Friday, May 10, 2013

Unexpected Themes and Connections

I have started work on the second book in my new series set in near-future Albany, New York. The working title is Cock Robin's Funeral, and the victim is a funeral director. That has me watching YouTube videos about topics such as embalming and interviews with funeral directors. I'm also watching episodes of British and American shows. Of course, the TV show Six Feet Under is on my list. I loved that show the first time around. Can't wait to watch again.

But today's post is inspired by something that I realized as I was reading a book about funeral rituals and customs. The author used the phrase "rituals for the dead." And I suddenly realized that the first chapter in my first published mystery begins with the words, "Rituals for the Dead and Dying". My protagonist, Lizzie Stuart, tell the reader that she scrawled the words across a yellow legal pad as she was keeping watch at the bedside of her dying grandmother. And, now, here we are over 15 years later (allowing for the time it took me to write that book and get it published), and I'm still thinking about the rituals that we perform for the dead.

What I realized as I thought about this is that I seem to have this theme in my writing that keeps playing out in various ways. On one hand, I'm writing murder mysteries and dealing with sudden death. On the other, I'm engaged in an on-going meditation about how we -- humans -- respond to death. I say "meditation" because I seem to have been thinking about this over time as I am seeking answers. What is this thing called "death" and what does it mean? What do our rituals before and after death say about our beliefs about the connections between the living and the dead?

It seems that this time around I subconsciously planted a link from the first book to this second. Why, for example, did I decide a funeral director would be the victim in Cock Robin's Funeral? There are several important plot-related reasons. But it seems that I -- without realizing what I was doing -- planted the seeds for this book in The Red Queen Dies when I had a scene in a funeral home. Maybe that happened because I had spent more time than I needed to reading about Abraham Lincoln's burial and re-burial. And then there was the mummy story about John Wilkes Booth . . . I used neither story in the first book. But, here I am in the second, deep into funeral homes, burials, and, yes, mummies.

My point is that I suspect that if I went through my mysteries, reading from first to most recent, I would find that this theme about death rituals is not the only one that recurs. I know I am fascinated by families, particularly by relationships between parents and children. I can see that in my Lizzie Stuart series, with her mother Becca. It has come up again in several different ways in the new series.

I'm sure -- thinking about this as a reader -- that other writers also have themes that get played out in their books. Themes that lead to connections between books and series. Writers must have this in common with musicians and artists and other people who create . . . and use the process to think through the subjects that fascinate us. But when we become aware of what we're doing, does that deepen our writing? Or, does it mean readers have probably figured it out a while ago, and it's time to move on to something else? I hope it just means we should try to pull together our scrambled thoughts and write better about the theme and the connections that we see.

P.S. Just realized that it's afternoon in Albany. I'm in California, and it's still morning here.


Toe Hallock said...

Welcome to California. Hope you like us. I do believe that your notion of certain themes showing up in an author's works is totally valid. Hemingway's "Man up!" stories. Or, F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Yes,You can go back" exhortations. Just because readers become familiar with our philosophies doesn't mean they are tired of it. In fact, I assume the opposite. I give Harper Lee as an example. She had nothing left to say. But we sure wanted more. Yours truly, Toe.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Hi Toe,

Thanks for the comment. Both Hemingway and Fitzgerald are on my list of writers with themes that I enjoy returning to -- and I would have with Lee as well.

I did enjoy California. I have been there several times, but this time I rented a car. After a visit to Stanford U, I spent Saturday doing my Hitchcock tour in Bodega Bay ("The Birds") and Santa Rosa ("Shadow of a Doubt").