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Review: The New England Romance Collection

I hate to say it, but this collection of Christian Fiction romance stories was the straw that broke the camel’s back. (Although, I should really credit one of the Amish romance novelists with weighing down the camel in the first place.) I avoided sunburn and heatstroke by curling up indoors with The New England Romance Collection on my summer break. Let’s dive in to what I found.

What Worked

  • First and foremost, these five ladies wrote novellas, found agents, and published their manuscripts. Kudos to Susan Page Davis, Darlene Franklin, Pamela Griffin, Lisa Harris, and Lynette Sowell for that! It takes a lot of hard work, focus, and dedication to complete a work of this length.
  • The purpose of encouraging other Christian women in their faith clearly drove these five authors in their writing. Regardless of the execution, I believe these women wrote with pure hearts and an admirable goal.

What Could Improve

  • Unclear Settings: The book’s back cover provides the most clarity for the time and place where each story occurs. The stories themselves do not contain enough unique descriptions to differentiate this book from the thousands of others on the shelves. In addition, the descriptions in these books rely heavily on the visual sense. Unfortunately, the simple visuals actually prevent the reader from getting drawn into the story.
  • You Told Me Too Much: What is the first rule of writing? Show, don’t tell. Now, I find it easier to say that rule than to accomplish it, but that rule separates diaries from prestigious magazines. Unfortunately, The New England Romance Collection tells the reader setting, emotion, and character development far more often than it shows the reader. By telling instead of showing, the authors actually prevent readers from putting on the characters’ shoes and walking around.

Why Does Walking Around in the Character’s Shoes Matter?

When readers can’t immerse themselves in the story, they can’t learn the lessons the characters learn, either. Bringing readers along on a character’s emotional journey allows readers to learn the lessons for themselves. Don’t we usually learn better from experience than from rules and advice? If it’s true for a parent trying to keep their child from touching a hot stove, it’s true for the author trying to lead people in a deeper relationship with God.

Hope Exists for Romance

If Christian Fiction Romance authors focus on vivid sensory details, we can vastly improve the genre. (Of course, editors and publishers have a hand in promoting immersive books, and that’s a different issue.) I believe improving the quality of the writing would start bringing a wider audience into the genre. That wider audience means more people who can be shown Christ. A win-win!

If you are looking for a romance book that handles sensory details well, check out Jan Karon’s Mitford series. For a different take on The New England Romance Collection, the Goodreads reviewers note what they valued and liked in the book. How do you feel about immersive sensory details in books? Let me know in the comments!

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Review: At Home in Mitford by Jan Karon

I wanted to start this Friday’s review of Christian Fiction with first book in Jan Karon’s Mitford series, At Home in Mitford. The series is one of my favorites, as I mentioned in last week’s blog post. This week, we’re talking about what makes At Home in Mitford great.

The Characters

  • Father Tim: The main character of the Mitford series is Father Tim, an Episcopalian priest with a heart of gold and a stomach for a few too many sweets. He’s well rounded in more ways than one; he has a heart of gold that comes off as gruff under stress, and his affinity for sweets and concern for his parishioners’ feelings often leads him to neglect his own health. He is lovable and flawed. For someone in their sixties, Father Tim has a lot of growing left to do, and that makes for a fascinating book.
  • Cynthia: She draws cats and moles for her children’s books. She forgets to take the pink curlers out of her hair. She sits on the Gospel side of the Episcopalian church. Father Tim’s new neighbor is as interesting as she is a mess. Cynthia provides a lovely catalyst for Father Tim’s character development, but she also works through several deep issues of her own like divorce and barrenness.
  • Dooley: With whom do you foil a highly educated, very reserved, proper priest? You foil him with a red-haired, freckle-faced mountain boy with a penchant for fighting. Dooley is one of my favorite characters in all of literature. He has a deeply broken past for one so young, but he also runs around as an energetic promise of hope for the future. His story is a big part of my interest in adoption. Props to Mrs. Karon for discussing a complex topic in such a loving way.
  • Barnabus: A dog who responds to Scripture… can you get any more unique than that? (Side note: I tried this on my parents’ dog Teddy. I got mixed results. Chalk it up to little dog syndrome?) Any author who can so clearly articulate a dog’s personality should get major quality points, in my opinion.

The Setting

  • Mitford: Mrs. Karon created a town that might as well be a character in and of itself. The shops reflect their owners’ complex personalities with vivid, specific details. Consequently, it looks like a capsule of a perfect town, but its edges teem with the realities of life that often get swept under the rug. Thanks to Father Tim’s relationships with his parishioners, the readers get to see both the perfection and what it hides.

