Family History: Why I Write Christian Historical Fiction
Family History lies at the heart of why I write Christian historical fiction. Some of my earliest memories? Sitting on my grandmother Ella’s lap and listening to her stories about life in Indian Territory prior to the Twentieth Century before Oklahoma became a state. My mother spoke of her life in Oklahoma and Texas during the first half of the 20th Century. My own memories developed in the 1940s and beyond. Mesmerized by family tales of grit and faith overcoming hardship and heartbreak, I would often imagine story lines based on memories.
I was born the only daughter of a cotton farmer in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas in the 1940s. As a girl, I had no experience with what other kids spoke of—the neighborhood. My first friends were the children of the kind, hard-working Mexican laborers on our farm. My circle expanded to include friends who lived just down the unpaved road, also farmers’ daughters who constituted my neighborhood.
“Birth” as a Reader
With school friends living in town several miles away, I learned early on to love reading. My first memory of fascination with books was as a preschooler enjoying a book with audio accompaniment: Bozo Under the Sea. I wore out the book and record! The characters Jack & Janet, Dick & Jane, and Tip & Sally fascinated me in first grade. Come summertime, you could find me in the community library. The air conditioning created such a crisp, welcoming atmosphere I wanted to stay all day. I can still feel the air and get a whiff of the distinctive scent of book bindings.
By fourth grade, my appetite for reading was insatiable. With a dictionary at my side, I read Little Women and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. In fifth grade, The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables. By sixth grade I read Where the Red Fern Grows and The Red Badge of Courage, and by middle school, I was tackling Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol, The Adventures of Oliver Twist, and A Tale of Two Cities. And Gone with the Wind. Later on, To Kill a Mockingbird made an indelible imprint on my mind, heart, and conscience. I could go on, but you get the picture. No matter the genre, setting, plot, or characters, I experienced each story world and shared the characters’ emotions, failures, and triumphs.
“Birth” as a Writer: Family History
As a student at Abilene Christian University, a daily delight was writing letters home. I told Mother and Daddy and my little brother Dale virtually every move I made, no doubt with some editorial embellishments. A quirky English professor pulled me aside one summer and asked if I’d ever considered creative writing as a career. In a word—No—but how intriguing that he would have discovered my secret longing I thought no one knew about. You see, baring my soul in print—a reality I knew writing would entail—was more than I could consider.
Then my mother asked me to write down a family history. Her clan had migrated in 1923 from Oklahoma to the southernmost tip of Texas in a train of seven covered wagons, a novelty on the roads even then. Intrigued, I jumped at the chance to take the family’s recollections of their caravan journey and set them down for posterity. It turned out to be no more than a cataloging of who traveled in which wagons, where they stopped and for what purpose, and the spectacle they presented along the way. But it ignited a desire to write historical fiction based in family history. I had a well spring from which to draw.
“Growing Up” as a Writer
Decades of life took me elsewhere in Texas and Alabama and Germany, with fun-filled forays into Great Britain, South America, Europe, and Scandinavia. I was an Army spouse rearing children and living life, so my writing pen sat in a drawer. Years later when my daughter struggled with an at-risk triplet pregnancy and her three 2 ½ pound babies fought for survival, I felt a tugging at my heart to release the storehouse of words I had long bottled up. I vowed to God that if the babies lived, I would devote the rest of my life to them. And if disabilities didn’t plague them and they could read, I would leave a legacy of faith in writing for them.
Nine years later, the story I wrote won the prestigious Jerry B. Jenkins Operation First Novel award. Mountainview Books released The Calling of Ella McFarland in December 2015. In August 2016 it won another prestigious award: American Christian Fiction Writers’ Carol Award.
I know without a doubt that these successes came from my faithful God who affirmed my vow: to leave a legacy of faith in writing. This is why I do not shy away from outright Christian faith in my writing. In fact, the presentation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a must in my stories.
Writing Well Spring: Family History
Certain ancestors and their experiences appear in my stories. A bit of my grandmother and a strong dash of my mother in one character. My father’s sterling qualities in another. And a low-down family reprobate in another. Cotton planting, hoeing, and harvest time. The glorious aroma of fresh-picked cotton and the nothing-in-the-world-like-it odor from the pig pen. The whir of the sewing machine, the clink of a milk pail, and the bellow of a cow hollering to be milked. The summer sun on my face, the hearty South Texas wind in my hair, and the comfort of backing up to a wall heater on a cold winter morning. All find their way into my stories.
Through it all—my family’s history, my own life, and the kaleidoscope of lives in my stories—Jesus appears as the golden thread linking the past to the present and beyond. He turns an ordinary morning into a hint of the “Sweet By & By.” He adds the delicate aroma of the Rose of Sharon to the sultry stillness before a summer storm. And He wraps the bitterness of grief and failure in the richness of His incomparable grace.
My Purpose as a Writer
Tales that reach beyond the ordinary to the extraordinary because of Jesus—these are the stories I write by His grace.