Contemporary Fiction is a Real Genre

In the midst of other fiction genres—thrillers, mysteries, romances, and whatnot—it seems contemporary fiction oftentimes gets overlooked or left out.

“Contemporary fiction? Oh, you mean general fiction.”

Well, yes. But also, no. Contemporary fiction isn’t merely a general or nonspecific classification, and it certainly isn’t a throwaway category.

Granted, if I had to pick a favorite genre, historical fiction would likely be mine. As I think about the many historical novels I’ve read over the years, not all of them have been about an actual historical figure or event. A good number of the stories have been about purely fictional characters experiencing various facets of life during time periods in the past. Experiencing life in a historical setting doesn’t necessarily mean the characters are investigating a crime, or searching for true love, or discovering magical gates to lead them into different realms.

You can think of contemporary fiction as a bookend to historical fiction, if you like. Not every contemporary plot is about investigating crimes, searching for true love, discovering magical gates that lead to different realms, or other scenarios that reflect genres folks may identify more readily. Many contemporary stories are about fictional characters experiencing various facets of life in contemporary times. And life is nothing to sneeze at.

You may find a story about a brother estranged from his siblings, navigating the winding path to reconciliation. Or a woman tackling the challenges of opening a shelter for survivors of abuse. Or a man whose best friend is diagnosed with a terminal disease, so the two of them interrupt their regularly scheduled schedules to go and snap all the pictures they can on a road trip they’ve been putting off for years. No telling how many contemporary scenarios I could come up with.

And as for women’s fiction—

“Women’s fiction? Oh, you mean romance.”

Nope. I mean women’s fiction.

The romance genre is its own thing, and its rules are specific. The development of a romantic relationship must be the main focus of the plot, the story must have an HEA (Happily Ever After) ending for the couple, and other rules that adhere to the romance genre formula. Sell a “romance” novel where the hero and heroine shake hands, say goodbye, and go their separate ways in the end, or where nothing romantic happens until late in the story because the hero and heroine are busy with other matters and only just meet each other halfway through the book, and you’re gonna have a lot of miffed romance readers on your hands.

They’re not in the romance genre, but these two contemporary stories certainly have romance in their storylines.

But that’s beside the point. Finding someone to date or to stand at the altar with isn’t the only thing that happens in women’s lives, folks. 😀 Women’s fiction encompasses much more than that, with women’s growth and experiences as the focus. Their health. Their careers. Their rights. Their relationships with friends and family. The list goes on. And, yes, a women’s fiction novel can include a romantic storyline if it wants to, but it’s not necessary.

Of course, this isn’t to say that women’s fiction is restricted to the contemporary category. You can find historical women’s fiction. Fantasy women’s fiction. Again, the list goes on. But women’s fiction is indeed a big component of contemporary fiction, where characters experience so many of the ins and outs of modern life.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ll enjoy a good present-day mystery, or a present-day suspense story, or a present-day romance, or a present-day sci-fi adventure. But just because a present-day story may not be from one of those genres doesn’t mean the story is ambiguous or genre-less.

Contemporary fiction is a real genre.

A Few
Contemporary
Novels
I’ve Read

 

Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain, and Christian Books

I should start off by saying this post isn’t meant to stir up a theological debate or to prove which belief is the “right” one on this topic. Rather, this post is a call for Christian Fiction readers to consider how we regard and talk about an author when their thinking may differ from ours.

It seems many Christian readers frown if, in Christian Fiction or in fiction written by Christians, they see characters use “Oh my G…” or “Oh L…” as casual interjections. I don’t think it’s a bad thing for Christians to frown or cringe at that when they’ve been taught not to take the Lord’s name in vain.

However, it does concern me when ChristFic readers begin to criticize an author’s Christian standards or speculate on the author’s spiritual condition because their fictional characters use those interjections.

It’s no secret that Christians the world over interpret biblical teachings differently and have different doctrinal views. That’s nothing new. So it’s important to realize that not every Christian has the same belief about what “taking the Lord’s name in vain” actually means.

