I'm also hosting our monthly "Ask a Wench" feature, and this month the question we're responding to is: "Do you have any particular subjects or themes you often return to in your novels?"
Pat here: I do not set out to write themes, but if a reviewer asks me for the theme of my newest release, after some consideration, I’ll almost always say it’s a search for justice. And yes, I include the fight against prejudice under that heading, because that’s always a huge part of my books. Usually, it’s women seeking fair treatment.
In my Magic series, I give this a fantasy spin by making my women psychic—so rather than being treated badly just for their sex, they’re treated badly because they’re weird, which covers a lot of territory, including being female.
My men are almost always seeking justice for someone or something. I usually have a mystery/action element requiring a villain to be brought to justice, whether that person is a lawyer who defrauds, a contractor who cheats, or a killer to be caught. But in my latest series, there’s an underlying element of economic injustice, because that’s so much on my mind with the news these days. A writer’s mind is a sponge—it’s difficult for us to avoid absorbing the real world!
Nicola here: My timeslip novels tend to be inspired by “lost” figures from history, usually women who were so often a footnote in a male-dominated narrative or whose stories have been told in a particular way. I like shining a different light on them. A good example is Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia, whose story I wrote in House of Shadows.
In the traditional reports on her life she is portrayed as the beautiful, charming and extravagant princess who pushed her husband into making a poor decision to accept the throne of Bohemia because she was motivate by the status of being a queen. So often her political and diplomatic skills are overlooked, as well as the fact that her court was a centre for culture. She and her daughters were all exceptional and fascinating women. I love the fact that in a lot of books nowadays women’s roles in all sorts of professions or ground-breaking work is starting to be recognised. I think I’ve always been inspired by this idea as in my earlier Regency historicals I loved writing about women in unusual professions or inspired by certain causes. All these stories are authentic and out there if we look for them!
I’ve also started to delve more into real-life historical mysteries as inspiration for my novels, having always been interested in the “detective” side of history, whether it’s digging into family history or reading up on different theories of who (if anyone) murdered the Princes in the Tower, which is the theme of my current wip. In terms of emotional and relationship themes, though, it often seems to be the “old flame” stories that attract me, as an author and a reader; the idea that there is unfinished business between two people gives so much scope for exploring events and emotions.
Andrea says: I think a core theme that seems to run though a lot of my books is loyalty, though it can take many guises: loyalty to friends and family, loyalty to concepts like truth and justice, and loyalty to one’s own integrity. I tend to write unconventional heroines and heroes, which in and of itself means they are questioning rules and structures. And as a mystery shapes the plot of each of my recent books, my characters are forced to butt up against difficult challenges in order to solve a conundrum.
In testing my protagonists, I’ve found it really interesting to have them face just how far they are willing to go to discover the truth. How many personal sacrifices will they make? How vulnerable will they make themselves to others? What strengths can they draw on to overcome their fears and preconceptions? For me, raising the stakes to such an personal emotional level adds tension and a sense of urgency to a plot, and (hopefully) engages the reader in cheering for the good guys to triumph over evil, though the battle won’t be easy.
For example, in Murder at Kensington Palace, my latest Wrexford & Sloane mystery, Charlotte Sloane’s cousin and dear childhood friend is accused of killing his brother. She knows in her heart that he can’t have committed the crime, but to have any chance of proving it, she needs entrée into the gilded world of the beau monde. And so, Charlotte has a choice to make: she can open the glittering doors to a way of life she voluntarily left because she found its rules and values repugnant. But the key will come at the cost of putting her own hard-won life of independence in jeopardy. There are ways she can withdraw after the crime is solved, however they may threaten other precious newfound friendships. So, the decision is fraught with tangled complications. How can she be loyal to her own sense of self, and to those she loves?
Mary Jo here: My recurrent themes tend to be psychological and spiritual: trauma and second chances and becoming "stronger in the mended places." Forgiveness and reconciliation–and accepting that some relationships can never be reconciled.
