Thursday, April 7, 2016

S. W. Hubbard on Recurring Themes: The Well that Keeps Gushing

HALLIE EPHRON: As I was reading today's blog post from S. W. (Susan) Hubbard about her terrific new novel, This Bitter Treasure,
she had me contemplating the themes that seem to show up unbidden and unexpectedly in my novels, too. Reminding me that we writers only think we're in the drivers seat.

S. W. HUBBARD: As I was finishing my most recent novel, This Bitter Treasure, and blabbing about it on Facebook, a reader responded, “Oh good—I hope it has another baby.”

That stopped me in my tracks. Uh, yeah—it DOES have a baby. How did you know?

And then I thought back over my seven books in two series and realized they all have babies, or kids, or some exploration of the parent-child relationship. In only one, The Lure, did I intentionally set out to write a novel about a baby (in that case, an illegal baby-selling scheme). But in every other novel, children managed
to work their way in through a side door as subplots, motivational devices, or red herrings.

How did that happen?

This Bitter Treasure was supposed to be about the suburban heroin epidemic and a hapless home health aide who’s drawn into it. There wasn’t a baby in sight anywhere on the writing horizon. But as the pages piled up, a baby appeared. A baby who died before he was born.

The heroine and the home health aide and the old woman dying in a house filled with treasures are still in the novel. But soon this baby, along with his mother and grandmother and aunts and uncles, began elbowing his way to the front of the story. What’s an author to do? I can’t seem to repress my need to explore and re-explore the parent-child relationship. To me it holds so much more promise than fiction’s well-worn themes of cheating lovers and spouses with dark secrets.

Perhaps it’s because I find my own children so profoundly unknowable. Consider my daughter: at fourteen she declared herself a dumb blonde at math who wanted nothing more than a job that allowed her to wear cute clothes. Now, at twenty-two, she has a degree in engineering and a job with a clothing allowance…to buy the steel-toed boots she sometimes dons at work sites. I helped create her, yet she remains a mystery.

Every time I hear a parent utter the words, “I know my child. She would never…,” I see the plot for a novel appear.

I recently became an empty nester. Twenty-five years of in-the-trenches childrearing have ended. So maybe now I’ll be free to let some other subconscious theme creep into my work. Like the financial despair that leads a man to take hostages in his own home. Yes, yes! And then he becomes an escaped prisoner who terrorizes a small Adirondack town. Yeah, that’s the ticket!

But, wait. There’s this little girl…and her foster parents…and her biological mother….

Looks like that particular well hasn’t stopped producing just yet.

How about you? Have you noticed recurring themes, conscious or unconscious, in the books you write, or in the work of favorite authors? Do those themes attract you? Do you ever think “not this again!”?

HALLIE: I do! I do! Old women keep showing up in my novels -- an aging woman who is sharp as a tack and underestimated by other characters. Maybe it's my attempt wreak my own revenge and come to terms with getting older myself. 

To second Susan's questions: What seems to show up in the books you write or the ones you love to read?

S.W. Hubbard is the author of the Frank Bennett Adirondack Mystery series and the Palmyrton Estate Sale Mystery series. This Bitter Treasure, the third estate sale mystery, was released last month.  The first book in the series, Another Man’s Treasure, happens to be just $.99 for Kindle today through 4/10. You can read the first chapters of all her books at Follow her on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. I'm so glad you have another book out, Sue! Can't wait to read it. I love when characters pretty much demand to be written.

    I also have the sharp oldster in each of my series, Hallie. In my current manuscript, there's a backstory of someone getting pushed down stairs. And how does our brave farmer defend herself from attack at the end? By pushing someone down the stairs, of course. I did NOT do that consciously - it just happened.

  2. Despite my not giving much thought to recurring themes or characters in the books I read, I suppose genres, by their nature, have a set of characters or themes that generally appear in an author’s books. Lately, although I don’t search for stories with a particualar set of characters, I’ve noticed a persistent focus on a child or a group of children in mystery stories . . . .

  3. Children show up in my favorite books, too, Joan - thinking of Jennifer McaMahon's novels or Catorina McPherson's Child Garden or Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children Bob Dugoni's books where the relationship between the protagonist and his young son are as much fun as the main plot.

  4. I lately managed to write three short stories in a few months, and by the end of the third, I realised that without planning it, I'd bumped of three abusive husbands.

    Much as they deserve it, I gotta find a new class of victim.

  5. Good morning, all! It's great to be back on Jungle Reds. Back in the day when I was a college English major, our professors used to encourage us to find all kinds of theme and motifs in what we were reading, assuring us that the author didn't have to intend for it to be there for the motif to be valid. The words on the page spoke the truth. Now, I love doing book groups, where a reader will invariably point out something that I never noticed was there.

  6. Love this post today Susan! I was interviewed about all my books a couple of weeks ago and the interviewer said: "I've noticed that all your heroines have the same issue. Do you know what I'm going to say?"

