Veronica Heley on writing Christian fiction.
A question from a child:
‘Mummy, why did my cat have to get run over?’
She wants to know the meaning of life, the world, the universe and everything in it. She doesn’t want to hear that she’ll understand when she grows up. She wants to know NOW.
Way back in the Dark Ages, an English king called his men to a meeting in the big hall, to discuss whether or not to allow the word of God into their land. Someone said that his life seemed to him as fleeting as the passage of a bird flying out of the darkness, through the lighted hall and out again into the night. Anything which casts light on the mystery of our lives on earth, must be worth hearing. And Bede says that’s how Christianity came to Kent.
I don’t suppose they’ll be quoting from my books in a thousand years time, but I, too, am a storyteller and a Christian. I had twenty books of adult fiction published before I started to write for children and teenagers.
My adult books were enjoyable to write, and though at the time I was not aware of it, there was a pattern of good against evil. I started with thrillers, mostly written in the first person from a woman’s point of view. I like thrillers. I read them all the time. I like police procedurals. I like an ending in which the villains get their come-uppance, and the hero or heroine gets his/her man. I don’t like it when the ending is fudged in an attempt to make it more like ‘real’ life, with broken relationships all round, and everything and everybody feeling tacky. I like to identify with the hero or heroine. I hate it when I get to know and like someone in the first chapter, only to find they’ve been killed off in chapter two.
After some years I moved on to historical fiction, writing as Victoria Thorne. I felt comfortable in this genre because my own convictions of right and wrong could be reflected in the moral issues of the day. My first books of this type were set in the Baron Bashing early Middle Ages, for which I did a lot of enjoyable research. Then I took a dive forward in time to the 1880s, and afterwards went back to the 1740s. I was published in America and Australia, and translated in Scandinavia. It was all extremely pleasant and I thought it would go on for ever.
Then the ground rules changed. Suddenly every heroine had to experience sexual gratification through ten pages of anatomically impossible foreplay. Morals became unfashionable. There was only one Commandment, and that was to seek ‘fulfilment’.
Heroes also changed, becoming cardboard tyrants or domestic despots. I couldn’t produce that kind of work because I didn’t believe people ought to live by those rules. I thought my writing career was over, and that I’d better learn a new trade, like knitting Aran sweaters or making lace.
Then a friend asked why I wasn’t writing Christian fiction for children and teenagers. I tried it and was hooked. It satisfies my craving for good/bad confrontation, and for trying to sort out some of the problems I see around me.
So much of what is written for young readers is morally dubious. I, and others like me, aim to provide a good read which is also wholesome fare.
I don’t write my stories by technique out of thin air. I have considerable contact with children and teenagers. I run a youth club, for instance, and almost every person in it has some problem or trait of character which suggests a storyline.
Take school bullying, or fear, or anti-social behaviour. Why had they developed in that particular place, and happened to that particular boy? Why does this girl survive neglect and that one become anorexic?
Usually boys will only read stories about boys, but to my amazement I’ve discovered that when I managed to hit a trouble spot accurately, boys will buy the book even though it’s about a girl (the quest/mystery Fire!).
Of course I don’t copy any one child, or even any one character trait exactly. Whatever idea I start with, it gets altered on its path through the storytelling process and comes out looking different.
Sometimes the story comes to me from one breath to the next, and at other times I have to picture various incidents that might be usable in a story, and let the whole story stew. Then one day – probably while I’m steaming gently in the bath, or working on the allotment – the various elements drop into place and I can see how to write the story.
I write fiction for Lion and Scripture Union, record radio interviews where required and do a fair amount of lecturing. I go into schools to talk about story writing and to stimulate the children’s own abilities in that direction. I supply articles for several magazines, and am trying to develop my black and white photography to keep up with the demand for pictures to accompany my words.
I write for all ages from six upwards, so have to bear in mind the extent of experience of each age group, the ‘buzz’ words, the clothes, the favourite TV programmes.
Whatever the storyline, first and foremost it has to be compulsive reading. Forget long descriptions, bring on the action, and get the reader identifying with the hero or heroine.
I don’t go in for ‘little saints you wouldn’t believe’. Boringly perfect kids are out; far from perfect ones like Natasha and Pod are more my style. Girls who seem perfect to grown-ups are probably not so nice inside, viz. my favourite villainess, Cousin Emmy, who has a lot of money spent on her by her parents, but very little time.
