How can you improve and deepen your basic story idea? Besides plot and characterization, how can themes, both major and minor, enrich a work of fiction?
Think about the stories you read as a child. We were taught to draw the “moral of the story” in almost every case. Think about the American Literature classics you’ve read. For example, For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. In addition to their stories of war, greed, love and hardship, the great universal themes of literature were imbedded, either consciously or subconsciously by the authors. Their primary objective, no doubt, was to write a compelling story that many—even millions of readers—might enjoy. However, secondary to their objective was the expression of their outlook or philosophy of life. A truth about the human condition.
There are several important themes in For Whom the Bell Tolls: The harsh reality of war and how it kills the individual; That a special love can still survive the horrors of war; That courage and grace under immense stress and danger are the ideals of the average man. Hemingway was a proponent of SHOW, DON’T TELL. He was one of the first American novelists to reveal his characters through mainly action and dialogue. Since his dialogue was sparse, revelations via action was his stock in trade.
His main character, an American journalist who volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, is a reflective man whose survival in the war depends more on his ability to run, shoot and hide than his ability to write. While aware of the deep significance of what’s going on around him, he knows in the circumstances of the war, his individuality is lost. If he is to survive, he must act like a soldier, one of many, rather than an individual. After all, the “bell tolls for thee.” Death is sudden and random. So he acts and speaks, runs, shoots, makes love—when he can—and shows us through his actions how resigned he is to his fate.
The way I plan and plot my books are neither as a plotser or pantser, in the current writers’ colloquialism. It’s simply the way I think creatively. Rather than begin with characters or setting or a conflict idea, I begin with a dominant theme. The conflicts and characters grow from that thematic starting point.
Before I began to write my first book, OPERATION FAMILIA, I knew what my themes were: Family is important and helps to determine one’s identity and self-worth; Know thyself. To thine own self be true (to paraphrase the old Bard). My main character, Dina Salazar struggles in her quest to find herself—even changes her name—but ultimately, by risking her very life, proves to herself that the search is all important. Moreover, she proves to her family that she’s not a “desgraciada” but a woman of true worth. Which bears out another theme of the book: Only through tests of character are one’s identity and character revealed. Dina’s forbearance, patience and compassion are tested in addition to her courage throughout the story, and the climax of the book—when she enters a Mexican drug cartel’s lair--is the final test. Rescuing her Mexican cousins becomes for Dina a true test of her self-worth and her identity.
In my romantic thriller, A BODYGUARD OF LIES, I began with the basic theme of retribution and justice. Though justice is blind, she has a long memory. So FBI analyst Jake Bernstein believes as he is called to go undercover and investigate a naturalized American grandmother suspected of war crimes during World War II. That he is Jewish-American is part of his identity, and losing all of his grandfather’s German family during the Holocaust adds to his deep need for ultimate justice. However, he is a 21sst Century American male, first and foremost, a former SEAL and Navy man, a conservative male with a condo and stock portfolio. He’s the ultimate practical male. Balance and objectivity are his mottos in life. Conscience and morality are relative and dependent upon circumstances. In other words, justice is never black and white.
His undercover assignment becomes an unexpected test of those very mottos. Just days into his investigation, he asks himself the questions: Can he remain objective when the target’s lovely granddaughter has captured his heart, or at least his libido? How can he do his job and not compromise the investigation? Does justice really matter, anyway, after sixty years (the story’s set in 2005)? He has a difficult time believing that old, wrinkled and frail Mary McCoy Snider was really a ruthless Nazi spy, code named Hummingbird. That she conspired to murder the real Mary McCoy and take her place in Churchill’s War Office seems ludicrous to him. That she was capable of betraying the society and country in which she was living, Jake finds unthinkable. The reader knows differently, though. The chapters from the POV of the female Nazi spy, living and working in her deep cover role, reveal to the reader a completely different perspective. And, as Jake realizes, the evidence against Mrs. Snider begins to mount, making it impossible for him to ignore the awful, unthinkable truth. He knows, too, that cornering the old woman and forcing her hand will also break Meg’s heart.
