Arts and Entertainment, Authors, Books, Fiction

Dreaming Up Books

Authors get ideas for their books in all kinds of ways. I myself get story ideas from a lovely combo of imagination, life experiences, personal convictions and passion, and, yep–sometimes my story ideas come from dreams.

I don’t just mean dreams as in wishes or aspirations, but the actual dreams I have when I go to sleep. Sometimes they’re nighttime mini-sagas that I find so entertaining or moving, I have to write ’em out!

Come to Yourself, Mr. Jones is heavily based on one such saga where the leading man was originally a music artist, movie star, and professional athlete all rolled into one. It made natural sense in the dream, but I had to iron it out in my mind once I decided to develop the dream into something readable for the public.

So, then. What’s the hero’s career in the story I wrote? I know what it is, and readers may or may not piece it together. But I purposely left it a little ambiguous because the hero’s career is rather beside the point. It’s his status, not his specific job, that matters to the plot. Besides, sometimes it’s fun to leave things up to a little interpretation.

Eminence is based on one of my dreams set in historical Japan, somewhere between the seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries. There are things I’ve found fascinating about samurai culture over the years, but when I decided to develop my samurai era mini-saga for readers, I didn’t want to tie down or confine its themes about personal identity and the value of humanity to a particular culture.

So, I worked the dreams’ themes and its major scenes into an unidentified (made-up) country with fictional customs during an unspecified historical era, with characters of no specified race(s). I even took the characters’ names from a hodgepodge of origins and incorporated a few different languages into the dialogue and narration, to keep the basis diverse. (Albeit I bent some language rules here and there, since the characters’ language is also unspecified.) It’s humanity, period, not certain races or nationalities, that Eminence means to represent.

And then there’s Love Unfeigned. I gathered key scenes from about twelve dreams and wove them together for this one, with pieces of my own life sprinkled in. Yeah, I know such a mishmash could have the potential to turn into a disjointed mess, but even I marveled at the way the scenes began flowing together, once I realized who the heroine, hero, and villain would be.

It’s like characters lead the way in these matters at times. “You–with the pen. Here’s what we’re gonna do, here. Write it down for us.”

I’ve got several more mini-sagas and saga scenes stashed away that I’ve not developed into publishable material. I keep ’em around just in case a writing project arises to which I can say, “Hey! I’ve got just the dream for that!”

Think about it. Has anything awesome ever come out of one of your dreams?

Books

“Political Correctness” in Fiction

It happened again. My comments on someone else’s blog post prompted me to write a post of my own. This time, the discussion was at the Sweet Americana Sweethearts blog, where author Heather Blanton addresses the practice of sanitizing historical fiction to make it polite, palatable, and politically correct for twenty-first century readers.

Without rehashing that whole post, I’ll note that I agree with Heather. Trying to clean up history to make ourselves comfortable is indeed dangerous. The more inaccurate we are about the past, then the more we misremember it, and as the saying goes, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

With that said, when it comes to race, culture, and history, it can be easy sometimes to paint over everything, or everyone, with too broad a brush. We can think to ourselves, “Well, yeah, people were prejudiced or just said ignorant things back then, but they couldn’t really help it. Where they came from, that’s just how it was.” So it’s good to keep in mind that while there may be a mainstream idea or habit within a society, there also tend to be people who don’t conform to the mainstream of their time. In the past (as it still happens in the present), not every person thought or behaved the same way as “everybody else.” Light and truth are constants, even in a period or place when light isn’t prevalent or the truth isn’t popular.

Nonetheless, when it comes to various areas of life, including writing about the past, there’s a difference between being politically correct and being culturally competent or sensitive. As an author, when it’s time to write about unsavory parts of history, and you don’t want to offend readers, it’s a great idea to check your motives. Are you trying not to be offensive because you genuinely care about the people concerned, or do you just want to prevent negative reactions from coming in your direction?

In his book, The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege, author Ken Wytsma highlights some good stuff about following the silver rule versus following the golden one. The main principle there can apply to political correctness and writing.

Political correctness can oftentimes adhere to the silver rule: “Don’t do unto others what you don’t want them to do unto you.” It can focus on trying not to do something, being polite at all costs in an attempt not to offend anyone. Being polite so as to avoid the trouble of backlash, whether or not the actual human beings you might hurt are your real or main concern.

In contrast, cultural competence applies the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Imagine yourself in the place of the person or culture you’re writing about, even if it’s only a minor character or a small aspect of the plot. Imagine yourself in the place of readers who are a part of that culture. Consider their triumphs and their plight, past and present. Consider how you’d feel if the people in your book weren’t “other people” but they were your own friends, your own family. Consider how you’d feel if the person in your book was you. What, then, would be your attitude as you approach telling that person’s story or depicting aspects of that person’s culture or lot in life?

