Here we are in October, the month in which we celebrate ghoulies and ghosties and things that go bump in the night. Though Halloween is more than three weeks away, figures of witches and pumpkins carved with scary faces are appearing on front lawns in my neighborhood. Part of the fun of October is the chance to embrace spooky things. It’s a way to externalize our fears and play with them, and thereby reduce their power.
Wise people often say that at its most basic, life is about the struggle between our two most powerful emotions, love and fear. And it occurs to me that this struggle is at the heart of many of the novels I like best, both the ones I read and the ones I write.
Look at the romance genre—it’s all about the triumph of love, while fear lies at center of many of the challenges that the heroine and hero must overcome before they reach their happily-ever-after.
I never really thought of myself as a romance writer, even though one of my books (House of Whispers) is described paranormal romantic suspense and has a romance as a pivotal plotline. Crime fiction is the genre where I’ve felt most at home. But in the course of a conversation I had not long ago with a fellow writer, I realized that even my straightforward murder mysteries are in fact about love.
Take my most recent release, Snow Angel. In this story, a seven-year-old girl goes missing on the eve of a high-profile murder trial. She is the daughter of the star witness. Was Amy kidnapped to derail the trial, or has one of her feuding parents hidden her away?
My main character, Jess Randolph juggles twin careers as private investigator and an artist. She believes that these seemingly different endeavors have something important in common—both are ways to search for the truth. She has been giving Amy art lessons and the two have come to think of each other as sisters. Jess joins the frantic search for Amy, a hunt that takes her from San Francisco to the snowbound Sierra, and deep into the hearts of two shattered families.
The story examines the fear we feel when someone we love disappears. It gives rise, I hope, to a high level of suspense as Jess and Amy’s estranged parents race against time to find her, desperately hoping to bring her home safely—an outcome that is by no means certain.
The novel has no romance in the traditional sense. Though throughout the book Jess is wavering about the shape that her relationship with her boyfriend should take, he doesn’t make an appearance until the final scene.
But at its core, it is a story about love—how love brings people together to form families, and how, when we allow love to succumb to fear, those families can break apart.
When I look at the stories I’ve written, I find that this theme—love versus fear—runs through just about all of them. Those wise people I mentioned would remind us that love, whether it is within families, among friends, or in romantic relationships, is the more powerful of the two. But fear is a seductive liar. It tries to convince us that turning away from love and taking its side are the best ways to achieve whatever it is that we really desire. And too often it succeeds.
That’s the kind of conflict that makes for good stories.
This October, let’s embrace the Halloween spirit. Let’s put on our witch’s hat and carve jack-o-lanterns and enjoy our trick-or-treat candy. Let’s laugh fear in the face, and choose love. And of course, let’s read some good books.
Margaret Lucke flings words around as a writer and editorial consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is fascinated by the power of stories and the magic of creativity. Her books fall into two categories: 1) mystery novels that explore matters of the heart and often have a dash of romance, and 2) nonfiction guides to the craft of writing, which are intended to help aspiring authors find their stories and tell them well. A former president of the Northern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America, Margaret also belongs to Sisters in Crime and Romance Writers of America, and she teaches fiction writing classes for UC Berkeley Extension and other venues.
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