In that first Tufa book, I had a very particular, self-contained story in mind: circumstances force Bronwyn Hyatt to decide how much she wants to step into her predetermined role in the Tufa community, and how much she wants to go her own way. That decision defines her character.
Bronwyn’s story thread is echoed by Craig Chess, a young Methodist minister also trying to find a balance between his calling and his own sense of morality. Craig wants to share Christ’s love and hope with the Tufa, who have a history of resisting exactly that; in fact, there’s no church of any kind in Cloud County (it turns out there’s the remains of one, as the title of the fourth book, Chapel of Ease, reveals). He’s perceptive enough to understand that he’ll never win them over by proselytizing, so instead he simply behaves as he believes Christ would: he’s compassionate, supportive, and helpful to the Tufa without asking anything in return.
A third thread involves reporter Don Swayback, only part Tufa, who has ignored and resisted that aspect of his heritage but finally decides to embrace it. Together, these stories form the thematic line that runs through the book: the struggle between responsibility and freedom.
How did I decide on this theme? Let me use an example from another art form.
In Bruce Springsteen’s VH1 Storytellers episode, Bruce goes into detail about the song “Devils and Dust,” explaining how each line and image works toward the song’s final effect. But then he says:
“How much of this was I thinking about when I wrote the song? None of it. How much of that was I feeling when I wrote the song? All of it.”
And that’s usually the truth. Artists—in the general sense of those who make any form of art—often don’t have a clue what their works mean, we just know when it feels right. When I started writing The Hum and the Shiver, I had no advance intent of making Craig’s story reflect and comment on Bronwyn’s. I wanted a minister character because, in a novel about the South, it just felt right.
Which is not to say the final thematic form isn’t deliberate. For me, the themes start to emerge during revision. You notice that some elements, with a little tweaking, can provide interesting counterpoints to others. You see that characters behave in ways that subtly comment on things. You realize that the speech you gave your hero explaining what you meant can be shown rather than told through action and plot. You see the forest and the trees.
Experience has taught me that anyone can write, i.e., string words together with some sort of coherence. The skill and inspiration that makes a real writer, though, show up in revisions. The ability to shape your story into something more meaningful than a mere pile of words is the center of the Venn diagram of art, skill, and inspiration.
Coming soon: how the themes of this book expanded to become the overall themes of the series.