Ultimately, Jake must decide whether justice and truth must prevail or whether the passage of time and the change of circumstances rule over human nature.
For me as an author, the themes of a story are my guiding lights, the beacons that direct me as I write and develop the characters and conflicts. For most writers, whatever works is the general rule of thumb. For me, the starting point is one or more of the universal truths. For me, this is what works.
Reviews for SONYA’S MIDLIFE CRISIS
"I thought it was great. I mean, I was hooked from the very first page because of all the wit and humor. I found myself laughing a few times ...and that was only the first three chapters!"
---Sandra Lopez, author of ESPERANZA and BEYOND THE GARDENS
"A fun romp to read! The story is a deft mix of humor and raw emotion with unforgettable characters. Donna Del Oro is an author to watch!" -- Loucinda McGary, award-winning author of The Wild Sight and The Treasures of Venice.
Sonya Barton, an art teacher and muralist, has an emotional meltdown at a family BBQ. Her husband tells her he needs a divorce so he can marry his pregnant girlfriend. And all along, Sonya had no clue! So, how does the worst day of her life turn out to be the best thing that could ever happen to her?
Sometimes your destiny happens on the road you take to avoid it. And one forty-two year-old woman learns it’s never too late to wake up and grow up!
“I need a divorce,” said Earl, “So I can marry my girlfriend. She’s pregnant.” He added in a rush, “See, it takes six months and she’s going to have the baby in about six months.”
“What?” I asked, spearing another hotdog with my barbecue fork. Not a funny joke, I decided, impatient to get all the hotdogs done before the buns burned to a crisp. The smoke was burning my eyes, so I turned away from both my husband and the grill. I rubbed my eyes on my arm and made a kind of gagging sound.
“Uh, I need a divorce…so I can, uh, marry my girlfriend.”
This time he was hesitant.
My husband stood there, wavering back and forth, a near empty bottle of beer in his hand. His face looked silly and boyish, like he’d been stuck in adolescence for twenty years. Of course, isn’t that what had appealed to me seventeen years ago? His bleached blond hair stood up in short spikes like an aging, wannabe surfer dude.
“Very funny, Earl. Get the barbeque sauce from that table for me, would you please? I need to add a little more to these hamburgers.”
It was the family reunion, a thirty-sixth birthday party for Earl’s younger brother, Scott. Earl was forty-eight going on fourteen, and as usual, was the life of the party.
That is, until he walked over to me with that strange look on his face. I wiped my forehead with my arm, feeling the heat of the grill strike me in aromatic waves, not in the mood for any of Earl’s horseplay or practical jokes. The party preparations had exhausted me, but Scott was a special brother-in-law. He was my friend.
“Sonya, you don’t understand. I’m not joking. I need a divorce.” Earl looked around at the relatives standing near the grill, waiting for their dinner, and lowered his voice. “I hate to break the news here and now, but Jennifer said the best place to do it would be a public place. Guess this is about as public as you can get.” He chuckled and threw his head back as he downed the rest of the bottle.
Was he drunk, I wondered, or was I? Did I hear him correctly or was the heat and smoke affecting my hearing? I looked up at him and stared. Sure, Earl was drunk or at least on a loud buzz, but his expression was serious. Just then, Scott approached the grill. Evidently, he’d overheard what Earl had just said.
“What’s the matter with you, you idiot? This isn’t the time or place for chrissakes.”
Like an automaton, my head swiveled and my eyes met Scott’s. My brother-in-law, the man I most admired and liked in Earl’s big, sprawling, fun-loving and raucous family, looked at me with blue eyes filled with shame and humiliation. And anger.
Was it true? What Earl was saying?
My throat burned and clogged. I couldn’t speak for a full minute. If Scott was looking at me in that way, then he knew something I didn’t. Somehow I eked out the words, “W-who’s Jennifer?”
