Writing for the Inspirational Market
By LOUISE GOUGE
John Jakes, bestselling author of North and South, says: “Be yourself. Above all, let who you are, what you are, what you believe, shine through every sentence you write, every piece you finish.” Following that advice, I include my Christian faith in all my stories. Years ago, another member of my local RWA chapter said I was not a romance writer because I wrote Christian novels. I was so stunned I didn’t think to ask what she meant, but apparently she and I have different definitions of “romance.”
For me it’s quite simple. A romance novel is a story about a man and woman who meet, fall in love, and live happily-ever-after. How they get there depends upon the author’s audience. I write for Christian women who have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Their faith impacts every aspect of their lives, and they want to read about characters struggling with the same issues they do. What they don’t want falls into three basic categories: explicit sex, profanities/cursing, and excessive violence. Believe me, it takes a lot of clever maneuvering to show deep romantic feelings and desires without being explicit or to show raging anger or anguish without using curse words. And how does one write a thrilling suspense novel without some kind of violence?
Regarding sex, Summerside’s Lena Nelson Dooley, author of the award-winning novel Love Finds You in Golden, New Mexico, (an awesome book, by the way) says that her Christian publisher wants realistic stories without being graphic. Here’s an excerpt from the hero’s POV: “Once again, his traitorous body heat centered below his belt. Blast it all! He was a good, moral man. A conniving woman like Madeline Mercer shouldn’t be having this effect on him.” But writing for Harlequin’s Love Inspired Historical imprint, I’m not allowed to mention any heat below the belt. Former Love Inspired editor Krista Stoever used to tell her writers “Only from the neck up.” Meaning, our characters can kiss, but they shouldn’t go beyond that. Actually, they can embrace and hold hands, too, but modestly.
What’s the guiding principle behind this? Multi-published author Gayle Roper says “I think the big distinction of inspirationals is that we write based on biblical principles, not cultural ones. And celibacy is a big biblical principle. To say that people can’t control their hormones seems to say that they aren’t in control of themselves. Inspirationals give men and women permission to live above their hormones. They don’t deny attraction and lust. They just remind us we don’t have to yield.”
What about language? While Lena’s character can say “Blast it all,” mine cannot. In my 2010 Love Inspired Historical The Captain’s Lady, the antagonist, Lord Bennington, learns that his younger son has married without permission and to a mere shopkeeper’s daughter at that. I wanted him to say “blast” to show his rage. Nope. Can’t say blast. Some readers consider that term a curse. Nor can my current hero say “great heavens!” even though he’s very upset. Bodily functions also don’t have a place in our stories. Call it what you will, but many of our readers consider these usages inappropriate. To us, using the name of God or Jesus Christ as curse words is plain and simple blasphemy, even in the mouths of our most wicked characters. It takes some clever writing to make our stories realistic yet “clean.” But, hey, we’re writers. We can do it!
When it comes to violence, how do Christian suspense writers handle the requisite crimes that permeate their genre? Diane Burke, writing Love Inspired Suspense, says “Our readers expect these well-written novels not just to entertain but also to be wholesome and safe to read for any age group. There should be no explicit violence. In an inspirational romantic suspense, it’s fine to have a character find a dead body…but the gruesome details of what that body looks like or gruesome particulars about how the person was killed should be handled respectfully.”
Another important element we Christian authors try to avoid is any kind of self-righteousness in the tone of our stories. Love Inspired author Cheryl St. John says “Don’t sound preachy. It’s not my job to tell someone how they should believe or behave. But I feel it is my place to set an example and let people see my Jesus through me. So for me, the whole faith element comes completely through my characters’ viewpoints, behaviors, their beliefs and faith, and their trust in God.”
These are the don’ts, but what about the do’s?
As we know, any good romance novel has three threads woven together to create a compelling story:
1. The Plot thread: Regardless of genre, the plot (storyline) must be strong and interesting with a satisfying ending.
2. The Emotional/internal thread: The protagonists grow and mature or learn something about themselves.
3. The Romance thread: The hero and heroine fall in love at some point and by the end of the story have made a lifetime commitment to each other, i.e., a happily-ever-after.
Most Christian authors usually (but not always) include a fourth element: the Spiritual thread, which describes the characters’ growing relationship with God. If we weave these four threads together, we end up with a story as compelling and satisfying as any you may read. Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice, written with few references to the protagonists’ faith, are great romances utterly lacking in sex, profanity, and violence. Yet these books are timeless classics still read two centuries after they were written. I can only aspire to reach such lofty literary heights.
Bestselling, award-winning author DiAnn Mills says, “A Christian inspirational novel is a story in which one or more of the characters reacts and responds to the events in their lives according to their faith.” Every Christian author I know echoes that sentiment. As John Jakes advises, we seek to be ourselves, and let who we are, what we are, shine through our stories.
Award-winning Florida author Louise M. Gouge writes historical fiction for Harlequin’s Love Inspire imprint. In addition to numerous other awards, Louise is the recipient of the prestigious Inspirational Readers’ Choice Award for her 2005 novel, Hannah Rose.With her great love of history and research, Louise has traveled to several of her locations to ensure the accuracy of her stories’ settings. When she isn’t writing, she and her husband love to visit historical sites and museums. Her latest release from Harlequin is The Proper Companion, a Love Inspired Regency novel.
To learn more about LOUISE GOUGE, visit her online at: http://blog.Louisemgouge.com