Apr 10 2013 3:30pm

Preaching to the Unconverted: The Anatomy of an Inspirational

Mistaken Bride by Renee Ryan“Real love endures through all things.” - An Enduring Love by Jillian Hart

If you asked me a couple months ago what an inspirational romance was, I would have just said, “It’s a Christian romance novel—or maybe it’s an Amish romance novel. And there’s no sex scenes.” But it’s much more than that. Harlequin offers a wide variety of inspirationals in the Love Inspired Series: Suspense, Historical, and Special Edition. A sampling of inspirationals (a novella, a historical, a western, and a suspense), reveal a few common themes and elements throughout the sub-genre, besides a strong focus on basic Judeo-Christian values (following the Ten Commandments, no drugs, no dirty thoughts, etc.) Here are the observations from Mistaken Bride by Renee Ryan, The Deputy’s Duty by Terri Reed, Winning the Widow’s Heart by Sherri Shackelford, and An Enduring Love, a novella by Jillian Hart:

The Love & HEA

The inspirationals are lighter on the passion, but they can still be passionate. Let me be clear: there is no sex scene (or descriptive lovemaking of any kind) in an inspirational romance. Even though there are still warm affectionate embraces and hand-holding, a lot of times the characters have known each other for a long time. They hold the “I love you” until the very end, so the tension build-up can be best kind!

I’ve also noticed that the insta-marriage trope in historical inspirationals is more out of necessity for survival or care of someone else rather than a by-product of manipulation or saving/ruining reputations like we see in racier historical romances. An excellent example of this is in Mistaken Bride, where the businessman/widower/father hero proposes to the Irish-immigrant heroine after his mail-order bride is a no-show so that she could be the mother to his two children. She refuses to marry without love, but she agrees to be the temporary nanny for the kids. Of course, with a lot of love, loyalty and friendship, they find their HEA.

The Characters

Winning the Widow's Heart by Sherri ShackelfordThe hero and heroine are extremely humble. No arrogance or cockiness here and definitely nothing flashy. (No billionaires. No sports cars. No penthouses in the city.) They are not bland though! They’re definitely emotional, and the heroes are still very protective. Think “protectiveness without the hormones,” and a handshake doesn’t make him think of sex. (Or at least the reader isn’t told that the hero is thinking of sex.) Plus, if the heroine makes a TSTL decision, the narration calls her out on it; of course it was an “impulsive and disastrous decision” for the heroine of Winning the Widow’s Heart to walk miles in search of a doctor right before the big snow storm hits. This is easier to read, however, because her choice is plausible given her situation—she doesn’t have a GPS or a smartphone with a weather app, she only has her 1870s Kansas homestead, so she earns my sympathy instead of a disapproving scowl. Even better,  the heroine doesn’t sugar-coat or make excuses! She is very “plucky” and she will stand up for herself, and remain courageous, when facing any challenges.

Ah, the villains! Their flaws are more “moral-based” and very clearly-defined. The wicked mother of the hero, in the novella An Enduring Love, has zero subtlety in her bitchery towards the heroine, so there is no doubting that her unkind heart and oppressive actions make her the villain. And the villain in the Love Inspired Suspense, The Deputy’s Duty, is just plain psychotic (which is pretty obvious given the murder-mystery case in the plot).

The Deputy's Duty by Terri ReedPlot & Conflict

Our characters are involved in serious and desperate situations (ie: finding an abandoned baby, loved one dies in a car accident after an argument, custody battles, house burns down, etc.) and the majority of the plot and conflict involves truly obsessing over these tough heart-wrenching situations. If the hero tells a “lie by omission” (or rather doesn’t “tell” the lie) he will constantly be questioning his choice and still feel massive self-guilt. Prayer usually helps the characters to alleviate or resolve said guilt, and every inspirational romance includes prayer (whether it’s an actual prayer scene or a brief mention along the lines of “she prayed for courage”) to help the characters with their struggle. To the reader of an inspirational suspense, this can be especially critical during stressful scenes; when the psychotic murderer knows where you are, sometimes all you can do is pray for safety, while grabbing the mystery-orphan baby and running out the back door as fast as your legs can carry you!

Above all of these struggles and bittersweet moments is forgiveness. As a “newbie” reader of inspirational romances, this also stood out the most to me. This seems to be the most crucial theme: The emotion of love in manifested through forgiveness, whether it’s reconciling with one’s own past or truly understanding and letting go of a past/current grievance. Inspirationals show the hero and heroine relinquishing control of a situation over to faith, hope and prayer.  And I’m so used to the hero or heroine taking charge, being controlling, and never giving up—almost stubborn to a fault (Sometimes, they don’t want Jesus to take the wheel!)—so it might be just a little bit humbling and heartwarming to see them admit, “I don’t know what to do, and I’m so full of anger and hurt, and I want to get over it, but I don’t know how to forgive this.” With a lot of reflection and faith, our characters see how their faults prevent them from love, and once they move beyond this, love always wins.