Earl’s head dropped, his eyes raking the ground like a kid who’d been caught stealing from the emergency-money jar. Like all the times he’d disappointed me in the past, all the minor and major infractions of marital trust he’d committed over the years. He’d hang his head like a little boy and expect forgiveness. Like I owed him. Like the world owed him. Sure, he was drop-dead gorgeous, a dead ringer for Brad Pitt and the Bartons’ Golden Boy, but this time he’d gone too far.
After that, something exploded in my mind. I recall seeing colors, like fireworks shooting off in my head—red, yellow, orange, Pepto pink, then finally—mercifully—black.
What happened was the strangest thing. I’d later call it my nervous breakdown. It was like my mind left my body and watched from above as this woman in a two-piece swim suit, wielding a long-handled fork, chased a man in shorts around a pool. During the chase, somehow the grill ended up in the pool, Earl made a big belly splash, joining the floating hotdogs and soggy buns. People reached the crazy woman in the swim suit and held her down. Scott pulled Earl out of the pool and dragged him out of the backyard in a headlock. The mad woman screamed, then went limp.
Floating above the fracas, I watched as Earl’s two other brothers carried her inside the house, my feelings aroused more by curiosity than by concern. I do recall thinking why that woman was being so mean? Hey, maybe she deserved it if she’s so crazy. Maybe she brought it upon herself. Mostly, I was detached emotionally. Like I was watching a French farce from the rear of the second balcony. Or like watching a train wreck from a safe distance. Strangely comical and yet terrible.
When I came back into my body—I don’t know how much later— I was lying in my darkened bedroom. All the shutters were closed, the only sound was the ceiling fan which whirred softly. Two shadowy bodies lingered nearby. My eyes began to focus. Earl’s younger sister, Connie—the baby of the family—and her husband were sitting at the end of the bed, looking worried. The patio area was quiet, the house as silent as a morgue.
“Omigod, did I kill someone?” I asked, trying to swallow back a sob. I suddenly had an image of me wielding the BBQ fork like a knife, sharp prongs slashing downward. But there were no police officers standing nearby with handcuffs dangling from their belts.
I looked at my hands. No blood.
Owen Bronski, Connie’s accountant-husband, attempted a small, reassuring smile.
“No, but you went a little nuts for a while. We couldn’t get the fork out of the wood post, it’s buried so deep. Sorry about that, but maybe you can hang a pot from it and no one will notice. Anyway, it missed Earl’s back by a long shot. That was when he took a dive into the pool. You were going to go in after him, but we grabbed you.”
“We got all the food out,” Connie offered, patting the bedspread sympathetically, “Fed the dog the hamburgers, too. They floated pretty well and we managed to save all the hotdogs. The kids thought it was a game, so don’t worry about them. We told them, you know Uncle Earl, he’s a cutup. And Aunt Sonya’s just pretending. Then when you passed out, we told them you got heatstroke. Not a far cry from the truth, is it? It got to the mid-nineties, can you believe it? What a scorcher for June! Especially for the Bay Area.”
Connie was talking so fast, she reminded me of a windup action figure. I kept waiting for her battery to run down, then I realized she was nervous. Did she think I would attack her, too? I wondered, horrified at myself. I was usually calm and rational. Did I have a psychotic break and turn into a homicidal maniac?
Inside, I was calm. No, numb. It was a bizarre state, I thought, considering I’d just tried to stab my husband with a barbecue fork. But there I was. Absolutely numb.
“Anyway, everyone ate while Scott drove Earl to her—well, to a friend’s house. Then Scott came back to blow out the candles on his cake, the cake you decorated for him. He really liked the scuba-dive theme. He’s been waiting in the living room ever since.” Connie was wringing her hands. “I hope those pills I gave you will help. I’m so sorry for this whole mess.”
“I don’t understand.” Tears began to stream, unbidden and unwelcomed. I’d never been a weeper, always the stoic, strong one. I’d learned to suck it in since I’d been married to Earl. I could take anything, but humiliation of the public kind cut me deeply. To the very core of my being. Pills? Connie gave me pills? I didn’t remember taking them.
“I don’t understand,” I repeated, like my vocal chords were stuck on that phrase.
