What Was I Thinking?

Themes. I’m intrigued by themes in books. What fascinates me is how they creep into a story unconsciously, slowly. Someone once asked me about the themes in my stories. I hadn’t thought about it until then, but when I did I had to smack my forehead. How obvious. I write about mothers and motherhood in all of my books. Sabrina Salter,  the star of my Virgin Island series, was abandoned by her mother when she was a toddler. The loss haunts her in every book and will finally be resolved in the fourth book, Saltwater Wounds, coming out in June. 

Oh Danny Girl, coming out in March, is about a young lawyer, Danny,  whose mother becomes an attorney after being widowed. The mother becomes a junior associate working for her daughter, whose husband is found murdered, naked with another woman.The mother/daughter theme is central to the story. 

In another book I have in the works, the protagonist loses her young husband and baby daughter in a car accident, which she survives. Her survivor’s guilt gets her into situations central to the plot of the story.

 I could go on.

So what about you, my fellow Miss Demeanors? Do you have a theme in your writing, conscious or otherwise? If so, what is it? Or perhaps you’ve discovered a recurring theme and worked on resisting it. 

Catherine: Family is the recurring theme in all four of the NYPD Detective Chiara Corelli mysteries. Corelli is estranged from her parents, aunt and oldest sister because they consider being a detective men’s work and because she is a lesbian. Parker, her partner, was three when her mother was murdered and she has no idea who her father is. After her mother’s death she lived with her drug addicted aunt and then with her alcoholic, always drunk, grandmother. Her life changed when Jesse Isaacs, a young police officer, found her on the street and took her under his wing but when Jesse and Annie, his wife, tried to adopt her, her uncle, a US senator, intervened to get custody to protect his reputation. The family stories of the two detectives run through the series.

The theme of families comes into play through the victim’s stories and subplots, as well. For example in A Matter of Blood the victim was emotionally abused as a child and abused her children. In The Blood Runs Cold there’s a lot of discussion about fathers. In Message in the Blood, Corelli’s sister, Gianna, takes in three abused children and her family is featured. And in Legacy in the Blood, Parker deals a lot with her family and the two people she considers her parents..

None of this was conscious. It came out of the characters and the crimes I write about. And, of course, out of my subconscious. I’m Italian-American, like Corelli, and family is everything to Italians. 

You know, one of the many books on writing I read said not to worry about theme while you’re writing but to look for it once you have a manuscript. 

Sharon: I agree with that. Writing with the theme in mind makes a book feel stilted–you can see the writer forced the plot to support the theme.

Connie: I think there’s a difference between a conscious theme–something the author intends and plans–and an unconscious theme (or themes). Unconscious themes make their way into our work without our really being aware of them, at least at first. The conscious themes in all my books are overcoming loss and dealing with one’s past. The past is never really gone. It lives on to shape and give meaning to the present. This is true in the sense of culture and social history, but it’s just as true for individuals. We can’t change our past, but we can accept it and learn from it. Some of the unconscious themes I’ve discovered in my books as I’m writing are redemption, the triumph of good over evil, and learning to trust. Just yesterday I was thinking about my first novel, A Dream of Death, and realized for the first time the connection between the story of Bonnie Prince Charlie and one of the main characters–dreams that can never come true. That was actually kind of freaky, seeing something in my own work that I hadn’t realized was there.  

Sharon: I agree, Connie. I don’t think any writer sits down and says I’m going to write about this theme. They have a story in mind–a series of events and characters. But as we edit and polish, the theme emerges.

And I love stories about family relationships. It’s interesting how that theme plays out in so many different ways!

Connie: And family is such a rich source!

Tracee: I agree that so many of the themes emerge organically from the writing, while the ‘big theme’ maybe it’s sacrifice or redemption is part of the story from the beginning. I think it can be difficult to explain to readers how a book can be intricately plotted yet the actual writing reveals undercurrents . . . that then go in the next draft!

