Friday, July 31, 2020

What Themes Attract Readers?

Whether authors of fiction write short stories, plays or novels, theme is an essential component, just like characterization, plot and setting. A theme, which is a universal idea or message that stretches throughout a work, often is sociological or cultural in nature.

Some themes reoccur because they have strong appeal for readers. For instance, I recently finished reading a thriller in which the theme was conspiracy theory, popular in the suspense genre. Fiction writers often pull their themes from nonfiction and then write faction. Readers are attracted to such themes because they can easily identify and connect to them. Dan Brown and Brad Meltzer are two popular suspense writers who have successfully done this. Shakespeare often used politics as an underlying theme in his plays whether contemporary or historical.

Good fiction writing needs a cohesive theme to hold the work together. The lesson is generally about life or humanity and is preferably implied rather than stated outright. The show-not-tell rule works well with theme.

However, there may be more than one theme, especially in a novel. One way to convey theme is through recurring use of symbolism. Hawthorne and Hemingway were both particularly talented in that regard.

Romances concentrate on the theme of finding love everlasting. But even with romance fiction there are often secondary themes. Two of my historical romance novels for Luminosity, SINFUL SEDUCTION and soon to be released HIGHLAND HEART, are connected with themes of war and politics.

In HIGHLAND HEART, jealousy is an important theme motivating the protagonists. The reference to OTHELLO is deliberate.

 Mysteries, in turn, are about finding solutions and discovering the truth about puzzling situations such as solving murders and imposing order where there was chaos. These are themes that attract mystery readers and what they expect.  My latest Kim Reynolds mystery BLOOD FAMILY is concerned with such matters.

There are often socially significant secondary themes in crime fiction. Kim, for instance, begins a quest to discover the paternity of her father. This involves her in a complex mystery. The desire to uncover true identities is another reoccurring theme in mystery fiction.

What themes interest you as a reader or a writer? What themes appear to be especially significant?

Friday, July 17, 2020

Interview with Author Cathi Stoler

I have the pleasure of interviewing a fellow mystery writer this week. Cathi is a three-time finalist and winner of the Derringer for Best Short Story “The Kaluki Kings of Queens.” She is a board member of Sisters in Crime New York/Tri-State, and a member of MWA and International Thriller Writers. You can reach her at

Question: What is the title and genre of your latest novel?  Why did you select them?

BAR NONE A Murder On The Rocks Mystery is the title of my newest mystery/suspense novel. I’ve written several previous mystery novels and I wanted this to have a different theme and decided set the story, and the series, in a bar owned by a woman, Jude Dillane. I thought the title, BAR NONE, would telegraph the theme to my readers. It’s going to be followed by two other novels, LAST CALL, and, STRAIGHT UP, also terms that relate to the bar business.

Question:   What inspired this novel? How did it come about?

My husband was in the bar and restaurant business for many years. I spent time at the various places he worked and became friends with many of his co-workers. I also observed how people related to each, from the cooks, to the waitstaff, to the bartenders and patrons. It often felt very much like a family. I wanted The Corner Lounge, the bar and restaurant in the book, to be the place where ‘everybody knows your name’ and I created the story around that.

Question:  Could you tell us a little bit about the heroine and/or hero of your novel?

Jude Dillane, the protagonist at the center of the story, is a young woman who is determined to succeed. She’s had some setbacks in her life and still mourns the loss of her immediate family years ago. Jude’s worked very hard to make a go of her place, The Corner Lounge on Tenth Street and Avenue B on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. She’s has the good fortune to have a wonderful friend in her landlord, Thomas “Sully” Sullivan, a former Marine Colonel, who owns the building the restaurant is located in.

For Jude, Sully has become a surrogate father and because of their close relationship, she agrees to go undercover at the Big City Food Coop where he volunteers to help find a murderer.

Question:   Can you tell us about some of your other published novels or work?

I’ve written two other series. The first is the Laurel and Helen New York Mysteries, a three book series in which magazine editor, Laurel Imperiole, and P.I. Helen McCorkendale, team up to solve crimes involving art looted by the Nazis, hidden identity, and the theft of a priceless red diamond.

My other series features professional blackjack player, Nick Donahue, in NICK OF TIME, a novella, and OUT OF TIME, a full-length thriller. In both, Nick travels the world playing blackjack, getting into difficulties, and solving crimes with the help of his partner, Marina DiPietro, a former MI6 agent.

I’ve also written a book of short stories, BAD THINGS HAPPEN, and various other stories including the Derringer winner, “The Kaluki Kings of Queens.”

Question:   What are you working on now?


I’m working on the third book in the Murder On The Rocks Series, STRAIGHT UP, in which Jude is still dealing with the after effects of a serial killer who’d been stalking people on the Lower East Side where her business is located.

Question:   What made you start writing?

I attribute it to my love of reading since I was a very young child. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t reading. In my first career, I was an advertising copywriter and creative director and wrote commercials and print ads. Of course, that’s very different from writing a novel, which I believe somewhere inside I always wanted to do. I decided I would try and I took a class entitled “Overcoming Your Fear Of Writing Your Novel.” It allowed me to realize I could do this and I’ve been writing novels ever since.