I must’ve slept for a while, knocked out by Connie’s pills, because my head was foggy and leaden. I felt like I was in a bad dream, and if I held still long enough, I’d wake up and everything would be as it was before. Closing my eyes, I said a prayer to God: Please let things go back to the way they used to be. Please. I can’t deal with this. I don’t want to deal with this. Not now, not ever.
I opened my eyes. The room was still dim and Connie still looked stricken and nervous. God, did I look like the head-spinning girl from The Exorcist?
“Did you know about Earl and that-that girl?” I asked, summoning the nerve to face the wreckage of my marriage.
Connie couldn’t hide the guilty blush that colored her face. “I suspected, Sonya. Betty at work said she saw them together at the movies one night. That was the week you were visiting your family in Texas. During your spring break. But I think he started acting more than his usual strange self around Christmastime. Scott tried to make him end it, but you know Earl. He’s foolish and selfish—”
She broke off as though she suddenly felt like a traitor to her blood. Owen shrugged in agreement. Yep, everyone knew Earl and they knew what our seventeen years of marriage had been like. Yet, I loved Earl with all his human failings, just as I had thought he loved me in spite of mine.
Owen pushed his glasses back on the bridge of his nose. “I think it all goes back to his business failing. He loved being the boss, y’know. The bankruptcy hit him hard. When he was back to being a contractor’s foreman again instead of the head honcho, I think it did something to him. His self-esteem, y’know. His self-respect.”
Yes, that was it, I thought, clutching onto a straw of insight. Anything to avoid admitting to myself that it was my fault Earl had turned to another woman. But was it really that simple? Or had something been missing from our marriage for a long time and I was just too preoccupied to notice?
Still, seventeen years of marriage was a long time. Didn’t the average American move every five years? Wasn’t the divorce rate among Americans like fifty percent? Weren’t we a restless nation, always looking for something better on the next horizon? Wasn’t it always greener on the other side of the fence?
“B-but he said he liked his job,” I suggested, desperate to understand what went wrong. “He seemed happy.”
The last part was lame, even I had to admit. Earl was always the family clown, the joker. If I, his wife of seventeen years, couldn’t see beneath his mask of mirth, what did it say about me and our relationship? Connie, closest to her brother in the Barton clan of six siblings, had sensed something was different. Earl had fallen in love with another woman, evidently, and I was just one big cliché—the wife was the last one to find out.
“Y’know Earl,” continued Owen, “he puts up a good front. Always has, as long as I’ve known him.”
“But how does having an affair and getting another woman…pregnant”—saying it was like getting peanut butter off the roof of my mouth—”how does that solve his self-esteem problem?”
Both Owen and Connie looked at each other, then back at me like duh…if I couldn’t figure that one out, then I was totally clueless.
While dabbing at my wet cheeks with the edge of the sheet, I grew silent. They knew something about Earl that I didn’t, obviously. They had the key to his soul or heart. They understood him, I didn’t. Maybe I didn’t understand men, period.
Yes, that was it. I’d lost all understanding of men. Or maybe I’d never understood what made a man tick. Relationships had always been secondary to my greatest passion—art. That’s just how I was made. I resolved that would change. Just as soon as I had this nervous breakdown over and done with, I’d start to learn what made a man tick. What made him want to leave his loyal, faithful wife of seventeen years for another woman. What made him want to start a whole new family and have a baby at forty-eight.
Then maybe I’d learn enough to win him back.
Yes, just as soon as I finished falling apart and going crazy, I’d study that. Maybe the answers were right there, but I was just too much in shock at the moment to see them.
I sank back into the covers and buried my face in the pillow, my eyes closed tightly. The dark room was comforting, the silence even more so. Thank goodness it was the beginning of summer vacation. No lesson plans to make, no student art work to grade, no parents to call. My daughter, Evita—rather, my sister’s daughter that Earl and I had raised as our own—was doing an internship with State Senator Villalobos in Sacramento.
Evita! What would she think? What would she think of Earl, the only father she’d ever known? Already I was feeling her pain, her disappointment.