The Style

  • Humor: First, I love the ironic, sarcastic humor around Father Tim. Then, there’s Dooley’s hilarious childhood antics. Barnabus instigates some of the most outlandish predicaments that every dog owner will recognize as possible. All in all, this homey humor appeals to my desire to laugh at the ridiculousness of life and the characters we are all surrounded by.
  • Dialect: Despite hailing from Mississippi, Father Tim speaks with, and thus narrates with, a measured, educated dialect. In contrast, we meet Dooley, whose impoverished mountain relatives exacerbate his youthful grammar mistakes. The town residents’ individual dialects reflect their personal histories, which imparts a ton of information to the reader before the characters expressly discuss their backgrounds. I admire Mrs. Karon’s ability to dissect the tiniest differences in dialect. In addition, the text reads effortlessly.

If you are interested in reading At Home in Mitford, you can find the book for purchase here. I also purchased this audio version by using an Audible credit, and the narration reflected Father Tim’s essence well.

What do you think of these home-style reads? Do you prefer something fast-paced and hard-hitting? Let’s talk about it in the comments!

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Christian Fiction? Three Ways to Market Your Book of Faith

As we started discussing last week, there are multiple ways to write, publish, and market your book of Christian faith. We are going to focus on traditionally published fiction, as the rules for nonfiction and self-publishing are different in this instance. So, let’s dive in!

1. The Christian Fiction Genre

The Christian Fiction genre has separated itself from other traditional publishing genres in order to promote Christian values and beliefs. The content is intended to be appropriate for all ages. Though in theory these books extend the Gospel by teaching nonbelievers about Jesus, the books published at Christian publishing houses tend to be geared specifically towards conservative females of the Evangelical faith. Janette Oke’s novels from the 80s are perhaps the most enduring of the genre, and the genre has now spawned subgenres ranging from Karen Kingsbury’s contemporary novels to Beverly Lewis’ Amish romances.

In researching the genre, I learned that the CBA (formerly the Christian Booksellers Association and now in some sort of transition stage) determines what is acceptable for the Christian Fiction genre and what is not. The debate about the CBA’s control of Christian Fiction publishing has been going on for years – see this article from 2014 for a brief overview. Even traditionally published authors wish to see the quality of writing published by the Christian Fiction market improve, but they don’t see that happening when the current business model is still successful.

That’s where option number 2 comes in.

2. Explicitly Christian Books in the Secular Market

It is possible for books with explicitly Christian themes to be published under the secular banner of simply “Fiction.” While they may not be the most prominent books on the shelf, these authors have to fight ten times harder to compete in a saturated market, so the books tend to have higher quality writing and more complex themes than their Christian-classified counterparts. Because the CBA doesn’t determine what bookstores carrying simply “contemporary fiction” or “literary fiction” sell, these books can also delve into deep issues and toy with more than one perspective.

To be honest, these books tend to be the only adult fiction books I am passionate about. My favorites are the sweetly humorous Mitford series by Jan Karon, but I also love the slightly darker, literary-focused Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. The main characters in both are preachers, one Episcopalian and one Congregationalist. The books tastefully wrestle with issues like poverty, broken family relationships, and addictions. In Gilead, the preacher even pulls from atheist texts to show a well-rounded and deeply considered view of the world. All in all, there is much more freedom of content in the secular market, but the writing also must be top-notch to compete for a spot in publication against all other fictional creations.

That leads us to option number 3, a different take on the same genre.

3. Implicitly Christian Books in the Secular Market

These books perhaps have the richest literary history of all the genres. They pull from centuries of themes, conventions, and imagery to create texts with layered meaning. On the surface, these books have a storyline pleasurable in and of itself. However, a deeper reading unveils allusions to Christ’s miraculous work, His parabolic teachings, and His redemptive death. These texts are why we all got mad in high school and thought the teacher was just making it up. In fact, these authors do deep thought work to create richly complex stories that slow readers down and make them think, although the transaction does require a reader who is willing to put in the work.

The beauty of this type of writing is that it allows the spread of God’s word to people antagonist to Christianity. It can plant seeds of faith by promoting the Christian values of justice, benevolence, and love. The downfall comes in that many people may still miss the message. Without doing a lot of digging and coming to the text with a background knowledge of the Bible and perhaps even Protestant or Catholic theology, the main point of the message is hidden under less intense themes and the plot itself. In some ways, these books are magic – how else would Christian texts be taught in public schools these days as they are in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? In others, they can be so convoluted or grotesque, like Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, that finding the Christian message can give the reader a headache.


