03 June 2008

Religious Beliefs: Nice Guys, Jerks, and the Romance Writer

By Anna C. Bowling

The topic of religious beliefs comes to Unusual Historicals at a very appropriate time. Right now, I am moderating an online workshop on writing the inspirational romance, and preparing to give the message (others might use the term "sermon" or "teaching") at house church this week. Faith is an important part of my life, and that carries over into my writing. Though I haven't written for the inspirational market before, who knows what the future will bring? For the moment, I'm having fun with general market historicals and dabbling in time travel.

A little personal information before we get into the topic proper. I consider myself nondenominational Christian. I prefer a more intuitive sort of worship, but the DH likes more structured prayers. Among our friends, we have those of the Jewish persuasion; secular, Reformed and Messianic sorts; others who would class themselves as some combination of Buddhist, Wiccan or different pagan paths; the not-really-spiritual; plus Catholic and various protestant and non-denoms. When I wore my Blackbeard t-shirt with the infamous pirate's flag on it into a local store this past autumn, the clerk commented that it was the "time for the scaries" celebrations back in his home in India, around the same time as we have Halloween here in the USA. I've learned a lot from all of them, even though we don't agree on everything. Some things, yes. Some things, maybe. And some, well, we have to agree to disagree, and carry on carrying on.

Today, we might call such a mix of friends normal and have, as I did, an interesting discussion with the clerk over different celebrations. Some of the best conversations can be among friends of differing outlooks, sharing why they walk the path they do. In that, I think I can safely say we're blessed (or lucky, if you prefer), but in previous times (and some parts of the world even today, sadly) where different faiths might make friendships difficult, not to mention love affairs and even--gasp--marriage. Families on either side might have something to say against such a relationship, and even take drastic measures to keep it from happening, while others might prefer to find common ground and respect differences.

Henry VIII broke from the Catholic church so he might divorce his barren first wife and seek a more fertile bride...and kept on seeking. Houses in England constructed during that time might have had priest holes--secret rooms, sometimes no more than a closet or the size of a coffin, where Catholics hid from those seeking to do them harm. Catholics and Puritans didn't mix well during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, and yet both found themselves faced with losses during the English Civil War.

Merely being Jewish during the time between world wars in Europe meant incredibly high stakes, never knowing when the knock on the door would end life as they knew it. Even so, bonds of friendship, love and marriage have formed across faiths for centuries, with no signs of stopping. Similarly, ask any member of a congregation, meeting, synagogue, coven, etc, about the group dynamics, and you'll hear about annoyances, betrayals, pet peeves, and bad habits, as well as heartwarming stories of support, generosity and going the extra mile. At a given moment, that depends largely on the individuals involved. This is what I've found most important in exploring a character's spirituality: the individual.

Plainly put, there are nice guys and jerks in all belief systems. While it's easy to rely on stock figures--the wise, mystic Easterner who sounds like he moonlights as a fortune cookie writer; the dour Puritan who never smiles, hates everything, and probably has never read his Bible because he's too busy smacking people with it; and so on--a writer can get far more mileage by showing the individual rather than the stereotype. For example, what images come to mind when I say "the Pope"? For some, the leader of their faith. For others, someone they wouldn't invite to dinner unless something lethal were on the menu.

For me, the first thing that I think of is Pope John Paul II wearing Bono's sunglasses, with both men looking appropriately impressed. That picture touches on a side of the man many may not think of at first, but doesn't it make him all the more human?

Which, of course, is a great tool for writers, especially those of romance. One of my favorite uses of spirituality in romance is Laura Kinsale's SHADOWHEART, where Allegretto, the hero, believing himself to be damned already, finally gives in to the heroine's pleas to go to confession. She won't until he will, and he believes there's still hope for her. He won't put her soul in jeopardy, and so he changes. Annette Blair's Amish historical, THEE I LOVE, shows an Amish community making a difficult decision to place what is right above a circumstance that might force them to do otherwise. Francine Rivers' "Mark of the Lion" trilogy shows a wide spectrum of first-century spirituality and good, bad and ugly behavior among not only the early Christian Church, but Jewish, Roman and German communities of the period.

It's the variety of the individual that makes every relationship unique, and as romance writers, that's one of our biggest goals: to make our couples stand out as lovers, so that readers will long remember them and want to visit again and again. Religion may play a small, large or somewhere-in-between part in a particular character's life, and those around them may have a wide range of faiths, but all have the same needs: to love and be loved. Individuals read our stories, and that's a special relationship, one to nurture. No matter what a character's religious persuasion (or lack thereof), if we as writers can make a reader connect with their deepest feelings, cry with their losses and rejoice in their triumphs, then we've done our job.