Political correctness often comes from a place of fear, while cultural competence comes from a place of love.

Being a culturally competent author doesn’t mean you have to whitewash, misrepresent, or try to erase history. One of my all-time favorite examples of cultural competence in entertainment is a television show, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. In ways big and small, the show is historically accurate. It doesn’t shy away from depicting racism, injustice, and ignorance. It illustrates complex scenarios, brings substantive characters with room to grow or shift, and it relates powerful, relevant messages about love, acceptance, and justice without trying to ignore or erase the facts of the past.

When you’re a culturally competent author, it doesn’t mean you gloss over, sugarcoat, or tiptoe around uncomfortable social elements because you’re terrified of stepping on anyone’s toes. Rather, it means you’re active about finding ways to show love through your writing; to show that while ignorance did and does exist, it doesn’t mean it was or is okay, and that it’s possible and necessary for us to do better. There are different ways authors can convey this, whether they weave it into a plot, reflect it through a character, infuse it into a story’s overall tone, include a thoughtful word directly to readers before or after the story, or what have you.

On a related note, for authors who do or want to write competently about people of different races or cultures than their own, it’s smart to have a diverse circle. If everyone in your critiquing or publishing circle, or in your life, is pretty much the same as you are, then you may need to widen your circle. But that’s another topic to unpack.

Anyhow. A little consideration and/or creativity can go a long way in getting a message of light across in fiction, even when depicting flawed characters or regrettable portions of history.

You don’t have to write from a place of fear when you can write from a place of love.

 

Arts and Entertainment, Authors, Books, Fiction

Christian Fiction That Doesn’t Mention Christ?

It’s something I’ve been pondering for years.

There seems to be a good number of readers who don’t consider a book to be Christian Fiction unless they see something explicitly Christian in it. Characters praying, studying their Bibles, learning from sermons in church, talking about God or coming to Jesus, etc. The basic idea is that if there’s no mention of Christ, then the book may tell a nice story, but it isn’t Christian.

I get it. And a lot of Christian novels that gave this (relatively young) genre its foundation were pretty overt about, well, preaching Jesus through fiction. Hence, I get it even more.

The way we’ve seen things done before frames our thinking about how things should be done. If we’ve seen Christ or Christian lifestyles represented in a certain way in ChristFic, and we approve of what we’ve seen, then we feel assured that that’s the way it “works.” So if we read a piece of fiction and don’t personally see “how it works” as a Christian book, we might feel iffy about it. That’s natural.

Yet, it’s no secret that the biblical book of Esther doesn’t mention God. (Notwithstanding the beautiful book cover here, I’m not referring to novels about Queen Esther but just the biblical book itself.) I’ve never heard a Christian say that Esther shouldn’t be in the Bible, or that the book isn’t reflective of the God Christians worship. Instead, I hear readers make comments to the effect of: “No, Esther doesn’t explicitly mention God, but we see evidence of Him in the book.”

Ah! Now we’re getting somewhere.

Yes, Christ preached sermons and such, but not every message of His came in the same form. Among other things, Christ was a storyteller, sometimes using fictional stories—parables—to convey truth, without explicitly mentioning God in the stories.

And I’ll bet some people felt iffy about His storytelling. “Um…nice little tale You told us, there. But we don’t see how it ‘works.’ ” Nonetheless, I’ve yet to hear a Christian say that Christ’s stories weren’t reflective of Him, that they didn’t represent God, or that His storytelling was to no avail just because not everyone picked up on the underlying points His stories made.

A story may not work for every single person, or it may not work for everyone in the same way, but that doesn’t mean the story doesn’t work.

I think an author’s intended audience matters. But even within that audience, different readers differ, or they may need different things from ChristFic at different times. For instance, I don’t want to feel as if every Christian novel I read is trying to “get me saved.” It might’ve been something I liked seeing in books more, back when I was younger, but that’s not where I am anymore. So ChristFic readers are fortunate that authors can write various kinds of Christian books for different purposes. Not all Christian Fiction may “work” in the same way, and yet it can all still be Christian Fiction.

Besides, no one book has to fulfill all the purposes of ChristFic by itself, if that would even be possible. Books in the genre work together to meet the different needs of readers. It’s like the biblical principle of how one plants, another waters, and God gives the increase. One book may simply plant a seed, another might just add some water, but both books help lead to an increase, if you will.

Now, I’ll admit I don’t always agree with every publisher’s choices about what they label or market as Christian Fiction. Moreover, sometimes retailers make technical mistakes and put certain books into the wrong categories or on the wrong bookshelves.