There’s more to say for and against each of these genres. As with anything, each genre has shining stars and bad apples. Next week, we’ll start looking at the pros and cons of books published in each of these styles.

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Are Christian Fiction Books Worth Writing?

It’s a question I thought was obvious in high school. Why, of course I should write Christian Fiction books! The books would let me tell others about Jesus. The stories would provide an escape for those enduring suffering. The content would be appropriate for all ages from middle school girls to aging women. What could be wrong with the stack of pastel books with scrawling fonts that I brought home from the library every summer?

Then I started college. I walked up the steep, creaking floors of the English department and dropped my book bag next to the small metal desk. I took out my notebook, colored pens, and planner. And I overheard the most shocking thing.

The sophomores hated Christian Fiction. They didn’t just mildly dislike certain authors or maintain a respect for the genre but dislike reading it for themselves. They held a passionate distaste for the characters, plots, and writers. My brain was spinning, and I felt like a fool. I believed my life’s work was to write Christian Fiction, and here, at a Christian college, I heard more backlash on the genre than I had heard in my public high school back home.

It took several weeks before I got to reopen a Christian Fiction book and analyze what the other students were talking about. I was shocked to find that they were right. The plot was boring; the characters sniveled; the setting was so nondescript that the book could have taken place anywhere. What had happened to the great books of faith that got me through the hardest times of my life? Now, books where characters grappled with the question of good and evil ended with the character magically getting a dose of faith without an answer. That didn’t help me when I wasn’t sure I believed God’s promises were for me anymore.

I spent the rest of my college career debating if Christian Fiction books are worth writing. Both my capstone and thesis projects centered on the topic. I studied critics’ analyses, the rules of the genre, and commonalities in the stories. The issue of Christian genres became a topic very close to my heart.

In that spirit, I’m going to use my Friday blog posts to do a deep dive on the topic. Next week, we’ll discuss if books of faith must be written under the banner of Christian Fiction. What are your experiences with the Christian Fiction genre? Let’s talk about it in the comments!

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Writing for Granna

We spent Thanksgiving lunch at my grandparents’ house for the first time I could remember since I was a child. For whatever reason, the holidays got celebrated in the days before or after the day marked on the calendar, or my grandparents would stop at our house on the way to see other family, or someone had moved or changed schools and it was easier not to leave town. This year, my mom and I really wanted to spend it further south, so we packed up our respective families (minus the cat) and drove two hours to the Quad Cities.

When I walked in my grandparents’ house, I didn’t remember the narrow galley kitchen being blue. I recognized the blue living room and den, but my mind expected the darker colors from twenty years ago. Both my mom and grandfather tilted their heads when I asked how long the kitchen had been blue. “It was all painted at the same time,” they said. “Granna turned on a light under the cabinet to make it brighter.”

I washed my hands in the kitchen sink and tilted my head to look through the window into the added-on sunroom. I remembered sitting on the couch with my brother and grandfather playing Spyro or Ratchet & Clank on the Playstation. Granna would be fixing sandwiches in the kitchen, or washing dishes, or frying chicken for our picnic supper, and she would lean through the window to tell us we were doing a great job or that food was ready. We would lean forward and wave, and sometimes I ran to the sink to imagine what the window looked like from Granna’s view.

Despite feeling like I was straddled two decades in a single moment, my brother and I laughed at the ceiling fan chain hitting us in our foreheads. We had been so proud to grow tall enough to reach it with the tops of our heads, and now we had to pay serious attention not to whack it when we walked through the middle of the room.

We finally all settled in front of the tv to drift off in a turkey-induced dream or zone out to the random and somewhat confusing movie on the screen. Granna sat at the dining room table and asked me across the room how my writing was going. I told her about my blog and how I was working on my book.

Granna smiled and nodded. “There’s a woman at church who writes books,” she said. I told her I remembered hearing about the author. “What I like about her books is the same thing I like about your writing. Your books aren’t over complicated or deep; I can relax when I read them. I can’t keep up with all those multiple storylines like I used to. I just want books I can relax to.”

Granna then told me the story of her struggles to learn to read in 1st grade and her transformation to a teacher when reading clicked. I nodded; I had heard the story before. More than this story, her earlier comment was circling in my head. I just want to read to relax. I had spent so many hours in college studying literature and feeling sheepish for writing simply that I never realized the reason I wrote that way in the first place. I wrote because I wanted to help people relax, to give them an escape where they could process emotions through catharsis and feel a little more hopeful when they finished.

