Rosanne Bittner: Heart of the West
Religion In Secular Fiction vs. The Inspirational Romance
Several years ago, after writing at least 50 secular historical romances, I decided I wanted to try writing (historical) inspirational romance. I have always had a desire to write faith-based books and I hinted at faith and Christianity in many of my books up to that point but never wrote straight inspiration. I sold FOLLOW YOUR HEART, WALK BY FAITH and WHERE HEAVEN BEGINS to Harlequins Love Inspired line, and they all sold well. WHERE HEAVEN BEGINS even won second place for the prestigious WILLA Award from Women Writing the West but I was wrong to think I could stick with a genre that didnt (in my opinion) involve real life. In a lawless land where people have to struggle to survive, sometimes whats right and wrong gets all mixed up in the name of life and death. And in the Old West, which is almost all I write about, there was not much law, and there were few churches, and in many places none at all. (Click here to read more about my inspirational novels.)
Ive lived with a dilemma during all my 35 or so years of writing, and that dilemma is to write reality (which means not-so-perfect characters and not-so-perfect situations) while struggling with my own deep Christian faith and how to incorporate some of that faith into my stories, even though they often include war, bar fights, gunfights, prostitutes, smoking, drinking, outlaws, bad language, gambling, murder, brutality, sex . . . you name the problems with an untamed land and Ive written about it. I am a firm believer in writing reality that includes the faith it took for some people to bear up to the challenges they faced in settling the West. As I re-read many of my backlist titles for reissues, I find that I did weave faith into many of my stories. I am really surprised at how often I hinted at (mostly the heroines) Christian faith.
There is, of course, a need and a huge market for inspirational novels, and I know many writers who write beautiful inspirational stories and are very successful at it. My congratulations and respect and admiration go out to them because I know the struggle writing can be in any genre and I am definitely all for spreading the Word of Christ in any avenue that works. Its just that in writing the three inspirational stories above, I found it very difficult to stick with the rules I was given when writing these stories. I would have written more, but I am not one to follow specific rules or write formula books. Not long after I wrote those stories for Harlequin, the rules for writing them began to change to the point that my heroes couldnt even say gosh darn, because it meant something else; and even a kiss was sinful. In the end of WHERE HEAVEN BEGINS the hero carries his wife to their bedroom and (of course) the door closes behind them. Yet even though they are MARRIED, that scene was NIXED when the book was reprinted because it hinted at sex!!! That did it for me. Thats just not reality, and it certainly isnt very romantic. A man cant even carry his WIFE to their bed?
If you have read my hard-hitting westerns, you know my heroes are pretty fierce, sometimes ruthless take no crap men who are far from angels. Its difficult for me to write any other kind of hero, and I realized Im not cut out for straight inspirational stories. HOWEVER, I decided I can keep sneaking inspirational messages into the books I do write. If an inspirational story means only writing about people ALREADY saved, who only face challenges to the faith they ALREADY have then to me its not inspirational. I believe that inspirational should mean saving someone who is lost and alone and who has taken the wrong path in life (like the bounty hunter in WHERE HEAVEN BEGINS) someone who has lost whatever faith they might have had because of a tragedy in his or her life that destroyed that faith, or someone who has never had any religious training and knows nothing about God or the Bible, bringing that person into Gods light, and teaching him/her about faith and Christ whatever it takes to change his/her life. If a life isnt being changed, where is the inspiration? And if sinful ways arent used in the story, where is the reality? The publisher wanted me to write stories wherein the characters were totally devout, practically sinless people. Is there anyone reading this who hasnt sinned?
There is something about the American western frontier that fascinates, something about those pioneers that makes us proud and makes us want to keep the right to bear arms. We are fascinated by and in a strange way proud of our infamous outlaws, like Jesse James and Butch Cassidy. Even more fascinating is that very fine line back then between outlaw and lawman. There were those who couldnt say which Wyatt Earp and his brothers were good? Or bad? How many books have you read, or movies have you watched, in which the bad guy was really good at heart?
I hope to bring new meaning to the inspirational story that doesnt prohibit sex and rough living. With the kind of heroes I write, you cant leave those things out. The hero in my Outlaw series, Jake Harkner, is just such a man. I have loved writing Jake because he is so tortured and so complicated but so loveable, an ex-outlaw who even as a lawman is still sometimes ruthless. I have really enjoyed the psychology of this man who inside is just a little boy wanting the love he never knew in his horribly abused childhood. He can be so mean and fast to take revenge and deal his own form of justice, but on the inside hes such a kid. Jake really struggles with his faith because his mother was Catholic and he got a small taste of going to Mass and prayer before his father murdered his mother and little brother before his eyes and forced Jake (only 8 years old) to help bury them. His father was a brutal alcoholic and Jake never knew love after losing his mother, but he always kept her prayer beads and Crucifix and wore them his whole life. He secretly prayed but would not step foot into a church because he felt unworthy because of his VERY sinful past and also because for the first fifteen years of his life his father beat it into him that he was no good.
