Themes in Writing

I finished reading Nancy Pickard’s Jenny Cain mystery MARRIAGE IS MURDER. When I was a young mother, I was hooked on Nancy Pickard, Carolyn G. Hart, Nevada Barr, Sharyn McCrumb, and Martha Grimes. All strong writers. So I was excited when I found a Nancy Pickard book that I hadn’t gotten to and started reading it with enthusiasm.

The book is good. The writing is great. But I felt like I was getting beat over the head with the theme of domestic violence, to the point, that the “who dunnit” sort of got lost. It’s been a long time since I read a Jenny Cain novel, but I don’t remember feeling that way about the others I read.

In this book, Jenny Cain is going to marry her cop fiancée, Geoff. He’s getting burned out, being a cop, and is thinking about quitting the force. In all honesty, this subplot could be taken from today’s headlines. Cops see everything–so much violence and ugliness. And in today’s social media, they get more criticism than support and praise. Who’d want to be a cop today? I’m not saying there aren’t bad ones. That’s another part of Pickard’s story. Geoff is paired with a new partner, and the reader can’t decide what to think of him. Neither can Geoff. But there are so many good cops who do work I’d never want to do and who don’t get the respect they deserve that Pickard’s story is timely. But she gives very few clues along the way about the murders and even loses track of the mystery amidst everything else going on in the book.

Photo by Jeremy Wong on

The other subplot of the book is marriage itself. Jenny Cain is having second thoughts about marrying a cop. Not that I could blame her. Horrible hours. Things they can’t share. Is she making the right choice? I’ve been married to my HH for 51 years on this coming Sunday, August 21st, but I still vividly remember the morning of my wedding. I went to the gas station to fill my car with gas for our honeymoon. I’d reserved a romantic room at the Poconos for a week and then we were going to travel through New England for another week. (That’a a story for another day. Planning ahead isn’t always the best policy), but I had a full tank of gas, and I remember thinking that if I took off and drove far enough, no one could find me when I didn’t show for the ceremony. I knew I loved HH, but committing to something for a LIFETIME is a big deal, and it scared me. But then I thought about NOT having HH in my life, and I drove to the retired minister’s house where we were married. But Jenny’s thoughts and fears resonated with me. I understood them.

And right before Jenny was getting married, she was seeing the WORST side of marriages where husbands beat their wives, and the wives kept going back to them. Nancy Pickard was a reporter and editor before she wrote books. I’m guessing this story was triggered by something that really happened, something she felt passionate about. It was a great story, but I’m not sure it was a mystery. Still, any time spent with Nancy Pickard is time well spent.

The book made me think about THEMES, though. They often run through novels, but they’re an integral part of the story. Still, I’ve read more than a few books where the theme takes over the TYPE of story the author’s telling. And that’s too bad, because when I read a mystery, I want the mystery to be the main focus of the book. If I read a fantasy, I want fantasy. Themes are fine. They add a deeper level to any story, but if I wanted to read about domestic violence, that’s what I’d do. If it’s in a mystery, then it should CONTRIBUTE to the mystery. But everything in writing is about balance. There’s a lot to juggle–plot, pacing, characters, setting, tension, etc. The trick is to try to make them all work.

Happy writing!

4 thoughts on “Themes in Writing

  1. This is timely stuff right now. Television and films are rife with preachy stuff today. It’s a turn-off when all you seek is entertainment. I’ve added a few things to my own stories, but I hope it enhanced the tales. Grinders probably had more than the others.


  2. I enjoyed Grinders. It never felt too preachy to me. I don’t mind a theme. In fact, when it’s done right, it makes me think and I enjoy the extra addition to the story. But for me, the story’s always the main thing.


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