Welcome Carolyn J. Rose.
Theme me up, Scotty.
Or you say message, and I say I need a massage.
By Carolyn J. Rose
I have never been known for my fast reflexes and hand-eye coordination. Back in high school, I couldn’t hit a tennis ball, couldn’t connect with a baseball, and seldom ducked in time to avoid a spit wad in the eye.
But in English class, I was a blur of action when we finished reading a short story and Miss Smith asked that inevitable question, “Who can tell me the theme of this?”
Slap. I’d shove my pencil and notebook off the edge of my desk.
Whack. They’d hit the floor.
Whoosh. I’d dive down to retrieve them, letting loose a flutter of paper and fumbling the pencil across the aisle.
While I was retrieving and reorganizing—a process I could stretch out for at least two minutes—someone else would take a stab at the answer.
I was an A student, I read constantly, and I wrote poetry, but no way could I figure out the theme of the stories we read back then. “The Gift of the Magi.” Hmmm. “The Ransom of Red Chief.” Uhhhhh. “The Open Window.” Ummm.
Even when I emerged from beneath the desk and heard Miss Smith summarize the theme, the information didn’t seem to connect to anything in the story or in my brain. And how she came up with it remained a mystery.
I can’t remember what I was thinking when I went to college with the goal of someday becoming an English teacher. I guess maybe I thought there would be answer keys I could use. Or that I could somehow fake it. Or that my students would be expert theme analyzers and decoders.
After graduation, I went down a long detour, into VISTA and then into TV news. The word “theme” never came up until Mike and I had finished writing The Hard Karma Shuffle and were spending a few days with friends at the Oregon Writers Colony house in Rockaway.
“What’s the theme of the book?” a fellow writer asked after she’d read a few chapters.
I ducked my head, figuring that Mike would field that question. And he did. “It doesn’t have one,” he said without a second of hesitation and without a trace of doubt.
“What?” the writer gasped. “It has to. Every book has a theme.”
Mike gave me a deer-caught-in-the-headlights look and, with cat-like reflexes, I made an excuse to escape. “Tide’s out. If we’re going to walk the beach, we’ve got to leave now.”
Chastened, feeling we’d been caught masquerading as writers, we stomped through the sand for hours, trying to dredge up a theme for a book filled with thugs, muggings, car chases, and snappy comebacks. Other than the usual justice-related theme of mysteries, we came up with exactly nothing.
Driven inside by a squall and the rising tide, we found our fellow writer circling a sentence near the end of the book. “Here’s your theme,” she said. “If you know the terms, you’re okay.”
We nodded like bobble-head dolls and bolted to our room where we admitted to each other that if indeed this was the theme, it certainly hadn’t been intentional.
A few years later we wrote a sequel, The Crushed Velvet Miasma. We used a similar manic formula for the plot and brought back most of the same characters. If the book has a theme, it’s news to me. In fact, if someone found the message of the story, I’d be hard-pressed to pick it out of a theme line-up.
But then we rented the movie Speechless and, as Michael Keaton, referring to that classic 1950s TV series Lassie, explained the “You see, Timmie” concept to Geena Davis, we finally understood. Theme is a take-out box filled with a message about the world—the real world, the fictional world, or both.
Do I now identify the themes of a story before I begin to write it?
There goes that darn pencil again.
Thank you Carolyn.
You can find out more about Carolyn and Mike on their website, Deadly Duo Mysteries. All of their books are listed on their site. As a bonus, you can read an excerpt from Sometimes A Great Commotion. Look for Carolyn’s books on Amazon or check out the Links page for stores and her publishers’ websites..
Please leave a comment or question for Carolyn.
I’ll start the questions off:
When you and Mike are coming up with the idea or theme for the next book, does one of you take the lead in the ideas, or do you toss around ideas then eventually narrow down the choices and plot points?