Nevertheless, a part of my practical brain took note. I had over two months—until September—to have a nervous breakdown, study the problem and win back Earl. Make it up to the Barton family for somehow failing one of their sons. Make it up to Evita for driving her substitute father away.
“We’ll stay for a while longer, hon. Just until you feel better,” Connie said softly.
Feel better? Mostly what I felt was numb. In shock, kind of numb. My mind was working, though, churning through the problem, looking for a quick solution. There was one out there, I was sure of it. I just had to withdraw from the world for a bit.
Maybe for more than a bit. Maybe for the rest of my life.
The world intruded again five minutes later. Owen and Connie were replaced by Scott, the birthday boy. My friend.
“Sonya.” He camped on the edge of Earl’s and my kingsize bed. He nudged my foot, then my shoulder. I was buried in my blanket-cave, thinking I might hibernate there all summer.
“C’mon, Sonador. Little dreamer, talk to me.”
Scott was the only Barton who called me by my full Christian name, Spanish for “dreamer”. My parents, third-generation Mexican-Americans born and raised in Texas, thought it a romantic name for a girl. The only dreamy part of me was thinking thirty years ago that I could become a great painter. Instead, I became a high school art teacher—a career I loved, mind you, but quite a bit lower on the prestige level than a Rubens, Monet or even a Diego Rivera or Frida Kahlo.
“Go away, Scott.”
The entire Barton family made their living by talking, it seemed. For them, it was a competitive sport. Scott wasn’t a successful owner/broker of a realty firm for nothing. The guy could never take no for an answer. He could cajole an adamant “No!” into a “Maybe…well, yes!” in two-minutes flat.
This time, however, was different. He knew I could be as stubborn as he was persistent. I was a rational, sane person most of the time, but not today. Today my tempermental side, usually well restrained, had erupted. That poolside explosion might have been just a prelude.
“I really liked the cake you had made. The scuba diver, all the undersea creatures, the wreck. I know you designed it—it was terrific and I loved it. Glad it didn’t end up in the pool. Tasted good, too. You know, I really like banana filling. Thanks, Sonya. For the party, too.”
In spite of myself, I managed to smile. From underneath the covers, I mumbled, “I’m sorry, Scott. Earl ruined your party. Guess I did, too.”
There was a moment of silence. Another pat on the shoulder.
“Earl has that knack, doesn’t he? Listen, it’s best if Earl doesn’t come around for a while. You need to do what you need to do to come to your senses and move on with your life. Earl—well, dammit, Sonya, we both know Earl’s beyond hope. He’ll do what he damn well pleases. You know it and I know it. Mom and Dad feel bad about it, feel bad for you, but you know how they’ve been with him. He’s the oldest, their first-born, the golden boy. In their eyes, he’s never going to do anything wrong. They’ve excused him all his life, so nothing’s going to change now.”
I thought I heard a big sigh following Scott’s resigned, resentful tirade. But Scott was right. I could expect no help from Mom and Dad Barton. The entire clan would close around Earl like a protective Marine platoon. All except maybe Scott.
“I’m going to spend the night in your guest room, Sonya. If you need anything, call me, but I’m not letting you stay alone tonight. Got that? At some point, you’ll realize you’ve got to move on with your life. But for now, you just need to rest.”
Move on with my life? Is that what Scott just said? How can I move on when I’d just died? Or something had died. It certainly felt like something or someone had died. I felt like it was me—and I was attending my own funeral. And Scott was my only mourner.
I said nothing. The silence wore on. I felt another pat on my shoulder—more of a pitying caress—then the bed raised. The door to our—my—bedroom closed, leaving me to my tormented thoughts. Fear. Guilt. Shame. Rage. They were all there, crouching like demons inside my skull. Waiting to pounce when the numbness wore off.
Nuts to that, I thought.
I rolled over, saw Connie’s bottle of pills on the bedside table, took one and then plunged back into my cave. Counting down from twenty, I got as far as eight…then blissful nothing.