Emilya: Well, I guess I’m in the family camp too. My novels are about mothers of children who are in their teens and younger. I never write about fathers or from a father’s POV. My adult characters have no living parents or no relationships or contact with them. There are siblings and relationships between siblings, but I’m an only child, so that’s probably some kind of wish fulfillment. Or maybe me trying to write more relatable characters. 

My short stories are about men who can’t find a place for themselves in the world, and who end up either walking into danger knowingly or as a consequence of their misfit state. 

I also write a lot about crazy, obsessive love. I don’t know if all this makes a theme, but ultimately my characters are misfits who try very hard to do the best they can and end up in terrible situations because of that. 

Keenan: Alcoholism and recovery figured into my Maeve Malloy series significantly. All five books I’ve completed to date involve Irish-American culture, some more than others. The fourth book was about immigrants, nativism, labor exploitation, and unions. The fifth book was about #metoo in and out of the court system. 

Michele: Another forehead smack! Keenan, the Irish-American theme runs throughout most of my stories with the alcohol injected often, although not as often as it should be. Maybe my next question should be about themes we avoid. 

Sharon: My father always insisted we were Irish, but we weren’t! He was an alcoholic and suffered from PTSD from WWII. He was a nice alcoholic, BTW. He’d give you the shirt off his back when he’d been drinking. Anyway, it made me interested in the different ways people and families deal with alcoholism. 

The book about #metoo sounds intriguing. What is the title of that one? I fear for my daughter and my granddaughters, since it seems like as a nation we are turning back to treating women like lesser beings.  

Michele: Keenan, of course! I have that Irish American cu

Connie: Sharon, that’s so fascinating that your father insisted you were Irish when you weren’t! I’d like to know why! I’ve heard lots of stories about people discovering they weren’t what they’d been told. One branch of my family thought they were part Cherokee Indian. Their DNA showed they were actually part African-American. Another cousin of mine grew up in the Greek culture. Turns out she’s not Greek but Turkish (and they hated each other). My DNA shows I’m exactly what I thought I was–Scotch, Irish (father), Danish, and Norwegian (mother). 

Tracee: Greek and Turkish! Wow, a historic enmity. 

Sharon: My books also have a recurring theme of family, particularly the relationship between fathers and daughters. Fin Fleming’s father, Newton, left her behind when he divorced her mother. He made no effort to see her for more than twenty years, and despite the presence of her stepfather, Ray Russo–an ideal father figure–she feels unworthy and continually seeks approval. Now that Newton is back in her life, she has mixed feelings. She advances and retreats from their relationship, and she really misses Ray.

In the book I’m currently working on, Dark Tide, Fin discovers that she has cousins and living grandparents she never knew about. She gets really angry at both her parents for selfishly keeping her so isolated from family. As far as I can tell right now, this issue will never be completely resolved for her, but you never know what will show up on the page when you start writing.

Susan: This is such a great question. I’ve been thinking over books I’ve written, and I keep coming back to the themes of healing and reconciliation. The Fiction Class was about a woman trying to heal her relationship with her mother. Maggie Dove has been about healing from grief. The novel I’m working on now is about a woman trying to heal her fractured family. Of course the great thing about fiction is that you can heal things that you could not do in real life, but perhaps that’s why we read fiction.

Tracee: Swiss Vendetta ended with a variation of family and friendship that I hadn’t originally intended . . . the different kinds of loyalty and expectation and betrayal among those.

Dear readers and fellow writers, are there themes that resonate with you? Please share, here or on Twitter or Facebook.

​​​​C. Michele Dorsey is the author of the Sabrina Salter series, including No Virgin Island, Permanent Sunset, and Tropical Depression. Michele is a lawyer, mediator, former adjunct law professor and nurse, who didn’t know she could be a writer when she grew up. Now that she does, Michele writes constantly, whether on St John, outer Cape Cod, or anywhere within a mile of the ocean.  

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