Beyond Janette Oke: A Look at Inspirational Fiction

by Terri Frank
published in Reading

If you have a spiritual side, you might consider penning inspirational fiction.  According to a 2017 news release from the Association of American Publishers, books with “religious and inspirational themes” are in high demand. A wider audience, including millennials and people of color, are discovering this genre once read almost exclusively by mature caucasian females. Characters dealing with realistic, contemporary topics like opioid addiction have replaced the sweet Christian romances popularized by Janette Oke in the 1980’s. Any genre that exists in regular fiction—mystery, sci-fi, historical—also exists in inspirational fiction.

As a result, inspirational fiction books often have crossover appeal and the market is responding. Publishing behemoth HarperCollins now has a Christian publishing division to compete against long-time specialized imprints like Bethany House and Zondervan. A quick google search reveals dozens of workshops, retreats and conventions unique to this genre.  There are even industry awards. The annual Christy Awards began in 1999 to recognize authors “who write from a perspective of faith and create stories with a matter of belief at their core.”  The RITA Awards, given by the Romance Writers of America, have added a category called “Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements.”

Furthermore, Christian readers aren’t the only audience interested in inspirational fiction. New age, Jewish fiction, and gentle reads are being requested with greater frequency in libraries and bookstores. Readers are looking for hope above all else.The Missoula Public Library offers this definition of the genre:

“Inspirational fiction is UPLIFTING, often with characters who enact POSITIVE change in their lives. The stories are sometimes faith-based and often exclude violence, strong language, and explicit sex.”

Inspired yet? In order to write inspirational fiction, you first have to read inspirational fiction. So, let’s take a closer look at some of the most popular authors in this genre.

Francine Rivers

Although Ms. Rivers wrote traditional romances for the first few years of her career, it wasn’t until she switched to inspirational fiction that she was inducted into the Romance Writers’ of America Hall of Fame. Her specialty is to take Bible stories we’ve all heard and set them in very different time periods. Considered her masterpiece, Redeeming Love retells the Old Testament love story of Hosea and Gomer during the California Gold Rush. A more recent title, Bridge to Haven, not only turns ancient Jerusalem into 1950’s Hollywood but deals with edgy topics like PTSD and suicide.

Ted Dekker

Two words come to mind when describing Ted Dekker’s books: adrenaline and truth. Dekker is a tattoo-wearing, Indonesian-born author who describes his writing as “transformational fiction.” He executes heart-pounding good versus evil plots in his over thirty mysteries, thrillers, and fantasies. Start with his Circle series about a man who begins waking up in another reality every time he falls asleep. Originally planned to be a trilogy, Dekker added a fourth book (Green) after readers devoured the first three thrillers (Black, White, Red) and cried out for more. NPR readers voted him one of the top suspense writers of all time.

Beverly Lewis

Beverly Lewis writes exclusively Amish fiction and she knows her subject matter well. She grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania where her grandmother was once part of a Mennonite community. Her books typically blend mystery and romance. If the titles sound familiar, it’s because a few have been adapted into films as part of The Hallmark Channel’s Movies & Mysteries. In The Shunning, a young Amish woman—always a little different from the rest of her people—discovers she might not be Amish after all. The Confession and The Reckoning conclude the story.

Charles Martin

No round-up of inspirational fiction would be complete without mentioning Charles Martin. The most recent Christy Award winner for Long Way Gone, Martin is a master storyteller and often compared to Nicholas Sparks or Richard Paul Evans. He tends to write contemporary, realistic tales starring male characters on a spiritual journey. The narrator in Long Way Gone, a Nashville songwriter forced to move back home, starts readers in the middle of his life and moves backwards and forwards, pulling all the right heartstrings along the way.

Karen Kingsbury

Karen Kingsbury is a truly gifted and prolific writer. She calls her style of writing “Life-Changing Fiction™.” Most famous for her Baxter Family books, the multi-series collection spotlights the struggles of a different family member in each volume. And with twenty six Baxter books, it’s quite a large family! The Baxter Family is currently being made into a television series, but it’s still unknown when or where it will air. A visit to her website is a must to download her books in the correct reading order.

Mitch Albom

Mitch Albom is a Jewish writer and sports reporter whose inspirational fiction transcends denominations. His most recent bestseller, The First Phone Call from Heaven, shifts between Alexander Graham Bell’s attempts to invent the telephone in the 1800’s and a modern-day town that begins receiving phone calls from dead people.  His books are often welcomed by readers who want an uplifting read without overt Christian or biblical references, sometimes referred to as “gentle fiction.”

As you can see, this genre stretches as far as it is wide. The possibilities are limitless, from historical fiction in the style of Tracie Peterson,  to romances by the wildly popular Becky Wade, to the new dystopian series by Jolina Petersheim. As writers, we can really do anything we want with it.

More Inspirational Fiction Resources

For more inspirational fiction authors and trends in the genre, I recommend the following links:

Terri Frank is a professional librarian and holds a Master’s degree in library and information science from the University of Michigan. When she’s not working in a library, she’s probably visiting a library with her husband and two kids. Her current writing projects include a novel about a tuberculosis sanitorium.

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