Grace A. Johnson
Faith by the Era (A Writer's Guide to Christian Historical Fiction)
From February to August, I was an intern with Kingdom Pen, an AMAZING blog + forum for young Christian writers, writing articles every month! Now that my term has ended, I want to share the articles I wrote here...the first one being all about writing Christian historical fiction! Check out the original post here (complete with gifs!), or continue on to read my edited version below!
You’ve finally done it! After hours of scouring the internet and perusing the library’s bookshelves, you’ve finally found the time period you like the most! You’ve been drawn to the Renaissance since art history last year, so it’s no surprise that your next story will be set in an era of creative reform and rebirth that stretched across nations.
What’s more, you have a particular theme in mind—redemption and renewal. Your main character has experienced many trials and even turned to a life of crime...but their arrival in Germany has opened their eyes. Your MC takes on the identity of a young artist, but is soon discovered to be a fraud and taken to prison, where he awaits transport back to his home country.
Yet he is not the same man he was before he came to Germany. He has indeed changed, and he hopes to reform the world through his art, sharing his story of redemption and salvation.
That’s all well and good, but once you begin writing this young man’s story of faith, you realize that something doesn’t feel quite right. Is it possible that your historical novel is out of time?
Writing historical fiction isn’t a task to take lightly. It takes time, effort, and a ton of research. Of course, no one can guarantee that your novel will touch the hearts of men, women, and children across the globe—but that’s something every author aspires to. Entwining hope and faith into a period we have never lived in or a story we didn’t write can be difficult, but there are three simple ways to ensure your story remains authentic and touching.
Respect The Period
Before you even begin writing historical fiction, you have to understand the religion and the theology of the day. You have to understand a lot of other things, as well, from social norms to views on women and race. It may seem simple to slip in a few expressions your local pastor uses and give your hero modern-day views, but the finished product will be disappointing if you take the easy way out.
You must respect the period, and sometimes that hurts.
We want to craft stories that spread our message of hope and faith, right? Maybe that means the Baptist faith or the Pentecostal doctrine, but either way, we have a set view of exactly what our story should convey.
But there is something blocking our path, and it’s called History.
The views and beliefs we hold to today didn’t exist back then. Now, don’t get me wrong—we serve the same God both then and now, but theologies have changed. Doctrines have changed. Sayings have changed. People have changed.
Historical fiction writers have the very tough assignment of respecting the period. That means letting go of all the hymns we know and love, all the catchphrases we use, all our new denominations. Of course, there is some leeway afforded, and you can always go the direction of historical fantasy if the restrictions don’t fit you, but if you’ve chosen his-fic (or it has chosen you), then you’ve got to weather the storm.
Don’t treat the time period with caution—embrace it. Don’t turn your nose up at it simply because people didn’t operate like you do. Respect it, because it really happened and people really believed those things. That may mean some prejudice and discrimination, depending on the religion of the day, but if you want to create a reading experience that is both entertaining and authentic, you’ll have to go with it.
The period may seem like a limitation, but it’s actually an opportunity. Presenting a message of grace that hasn’t changed, even if circumstances, churches, and doctrines have, will inspire a connection within your readers to the olden days. And who knows? Maybe you’ll learn something new from the ways of the past!
Know Your Character
Historical fiction requires a lot of knowledge—knowledge of the period, place, people, customs, cultures, ideology, and more. But there’s one element that remains hidden in every genre: the characters.
Characters may be the product of your imagination, but they are very much hiding from you. The way they think, how they operate, what they were taught—all of this needs to be discovered before you put pen to paper or fingers to computer keys. And every one of those depends not on who or what, but when your character is.
As the author, we often see ourselves in complete control of every aspect of our character and their story. Unfortunately, that’s simply not true. Historical fiction has confines, a set of rules people had to follow according to the time period, and therefore rules the author must follow in creating their character. Of course, rules are meant to be broken and fiction allows us creative license, but you have to remain authentic or else your novel will lose its flavor.
Your character is a Renaissance man before he’s your character. You’re here to write his story. William Faulkner said it best: “It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.” As he describes it, our characters are like living, breathing creatures with minds of their own. Like scribes, we only write what has been dictated to us, much as one would when writing a biography.