Consider this fact about me: I am my mother’s daughter. She’ll often identify me as such to people who don’t know me (“This is my daughter”), or she’ll sometimes address me as such as a term of endearment. “Hello, daughter!”

Even so, though I am her daughter, “daughter” isn’t my name. Not even if you were to spell it with a capital D. My name is Nadine.

Some Christians don’t consider saying “Oh my G…” to be taking the Lord’s name in vain because they don’t consider His name to be “God.” We commonly use that more generic word as a reference to Him or as an alternative to His name, whether out of habit, for convenience, by tradition, out of respect, or whatever the case.

But when Moses inquired after the Lord’s name in the book of Exodus, did the Lord answer, “My name is God, with a capital G”?

Not exactly.

He answered Moses by saying, “I AM THAT [or WHO] I AM. Tell the Israelites, ‘I AM’ has sent me to you.” The “I AM” phrase there relates to the name Yahweh, sometimes shortened as Yah or Jah. The name is where we get the phrase “praise Jah,” or as we better know it, “Hallelujah.” (Hallelu-Jah! Not so much “hallelu-god.”)

Moreover, to the Hebrews who received that commandment about the Lord’s name (and to many people today, especially in certain cultures), one’s name isn’t merely a sound you make or letters or symbols you write down to refer to someone, like “Joe” or “Jane.” Rather, one’s name is a declaration about who a person is, their character and reputation.

It’s where we get an expression like “So-and-So has a good name in the community.” The point isn’t that So-and-So is called Joe or Jane, or to say “Joe” or “Jane” is a nice name to have. What the person is literally called, for practical language/communication purposes, is beside the point. The point of the expression is to refer to that person’s character and reputation.

Even if Joe were called Bill, and if Jane were called Beth, it wouldn’t change who they are as people. And there may be other Joes and Janes out there, called by those same literal names, but that’s not the point, either. It’s the speaker’s meaning and intent behind the word “Joe” or “Jane” that gives significance to the expression, “Joe/Jane has a good name in the community.”

Taking on the name of the Lord is to take on His character, His reputation. Not just what we verbally call Him for the sake of limited, earthly communication, but Who He is. And no matter what limited, earthly language we speak, it’s the meaning and intent behind what we call Him that’s of paramount significance, not the earthly word itself. Earthly words can only go so far to represent or explain what is not of this earth.

There are Christians who believe the commandment about not taking the Lord’s name in vain doesn’t have to do with saying, “Oh my G…” or what have you. It’s about claiming the name—the character, the reputation—of the Lord in vain, to no avail. Claiming Him, saying you’re a believer in Him, but then not behaving like it.

In that sense, the commandment not to take the Lord’s name in vain isn’t a rule about cussing. It’s a commandment about how you live. As if to say, “Thou shalt not claim connection to the LORD thy God while living a lie.”

It’s like if you get married to someone, you claim connection to their name or take their name as your own, but then you go around having romantic flings with other people. You’re living a lie, behaving as if you aren’t married to your spouse, whose name you now share. That would mean you’ve taken your spouse’s name in vain.

When people have a different belief concerning the Lord’s name, “Oh my G…” may just be a colloquial phrase to them, an interjection having nothing to do with the meaning and intent behind the name Yahweh. Having nothing to do with the sacredness of declaring or taking on Yahweh’s character and reputation.

Now, in case you’re wondering about this particular author’s writing: if a character in one of my books says, “Oh, God,” it’s not a mere interjection. It’s a prayer. Still, I’m well aware that not every Christian has the same beliefs about what it means to take the Lord’s name in vain.

And whatever your belief is on the matter, or any number of other matters, I trust it’s best not to jump to conclusions about an author’s Christianity or personal standards because of something one of their fictional characters did or said.

On a related note, we live in an era of author websites, social media, email, and such. Though it isn’t possible to do so in every case, the best way to get a clearer understanding of an author’s heart or intent on a matter may be to go ahead and contact them about your concerns regarding their book. To ask the author questions and to consider their answers. Not to merely prejudge or speculate about the author. 🙂

 

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?

“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.