    I thought of stepfamilies, because they run rampant in my real life and my fiction. But no...

    "They all have an absent or distant father," she said. "And I was wondering whether that came from your life?"

    I was floored. I had the sweetest, most present father--but she was right! more work to do on that!

  7. I've noticed the step-family theme in your work, Roberta, but I guess the distant father slipped past me. But now that you mention it, didn't Cassie in the golf mysteries have trouble with her dad?

    As for the photo, that's ten years old! No wonder I look so young. Not sure where you Reds even found it!

  8. Susan D - I don't put abusive husbands so much as ones that you can't trust further than you can throw them. And my husband, as anyone will tell you, is one of the kindest sweetest MOST trustworthy human beings on the planet. So maybe we write what we're AFRAID of? (Abusive husbands, false lovers, lost children...) Fires appear in a lot of my books, too.

  9. Susan, this is a much needed, thought provoking post. I was reading somewhere else how mysteries have become repetitive and tiresome in their plotting and themes and how this may be contributing to the woes of writers whose series have been canceled. Taking a step back and reviewing your own body of work to determine if you somehow fall prey is an excellent idea. I immediately was able to give myself a big dope slap. Motherless children, even if there is a mother physically present. Now I wonder if there isn't merit to continuing to tell the stories about how motherless children face challenges, but to make each of these stories compelling in its own right. A good post is one that makes your head hurt. Can't wait to read your new book!

  10. motherless children face challenges... what would we do without them?
    Cinderella, Anne of Green Gables, Matilda, Orphan Train, The Lion King, Bambi, Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, ... I don't think that well's going to go dry any time soon.

  11. Oh, I definitely write about what I fear--I put a wild animal attack in BLOOD KNOT (eaten by a bear, what a way to go!!). But I also write about what I long for. I'm an only child and my husband has just one sibling who doesn't live nearby, so we are a very nuclear family. In my TREASURE series, Audrey is the only child of only children, and she longs for a big family. But she often learns there are downsides to that kind of family too.

    I'm glad my post is making your head hurt, Michelle...I think. I hope my novel doesn't have the same effect on readers :). Seriously, I think recurring plot devices, e.g. the best friend accused of the crime, are bad. Not sure that recurring themes are bad if they reveal themselves in new and surprising ways.

  12. This topic of theme fascinates me, both from a standpoint of writing an accidental theme, and the idea of English teacher identifying themes (that may or may not exist).

    Every time a book club member insists that a particular author "meant" one thing or another I have this irresistible urge to ask the author her/himself.

  13. Welcome, Sue and terrific post! For me, it's mentally-ill/abandoning parents — something both my husband and I have been dealing with.

  14. Coffee. Seriously.

    And car accidents.

    I love this, too, the discovery of--what's in your consciousness that you didn't really see.
    Rushing this morning--back soon!

  15. This is interesting, Susan. I think writers reveal a lot about their personal selves in their fiction. I often write about infidelity, and many of my stories include teenagers. Two separate things--not unfaithful teens. Maybe those are two things that I see a lot in real life and don't understand?

  16. Alcoholic parents in my books... three guesses where THEY come from.
    (dysfunctional parents: the gift that keeps giving)

  17. Teenagers and young adults fascinate me too, Ramona. I love teaching college freshmen--they're endlessly surprising. And even a good, sensible kid is capable of making a reckless, crazy decision, and that's a gift to fiction writers.

  18. I don't think of theme consciously when I read - or when I write. But now that I step back and think of it, many of my characters are concerned with self-perception. How they think of themselves and how they fit into "their world" - and what happens when that changes. The homicide detective who is a father and a husband and partner, all stable until he faces PTSD. The state trooper who sees himself as "just a divorced guy with a dog" trying to do what he's always felt called to do - until a woman shows up who cracks that shell and makes him think of more. The "8th grade nobody" who is challenged to become a "somebody."


    And as the mother of two teenagers, every time I think I've got my kids figured out they floor me. The Girl came home one day and announced she wanted to be a pediatrician after YEARS of saying she wanted some kind of career in art. The Boy who has gone from something in engineering and one night he said, "I'd kind of like to be a paramedic."

    Hey, if I ever need first aid, I'm set!

  19. Hi Susan! Love this post. What fun to think about recurring themes. I do like sharp, older women (what I would LIKE to be) but thinking about my books, families are prominent in almost all of them. I am fascinated by the dynamics of families, good and bad. Children are important, too--two of my major continuing characters are orphaned children, and I've written the big family that I never had.

    I write a lot about how people cope with loss.

    But maybe the biggest theme running through my books is the power of love and of friendship. Which seems kind of weird for a crime novelist. Hmmm.