Jena Briars is a California girl living in D.C., feeding her brain one romance novel at a time...When she's not busy at work, or being distracted (sometimes ambushed) by her cat, she reviews romances on her website Throughout the Pages.

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Maggie Boyd
1. maggieboyd66
I love the new Inspirational market. The Harlequin Inspy's are not my favorites but I adore Sarah Sundin (Revell) Deanne Gist (Bethany House) Elizabeth Camden (Bethany House) and Karen Witemeyer (Bethany House). Novels like Susan May Warren's Sons of Thunder contain characters who are less than perfectly holy but rely on grace and forgiveness to see them through.

Harlequin Love Inspired does have some good short reads (Winning the Widows Heart was one I enjoyed) but I am loving the meatier, longer Inspirationals now available.
Rakisha Kearns-White
2. BrooklynShoeBabe
Thank your for dissecting Harlequin's Insiprationals. The plots sometimes seem interesting to me, but I usually avoid them because I do like some physical contact even if it is a kiss or a fade to black scene. Perhaps I should come to them as more as women's fiction than as romance and that way I can judge them differently.
Jennifer Proffitt
3. JenniferProffitt
I don't normally read inspirationals but these seem like pretty great books. When I'm looking for some sweet romance soon, I'll definitely turn to these recommendations first. Thanks!
Jena Briars
4. CutMyTeethOnKleypas
Thank you for the comments! :)

@maggieboyd66 - (widow's heart was so good!) I'll have to look into those ones too! I've only seen the Harlequins, and I'm already looking into this Love Inspired Suspense line about canine cops (Texas K-9 series) - really only for the dogs... dogs+faith+danger = HEA? I'm curious... but this Sons of Thunder one you mentioned - I looked into it and that one sounds really good.

@BrooklynShoeBabe - yeah, actually - they did feel a bit women's fiction at points. I'm starting to think the fine balancing act of writing these is that they have to be wholesome enough without making me want to see that intimacy - as if the happiness/drama needs to distract me more. And I found that the lack-of-intimacy-factor felt like torture when the characters know/love eachother for AGES (whereas if they've "just met" then it didn't seem to drive me too crazy).

@JenniferProffitt - I'd recommend checking out the Jillian Hart novella (An Enduring Love) or the Renee Ryan book (Mistaken Bride) as a good "Inspirational 101" starter. :)
Jennifer Proffitt
5. JenniferProffitt
@CutMyTeethonKleypas, the Mistaken Bride definitely caught my eye!
Jill Blank
6. blankties
I've not indulged in Inspirationals recently, however there are books with riches and steamy scenes! In inspirationals, Riches can be used for good, or be a barrier to a deeper faith. ~~ Similarly, some Christians' behavior/lifestyle is not an effective Christian witness. This can mess with other characters' minds, especially if it's a publicly-recognized "spiritual leader." (Are they Christians who've strayed? or evil in disguise?)

For steaminess, I'm always impressed with those authors who build sexual tension, and keep it simmering, while also giving believeable reasons for delaying. Sometimes body parts are mentioned, but always outside the clothing (descriptions of fabrics and textures adds more than one expects!). Also, a character's personal struggles with very real desires can make for some interesting subtext, too!

Other Observations:
-- The main character will have a crisis of faith, but a mentor or friend helps them examine their feelings (both spiritual and romantic) and reminds them to walk in faith. (Faith is a choice, an action verb.)
-- Good Christians can be "called" on faith journeys on totally separate paths; is being true to one's call a case of the "right love at the wrong time" or does God have something even better, unexpected planned?
-- Generally, a key scripture passage speaks to the main character(s) and is a theme for the entire book. It is repeated multiple times, in different settings, to help share this message for the reader.
-- Very often, especially in historicals, a non-Christian is brought to Christ through the down-to-earth witness of another believer.

Outside the Box Inspirational: For a real genre-bender, one of my favorites is "Winter is Past" by Ruth Axtell Morren. Set in Regency England, the Christian heroine is caregiver to the young blind daughter of a spiritually-conflicted widower. He comes from a Jewish family, but "converted" to become acceptable for a life in Parliament. The book is way outside the inspirational norm, but very thought-provoking.
Sherri Shackelford
7. Sherri Shackelford
I stumbled upon this post and I really appreciate your kind treatment of the inspirational market. Winning the Widow's Heart was a first book, and definitely had some rookie mistakes. That being said, I see my characters as 'good people trying to do the right thing.' You're definitely right about the themes of forgiveness - I think Christian characters tend to have a lot of guilt! If anyone is interested in trying out a Christian Historical and would like a copy of my latest release, The Rancher's Christmas proposal, shoot me an email!
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