Before we left, my grandfather ran to a shoe box and pulled out a handmade star ornament. “I want you to have this, an ornament for your first Christmas tree.” I held the slim piece of glass in my hands and felt my heart swell. I knew my grandfather had spent a lot of time choosing the best pieces of glasses and soldering the pieces together. I also knew I would be putting it at the top of my tree when I decorated the day after Thanksgiving.

As I held the ornament in my hands on the drive home, I decided I would no longer feel guilty for not writing complicated literature. I would write well, yes, and use all I knew to make the words true and round and engaging. But my Granna needed stories she could relax to, and so did someone else’s Granna or Meemaw or Grandma. I couldn’t fail these ladies who poured their hearts into teaching children to love reading, who still devoured books to cope, who read to keep their minds sharp. I love them too much not to write for them.

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Why I Write

It was our third science teacher of the year. We sat in the corner room with the door-size window that let in what hint of light a Tennessee-gray sky provided in March.

This teacher had grouped our desks into five sections around the room, as opposed to the rows our last teacher had instituted. She then passed out little quiz packets, but this time, the questions weren’t about the phases of the moon (praise God… we learned that chapter 3 times that year.) This quiz was a personality quiz, and we tallied up our answers on the last page to discover what type of “animal” we were.

“How many of you are lions?” the five-foot-tall teacher with spiky hair asked. Of the 30 kids in the class, 28 kids raised their hands.

I glanced a couple of chairs over to the only other kid in the class not raising his hand. He had skipped a grade to join our class of 6th graders, and his voice was so quiet when he told me about quantum mechanics that I could hardly hear him yell about the idiots believing something about atoms that went over my head.

“How many of you are otters?” the teacher asked. The quantum mechanics kid raised his hand.

“And how many of you are golden retrievers?” I raised my hand just next to my ear. I was the only one left, after all. I didn’t want the extra attention of my arm reaching closer to the ceiling than everybody else’s because of my extra height. I scrunched lower in my chair and wished I were reading the historical fiction novel in my backpack instead. The Redcoats in 1775 Boston had nothing on these middle schoolers.

I learned later that day that golden retriever was the most common personality type. “Yeah,” my lion-friend said, “you’re the most normal person in the class!” My other lion-friend nodded in agreement, but I had to admit, that emptiness in my chest sure didn’t make me feel like I was the normal one. As soon as I got home, I burrowed into the couch and dove into the Revolutionary War and a love story of two spies racing horses in the night to tell colonial militia about the British Army’s next move.

Books became my escape. My mom tried to pre-read all the grown-up novels I was reading in an attempt to challenge my vocabulary and comprehension, but she ran out of time between the dishes and driving us to baseball practices and drama rehearsals. So, I focused exclusively on the Christian Fiction genre, and even then, some of the books had scenes edging on topics too strong for my 12-year-old brain to handle. The school principal kept telling us on the morning announcements, “Be the best you can be. The choice [*pause for effect*] is yours,” and I suppose that daily brainwashing had an impact. I decided that I, with my pencil and dragonfly journal in hand, would write books to give girls hope that God had a plan and would use all things for good.

No question – I’m a dog person at heart.

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Why English Majors Can’t Read

This past week I met several new people at a church event, and the topic of books frequently came up. Though the worst question to ask an English major is “what is your favorite book,” it seemed to be the most popular. Despite resulting in a list of books (including commentary) rather than a single title, the introvert in me was thankful for a topic I could easily discuss. And people were happy to discuss books with me! Apparently I have found a church for writers.

I learned something interesting in these conversations. For readers and writers alike, everyone agreed that the Christian Fiction genre needs improvement. They often avoided the books because religion was forced down people’s throats and the characters were so flat. In one conversation, a girl discussed a favorite series from her youth that she recently reread. She was concerned that the male love interest ignored the protagonist for three books until suddenly the characters were engaged. She said a girl deserved both a good guy and for him to be interested in her, not one or the other.

Bookshelf BlogI was pleased that people who hadn’t studied English had many of the same concerns for books that I learned as an English major. After all, being an English major tends to ruin a person’s love of reading. After studying the craft of writing for several years, I can’t open a book anymore without judging every sentence for full descriptions and realistic characters. It’s hard to enjoy reading because I can’t stop myself from rewriting the books along the way. I’ve met many English majors who have the same problem. Once an English major learns to read critically, it is hard to return to that imaginative world that caused them to fall in love with reading in the first place. It’s comforting to know that the audience has the same concerns.