The price for writing another person is abandoning yourself. We have to set aside our feelings, opinions, and views to express those of our characters. Some authors are blessed with characters much like themselves, while others are in possession of their polar opposites. Characters from another time are a mix of both—like us in ways and opposite in others.
They may endure similar trials or wish for similar things, but the norms of the day were different. The teachings were different. Their perspective is different, and you have to portray it accurately, even if that means getting inside the head of someone you don’t agree with or understand. (Trust me, I’ve been there before. It’s a learning experience, if nothing else.) Their faith will look different, because it’s being tried in ways yours hasn’t. Their beliefs will sound different, because they’ve never heard yours.
And that’s okay. The diversity is what makes your character real.
Discover who your character is, why they believe what they believe, what needs to change in their life. Get to know them so that you can write their story with startling clarity and authenticity.
Keep It Simple
Despite what looks like a heavy burden, there are ways to handle your time period and character lightly. Your story of redemption doesn’t need to go into theological detail (unless, of course, you’re into theology and want to argue a few things), but remember what was taught, what people knew, and what they understood of God and the Bible at that time.
That may leave you feeling pretty hopeless. I understand. How can you incorporate faith into a story so constrained? How do you speak to people in a language they don’t understand? What’s the point of weaving faith into a time that lacked it?
Because people were still people. They suffered through the same darkness and found the same light.
The world and the church’s perspective of God have certainly changed, but He has not. The way we present Him should align with the time and place and our character’s views, but the message is still the same. Maybe that means we write Catholicism rather than the Baptist doctrine. Maybe that means our characters don’t sing or celebrate Christmas. Maybe we have to rephrase things to fit the period.
Whatever that entails, we can still write the powerful story about a Savior Who came from glory!
Our characters can still relate to our readers. The period we choose can still parallel our modern day. The message, regardless of the phrasing or the religious wrapping paper, is still the same one we read in the Bible today.
I love it when I can read about Catholics or medieval Christians and find common ground, feel at home with them. I can hear the author’s own faith resonating through theirs, even if the doctrine or denominational label is different. How do they do this, write with respect for the period and accurately portray their characters?
They keep things simple. They don’t get bogged down in doctrines or certain terms. They stay true to the period and true to the Bible, but don’t try to argue theology or become preachy. No matter the context, historical or otherwise, the very best way to make a story relatable and effective is to keep it simple and rely on what God has provided us, not the world. God’s Word and His grace haven’t changed, and that’s what truly matters.
Farewell, 21st Century
Well, you’re off to the Renaissance. It’ll be a long, hard journey, but you are equipped with respect for the period, people, and places you will encounter; knowledge of the character you are portraying; and simplicity of faith.
Now your story feels right. You’re beginning to connect with your characters and see the flaws in his beliefs and yours. Maybe you’ll learn something from the ways of the past. I hope so; they have a lot to teach us.
Faith is the most important aspect of fiction—regardless of whether or not it’s Christian. You must have faith in the power and authenticity of your story, after all. Historical times revolved all around the religion of the day—like with the Renaissance, for example. The entire Western World, all of Europe, was experiencing a revival that forever changed the way we see God, His grace, and our faith in Him. Depicting the Christianity of that day with accuracy is what emboldens our modern-day message to our readers.
Take heart, dear writer! And remember, ‘tis all worth it in the end, when you see the Holy Spirit at work within your story. His guiding hand will lead you just as it did St. Paul, Martin Luther, George Washington, and others in history.
Of course, nothing beats some hands-on experience (no, I don’t mean time travel). Read a few his-fic books. A few historical authors that stay true to their period and characters while presenting a strong message are Tamara Leigh, Francine Rivers, Julie Lessman, Lynn Austin, and Bodie Thoene. Leigh writes about Medieval Europe; Rivers and Austin write Biblical fiction; Lessman writes about Catholics; and Thoene writes about Jews and Christians during WWII.
Despite the diversity—or maybe because of it—I always feel at home when reading books by these authors. I hope my readers feel the same when they venture back into the 17th century or the Victorian era.
What do you hope to convey to your readers through your historical stories? Have you ever noticed a Christian historical novel seeming out of place? What period do you want to write about, and what is different about the faith then?
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