill switches, but news reports indicate that as many as two million cars on the road in the US are wired with the devices. 

These sinister-sounding mechanisms, and a dealer who uses them, are central to my book’s plot.  In addition, the book takes place across the arid landscape of Arizona and Nevada, hence, “Desert Kill Switch.”

I was ready to stick with Desert Kill Switch.  Until I thought about the word girl.

The suspense/mystery books Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train sold millions of copies and each quickly became a movie.  Maybe The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo started it, but regardless, girl has become popular in book titles. And not just a few, but dozens.

NPR recently explored the phenomenon. Crime novelist Megan Abbott told Morning Edition, “I have talked to other crime writers that have been urged by various professional people in their life to put the word girl in their title.”

Kill Switch Girl? Girl with a Kill Switch?

Maybe next time.

 

A thought on “A kill switch by any other name: How about ‘Gone with the Wind’?”

  1. Vanessa Shields
    I rather enjoy the title Desert Kill Switch – and I was fascinated when I learned what a kill switch – in the context of the story – actually was. Scary stuff. And that lent itself to ‘thrilling’ parts of Desert Kill Switch. I’ve read a few of the ‘girl-in-the-title’ books…and, I am definitely NOT moved to grab a book because the word ‘girl’ is in the title. Funnily enough – there are never ‘girls’ in the stories – but women – grown-up, killer ‘women’ or what have you. Huh. Book titles are wild animals in the jungle that is marketing for books. I think you made the right decisions, Mark! Now…if your title was Dessert Kill Switch…

    Like

  2. Troy Del Rio  9:33 a.m.      The Girl with her hand on the kill Switch.
%d bloggers like this: