“No, please, not THEME!” Can we make peace with Theme? Sure we can!

Theme.

Oh, I hear the groans now! Have I just evoked hours of torturous agonizing in Lit and Composition classes, while your evil teacher stares down at your through her cats-eye glasses and demands to know what you think the theme of this short story is? 

Yup. Been there, done that. But I think it’s because – and this sounds odd to say – but I think it’s because I never had theme explained to me properly. I remember when we talked about THEME, it was all in CAPITAL LETTERS, and it HAD TO MEAN SOMETHING BIG AND IMPORTANT and IT WAS LIFE AND DEATH, and if we didn’t get the THEME OF THIS STORY, we were DOOMED.

For me, the problem was . . . no one ever seemed to take the time to explain what theme actually meant. It was esoteric, mysterious. To get ‘theme’ meant you were inducted into some mystery cult like the Illuminati, where copies of romance novels (which, of course, could not possibly be good enough to have THEMES) were sacrificed on bonfires. And if you didn’t get theme . . . well, you weren’t good enough. You hadn’t thought about it enough. You were either lazy or dumb.

So yeah. I hear you. Theme = Bad.

But this past week, I had two encounters with the idea of theme that made me reconsider how I look at it – and maybe, just maybe, start to overcome those years of antagonism and consider it . . . something I can actually use.

The first was from one of my favorite books, Writing the Paranormal Novel by Steven Harper. Yes, this is a book about writing paranormal novels (which I’m sure is right now giving that high school Lit teacher a heart attack). But as Harper points, out themes are going to be part of your novel anyway, so you may as well learn to recognize them, harness them, and utilize them. As he puts it:

The story is what happens, one event building on another. The theme is the idea your book explores. It can be a big concept like love or death, or war or choices, or it might be more specific, like defying authority or loss of love, or restriction of choice. Once a big idea appears, it usually needs to be narrowed even more. This is what the book is saying about the big idea. It can – and should – be extremely specific, like no one finds his dreams, or Death finds everyone . . . 

See? Isn’t that easy?

Take any good young adult novel, and themes abound. Divergent, for example – to me, the larger theme is conformity; the book’s take on that is, challenging conformity and daring to be yourself. The Harry Potter books take on several themes – death, the search for immortality, doing what you know is right, friendship.

This week, on her Facebook page, Diana Gabaldon also wrote about theme. She had written for a long time without focusing on a theme in her novels (and of course, that didn’t do a thing to deter sales!), but then realized that even if she hadn’t been conscious of it, the themes had appeared anyway. In this post, she sums up the theme of each of her novels in one word, and then explains. But, as she says,

Still, the general notion of a theme is sometimes useful to a writer, in that it influences both the content and the organization of your story. Not always—or even often—in a deliberately conscious way, but it’s there. And once you’ve assembled most of a book, you really ought to be able to tell someone who asks what the theme is.

This is also something that Harper says – even experienced authors may not be aware of the themes in their novels. But themes aren’t just there so that some future high school student can be tortured into discovering them. No. As Harper points, out, themes are there to strengthen your novel. Even if you’re unaware of it, you’re probably infusing theme into your work right now. It may even have something to do with your own life – something you’ve been through, or something you’re going through. Both Gabaldon and Harper advise you to think about that for a moment. If you can identify the them of your novel, how can you work it into your novel even more? Can you change a scene or two, or perhaps tweak a subplot, to magnify and reflect the theme?

Harper says “It’s much better if a theme is developed on purpose. That way, the disparate elements in the story will point toward that theme in a more unified, careful way . . .” In other words, once you identify what your book is about, you can find small ways to bring it out even more (though hopefully without it hitting people over the head with a sledgehammer).

I was thinking about this in relation to my own novels.

When I was first starting with Nicky, my rumrunner, I thought about the theme of being an adult – what does it mean to be an adult? When can you call yourself one? What happens when the adults in your life just aren’t? But there’s another theme as well – secrets. Everyone’s keeping them, Nicky most of all – or so he thinks, anyway. With those things in mind, I can think about scenes that have yet to be written, and consider how they might support those themes.

With my urban fantasy series . . . Book 1 is about betrayal. That’s my overall Big Theme. Erin is betrayed by her boyfriend and her family. Rebecca is betrayed by her husband and the people she trusts. I suppose the smaller theme could then be – how do we handle betrayal? Is revenge ever the answer? With Book 2, it feels like my Big Theme is simply survival. But there’s also the issue of trust. Who can Erin trust? Why can/should she trust them? Can she trust anything, even herself?

What this does – for me – is help me solidify in my own mind what these novels are about. If we take the issue of trust in Book 2 – I can see several ways to expand that as I go into my rewrites. I already know the points where we touch on it. Can I expand them a bit? Can I add the theme as an undertone to scenes I have yet to write?

So if you were one of those students, like me, who never quite got THEME in school, I hope this may have helped. I’ve included a link to Diana’s Facebook post from last week as well.

Happy Writing!

 

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Photo Challenge: Story

This challenge was a challenge – I’m firmly of the opinion that most good photos tell a story at heart. The problem is, it’s usually the photographer who knows the story. It’s only those really great, rare photos that can convey an entire story to anyone, with almost no context.

Still, the rest of us mere mortals can try. 🙂 A few weeks ago, I went to a nearby town, where there’s an old hotel. After it’s hotel days were done, it became an antiques shop for a while before being abandoned. But as you can see, abandoned doesn’t mean empty.

hotel 2 g

Questions arise. Why were these things abandoned? Who owned them?

What will happen to them?

hotel 1

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/photo-challenges/story/

When Research Becomes Obsession

missing ad 2If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you know that one of my obsessions is with a disappearance that occurred in 1898 – that of George Kimmel.

