Friday, August 26, 2011

Having Fun, Raising Money for Charities, and Naming Names by Chris Grabenstein

Chris Grabenstein’s 4th book in his Anthony & Agatha award-winning Haunted Mystery series for middle grades readers, THE BLACK HEART CRYPT, was published this week by Random House. The third book in the series, THE SMOKY CORRIDOR, was recently released in paperback. His new caper series for young readers RILEY MACK AND THE OTHER KNOWN TROUBLEMAKERS will be published by HarperCollins this coming April. He also completed writing THE GREAT ESCAPE FROM MR. LEMONCELLO’S RIDICULOUSLY BRILLIANT LIBRARY for Random House Children’s Books, which is scheduled for a Fall 2012 publication.

His seventh mystery for adults in the Anthony Award-winning John Ceepak series, FUN HOUSE, will be published this May. To keep summer going into the fall and winter, he recently reduced the Kindle and Nook price of the first book in that series, TILT A WHIRL, to 99 cents for the month of August only.

His website is


Having Fun, Raising Money for Charities,
and Naming Names
Chris Grabenstein

When THE BLACK HEART CRYPT came out earlier this week readers got to meet a crypt full of thirteen evil-doers known as the Icklebys.

The book also features three cats named Pyewacket, Mystic, and Mister Cookiepants plus a cameo appearance by our hero’s classmate Sammie Smith.

And of course, the stars from the first three books in the Haunted Mystery series, Judy Magruder and Zack Jennings, are back for another spooky, funny, action-packed adventure. 

But where did they all get their names?

It’s one of the questions I get asked all the time, especially when I go on author visits to schools.

Which is exactly where the Icklebys got their name.

In those school visits, I have fun improvising a ghost story based on suggestions from the assembled students to teach about story structure, protagonists, and antagonists.   During one of those exercises, in front of an auditorium packed with 300 fifth and sixth graders, when I asked for a good name for a villain, one of the students shouted out, “Ickleby!”

I made up a fun ghost story featuring the evil Mr. Ickleby and made a mental note.  What a great name for a bad guy.  It has the rhythm of Nicholas Nickleby plus the ghoulish “Ick” factor!   The fifth grader who shouted out the suggestion, whose name I don’t know, is thanked in the book’s acknowledgments.

(BTW: For information about arranging a school visit, please check out this page of my website:

And the evilest Ickleby of them all is Barnabus Ickleby.  Because, as a kid, I watched a lot of Dark Shadows episodes on TV.

Sammie Smith?

She’s one of my loyal readers.  Her dad sent me this photo of her devouring THE SMOKY CORRIDOR, finishing it in one sitting on a flight from Seattle to Michigan.

Another source of names, especially for the minor characters and walk-ons, is my e-mailing list!

My hero, Zack Jennings, was named after two people.  One was a guy I knew at Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga, Tennessee -- Jack Jennings.  The other was a fellow editor on my college newspaper -- Zack Binkley.

I always thought Zack was the coolest name.  It was like Jack but just a bit edgier.  So I put the two together and came up with my young protagonist.  Recently, I was thrilled to learn that my nephew and his wife named their son Zach Grabenstein.   Even though they spelled the name wrong, I’m looking forward to Zach being old enough to read about Zack.

Which brings us to Judy Magruder.  She is based on my wife, J.J. Myers.  (Get it?  J.M.) In fact, for you adults, the story in THE CROSSROADS, the first book in this series, is, in a way, a love song for my second wife, J.J. 

She came into my life after my first wife had passed away from a four-year bout with cancer.  J.J. showed me that there might be a happy new life further up the road, if I had someone fun to share the next part of the ride.   That’s really what the book is all about; coming to a crossroads and, instead of calling it quits, moving ahead.  So now you all know our little secret.

This makes having J.J., who is a terrific voice-over performer, be the narrator on the audio books even more fun.  She’s reading a story about a character named Judy Magruder who is, actually, her!

Pyewacket, Mystic, and Mister Cookiepants came to the book via one of my favorite ways to find names: a charity auction.  J.J. volunteers with a local animal rescue group here in New York City called The Artemis Project.   When I realized that Zack’s three weird aunts needed cats, we held an on-line raffle to raise money for the charity. 

We charged ten dollars a virtual-ticket and then had our own rescued cats, Parker and Tiger Lilly, nudge names out of a big bowl.   We raised one thousand dollars and Pyewacket, Mystic, and Mister Cookiepants won eternal fame in the pages of the book!

Every once in a while, names are added and then changed to protect the guilty. 

The bully who beats up Zack in the first book, Kyle Snertz, was originally named something else: the name of the bully who, in sixth grade, used to beat me up in a very similar fashion.

The author when he was Zack's age and being picked on by bullies.

I was all set to finally, forty years later, have my revenge, a dish best served cold, or after forty years, frozen.

But then my mother called.

And told me that the real bully’s mother loved my books.  Read them all, two or three times.

I could not give this now elderly woman a heart attack by revealing her son’s wicked past.

And so, Kyle Snertz was born.

His name, I just made up because it sounded like a noise a pig might make rooting in the trough.  Snertz.


Chris Grabenstein said...

Thanks for inviting me to the blog today!

Athanasia said...

I enjoyed reading about the naming process. Pyewacket is the name of the cat in one of my very favorite movies, BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE. Oh my another year (almost) to wait for Danny and Cepak to return. But is will be worth it. In the meantime, I could check out you youth book series, I suppose.

Coco Ihle said...

Chris, you make reading so much fun! Love the names and how they came about. Can't wait to read about "me!"

June Shaw said...

Chris, you are always so funny. Thanks for sharing what goes on in your mind -- at least parts of it.

Patty said...

Just love all of your writing, Ceepak of course is my favorite but Zack and Judy are a lot of fun. Now you've gone and made me pre-order *another* series. You keep on writing and I'll keep on reading, although the middle-grade stories a a bit short for me, doesn't stop me from zooming through them!

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Chris, Thank you for being here!

you are always a joy and make just about anything seem like more fun I can only imagine how much fun these kids have when you show up in their classrooms.

I also had a kitty named Pywacket and oh my, she was a beauty. Solid black with a huge plumy tale which she was overly proud of. And I too named her after the cat in Bell, Book and Candle. I think it may be time to re-read the play.

Alice Duncan said...

Loved your blog, Chris. I read and loved THE CROSSROADS. Must catch up on the others. When's your next Ceepak book coming out, by the way? Love your Dickensian way with names, too :-)