Etta Wilson

Etta Wilson, literary agent with Books & Such, has extensive experience as an adult books editor at Thomas Nelson, children’s book editor at Abingdon Press, and as a book packager and agent with March Media. In September 2007, she joined Books & Such, where she specializes in representing authors of children’s works and adult fiction. She continues to sell to publishers in both the Christian and the general markets. She is the author of twelve books.

PLOTS GALORE—Right in Your Bible

One agent’s take on Christian fiction and finding good plot ideas

Fiction writers faced a major hurdle in writing for the Christian market in the mid-1980s. Those of us who were daring to write and edit fiction primarily for Christians at that point had a particularly hard time “maintaining the fictional dream” as the noted craftsman John Gardner put it. We wanted our stories to reflect our faith, but we didn’t want them to be sermons in disguise. A number of authors wrote biblical fiction (fiction based on biblical events with biblical characters and set in biblical tines) as a way to work creatively within a framework that would be acceptable to both publishers and readers.

In an earlier time (late 1940s and 1950s) before the sharp division between the general market and the Christian market, Lloyd Douglas had great success with The Robe and The Big Fisherman, but that was a different culture with a different worldview. For the past ten years or so, most Christian publishers have shied away from publishing biblical fiction. Had our readers grown tired of the well-known plots and settings? Did they prefer the nonfictional Bible study? Was it just the spirit of the times? Perhaps some of all those answers apply.

Biblical fiction is now once again being published with some regularity, most astonishingly by Anne Rice but also by Francine Rivers as well as Brock and Boede Thoene. As the adage says, what goes around comes around.

I want to suggest biblical help in another way. So much of writing a novel centers on plot or what the characters do. This is especially true for mysteries, but even in mainstream and romance novels a character’s actions portray the motivation and set up the next point of development. The Bible narratives can inspire and open our minds to rich possibilities in plotting, while we can still create fresh characters and settings.

The Book of Acts is brim full of plots. In Acts 11, for example, Barnabas goes to Antioch, sees that the field of believers is ripe, knows he needs help, and goes to Tarsus to get Paul, where he had been sent by the followers in Jerusalem. When they return they work for year and the believers are first called Christians. Reset that same story in any of the succeeding eras in any turbulent area (China in WWII or Detroit in the 1950s), do some research, and you have a tremendous story about what can be accomplished when one man takes a gifted outcast under his wing.

Looking back much farther, we find an intriguing plot in the Book of Ruth, which almost cries out for multiple viewpoints. In four chapters we read about a bitter woman (Naomi) returning to her home after the death of her husband and sons. Then we have Ruth, the loyal and somewhat innocent young woman who is no doubt very attractive and also willing to take some risks. Finally we meet Boaz, the wealthy older man who knows a good bit more than he lets on. How each of these characters reacts to the other and in what time period and in what area would make a fascinating mainstream novel.

Actually, I have just discovered that Tommy Tenney and Mark Andrew Olsen have already taken the Book of Ruth and put it in a contemporary novel entitled The Road Home (Bethany, c2007). I haven’t read it, but the authors certainly prove the point—using biblical material as a basis for plotting novels is a wonderful way to find inspiration for yourself and your readers.

Writers often ask where to find good plot ideas, and my standard answer is simply to read—both what is currently on the market and what was published in the past.