And it is an obsession. I freely admit that! For about ten years, I’ve tried to discover what really happened to this guy. Here’s the bare-bones of the case:

  • On July 29, 1898, Kimmel took school bonds to Topeka, deposited them, and then went to Kansas City.
  • On July 30, Kimmel checked into the Midland Hotel. He withdrew precisely $530.20 from his accounts, got into a cab . . . and disappeared.

That’s it. That’s what I’ve got. After  that, there are at least five different options. Sort of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Sadly, at least three of those options end with Kimmel being murdered on or just after July 30, 1898.

Okay, there’s more. I didn’t tell you about the fact that Kimmel had worked with his uncle, Charles Johnson, in Niles, Michigan, at the First National Bank of Niles, or that Johnson asked Kimmel to come to Arkansas City, KS (my home town) to become cashier at a bank Johnson managed here. I didn’t tell you that Johnson was later found guilty of purposely failing and defrauding banks, possibly to cover gambling debts. I didn’t tell you that somewhere along the line, someone – Kimmel? Johnson? – insured Kimmel’s life for nearly $30,000. (In today’s terms, this is hard to convert, but is somewhere between $850,000 – $970,000. In short, the guy was insured for nearly a million dollars.)

And I didn’t tell you about the court cases – three of them – to decide if Kimmel was alive or dead, because I didn’t tell you that in 1905, a man in Matteawan Asylum in New York suddenly announced that he was the missing George Kimmel.

And then . . . It never ends! That’s why I have to take so many breaks from this research, because it literally never freaking ends!!!!! I’m a historian. I’ve done loads of research. Written loads of papers. None of it ever prepared me for the sheer lunacy of this project.

What makes it more difficult is that I’m sort of feeling my way in the dark, on several levels. First – I don’t have colleagues who care about this. I teach at a community college. What that means is that my colleagues don’t do research. It’s not even encouraged by the administration. So when people come into my office and see the big pages tacked to my wall that have calendars and bubble charts and a Who’s Who of confederates and allies and possible suspects . . . they just sort look past it, like it doesn’t exist. I’m doing something I shouldn’t be doing. I’m not sure if they resent that I am doing it, or if they are afraid of guilt by association, or if they’ve finally cottoned on to the fact that I’m a bit of a freak. But it’s hard not having anyone to bounce ideas off, to brainstorm with, or just to commiserate with. I hate that. A lot.

It’s not just that the research itself is difficult, although it can be. Documents disappear – sometimes accidentally, sometimes purposely. For example, I discovered that if a case did not go to appeals, all supporting documents, testimonies, evidence – everything! – was discarded when the case was over. So although I had the summary and sentence for Charles Johnson (for failing the Niles bank), I had nothing else. Whatever evidence was entered into the record, whatever he might have said on the stand that may have shed some light on my own mystery – it’s all gone. Nope. That’s tough enough to deal with. It’s also the fact that every single time I turn on my computer, look at the court documents, read the newspaper stories, it all changes. 

Questions never get answered. Literally. Questions. Never. Get. Answered. They just beget more questions! I’ve been researching this, off and on, for years, and every single time I pick it up again, I find new things that put a new spin on what I’ve learned before, or take my research into a totally different direction. It’s not a cut-and-dried thing, and I keep wanting to put a ‘villain/victim’ spin on it, like we would in fiction. But I can’t. Every stone I turn over reveals a new clue, something else that changes how I see this case. For instance:  did Charles Johnson pay off Kimmel’s debts and hide the fact that he was missing because he was covering up crimes of his own . . . or because he was trying to protect a wayward nephew? Two days ago, I would have absolutely told you the former. No question. But after reading some testimony last night, I’m no longer so sure.

Yet another reason for the long breaks!

The obsession is tough. I’m following in the footsteps of a very good lawyer, a man named Ed O’Brien. Every single suspicion I’ve had about Kimmel’s disappearance, he had. Every single question I have asked, he’s asked. I find myself staring at the charts on my wall, trying to piece it all together, wondering if O’Brien ever did the same. Wishing I had access to his private notes, his papers, anything he might have collected about the case. Sure that the answer might be in there. Somewhere.

But there’s other things about it that make me – hesitant.

For starters, I am never immune to the fact that these were real people, and they have real descendants somewhere. Well, George doesn’t, not direct descendants, anyway. But his sister does, and Charles Johnson does. One of the potential main players, Robert Snyder, was a major figure in Kansas City. How can I even begin to talk to them about the things I need to ask? “Hey, I’m researching your great-great uncle’s disappearance. I suspect it might have something to do with your very corrupt great-great-great uncle. Can we chat?”

Yeah. Probably not.

And again . . . part of the problem is simply that . . . the documents, I highly suspect, simply don’t exist. Even things that should exist, I haven’t been able to locate. For example, Johnson hired the Kansas City branch of the Pinkerton Detective Agency to investigate. But those records have evaporated. They are not housed with the official Pinkerton Archives at the Library of Congress. No one can tell me where they are. Did they get submitted as evidence, and misplaced? Were they destroyed? I’ve no idea. I also have yet to locate Johnson’s deposition, which should have been taken in 1905, while he was incarcerated. There’s no way O’Brien wouldn’t have done that. But where IS IT????

I can’t explain why this case obsesses me so much. But I need to figure it out, because I’ve been asked to present on my findings in May.

If they want answers . . . I’m afraid they’re going to be as frustrated as me.

 

For more on my research into George Kimmel, see these posts:

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/when-a-historians-dream-comes-true/

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2016/05/29/when-a-historians-dream-comes-true-part-2/

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/02/01/digging-deep-the-perils-of-historical-research/