A Writer Finds Her Deepest Theme--Kay Kendall

According to most literary criticism I have read, an author usually has one underlying theme that she or he grapples with in fiction, returning to it time after time. In the first book or two, the theme may not be obvious. In fact, the author herself may not be conscious of it. Over the course of more books, however, an underlying thread can often be found.

What makes this concept intriguing to me is simple. I only recently discovered my own underlying theme. Moreover, it is not what I had thought it might be. Here it is—put most simply. The importance of friendship with—and support from—other women is key to a woman’s happiness. Or, to paraphrase the words the inimitable Ringo Starr sang way back in 1967, “She gets by with a little help from her friends.”

I am a relatively new author. My first mystery came out in 2013 and my second two years later. Now my third is nearing completion. I had thought I knew the themes in my murder mysteries, but I realize I was wrong. After three outings, I see something deeper is at work. Oh sure, the substance of my stories hasn’t changed. Yet, a deeper theme emerged and crept into all three manuscripts. Close and sustaining friendships among women appeared in each book, and none of these had been part of my plan. A quick tour through my books will show you what I mean. (Lots of delicious plot points are omitted. No spoilers.)

In DESOLATION ROW, a young Texas bride named Austin Starr follows her husband to a foreign country only to find herself alone and in peril when he is jailed for murder. Certain of his innocence, alone with no friends or relatives close by, Austin cannot even call home to talk to relatives for support. The time is 1968, and long distance calls are exorbitant. Then, in the nick of time, another young woman—Larissa, the daughter of Austin’s professor—befriends her, and together they hunt down the real murderer.

My second book, RAINY DAY WOMEN, begins one year later. Austin is a new mother, and Larissa travels across the country to take a summer job. One day Larissa phones Austin in the middle of the afternoon. This shocking act tells Austin immediately that her friend is in big trouble. As luck would have it, Larissa herself now stands accused of murdering a coworker at her temporary workplace. Because their ties are now strong, Austin with infant in tow flies across the country to support her dear friend—with Larissa’s dad footing the bill.

In both these books, there are also older women who provide sage advice and comfort to Austin. In DESOLATION ROW a middle-aged church secretary takes Austin under her wing and is so kind that her sympathy brings tears to Austin’s eyes. In RAINY DAY WOMEN Larissa’s aunt is so dauntless and dogged in her pursuit of justice for her niece that she threatens to run away with the plot.  

Of course there are male characters too—both good ones and evil—but what became clear to me as I set about writing my next mystery is how the females keep insinuating themselves into my stories. In my third mystery—a prequel about Austin’s grandmother set in small town Texas during the Roaring Twenties—there is another strong-minded aunt—and even flappers and floozies who make a surprisingly good impression on my heroine. My female protagonists are in their early twenties, still figuring out what they want to do with their lives and who they want to be. Because of that shared characteristic, I had thought my overarching theme was how women find their way in life. But over and over again, I find myself writing about how my protagonists are steadied and supported and protected by other women. While some of these female friends are the same age, others are older and somewhat world weary. The older ones share what they have experienced in their longer lives.

Taken together, the secondary female characters are the ones who make my heroines’ stories possible. They ensure the heroines’ success—whether it is in finding the bad people and serving justice, or living a fuller, more fulfilling life.   Getting by with a little help from female friends is the theme to watch for in my mysteries. And, gosh, I hope I haven’t spoiled any surprises by giving too much away.
Rainy Day Women—An Austin Starr Mystery (2015, Stairway Press)+Best mystery & Best book, Killer Nashville 2016

Desolation Row—An Austin Starr Mystery (2013, Stairway Press)

AustinStarr.com /www.facebook.com/KayKendallAuthor / @kaylee_kendall


Carolyn J. Rose said…
I never understood the concept of theme when I was in high school. I used to drop a pencil and hide beneath my desk when the teacher asked that dreaded question. It wasn't until years ago that I got it when Michael Keaton explained it to Geena Davis in Speechless as the "you see, Timmie." I think the themes for my life, and sometimes my writing, might be "muddle on through," or "work in progress."
Loretta said…
I enjoyed reading this before I began my day :) It made me reflect on my work, trying to decide what my underlying theme is. I love the theme of your work, Kay...and find it is so true :) Looking at situations with "fresh eyes" from younger women and gleaning what we can from older women, carries us further down the path of finding who we are and learning how to hone our talents to their full potential :) Kudos on finding your true theme and also finding its worthiness :)
S. Lee Manning said…
I never thought of your books quite like this, but you're right. The theme of the importance of friendship runs through both. It's important in life, too. Can't wait to read your next one, Kay.
Manning Wolfe said…
I see now that your theme is also reflected in your covers. Thought provoking article. Looking forward to seeing what Austin Starr does next.
Jackie Houchin said…
Very interesting post. Especially that it took you nearly three books to discover it. It makes me wonder what you THOUGHT the theme was before. I write a series of short story adventures for children, and now I will think on theme as well. I'm pretty sure I know what it is, but I'll take some time... just as you did. Thanks for the blog post.

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