Years ago, I had a weak moment during a shopping trip and came home with a cuddly little bundle of white fur that was so cute it looked like it had to be a stuffed animal. In fact, the kids’ first reaction when they saw the newest member of the family was, “Is that a real puppy?”
Oh, but Otis was as real as they come, and he didn’t stay little for long. Being a Great Pyrenees sheepdog, he grew, and grew, and grew… until we had a hundred-and-twenty pounds of dog on our hands, not counting the hair. Being a Great Pyr, he was prone to wander. Sheepdogs are either “home” dogs (the sort who stay home with the flock) or “perimeter” dogs (the sort who are compulsively compelled to wander their territory looking for predators and lost sheep).
Try as we might, we could not keep Otis home on the ranch. No fence, no radio collar, and no amount of training would deter him from his instinctive mission.
Our problem with that? The perimeter isn’t always the safest place to be.
Eventually, we faced the fact that Otis simply could not help himself. He was what he was.
I’ve had to face that fact about myself as a writer, too. I’m a lot like poor old Otis. I am a perimeter dog. In life, in ministry, in writing, try as I might to do other things, I find myself wandering the fences, gazing after those sheep afield and thinking, What food could I toss out to bring them closer? What song could I sing? What words could I say? What story could I tell?
No matter where I start with a story idea, this is always where I end up. On a murky perimeter. It isn’t the safest location. I’ve been told that before, and it’s true. Gentle fiction, or crossover fiction, is often mistaken for fiction that’s, “holding back” or, “failing to preach the message.” On the flip side, crossover fiction is also criticized by people who don’t appreciate God inhabiting their story universe. There are those who believe–in fact, it’s probably the common wisdom–that stories should be one thing or the other.
But did I mention that I’m like a certain compulsive sheepdog? I simply cannot help myself.
I’ve been this way since I sat down to write my very first mainstream novel, Tending Roses, fifteen years ago. Selling it took about eight months and was an interesting process. Christian publishers said things like, “Well, we like it, but it’s not evangelical enough for our lines.” Secular publishers said, “It’s nice, but there’s religion in it. We just don’t know where it’d fit…”
The book eventually sold to Penguin as women’s fiction. It’s in its twentieth reprint at this point. It’s been used to encourage women’s literacy in India, to teach adults to read in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to supplement university courses on families and aging. It’s been passed around in tatters in Israel, where books in English are treasured. I like to believe it has gathered a few sheep afield in all those places. Would it have been a million-seller if it had been strictly one thing or the other—a secular novel or a strongly evangelical novel?
There’s no way I’ll ever know. I do know that God has used it in big and small ways in many families. I know this because they send me letters. I like to think of those reaffirming reader letters as little pats on the head from God. I hope that’s what they are. I hope He knows I’m following my instincts. And where do instincts come from, after all? God knits together the DNA of who we are.
So, yes, here I am after twenty-one (and counting) novels with publishers both Christian and secular. I’m still patrolling the perimeter. Where do I go from here? Onward to the new stories. Most recently to The Prayer Box, another crossover novel. With gritty situations, a beautiful setting on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, a little romance, and a main character who’s not the typical leading lady, it’s beach fiction that digs a little deeper. It’s the story of eighty-one prayer boxes discovered in an old Hatteras Island house and how they change the lives of the messed-up woman who finds them.
That’s what we want our prayers to do, right? Change lives.
I’ve just finished copy-edits on the sequel, The Story Keeper, which hits shelves in September. Set in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, it’s a dual time frame story with ties to The Prayer Box. The main character is an editor who finds a mysterious manuscript and goes on a bizarre journey to track down the author. It was fun to imagine myself in the editorial role for a while. An intermediary novella, The Tidewater Sisters, comes out in July, as well.
In the meantime, I’m doing all the usual things — making little notes on the backs of napkins and grocery lists, storing away ideas I might use later, and of course spending my time with good books. I literally read all over the map. There’s a level of stories I won’t pick up. You’ll never see me on the beach with a copy of Fifty Shades, but I like to read stories that teach me how other people think. They help me build empathy and understand the forces that propel people into the fold and out of the fold… and perhaps back in again.
They help me prepare to meet the sheep afield when I’m out there wandering the fences.