Thematic Circling

Sorry I missed posting last week. I had one of those economic-apocalypse days (my wife and I had a sudden loss of income the night before), and spent the whole time chasing freelance work to make up the shortfall in our income. Things worked out okay — we’re set for a few months now, and chasing leads for future stuff — but it was still a harrowing day or so. My natural urge is to write a post about diversifying freelance income and being willing to write various kinds of things if you want to make a living at this kind of thing, but I’ve covered that before, so I’m going to follow another impulse and talk about thematic circling.

If you read a bunch of stuff by a given author, you’ll probably start to notice themes, images, tropes, whatever, that recur over and over. They give you a clue to the author’s ongoing concerns. (Stephen King writes an awful lot about writers and brain tumors; Tim Powers writes a lot about dead wives and drinking booze; Charles de Lint writes a lot about the evils of child abuse and the power of the imagination to transform lives; etc.) While I would counsel against doing armchair psychological profiling based on noticing such trends, it’s certainly interesting.

I, myself, do a fair bit of this sort of thing. (I’m sure I do lots of stuff I’m unaware of, too — probably better if I’m not overly aware of my deeper obsessions.) I have a tendency to seize a certain idea and attack it from different angles, and produce related works… which nobody but me ever seems to notice are related.

There’s my Legba triptych, for instance. Stories “The Scent of Copper Pennies” and “Jen at the Crossroads” and poem “The God of the Crossroads” — all about the vodun loa Papa Legba, the opener of the way, and all about parallel universes, but more importantly, all about those linchpin moments in life, those choices that change everything forever after; decisions to leave, or stay, or love, or run away. I couldn’t say everything I needed to say about the subject in one piece — so I said it in three.

Likewise my poem “Soul Searching” and my story “Life in Stone,” both about the idea of sorcerers hiding their souls away in a jewel or a stone, to become immortal — but more importantly about what it might mean to live without a soul, to go on living without an essential part of yourself, and whether that would be any kind of life at all.

My stories “Restless in my Hand” and “Over There” are both about people in the modern world confronted with epic fantasy situations (one inherits a deadly magical axe, and one has a midlife crisis related to a trip to a fantasy world decades before). More fundamentally they’re about the corrosive power of nostalgia and the danger of power fantasies. I’ve got a third story in mind for that idea, too — another triptych, examining the subject from yet another angle.

I’m never really done with anything, because by nature I am a writer who poses questions, and doesn’t expect answers; most questions about the human condition don’t have clear, simple, one-size-fits-all answers. By circling certain themes until I finally feel satisfied, though, I can begin to hone and narrow the spheres of my inquiries, and find out what’s most important to question.

-Tim Pratt


2 Responses to “Thematic Circling”

  1. 1 rachelaaron
    May 13, 2009 at 5:35 am

    I’m thrilled to see a mention of Legba, I love crossroads stories (and loa spirits).

    Being able to examine ideas from different angles is one of the key things I feel I lose by not writing short stories. I have been poking at my deep water themes lately (those things that seem to run underneath every story I put together). Almost every story I have involves will as an all conquering, overpowering force. In my current books, will is the primary component of magic, and wizards can be stronger or weaker depending on their will for a given task. It’s sort of a fantasy twist on the good old American “if you want something bad enough, you’ll work until you get it” kind of mentality, only turned into magic. I think this is because this idea of work until you make it has been so central to my own life as I wrote book after book trying to get published. How funny, I never even realized that until just now.

    Sorry to ramble all over your post, that was a bit of revelation for me.

    Also, “Restless in my Hand” and “Over There” sound like awesome stories. Where would they be available? 😀

  2. 2 Tim Pratt
    May 13, 2009 at 8:10 am

    Oh, you can circle themes in multiple novels, too, believe me!

    “Restless in my Hand” was in Realms of Fantasy a few years ago, and “Over There” is in the Intergalactic Medicine Show right now, so neither is freely available, alas…


    If I do another collection in a few years, they’ll both certainly be included!

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