Then comes Miranda, the woman Jake unwittingly falls in love with and who changes his life. She cures him of his outlaw ways, but dealing his own form of justice is in Jakes blood. He can still be ruthless when it comes to going after the bad guys, especially where criminal acts against innocent people are involved, That ruthless element about him keeps showing itself because he was raised by a ruthless man and things he experienced leave him unable to tolerate brutality toward innocent people, especially women. Jake can kill at the drop of a hat, yet hes a very devoted, loving man toward his family. Hed rather shoot himself than raise a hand or even his voice to his wife and children. He loves Miranda with every fiber of his being and is true to her and their lovemaking is hot but beautiful and so fulfilling. Jake takes strength from Miranda and being a part of this woman physically and emotionally helps keep him on the right track. He is fiercely defensive of everyone in his family because thats where he finds the love he always yearned for as a child. That love is all-important to him, and its his family, especially his wife and daughter, who slowly teach Jake about faith and that its okay to forgive himself for his worst crime killing his own brutal father.
DO NOT FORSAKE ME is sometimes hard to read and has everything youd never find in the inspirational section on the book shelves. Yet in reading it you will find the story is truly inspirational. Jake longs to be forgiven, longs to love and be loved, longs to know Christ and know how to pray. In one scene he sits outside of a church listening to the hymns, but he wont go inside. Its a scene that highlights the pitiful loneliness this man suffers in spite of having a loving family. Hes still that unloved, unwelcome little boy. As his own son once states in the story There is a war going on inside my father. And its a war between good and evil, right and wrong. Jake is a man who walks on the thin edge of light and darkness. In another scene he even asks for help from a preacher. Jakes sanity relies on the strength he gets from Miranda and deep inside he knows her own strength comes from her faith. If Jake lived today, he would need counseling; but he lived in a time when such things were not available. His tortured childhood would have been enough to send anyone over the edge. His counselor is his wife, and the love of his family, who refuse to see anything but the good in their husband and father.
I very subtly weave Christianity into DO NOT FORSAKE ME, a very gritty, realistic western, showing how even the worst of mankind sometimes wants a relationship with Christ. In the end Jake loses a bet with his wife and has to keep a promise to her to GO TO CHURCH! Of all the dangers Jake has faced in his life, stepping foot into a church is the most difficult, even frightening thing hes ever done. A few amusing things happen leading up to this and well you just have to read that last chapter. Its both funny and yet touchingly poignant and really tugs the heartstrings.
Thats my idea of an inspirational story. I find no satisfaction in writing about people already saved and supposedly perfect who might stray or face some challenge to the faith they already possess. I much prefer writing about someone who desperately needs to learn about love and forgiveness and redemption, and there is plenty of all of that in DO NOT FORSAKE ME and again in my third Jake book coming in September, 2016, LOVES SWEET REVENGE. (Click here to read more about my Outlaw series.)
In my very popular SAVAGE DESTINY series, written 32 years ago, I again wove Christianity into a story about a wild half-breed who lives torn between two worlds, white and Indian and how the love of his very Christian white wife, Abbie, keeps him strong and helps him make very serious choices in life. These books are filled with real life situations and there are hot and fairly explicit sex scenes between these two, but they are beautiful and fulfilling and they remain that way even as the main characters age throughout the series. In the end of this very long family saga (7 books) Abbie dies in a rocking chair in the little cabin she shared with Zeke most of their lives and she dies with a Bible in her lap. (More about my SAVAGE DESTINY series)
I have had many comments from readers about how refreshing it is to read about an older couple, two people who still have good sex. Hey older doesnt mean out of commission. I beg to differ! Some people age very well and still are healthy and look good. Jake Harkner in my Outlaw series is one hell of a man in all ways, and he absolutely adores women and adores his wife and he knows exactly how to handle her sexually, which makes for some very provocative love scenes. He senses her every emotion and desire and respects her body as something owned only by Jake Harkner. He considers himself unworthy of this good, good woman, and so he practically worships her but hes a man in every sense of the word and he truly enjoys sex. Here again, I see nothing wrong with having sex in an inspirational story. Sex is natural between two people in love and why God made us with all the right body parts. I enjoy writing between the lines religion and faith into my stories, right along with real life sex and the rugged living and the gunfights and lawlessness and all kinds of wild west action. Such things only make a story more memorable and more real. And I can inspire my readers without them realizing Im actually writing my own form of an inspirational story.
Dont be afraid to mix it up in your writing. Just because you write a particular genre doesnt mean you cant sneak in something that is normally never used in that genre. Thats what makes for a more memorable story. So let your imagination and your heart guide you in your writing.
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