Friday, May 27, 2011

Imagination and inspiration and romance

When I opened my front door this morning to get our newspaper, I saw the sweetest thing: a man in a business suit walking his young daughter to school, their eager dog straining against the leash the man held. The girl appeared to be at least ten--plenty old enough to walk to school by herself in our very safe neighborhood, especially as there's a crossing guard on the corner who can see up and down the street. But she was skipping along beside her Daddy, holding his hand and chattering like she would never stop. His head was bent attentively toward her and he wore a besotted smile that melted my heart.

This is what it's like to be a novelist: You observe things, you feel things, and then you set your imagination free to fill in all of the details of the story.

And then you write it all down.

Here's how my mind was working as I shut my front door, newspaper in hand: Does he walk her to school every day? Probably not, because I've never noticed them before. So today was special. Why? Was he just back from a long overseas business trip, or was he about to embark on one? Was this walk a birthday treat for the girl? Was the dog a new addition to the family, and had the girl asked if her new pet could walk her to school?

There may not be a romance novel in any of that, but all of that imagining might help to fill out a scene in my next book, or it might provide some ideas for secondary plots or characters. Even if it doesn't, using my imagination in that way strengthens it in the same way that exercise tones the muscles of my body.

But a romance novelist isn't just a person who imagines. Everyone imagines at one time or another. A romance novelist simply can't stop imagining, not until the story is finished and emotional justice has been meted out and the main characters get the happy ending they so richly deserve.

Life is full of ups and downs. This side of heaven, rewards aren't always given when they're earned. So a great deal of the fun for Christian romance novelists is bestowing rewards on the characters we've created--characters who have suffered tremendous emotional hardships but have bravely bourne them, growing in wisdom and faith. It's deeply satisfying to close a book that leaves the hero and heroine standing together and facing a future packed with exciting possibilities.

You might be surprised to learn just how often Christian romance authors hear from readers who say our books haven't merely entertained them but actually helped them cope with their troubles. It doesn't seem to matter that the characters and situations in the books aren't real. Readers simply enjoy stories about plucky heroines dealing with problems they (the readers) can relate to. So maybe it's not all that surprising that many readers end up relating on such a deep personal level that they're able to draw encouragement and inspiration from the stories.

Yes, inspiration. "Heartwarming inspirational romance" isn't just a clever tagline at the top of every Harlequin "Love Inspired" novel, it's a what those and other Christian novels are. I'm not going to pretend that the books are meant to be lessons in Christian living. They're entertainment. But when novelists show Christian characters struggling through hardships and growing in their faith and overcoming, some people are going to see themselves in those stories and come away thinking that if they'll just trust God a little more and try harder to live right, then they, too might find contentment in this life.

Of course, not every lonely woman is going to end up with a hunky hero, the way they do in books. But at their heart, inspirational romance stories are not about women finding that perfect man, but about women finding themselves by drawing closer to God. It's not getting hitched to the hero that makes a heroine's life worthwhile. It's her realization that her life is worthwhile that gives her the confidence that makes her so attractive to the hero.

Not everyone understands that. One of my favorite cousins, a never-married U.S. Army chaplain, thinks even Christian romance novels encourage women to be dissatisfied with their lives. While I always want to point out that Jesus told parables because people respond to stories, there's probably just no convincing anyone who won't sample an inspirational romance novel or even read a blog post like this one. Would those people change their minds, I wonder, if they could see the hundreds of letters and e-mails I've received from women (and men!) who have eagerly shared what my books have meant in their lives?

Of course I'm aware that whenever my books have changed lives, it was all God's doing and not mine. All I'm doing is writing made-up stories about Christians growing in their faith.

And I just can't tell you how very much I love it.


Anonymous said...

I am so glad you are back, and feeling better. I agree with what you posted here. Isn't it amazing how God can take what we have done & use it to encourage or inspire others? Keep up the good work.

Brenda Coulter said...

Warmest thanks, Anonymous.

Anonymous said...

Keep up the good work!