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Monday, 2 February 2015

Writing – playing with words

Words are what we writers work with, so it’s perhaps understandable that sometimes we like to play with them.

As an editor and sub-editor of periodicals, I used to strive to provide amusing or playful article titles. Often they’d be puns, sometimes simply a play on words relating to the subject. Some writers have an affinity for this kind of thing, others haven’t (thank heavens, say some editors, I’m sure!)

A long time ago, there appeared a short story in the UK short story magazine Argosy that has lingered with me, though I forget the title. Written by Anthony Grey, it was about a sub-editor who constantly thought in a clipped newspaper-heading style, often with puns; a living nightmare. Grey was perhaps the first modern international hostage. He was covering the Cultural Revolution in China for Reuters when many Red Guards invaded his house and dragged him out. They hanged his cat in front of him and shouted ‘Hang Grey!’ He was imprisoned in the basement of his own house for 27 months, 1967-1969, and then released back to the UK. He worked in television and has published twelve novels (among them, Saigon, The Chinese Assassin, and Peking) and three nonfiction books, the latest of these being The Hostage Handbook (2009) based on diaries he wrote during his ordeal in the 1960s.

I carry over this penchant for word-play into my fiction. All of my Leon Cazador stories have two-word titles, and most of them signify more than what appears, besides a crime.

My latest Cazador work in progress is entitled ‘Golf Lynx’ – and yes, it has something to do with a golf course, an Iberian lynx or two, and more.

Here are a few titles from the collection Spanish Eye:

‘Night Fishing’ is not only about that occupation, but the fishing of criminals.

‘Grave Concerns’ is about the exhumation of the dead from the Spanish Civil War.

‘Fair Cop’ is not only about a fair-haired cop, but relates somebody being arrested.

‘Bitter Almonds’ is not about a poisoning but about an almond grove and arsonists.

‘Tragic Roundabout’ is a play on the children’s TV series, concerning traffic roundabouts.

‘Big Noise’ is about the damage to hearing in the second-loudest country in the world.

‘Burning Issue’ is not only about a building on fire, but a client’s progeny being trapped.

‘Cry Wolf’ is about wolves in Spain, with a twist.

‘Prickly Pair’ plays with the ubiquitous prickly pears and involves a larcenous couple; and here is the beginning of that story:

Prickly Pair

“Most members treat them with kid gloves.”

With great care, I held down the fruit with a fork, and using a sharp knife, I cut off both ends and made incisions lengthwise. Now I could peel the fruit with my fingers and not suffer the ignominy of being irritated by the sharp hairs impregnating my fingers. Prickly pears may be a delicacy, but you have to know how to treat them. Like people, really.

Milly, my eating companion, chuckled as she watched, her dark brown eyes glinting. Sensibly, she’d selected melon and Serrano. “Reminds me of our club’s chairman and his wife, the treasurer,” she said.

I swallowed and pricked up my ears. “How?”

“The Gambols—they’re a prickly pair. Most members treat them with kid gloves.”

* * *

So, to begin with, we see the prickly pear, a fruit of dubious taste. While eating them, one must take care not to get pricked. Hence my playful though hopefully subtle use of the phrase ‘pricked up my ears’. And of course the ungodly in this story happen to be a prickly pair, a couple called Gambol.

Caution, though: don’t force the puns or word-play. Let the words flow naturally. It can work well if it’s spouted by a character – as it does from Leon Cazador, since it’s his narrative – rather than in narrative description.

* * *

If you find Leon Cazador interesting, please consider buying the first collection of his cases, Spanish Eye, published by Crooked Cat, available as a paperback and an e-book.

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