01 November 2023

What's It All About?

 I've been thinking about what individual stories are about.  I don't mean plot.  Do I mean theme? Maybe so.

What brought this to mind was an interview with  Tim Minchin, Australian comedian. singer, and composer of the bestselling musical Matilda.  He said that all of his work is about the same thing: How do you lead an ethical life?

As you see, that's a deeper "about" than just plot.  So let's play around a bit...

The very first mystery story, Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue" is about the triumph of rational thought.

Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" is about evil lurking under the surface of the ordinary (definitely a recurring theme for her).  Or is it about atavistic hangovers in civilization? Certainly a tale can be about more than one thing.

Susan Glaspell''s "A Jury of Her Peers" and Roald Dahl's "Lamb the the Slaughter" are both about men's inability to see things from women's point of view.  

Donald E. Westlake said "I believe my subject is bewilderment.  But I could be wrong."

My own first published story, which you can read here, is about the effects of  betrayal.  My story "Why" is, logically enough, about motive.

I suppose my favorite "about," which comes up again and again in my writing and my favorite stories is the possibility of redemption: someone trying to fix a mistake.

The reason I am pondering all this is that "When You Put It That Way" appears in the November-December issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  It is my fortieth story there.  

And it is about economics.

What?  Capitalists versus socialists?  Evil corporate monopolies? Progressive versus regressive taxation?

None of the above.  I have heard economics defined as "the study of the  allocation of scarce resources,"  

In my story, that resource is personnel.

My protagonist is a district attorney faced with an unsolvable dilemma.  1. A billionaire just killed two people.  2. The sheriff thinks she has evidence of a serial killer.  

The dilemma: Both crime scenes need a lab technician immediately and he only has one to send.  I put plenty more obstacles in his path, but that's the essence of the problem. Scarce resources.

As I was writing this blog I was reminded of something I was told by a friend who is in the biz: "An economist is someone who, after a battle, shoots the wounded."

Come to think of it, "Shooting the Wounded" would have been a pretty good title for my story.  But I like "When You Put It That Way."

I hope you do too.



  1. I really loved your story. That opening line...
    Meanwhile, I've done a few stories about betrayal ("Great Expectations", "No Fences"), but I think I do more about surviving at any cost ("The Sweet Life" and "The Closing Of the Lodge" are the most recent).

    1. Thanks, Eve. You won't be surprised that the whole story sprang out of that first sentence which just popped into my head one day. "Surviving at any cost" is a great theme.

  2. Rob, the ending of that first story packed a wallop. Your take on "what's it about" is a good prompt. I looked back at Melodie's post, and she said, "my protagonists, while different from each other, often have my moral beliefs and views on life. They put forth and discuss issues of ethics and politics that support a Canadian woman's viewpoint. Mine." I could say the same is true for me if you substitute a New York Jewish woman and adjust for the fact that my series protagonists are a male non-Jewish New York recovering alcoholic, a 15th-16th century Sephardic Jewish brother and sister (different culture and DNA from mine), and a shapeshifting Nashville country artist. My work is also "about" the transformational power of recovery from addictions and toxic attachments, the power of love, friendship, and family, and cultural relativism, with a special interest in pushing Christian-based culture, Eurocentricity, and patriarchy off the center of the stage, depending on what I'm writing. More and more, it's also about recording the past so it doesn't get swept away and forgotten—not only our history but our language. I remember howling with disbelief the first time I heard settings within my lifetime referred to as "historical fiction" (I'm two years older than the first Baby Boomers). But now I accept that I AM history, and that history won't be lost as long as I can speak up.

    1. Liz, we are all indeed history. If we thought that way we might all be better off. GLad you found a wallop in my story!

  3. Oh, yes, and like Eve, about survival, especially women's survival. Abuse keeps cropping up in my stories, and it's always in the context of survival.

  4. My friend, the late Audrey Peterson, made a whole career out of mysteries about women dealing (in many ways) with unwanted pregnancies...


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