For some reason I’ve always been drawn to stories about what the past brings us. I love reading books set in two or more time-frames, where the present-day protagonist uncovers the secrets or mysteries of a previous generation. Favourite writers on my bookshelf include Kate Morton, Hannah Richell and Kate Quinn. I love to lose myself in the writings of these wonderful story-spinners.
It’s no accident that I have chosen to write my own novels along similar themes. The protagonist in my first (unpublished and semi-autobiographical) novel wanted to discover what made her ancestors leave England in 1880 to embark on an ill-fated settler scheme in Africa. (Of course, I still don’t know why my own ancestors did this, and maybe this is why that novel will never be completely finished. Or published.)
When I started to become a writer, I read every book on writing I could get my hands on. I later subscribed to blogs and saved writer websites as favourites, eager to amass as much knowledge about writing as possible. Along the way, I have become confused about theme. Some writers say that theme is the first thing you should consciously decide upon, and others say it should be left until a later draft, when you as the writer discover exactly what it is you are trying to say with that particular work.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the latter is the way that works best for me, but there is always an initial historical theme through all my books.
My novella From Daisy with Love delved into the First World War diaries of my grandfather and the scrapbooks, letters, autograph books and drawings of my grandmother. What was in them is also somewhere in me, and I don’t just mean the shared DNA.
In my novel The Epidaurus Inheritance my protagonist wants to know the history of an ancient, ornate knife she inherited from her Greek father. She gets more than she bargained for when she realises that she’s not the only one tracing her knife, and some are prepared to kill whoever stands in their way of obtaining it.
In fact, my overriding theme could be “be careful what you wish for” except that some of my characters come into possession of something they didn’t wish for, an object that has nothing to do with them or their family history. In Benicio’s Bequest an art teacher on holiday in Italy encounters a stranger who leaves her a parcel to deliver to an address in Venice. She doesn’t find the parcel in her handbag until several hours after she has witnessed the bloody murder of this stranger, Benicio. The object that Benicio sends to his brother, through her, leads them both on a trail of stolen art, excellent forgery and – of course – several bodies along the way.
In The Trojan Legacy my modern-day protagonist immigrates to Australia with her parents, but finds it hard to adjust to her new life. Sorting through the boxes of things her mother couldn’t bear to leave behind, she uncovers references her grandmother made to an Australian friend. The girl sets out to find this person or their descendants. She also gets more than she wished for, but I won’t spoil it if you haven’t already read the book.
I have gone into most of my life’s endeavours in an eager but open-minded state, and have worked things out along the way. Sometimes it takes me longer than others, but I like to think that I get there in the end.
And so it is with theme. Now that I’ve written several novels, I can see that my main theme is about what we or those close to us inherit, but each novel has its own unique version of that inheritance or legacy. Variations on a theme, to use a musical term.
For example, The Epidaurus Inheritance also touches on the economic crisis in Greece, and the need for ancient Greek artefacts such as the Parthenon marbles to be returned to their country of origin. Benicio’s Bequest touches on the ties that bind members of the same family, and how the shared DNA doesn’t always point brothers in the same direction. The Trojan Legacy teaches its two modern-day protagonists that sometimes what is eventually uncovered needs to be laid to rest, assigned to the past where it belongs, so that new life can move on.
As for my current work-in-progress Oxford Baggage, the inheritance theme is present once more, as is a side theme on the difference between two brothers, but there are deeper loyalties and issues about the choices we make, especially in times of war. I’ll let you know how that changes as it goes along…
Readers out there, what draws you to pick up a particular book? Is there a common thread that runs through them? And writers, how do you find your theme?