  20. Michele said: "I was reading somewhere else how mysteries have become repetitive and tiresome in their plotting and themes and how this may be contributing to the woes of writers whose series have been canceled."

    That's a blame the victim explanation if I ever heard one! Although I'm sure there are boring books out there, mysteries and romances have certain structures because that's what their readers expect. What sets them apart is the depth of characters, in my opinion. And part of that is theme.

    Look at Arnaldur Indridason for example, whose books I adore. Every one of them has the same theme--his character gets deeply involved in his work as a detective because of a devastating loss he suffered as a child. And this is all amplified by the cold, lonely Icelandic setting. Same theme every time but it plays out differently in each book!

    (Hmmm, wonder what AI would say about why that recurs??)

  21. Susan, so glad to hear from you! I'm delighted your Estate Sale series is getting so many great critical reviews, but I have to say I still miss Frank Bennett. So much.

    As to mysteries becoming repetitive and tiresome, I think that's probably influenced by how the reader feels about the recurring theme. Every one of Kent Krueger's books is about family and faith, and I never get tired of the ways he explores those two ideas - admittedly, they're big enough concepts to have endless permutations!

    On the other hand, there's a very hard-edged (and highly successful) mystery writer who has a character badly damaged by rape in every one of her books. The center of several of the mysteries are sexual abuse, and by about five books in, every one of her main female characters has been raped. Enough. That's not exploring multiple aspects of the human condition, it's..I don't know. Either exploitation or therapy-by-publication.

  22. I don't think of theme as I read, and it used to irk me when my various English teachers would point out themes under the guise of "the author intended." Never seemed to me that the author was consciously writing to a theme so much as writing a story that may have developed a certain theme. Well, OK, maybe Sinclair, but the average fiction author...

    My themes tend to about finding a place in the world. And abusive parents.

    As to whether mysteries are repetitive and tiresome, they are a genre that follows certain conventions. Those conventions are time honored, but the treatment of them is far from repetitive and new ground is constantly being broken. Doubtful that mystery novels will become "tiresome" as long as humans have curiosity.

  23. Thanks for your kind words, Julia. Never fear--Frank Bennet is next up on my "to write" list. It's got an escaped prisoner hiding out in the Adirondack preserve (you know where THAT idea came from!), but also a child torn between her biological and foster parents.

    I agree that rehashing the protagonist's same trauma over and over gets old. Readers start out sympathetic, but eventually they're going to say "get over it."

    As for the current mayhem in mystery publishing, I think it has more to do with publishing than with mysteries.

  24. Susan, you are on my list of authors to read before Bouchercon this year. I can't believe I haven't started your Frank Bennett series already, because I love the Adirondacks as a setting. After Bouchercon 2013 in Albany, my friend and I made a slight detour to go drive through some of the Adirondacks because of Julia's books set there. I think I have the first two of the Frank Bennett on my Kindle, which I will be checking in a few minutes. Your Palmyrton Estate Sale mysteries sound wonderful, too. The parent-child relationship is a favorite of mine, and it does seem to be an inexhaustible source for material.

    Talking about patterns in writing and reading, I had an interesting pattern pop up in the last year. It seemed many of my favorite authors were writing about abducted children, most which didn't turn out well for the children. And here's where great writing comes in. I wouldn't just seek out a story about an abducted child and sometimes might pass on reading a book with that subject (if I didn't know the author), but the ones I read were written with such skill and told such different tales that I was able to manage the distasteful subject matter.

    Oh, and Hallie, I love your old women. In fact, some of my favorite characters are the older women in the Reds' books--Miss Gloria from Lucy, Russ's mother from Julia, and Erika Rosenthal from Debs. Their life experiences and knowledge add so much to the stories.

  25. I have occasionally written to a theme in my own life ("The NCLB Murder" kept me from committing the real thing). More often, I see themes in favorite authors books echoing things I'm facing in my own life, or eerily, things I'm about to face. The insights have proven to be valuable in dealing with the challenges. Loss, love, courage, disappointment, bullies, walking away, organic food . . . life. Thanks!

  26. Aging seems to recur in my books. There is so much to plumb from getting older, good and difficult. Being childless also pops up. And, of course the psychological wear and tear of police work and the limits of psychology. Thanks for a provocative post. Got me thinking.

  27. Just discovered your site and was enjoying the post when the word Adirondacks caught me up. As a life-time Adirondacker who still summers in Hamilton County and whose third novel, Last Stop at Desolation Ridge, (shameless plug) is set in the Adirondacks, I immediately knew I'd add S.W.'s books to my to-read list.

    In terms of themes I recognize that there is a core theme in my books. (You'll have to read two to find out what it is.) As authors what motivates us to spend all those hours hammering away at the keyboard? Isn't there something about life that confuses us, intrigues us, haunts us? For me each book is another stab at making sense out of my issue in hopes my readers will understand it a little better, will see the world like I do. Does that make sense?