Being in touch with so many youngsters, I get a lot of feedback on my writing. I can be standing at the bus stop thinking about an awkward bit of dialogue when I feel someone is looking at me. About waist high. I look round and there is a small girl smiling up at me. Her hand is on my coat, but so lightly that I haven’t felt it. I have to bend down to hear what she wants to tell me, but it’s worth hearing.
She mentions one of my books and says, ‘That’s my very favourite book.’ She’s telling me a lot about herself. That she’s a timid creature, full of fears, and that my book has helped her to cope. The book is Good for Kate!. I nod gravely at her. She nods back at me, and we’re both satisfied. There are a lot of compensations in writing books for this market.
I aim to put across the message simply but clearly, with an emphasis on a loving God. Of course there are ‘don’t do this’ warnings – like Don’t lie to your friends, or you’ll end up without any – but the main thrust of the Christian message is a positive one. Love God. Love your neighbour. God loves you.
In my latest book for Lion, The Boy Who Wouldn’t, the blind man tells Joe that no matter how awful he is, there is someone above who sees everything and always loves him. Joe imagines that someone lives in the attic above his bedroom, who loves him and who looks just like the blind man, except that he can see. Joe finds this a very comforting thought. Now we know that Joe hasn’t got it quite right, and of course he has to have it sorted out for him later in the book. But when I tell this story to the kids, I can see a ‘Click!’ in their minds, and maybe the next time they’re in trouble, they’ll remember that God really does see everything and does love them, no matter how bad they are.
Before I start on a book, I have to be clear in my mind exactly how the Christian content is to be woven into the story.
Basically, I set up a crisis situation and show how Christian teaching can help resolve it. Usually, though not always, I quote from the Good News Bible.
The Christian content can come from a parent, a sibling, or a teacher, but I like it best from a friend. Wherever it comes from, it must arise naturally, and be in character. For instance, in Scripture Union’s ‘Hawkeye’ series, most of the Christian teaching comes through a large black boy called Fats, who wouldn’t know an aspirate if he heard it. But Fats is a Christian, and when he sets his spray can to work on a building, he’s as likely as not to come up with the legend ‘Jesus Lives, OK’.
The editor knows best. Well … we do argue occasionally. I see bad things happening to kids and I’d like to write about them as I see them, warts and all. That’s not always practical, according to the editor. I want to write a book on child abuse, but can’t place it in the form I want it to take. Not commercial enough, they say. On the other hand, I have just finished a book about a dyslexic teenager which I very much wanted to write (The Penguin Theatre). You win some, you lose some, and getting published is the art of the possible.
Some publishing houses want more overt Christian content than others. Implicit teaching is often more effective than hammering the message home, but sometimes an editor believes it appropriate for the hero/heroine to reach the stage of commitment to Christ.
Editors sometimes say, ‘That bit of dialogue’s got to be toned down, it might offend … teachers, parents … because it’s too harsh.’ So I have to sweeten my realistic dialogue with a spoonful of sugar.
I like slang. I listen to what people say, and joyfully squirrel the odd phrase away to be used later. My husband came in out of the rain saying, ‘It’s coming down in stair-rods!’ Marvellous stuff. I hope to use it soon.
As I see it, endings should be ‘happy ever after’ for an under ten, whereas a teenager knows the world is not perfect, so the ending can be more realistic. But always up rather than downbeat.
Sometimes I am asked why I no longer write adult fiction. One answer is that my time has been mopped up by the Christian market. But perhaps a better reply is that Lion and Scripture Union children’s lists publish the kind of books which I like to write.
Veronica Heley’s books mentioned in this piece are:
Natasha’s Badge, 0 86201 397 6, £1.50; Natasha’s Swing, 0 862014514, £1.30; and Natasha the Brownie, 0 86201 625 8, £1.50
Good for Kate!, 0 862014212, £1.75
Hawkeye of Paradise Row, 0 86201 543 X, £1.75; The Paradise Row Gang, 0 86201 570 7, £1.75; and Hawkeye Hits the Jackpot, 0 86201 660 6, £2.25
The above titles are from Scripture Union and those below from Lion; all are paperback editions.
Fire!, 0 7459 18514, £2.50
The Boy Who Wouldn’t, 0 7459 1967 7, £2.25
The Penguin Theatre will be available in Spring 1992.