by guest blogger Bill Cameron
Not long ago, I had a revelation. It was the sort of thing you'd think I would have figured out already, but an excess of brainpower is not something I'm blessed with. Takes me a long time to noodle through things. In this case, it took me four books and who knows how many short stories to recognize there's a prevailing theme in my writing.
The first surprise is that there IS a prevailing theme. I honestly had no idea. Oh, I've had, "This story is about …" moments. Lost Dog was about (gasp) loss. Chasing Smoke was about confronting mortality. Day One dealt with the need for security. And County Line is about how a single choice can resonate throughout a lifetime.
Fancy, high-falutin' stuff. But only peripherally interesting. No one reads a story because you say, "It's about loss."
For me, the recognition of each book's individual themes served as a touchstone during revision—does this scene/character/line of dialog fit what I'm trying to do here? Once I've sorted through those kinds of questions, broad observations about "theme" don't have much significance.
But this prevailing theme notion? Maybe that's something worth a second look.
So what's my thing? Turns out all my books and the majority of my short stories are about how parental neglect and abuse shape children into the adults they become. Each story is a different take on this issue. Sometimes I focus on how damaged children become damaged adults, sometimes my interest is in how they survive to become whole. But if one thing shows up again and again in my work, it's really crappy parents.
That's fairly specific. It's not "loss" or "mortality" or some other cruising altitude observation which can apply to a multitude of tales. Rather, it's a window into what preys on my mind. It's a problem I struggle to understand, perhaps even to solve.
Of course, the issue is likely beyond resolution. But that's another matter altogether.
You might ask how a guy gets to be nearly 48 years old before he figures out what's important to him. It's not that I haven't long understood childhood abuse is important to me. In other contexts, this problem has been a priority for me for most of my life.
It's one thing to have a priority in one area of your life and another thing to see how it influences another. Like I said, I can be slow on the uptake, and my approach to writing is so focused on the moment that I don't often see the bigger picture until later.
Those general themes—loss, confronting mortality, etc.—are rarely clear to me when I'm drafting a story. I didn't know the theme of Lost Dog until the third draft, and I had to complete at least one draft of the other three books before I had a handle on what I was attempting. When I consider that, it makes sense that I needed a body of work under my belt before I could see what I'm up to in my writing.
Now that I know this, what next?
Well, if nothing else, I hope the realization helps make me a better writer. Will I continue to explore these themes? And in so doing, with I be more mindful of the approaches I use in the future? The quick answer to both those question is yes. I'm working on a young adult mystery which I think will take a look at the domestic abuse issue in a way which is new for me. That's pretty exciting.
But the other thing I find I'm likely to do is consciously choose to tackle other issues in future projects. Not that I believe I've said all I have to say about domestic abuse, but I'm looking for opportunities to explore new issues. If there is a lesson is in this, it's simple enough: one way to avoid a rut is to see it before you get stuck. Rut or not, understanding of where I've been helps me better choose where to go next.
Bill Cameron is the author of dark, gritty mysteries featuring Skin Kadash: County Line, Day One, Chasing Smoke, and Lost Dog. Bill’s short stories have appeared in Spinetingler, as well as Portland Noir, First Thrills, and the forthcoming West Coast Crime Wave and Deadly Treats anthologies. His work been nominated for multiple awards, including the Spotted Owl Award for Best Northwest Mystery, the Left Coast Crime Rocky Award, and the 2011 CWA Short Story Dagger Award. He lives in Portland, Oregon, where he is currently trying to decide what his next great issue will be.