Question:   What advice would you offer to those who are currently writing novels?

Don’t give up. It may not be easy and you may have doubts about your work, but keep writing. Eventually, you will finish.

Question:  Where and when will readers be able to obtain your novel?

BAR NONE will be available on Amazon and at bookstores everywhere:

*Cathi welcomes your comments and questions!

Friday, July 3, 2020

Dual Personalities in Literature

My guest author today is writing about the theme of dual personalities and identities in fiction. Patricia McAlexander is from upstate New York, the setting of her new novel Stranger in the Storm, but she’s also lived in Colorado, Texas, and Wisconsin. She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of New York at Albany, a master’s from Columbia University, and a doctorate from The University of Wisconsin, Madison, all in English. Patricia now lives in Athens, Georgia, with her Southerner husband, whom she met when they were graduate students in Wisconsin.  After retiring from teaching at the University of Georgia, she’s had had more time to garden and travel while renewing her interests in photography, history, and, most of all, writing fiction.


I was fascinated when an early reviewer of Stranger in the Storm commented on its theme of dual or confused identities. She noted that Janet, the protagonist, wonders, when first meeting Wes, the stranger of the title, whether he is friend or foe, and goes on, “The answer is in doubt—when Janet first sees his face, it’s ‘blurred by streams of water.’” I’d thought of that blurring as just a factual detail when I wrote it, but after reading that review, I saw how the detail indeed connects to the novel’s theme of dual identities.
I’ve long been fascinated by the case Thigpen and Cleckley describe in The Three Faces of Eve, where one facet of the patient’s personality was the quiet, serious, even dull “Eve White”; the other was the wild, uninhibited “Eve Black.” (The third, a combination of the two, emerges during treatment.) Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde also portrays a dual personality. The good, beloved Dr. Jekyll battles the evil within himself, but in trying to expel it, he is transformed into the evil, violent Mr. Hyde. The Incredible Hulk stories of Marvel Comics, the TV series, and movies portray a similar character: Dr. Bruce Banner, when threatened, transforms into a huge green and often destructive creature that he tries valiantly to control. In the opening chapter of Stranger in the Storm, Dr. Jack Dexter, the charming, charismatic professor who swept Janet off her feet, becomes domineering, possessive, abusive.  Janet decides he must have a “dual personality.”

Equally fascinating to me are identical twins, individuals developed from the same fertilized egg with exactly the same genes—a literal splitting of one person into two. Studies of such twins suggest they share a genetic component not only in appearance but in everything from intelligence to psychological traits. In fiction, however, we sometimes find twins who, like Eve White and Eve Black, are psychic opposites; one may be good, the other evil, like Jekyll and Hyde. In Daphne du Maurier’s The Scapegoat, two men who meet by chance look exactly alike, as if they were twins (though the phenomenon is not explained). One is suspect morally and has made a mess of his life; the other—we could designate him as the good twin—takes on his counterpart’s identity and with great effort makes things right for him.

In Stranger, the second man to come into Janet’s life, after she has left Jack and gone to her parents’ cottage in upstate New York, is the handsome, chivalrous stranger who rescues her during a storm. But when he shows up the next day, he seems to have morphed into a totally different person—a criminal who would not hesitate to rape her. Do we again have a dual personality?
Another early reviewer called Stranger a “Hitchcockian thriller.” I was happy that someone thought its drama and suspense worthy of such a designation.
          After she discovers the abusive side of his personality, Janet Mitchell leaves the professor who swept her off her feet. Will she discover the same darkness in Wes, the handsome young man who rescues her during a hurricane?
Years before, Wes Corbett vowed not to get romantically involved again, fearing anyone close to him might be harmed by his brother William, a born criminal. Now as he weathers the storm with Janet, their mutual attraction becomes clear. Can he keep that vow--even though he knows William is on the loose and may be headed directly for them?


A wave of horror passed over her. It was true. Wes was the escaped convict. He had reunited with Richard Sturgess, the other convict. How he had fooled her! He was as good a performer as Jack, acting so convincingly to get what he wanted—in this case, shelter and food— then her father’s tools to free his truck.
Richard said to Wes, “Did you get the key?”
“Yes.” Wes held it up, then unlocked the door and motioned them inside. He looked at the pile of clothes and the wet mattress on the floor. “What a mess.”
       “I need to get dressed,” she said.
 “Sure, you can get dressed. But you aren’t getting out of my sight.” Wes noted her jeans, shirt, and underwear on the couch. “Here you go.” He tossed the items one by one to her, dangling her bra for longer than was necessary.
Anger boiled up in her. Snatching each item, Janet saw the blanket he had used on the couch the night before. She grabbed it and wrapped it about her like a burka. Then she pulled off her bathing suit and, rather awkwardly, dressed inside the blanket.
Wes watched her with mocking amusement. Finished, she threw the blanket aside. “Clever girl, aren’t you?” said Wes. “Now, how about getting me some dry clothes and fixing us something to eat?”



Comments for Patricia are welcome here!