Themes Emerge

Continuing with the idea of theme – I believe that this emerges during the course of writing. I rarely start out with the idea of writing about a theme. I start with an image, an overheard conversation, a person, a place, an emotion. But as I write I become aware of what the story or poem is really about. Then I work to strengthen this with tone, image, repetition, plot and character development.

One way of strengthening a theme is to have two threads or stories running alongside each other within the one whole story, and I do this a lot in my writing.

Themes make themselves known in echoes and reverberations in a story, poem or sequence of stories and poems. Settings can strengthen themes, for example the hotel setting in Ali Smith’s novel, ‘Hotel World’.

In my short story, ‘At the Launderette’, which won one of the Yellow Room competitions and was published in issue 2, I explore themes of prejudice and loss. But I started the story with a visit to our local launderette to remind myself of some of the characteristics of this place (I used them as a student but now only if my washing machine’s broken!).

You don’t need to explain your theme to your readers – they should be able to uncover it for themselves. The title of your story, poem or sequence may give a clue! I’m thinking of ‘Persuasion’ or ‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austen.

Theme and Voice seem to be linked – both develop through writing and through developing the confidence to say how we see the world.

As I say in an article in the May edition of ‘Writers Forum’: ‘I don’t think we need to worry that our writing will just be imitation, If we are true to our own way of seeing the world, this will inevitably shine through. The more we write, the more distinctive our voice will become.’

At the Museum

Yesterday after blue sky and sunshine I was caught in hail and a tropical downpour (weather!). I dashed for cover into Priest’s House Museum in the Square in Wimborne. What an interesting collection of second-hand books they now have for sale, in aid of the museum.

Sheltering there reminded me that I often find inspiration for writing in a museum or art gallery. It doesn’t have to be the British Museum or one of the Tate galleries though I love visiting these. It can be your local places. Take your notebook when you visit. Find one thing or one picture that interests you. Describe this in as much detail as you can in note form. Write everything that occurs to you including your own thoughts, feelings and the memories that this thing or picture stirs up. Then you could repeat this process with one more thing/picture. When you get home, see if you can start writing a fictional story or a piece of life-writing or a poem that somehow combines or includes both of the things or pictures that inspired you. For example, you might imagine the person who once used this pewter goblet, ancient sewing machine or wore those amber beads. Perhaps the painting you chose seems to tell a story which you could continue. I hope this exercise opens up some good ideas for your writing.


As I drove through the New Forest today everywhere looked particularly vivid – the brilliant heather and gorse, the sculptures of fallen trees and branches, the emerging pale green leaves. I was thinking about one of the subjects we discussed this morning in the small novel-writing group I’m part of. We all seem to be addressing the nature of ‘Identity’ in our fiction just now. It’s strange how themes emerge and I suppose that all sorts of themes potentially underlie what we write. But we only pick up on some of them. That’s one of the reasons that readers are so important for writers. Readers can see aspects of our writing that seem to be hidden from us, or perhaps it’s that these subjects are so close to our hearts, so part of our identity, that we don’t think they are remarkable. If you are lucky enough to have someone who will read your work and give thoughtful comments, ask them what they think the underlying themes are.

Moving on from this idea, I think that as writers we also need to read. As I say in the May edition of ‘Writers’ Forum’: ‘When beginning to write it can be helpful to copy the style or subject-matter of an established writer. To start with, we are learning our craft by copying.’ I was interviewed, along with three other writers, by Matthew Small for the Motivation section of this monthly magazine (see pp 48-49). ‘We can get ideas for plots, characters and settings from other writers. We can rework these and make something completely new.’

More on these topics soon.