Thursday, November 18, 2010

Theme Me Up, Scotty

Today, Carolyn J. Rose, author of many books, including two series, is stopping by to tell us how she found the theme of her book.

 Carolyn J. Rose 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 teaches novel-writing in Vancouver, Washington, and founded the Vancouver Writers’ Mixers. Her hobbies are reading, gardening, and not cooking. (Hey! Two out of three of those are my hobbies, too!)

 On many of her books, her husband is her co-author. Mike Nettleton grew up in Bandon and Grants Pass, Oregon. A stint at a college station in Ashland led to a multi-state radio odyssey with on-air gigs in Oregon, California, and New Mexico under the air name Mike Phillips. In 1989 he returned to the Northwest and in 1994 joined KEX Radio in Portland. His hobbies are golf, pool, Texas hold-em poker, and book collecting. (Look at that! I collect books. My husband and I are Texans, and we’re partners in a golf company. That makes us kissin’ cousins, without the kissing part.)

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.

 Having gleaned that bit of knowledge, I no longer dive under my desk at the sound of the word “theme.” I’ve come to see that there are messages in every story—some huge, some spiritual, some life-altering, some amusing. I can even identify themes in some of my recent books. Hemlock Lake: the present can be held hostage by the past. Sometimes a Great Commotion: fanaticism can create chaos.

Do I now identify the themes of a story before I begin to write it?


There goes that darn pencil again.

I’ll be under the desk if you need me.

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?


  1. Great post... Yes, sometimes when books have themes, the readers attribute another meaning to it. I agree... duck under the desk.

  2. Clever post, Carolyn! And you've lived in some of the same states as me - Oregon, New Mexico, and Arkansas. What are the odds?

  3. I had such a great visual image of you scrambling under the desk...this English major would have happily met you down there.

  4. *raising hand while under desk*

    I'm glad to hear that you still don't identify a theme before you begin writing. I feel better now.

  5. I forgot to add that you should keep an eye out for that old chewing gum when you duck under the desk.

  6. Fun post Carolyn - and quite true to life, speaking as an English major.

  7. Thanks for sharing the process, Carolyn! I've found that with my work, I don't see the theme until it's done. It's as though I'm working through something, and it shows itself in the way the final theme comes together.

  8. "...becoming an English teacher. I guess maybe I thought there would be answer keys I could use."

    ROFL! This is a great post--an honest look at something writers don't often want to discuss (whether or not they duck under the desk to avoid it).

  9. As Carolyn's husband and sometimes writing partner I amen her thoughts about finding a theme. I finished a hard-boiled about a disgraced cop reduced to hustling golf from rich suckers a while back and had it with an agent for a time. If somebody asked me what the theme was, the best I could come up with was "sometimes anger management is a good idea." I struggle with the concept constantly.

  10. Great post, Carolyn. I had trouble with themes, but even more trouble trying to figure out the meaning of poems. When the teacher would reveal what the poet was really trying to say, I'd be absolutely convinced she was simply trying to trick us students. She'd show us some poem that to me seemed pretty straightforward: a guy sails away on a ship and comes back with a treasure.
    Me: How nice for him. He's rich now and he got a cruise out of the deal.
    Teacher: No, no, no. The poet is telling us that sometimes you have to leave familiar surroundings to get what you want out of life.
    Me (not out loud): For heaven''s sake, why doesn't he simply say so instead of writing cryptic poems?

  11. Fantastic!

    When I have a theme in mind, then write the story, the narrative sounds preachy. When I just tell the story, then a theme crops up, that's when the story feels right.

    Thanks for sharing this with us, Carolyn.

    And, Helen, you too!

  12. I'm with most of y'all - I realize the theme after the book is written. It becomes clear when the characters talk to me.

  13. Carolyn - As usual you entertain AND enlighten. Bravo! Susan :)

  14. I struggle with theme as well, so my pen and notebook would hit the floor near yours.

  15. Sounds like we're all ducking under our desks like the old bomb drills in school.

  16. I don't start out with a theme, either; I just write, and it usually emerges in the end.

    Great post!

  17. This is fabulous, Helen! Sometimes my fellow writers will talk in writerly terms about the plotting of a story, or will use words (like theme) and I feel like a total fraud. I really believe it isn't because I don't DO IT, rather it is more intuitive and if I THOUGHT in those terms, it would totally stop me up. I'm very relieved to hear I'm not alone!

    (thanks for hosting, Helen!)

  18. Great interview and I love the humor! Theme? What's that? :)

  19. First a response to Ginger. I'm a talker and Carolyn's a doer. What I mean is, I could try to talk my way through the book beginning to end. Carolyn wants to take the germ of the idea and sit down and start writing it. So we comprimise. I talk and she leaves the room and starts writing. Most of the ideas for our books have been jointly conceived. Being mysteries we decide who has to die, then set about exploring who delivered the killing blow. With the exception of The Hermit of Humbug Mountain, CJ has taken the lead in writing the first draft. I had my touches in the next pass.

  20. I don't consider the theme - and I know writers get asked that question!

  21. Fortunately I chose to be a mystery writer, so the main is about justice. But musing about what I want to say that would become a secondary theme can give me a headache that even a nap under my desk can't cure. I had a lot of secondary themes in Hemlock Lake and am revisiting them in the sequel. Would someone please pass the aspirin?

  22. Mark, I love this: "So we compromise. I talk and she leaves the room and starts writing."

  23. Compromise and/or leaving the room is the basis of a successful writing relationship and a marriage that hasn't yet made the police blotter.

  24. Not only did this make me laugh out loud--especially when I fully expected something brilliant to emerge from your mouth as you dove for those papers--but it also explained to me what a theme is!

    Next post--do we really NEED to know??

    Just kidding, glad to have been enlightened, and thanks for the laughs, too.

  25. What fun. If I can paraphrase a classic song.. "A teaspoon of humor makes the lessons go down..."

    So, I'm curious. Why don't English teachers just ask what the message is? I would have probably gotten an A in English if I'd known that's what theme means.

  26. I agree Maryann! 'Course I never taught English, although I have a BA in it. Public speaking was my thing. I always made that easy. Har-har! Snort.

  27. Thanks again, Helen, for giving me a place on your stage. And thanks to everyone who "chimed in" with comments.
    I'm off to a book fair in Ashland, Oregon, but I'll check in again as soon as I'm back at the keyboard.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...