Themes in Writing

When I was reorganizing my website(s) recently I used it as a chance to look over my books as a sort of body of work, rather than individual stories. (Does “body of work” sound a bit pompous? Oh well!) It was interesting to see some of the themes that I kept coming back to.

At the start, there was a lot of writing about death, and how it affects those left behind. The Dark Horse series, Shying AwayLost Treasure – different degrees of loss, but still, death was always there.

Then I seem to have gone through a bit of a ‘dealing with responsibility’ phase – it started with Beneath the Surface  and the conflict over doing your job vs. doing what’s right; phased into The Pawn and The Knight, with one character a reluctant leader while the other is learning to take responsibility for his own freedom; and then poor, overworked Joe and irresponsibly party-boy Mac in The Fall and Riding Tall, trying to find middle ground between the two extremes.

More recently? Past mistakes, and the consequences of those actions. Really, that’s been a pretty big theme in lots of my books, I guess. Dark Horse Danny isn’t exactly ashamed of his past, but he’s definitely affected by it. Same with Quinn in Shying Away, and Nick and Alex in Poor Little Rich Boy. But lately it seems like that theme has been coming to the surface more, and the mistakes made have been more public. In Mark of Cain, Lucas is just getting out of jail after killing a man, for god’s sake – hard to find a bigger mistake than that! Chasing the Dragon and In Too Deep also have characters who operated on the wrong side of the law for a while (a bonus ‘prostitution’ theme!) and who have to come to terms with that. And in the Cate Cameron book I’m currently editing (the second in the Lake Sullivan series) I’ve got a character getting out of jail after ten ears. He’s just a secondary character, but I think his situation gives the book a lot of heart.

Anyway, the interesting thing, to me, is seeing the triggers for all this in my own non-writing life. The death theme came from losing someone close to me. The ‘dealing with responsibility’ part is a bit harder to track, but I’m pretty sure it was just me settling into the daily grind of adult life, realizing that this is it for the next few decades until I retire. Not exactly dramatic, but pretty real.

And the imprisonment theme?

I’ve mentioned this before, I think, but it still strikes me as… I don’t know. As weird, I guess, but weird in a good way.

I’m Canadian. I grew up with the Tragically Hip. I’m not a huge fan, but they’re part of my culture and I’ve heard most of their big songs probably a hundred times. But a couple years ago, I was in the grocery store (I can still remember that I was pushing my cart through one of the middle aisles) and Thirty-Eight Years Old came on the piped-in music and I started bawling. I mean, it’s excellent writing, obviously: no extra words, every line doing its job perfectly. But the story it tells? The story itself is so awful and pointless and just a loss for everyone involved.

So, yeah, it got me thinking, but it also got me feeling. Which, in my world, is a pretty good combination for the start of a story! (Or, in this case, of quite a few stories).

Am I done with that theme, yet? Not sure. My current WIP definitely has a lot of past mistakes in it, but I’m hoping I can keep the characters out of jail. We’ll see how that goes…

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