When I started writing mysteries, I subscribed to the wing-it method of plot and character development. I never gave more than a passing thought to theme. My rationale was that meaningful messages distilled from the story were for BIG novels, IMPORTANT books, CLASSIC literature, WEIGHTY tomes included on must-read lists.
I told myself that even though I might long to create a book on the order of _______ (insert title of your favorite classic here), the odds against that happening were higher than the national debt. But that didn’t mean that that I wouldn’t do all I could to craft a decent story. (Well, all I could do short of boiling down 100,000 words to extract the theme.)
That line of reasoning allowed me to skate. And I did—until those pesky writers in my critique group called my bluff and asked, “What’s the theme of this book? What’s the core message?”
Then skating turned into stumbling and stammering.
Still, I didn’t change my philosophy until I saw the light. Okay, to be honest, I wasn’t looking for that light. I more or less tripped over the lamp while writing No Substitute for Murder.
When I had a first line I didn’t hate too much (“The problem with getting your life back on track is that there’s usually another catastrophe hurtling down the rails to knock you off again.”), I realized I could use it to bracket and focus the story. Barbara Reed’s efforts to get her life back on track would unravel again and again. When she finally got back on the rails, she would be too cautious to celebrate.
That set me up for the sequel, No Substitute for Money. The pursuit of money—legal and illegal—is at the heart of the book, so I made that clear on the cover. The pursuit of a “perfect” life is another aspect of that theme. Because expressing the concept at the start kept me “honest” while writing the first book, I did it again. (“The problem with perfection is that the definition is open to interpretation . . . perfection is often temporary, transitory, and untrustworthy.”)
As I wrote, I noticed that nailing down the theme helped me develop characters and subplots. Having a theme made the road to the final page seem straighter and smoother. And it meant that when I finished and started revising—something I do only after putting the book aside for three months—there were fewer bits of business that didn’t seem to work and far less fat to trim.
I was hooked.
I started work on No Substitute for Maturity with a sketch of the cover. I wanted it to illustrate that everyone has a different take on what it means to be a grown-up. I began the story with Barb’s thoughts about baggage that makes it difficult to do what it takes to be mature—“emotional and psychological cargo like attitudes, opinions, expectations,preconceptions, preferences, and prejudices.”
Throughout the story, Barb wrestles with the definition of maturity. Is it based on little things like not drinking out of the juice carton? Is it founded on big things like learning to accept what you can’t change? Taking responsibility? Mastering self-discipline? Keeping your mouth shut?
Those questions became the breadcrumbs that led me out of the “undergrowth” in the middle of the book and to a conclusion that echoed the theme of maturity—in a childish kind of way. After all, being an adult doesn’t mean you can’t have fun.
And being hooked on theme doesn’t mean that I have to write deep, important, serious books. Which is a huge relief because I’ve been thinking that the next book in the Subbing isn’t for Sissies series may feature Bigfoot.
Carolyn J. Rose is the author of the Subbing isn’t for Sissies series (No Substitute for Murder, No Substitute for Money, and No Substitute for Maturity), as well as the Catskill Mountains mysteries, Hemlock Lake and Through a Yellow Wood. Other works include An Uncertain Refuge, Sea of Regret, A Place of Forgetting, and novels written with her husband, Mike Nettleton, Drum Warrior, Death at Devil’s Harbor and Deception at Devil’s Harbor.
She grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. She founded the Vancouver Writers’ Mixers and is an active supporter of her local bookstore, Cover to Cover. Her interests are reading, gardening, and not cooking. Website