An example of forgiveness is in my book Thunder and Roses. The hero, Nicholas, is mystified and deeply hurt when one of his closest friends, Michael, turns on him for reasons unknown. At the end of the story, when the mystery is solved, Nicholas is able to forgive his friend, and Michael uses that lesson in forgiveness in later books. (Shattered Rainbows and One Perfect Rose, to be precise.)
Another theme is strong women, and downtrodden women becoming stronger. As Nicola said, there have always been strong women even though they are often left out of the historical record. In romance, we create and celebrate such women. Often my heroines have been the objects of abuse and dominance by men. They must surmount that, and have the courage to trust enough to love better men.
My recent release, Once a Spy, is an example of that. The heroine, Suzanne, was child bride to an arrogant and detached aristocrat, then later captured and enslaved in a Turkish harem. Not to mention being hit on by handsy married men when she settles in London. It's a real act of courage for her to marry Simon, who has some history with her, but has some demons of his own. They both commit to doing their best. By the end, they have a deep and loving marriage, and Suzanne is equal to anything!
Susan says: In my stories, I gravitate to themes that fascinate and intrigue me, such as healing and paranormal gifts, and also themes of rebellion and independence. Writing books set in historical Scotland gives me lots of possibilities for exploring those threads.
In Angel Knight and Lady Miracle, set in medieval Scotland, the hero of Angel Knight has a natural hands-on healing ability that he denies, while the heroine of Lady Miracle is a trained physician striving to hide her miraculous healing touch—misinterpreted as witchy by others. In both stories, as the characters learn to accept their abilities as gifts rather than curses, they also learn that loving another is the key to loving themselves as they are. And I had the chance to explore miraculous healing as well as medieval medicine. In my novella for Last Chance Christmas Ball, I went back to the healing theme with Dr. Henry Seton, a physician and lecturer in 19th century Scotland, who is stranded in a snowstorm with his former mentor’s daughter.
I’ve always been fascinated by rebels and rebellion, especially if it involves forest outlaws and fights for independence. My first book, The Black Thorne’s Rose, was set in 13th century England—with a forest outlaw hero fighting against injustice to regain his title and lands, and the rights of others. I’ve also created forest outlaws in Laird of the Wind and The Swan Maiden, and my heroes, more often than not, are a rebellious bunch, fighting for justice and independence against unfair oppression—Black Thorne’s Rose, Angel Knight, Laird of the Wind, The Swan Maiden, The Heather Moon, and others all feature heroes—and heroines—fighting for a cause to save the lands, rights, and lives of others.
And my newest books, soon to be released—Laird of Twilight, Laird of Secrets, and Laird of Rogues—are part of a new series called the Whisky Lairds, where the theme of rebellion takes the form of whisky smuggling in 19th century Scotland, done for the sake and survival of Highland Scots threatened by oppressive British tax laws. It’s whisky-smuggling heroes and heroines to the rescue, and I love writing about characters who live outside the norms of society, breaking rules for the best reasons, and finding strength in love as they make the world a little better in their corner of history.
Anne here: I spent years at university studying English Lit and talking about themes and other literary matters, but when I first started writing, I didn't give a thought to themes; I was just trying to write the best book I could. Then a lovely American reader wrote to me about my first book with Berkley, The Perfect Rake, and she talked about the themes in the book. "Umm," I said, "I didn't really have any themes in mind." She wrote back and proceeded to explain the themes in my book — and to my amazement, she was right. She did it with several subsequent books too (The Perfect Waltz and The Perfect Stranger) and by then I understood that though it wasn't from any deliberate literary intent, there were definite themes in my work, albeit subconscious.
Since then I have become more aware of the theme or themes I'm exploring in a book, though it's often not until I'm three quarters of the way through writing a book that the theme becomes clear to me. It emerges from the characters and their concerns, and is never a deliberate choice on my part.
Looking back, the themes my books most often explore are to do with forgiveness—often self forgiveness, the redemptive power of love, and also issues of trust.
So, wenchly readers, do you notice themes in books? Are there any themes that particularly appeal to you? Any you dislike or avoid?