The good news which the church seeks to spread has never been limited to the pulpits of cathedrals. It’s also been offered in the marketplace and in whatever media was available at the time. During the Middle Ages, puppet theaters re-enacted the stories of saints and biblical characters for passers-by in the streets.
Today, venerable Christian publishing houses are being supported in part by a genre, which they might have spurned a generation ago. It’s a faith-based spin on the ever popular romance novel. With an 86 percent female audience, many of whom devour dozens of titles yearly, these are often set in periods of historic challenge and commonly feature a rugged and often reserved hero, a misunderstood and frequently ill-treated heroine and a cast of supporting characters that can extend to a series of books and generations of romantic, but faithful questing.
Our Faith contacted two Texans romance writers for their insights into this genre, and their help in understanding the phenomena of the modern Christian Romance novel.
The first, Karen Witemeyer, of Abilene, is an award-winning author who loves Texas, Galveston and God. Not necessarily in that order. Her book, “Full Steam Ahead,” features our island milieu. She explained why her readers are hooked on her heroines.
“First and foremost, my readers are looking to be entertained,” Witemeyer said. “They want to be swept up in an adventure with page-turning action, clean yet swoon-worthy romance and a healthy dose of humor. Yet they also want to relate to the characters, to resonate with their life struggles, and see a bit of their own spiritual journey reflected in the characters’ story.”
Witemeyer offered a caution for her readers who might have a book in them waiting to see print.
“Writers are skilled artists, and like any artists, it takes years to hone the craft,” Witemeyer said.” Not only must you master the craft of fiction writing, but you must learn the industry. Success takes work, dedication and a teachable spirit.”
And the more general advice that the best thing a budding author can do is read.
“When I was growing up, all I knew was that I loved being a reader,” Witemeyer said. “I devoured books. My favorites were stories set in the past. As I grew older, I discovered historical romance and fell in love with that genre. Maybe it’s the big dresses or the escape to a simpler time, but I love being swept up in the past. I couldn’t write a romance without my faith shining through the cracks and crevices. When readers write to me to say that their soul was impacted by one of my stories or characters, I know I have made the right choice.”
“Every journalist has a novel inside him, which is an excellent place for it,” the American art historian Russell Lynes is said to have observed. Fellow-Texan Beth Wiseman was a practiced reporter for the former Houston Post before she began writing Christian romance novels, some of which are set in Galveston and Port Aransas.
“My ‘Surf’s Up’ series is fairly new,” Wiseman said. “Each novella takes the reader to a beach locale, weaving romance and adventure into a soul-soothing journey of hope. I strive to entertain readers, but I’m always hoping and praying for that one reader who picks up one of my books and it somehow changes their life in a positive way. Then I’ve done my job for God. The trick with Christian fiction is not to be too preachy. You want to get the spiritual message across without pounding the reader over the head.”
As for the reality proffered by the popular T-shirt which once warned, “Be careful or you’ll be in my next book,” Wiseman explained how that actually works out.
As for friends and family finding their way into my stories, it happens, although not intentionally. I’ll create a character without anyone specific in mind, but by the end of the story, I realize that I’ve incorporated characteristics of someone I know,” she said. “A lot of times, that person picks up on the similarities before I do.”
So is Christian romance writing a calling of sorts? Wiseman believes it is.
“There is a peace within me that I try not to take for granted,” Wiseman said. “All I ever wanted was to publish one book in one life that would make a difference. So, the fact that I am writing my 38th story and am approaching the two million mark in sales is mind blowing to me. I have been incredibly blessed.”
Cynthia Ruchti, is also a local author. And she serves as a spokesperson for the American Christian Fiction Writers organization. From that vantage point, she sees this industry changing rapidly.
“One of the harsh realities of publishing at the moment is that over the course of the last couple of years, some of the go-to publishers of fiction (including romance) within the Christian publishing industry have made the difficult decision to close or reduce their fiction departments,” Ruchti said. “Readers of Christian romance are certainly not losing their interest in the genre. They are among the most voracious Christian fiction readers.”
Why does the Christian romance formula work over and over again for its many readers?
“It’s been encouraging to see the audience for inspirational romance expand beyond church-goers, as authors address real-life issues woven around the romance or love story,” Ruchti said. “Couples figuring out how to redeem a crisis, where to find courage when that’s needed, how to work together for a common cause, and what it takes to rebound from disappointment rather than crumble under it. The hunger for hope will never fade.”
Next week in Our Faith: A second set of Texans venture into this popular genre.