Noodling on theme

I attended Surrey International Writers’ Conference this year – a first for me and the first virtual conference for them. They did a superb job of offering interesting and inspiring content to writers at all stages in their writing careers. Although circumstances prevented me from attended more than a few live sessions, I’ve seen several recorded sessions and enjoyed them as well. Of particular interest for me:

  • Crafting a Page Turner with Hallie Ephron
  • Building the Character Network with Maria Reva
  • Embracing Conflict with Eileen Cook
  • Refining Your Theme with Susanna Kearsley

In Refining Your Theme, Susanna Kearsley said that a lot of writers keep trying to work out the same issue in their novels. Her own issue centres on the meaning of home: Where is home? Where do I belong? Who are my people? Kearsley doesn’t begin with theme. Rather, she finds the theme grows organically as she writes, often emerging unexpectedly in dialogue–what Kearsley refers to as an ‘aha moment’. Susanna Kearsley believes that her subconscious is at work while she writes, which is why her characters often reveal the theme through dialogue.

This session got me thinking about theme as it relates to historical fiction. Theme is one of the seven elements of historical fiction, but to my way of thinking themes are universal; they transcend time and place. Themes like the one Susanna explores are just as relevant now as they were hundreds of years ago.

Popular themes addressed in today’s fiction include: love, death, good vs. evil, coming of age, power and corruption, survival, courage and heroism, prejudice, individual vs. society, and war. While the historical context and events surrounding these themes vary depending on the time period, I would suggest that the way people react, cope, and change is the same.

My own novels – Time and Regret, Unravelled, Lies Told in Silence and the soon to be published, Paris in Ruins – address war, courage, and love. They feature ordinary people in extraordinary times, a theme that asks each of us what we would be willing to do to defend our country and those we love. The Admiral’s Wife – as yet unpublished – deals with love and prejudice. The story behind You Don’t Know Me, a contemporary novel currently in my editor’s hands, considers power and corruption as well as survival.

At one point in her talk, Susanna Kearsley advised attendees to “let your story be what it wants to be.” Good advice.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website

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The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

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3 Responses

    1. I wouldn’t have understood this notion in my early days of writing – but I get it now! Nor would I have understood the concept of your characters “speaking to you”. After six books, my characters have become very lively. How about you, Theresa?

      1. Yes, sometimes the characters take over. And sometimes I’m even happy when they do. Once I wrote myself into a corner and didn’t know how to extricate myself, so I brought a bossy old lady into the scene and let her tell the others what to do.

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