Still, if an author has deliberately chosen to call their work Christian Fiction, they’ve done so for a reason. If you say the genre is only for stories that quote scriptures or explicitly talk about coming to Jesus, going to church, etc., then you’re also saying there’s no place in the genre for stories like the ones Christ Himself told. Even if an author’s book may not “work” for one reader, it may be working just the way it’s supposed to for other people.

And there very well may be underlying evidence of God in the book for those who are meant to pick up on it.

 

Arts and Entertainment, Authors, Books, Fiction

Want Deeper, Grittier Christian Books? Then They Won’t Be “G-rated”

I’m kind of piggybacking on my “Want Different Books?” post, here.

In conversations where fellow readers express why they enjoy Christian Fiction, I frequently hear readers say that A) they rely on ChristFic to be “clean”—to be free of material like profanity and sex scenes. (Granted, there’s a lot of “clean” fiction around that isn’t Christian, but that’s a topic for another day.) Some readers add that they read ChristFic because they don’t want to worry if their kids or grandkids get a hold of their books. Likewise, I’ve heard someone’s assumption before that the ChristFic genre as a whole is meant to be kid-friendly. I also hear readers say that B) they want relatable, realistic stories, and books that deal with tough, true-to-life issues.

I suspect that when readers who want A also want B, they don’t always consider that B books will typically need more room than “General Audiences” or “Kid-Friendly” ratings to realistically tell the stories.

In a spy or military thriller, an author will have to use more than vague, “safe” phrasing to develop a violent scene. (Then, an unfortunate incident took place, and Joe was wounded. It hurt.) I hear readers say they’d like to see more romantic ChristFic books about married couples, and yet, romantic married couples are often going to do what romantic married couples do. (Sue had been missing her husband all day. When she saw him at last, she hurried across their bedroom and heartily shook hands with him.)

Yes, I’m exaggerating a little, with unfortunate incidents and matrimonial handshakes. 😀 But I think in many cases, while ChristFic readers are reading or selecting a book, we’re simply trusting an author or publisher, trusting in the knowledge that the book is Christian Fiction, more than we’re worrying about what the literal content rating would be. If an author we know and love tastefully writes some mature material into a novel, we usually don’t deem it to be dirty or inappropriate. We trust the author’s storytelling and his/her reasons for including that material.

The challenge comes when we’re stepping out of our comfort zones, looking beyond the authors or publishers we already know. Then we may, consciously or subconsciously, fall back on tight restrictions, to be safe: “No sensuality, no substance use, little to no violence, please. And strong language? No thank you. ‘Strong’ might basically be cussing, and I don’t want to read cussing.” The prospect of mature material from an author or publisher we don’t know can feel rather risky.

Even me—I consider myself to be a quasi-conservative reader. I want reality. I want grit. And I generally don’t want salacious content, swear words, or stories that are gory for the sake of gore. However, when it comes to certain websites or book subscription services, and I, as an author, have to apply specified content ratings or levels to the books I’ve written, it makes me nervous. Not because I think my books are dirty or inappropriate but because I’m concerned that Christian Fiction readers who’ve never read or heard of me may be turned off by the ratings.

If my book has a romantic kiss that’s more than a quick peck, the sensuality or sexual heat rating has to go up. If my book includes a tough issue like a parent’s drug addiction, or even if someone smokes a cigarette or has a glass of wine with dinner anywhere in the book, it’s going to count as substance use. If my book addresses domestic abuse, then violence will be reflected in the content level or rating.

This can get especially tricky for rating-based book websites or emails if a ChristFic reader is thinking, “Christian = Clean = Mild. Since I’m interested in finding Christian books, I’ll only subscribe to see listings/receive emails about books with Mild content.” Yet, if an author is writing about some of the real-life, nitty-gritty issues that people, even Christians, have to deal with, it will likely require the content to be more than mild.

Besides, even if you’re a pretty conservative reader, let’s say you were going to objectively analyze the content in all of the adult, Christian books you’ve read that handle “deep issues.” Not depending on the authors or publishers of the books—just the content inside. If you, without bias, combed through all of the Biblical and Historical Fiction (including biblical battles, accounts of the Crucifixion, Christian persecution, World War and Holocaust stories, etc.), Suspense and Mystery novels, Romance and Contemporary Fiction, and any other ChristFic books you’ve read that include serious topics, it’s probable you’d find material in some of them that isn’t strictly G- or PG-rated.

Of course, everyone is entitled to read what they enjoy. Not every author’s style or level of content is right for every reader.

Still, if deeper or grittier Christian Fiction is what you’re after, know that even authors who write deep and gritty material take great care in considering their audiences. Because there are tasteful ways to write about all manner of true-to-life issues, it’s good not to assume that grown-up content means a book is “dirty.” Authors depend on your trust and maturity as they tell mature, realistic stories.