"Writing Inspirational Romances" with Veda Boyd Jones

Moderator is Kristi Holl, author of 24 books and 150+ articles, a writing teacher for fifteen years, plus the web editor for this site.

Veda is Veda Boyd Jones, author of 27 books, 8 of which have been inspirational romances. Callie's Mountain won the 1995 best contemporary romance in the Heartsong Readers Poll. Callie's Challenge was the sequel. Veda has also written 5 inspirational romance novellas.

Names color coded in blue are viewers who asked questions.

Interviews are held on Thursday nights: 9-11 p.m. Atlantic/Canada, 8-10 p.m. Eastern, 7-9 Central, 6-8 Mountain, and 5-7 Pacific

Moderator: Good evening, everyone! Welcome to tonight's interview with Veda Boyd Jones on the topic of "Writing Inspirational Romances." Of Veda's 27 books, 8 have been inspirational romances. In addition to her books, she's written 5 inspirational romance novellas. I'm Kristi Holl, your moderator, and the web editor for this site. I'm glad you could join us for some expert advice on writing romances that uplift and inspire! Welcome, Veda!

Veda: Thanks, Kristi. And hi to all.

Moderator: Veda, could you tell us how you got started writing in general?

Veda: Way back in high school, I was editor of the newspaper staff, but I didn't think about writing as a career then. Nor did I think about it when I was editor of the newspaper at my junior college. It was only after I had two of my three sons and was in a new city, lonely during the day before my husband came back from work at night. I read a couple romance novels from the library, and said as many have said: "I could do better than this," and then I started writing one. It was a lot harder than it looked!

Moderator: Do you have a "typical" writing day? How does that differ from your "ideal" writing day?

Veda: I have a good life. My typical day and my ideal day aren't far apart. After the family is out of the house, to work and school, I do the normal things: dishes, start laundry, sweep the kitchen. Then I make nachos, pour my diet Pepsi, and head to the computer. I go over e-mail, flip through my piles on the table, and then if I'm in the middle of a book, I read what I wrote the day before, edit it on the screen, then start in writing.

Moderator: Love your breakfast! How did you actually start writing romances?

Veda: It really was a dark and stormy night when I finished a romance. I was the only one awake, and the thought that kept going through my head was how can a writer take the same characters and give them enough to sort through to make a 200+ page book? I kept mulling that over, and then I just decided to try it, because it couldn't be that hard, could it? Well, it was hard, and the first book was rejected, and the second, third, and fourth. By the fifth one I had a computer, and I'd learned that I couldn't write the ms., type it over once (which took me a lot of time since I was only writing during two hours in the afternoon when the boys were asleep) and then submit it. I had to learn that revision was as important as the rough draft. Once I learned that, I went back to the first four romances, fixed the big holes in them, and sold them, too.

Moderator: Are romance novels the easiest kind of genre novel to write, like many people think?

Veda: I don't know. I've never tried a mystery or a western, so I don't know how hard they are. There is a formula to romance, even though it's very loose. It's simply that there's a hero and a heroine, and they have something keeping them apart, but in the end that will have been resolved and there will be a happy ending. In that respect, writing romance appears easy, but it takes just as much character development and conflict and pacing as any other genre.

Moderator: How do inspirational romances differ from regular paperback romances?

Veda: Of course the queen of romance publishers as far as numbers go is Silhouette/Harlequin. That publishing giant has several levels of romances, and all are based on the degree of sensuality in them. In inspirational romances there is no sex, but there is a story problem, a solution, and two very real characters. There's also a Christian background. The stories don't have to be conversion stories, but they have to be value-centered.

Moderator: Did inspirational romances come about as a kind of protest to the regular romances (also called "bodice rippers" by some)?

Veda: I suspect they did. I heard an editor say that Christian readers wanted a good love story, but they just didn't want to wade through all the sexual stuff they believed belonged after marriage, not before. So they were a market waiting to be explored.

Moderator: Are the characters always Christians?

Veda: No. In my romances they are, because I've not written a conversion story, but some writers like the heavier conversion story and have one or the other of the main characters not be a Christian when the story begins, but he or she is by the end of the story.

Moderator: Do you tell what church a character belongs to? (And is this a requirement of some denominational publishers?)

Veda: Because there are so many denominations, a writer is discouraged from naming names. A Christian background can be established without giving doctrine. With tradition forming some beliefs, it would be hard for a person of one denomination to write about another without a lot of research, so it's best for writers to stick with basic truths and not get really specific. I really don't know if some denominational publishers require their own denomination in a romance. I know some denominational magazines require that the writer be of a certain religion and even have a signed document from the minister before accepting the writer's work, but I don't know of that kind of requirement in the inspirational romance publishing world.

JaciRae: By establishing a Christian background, do you just mean they go to church, or say grace, or what exactly?

Veda: Those are good things to start with, but you make their actions also fit what a Christian should do. You would keep them out of bars and fights and strip clubs (hey we need a little humor here). And speaking of humor, there's a real need for it in inspirational romances. I've had feedback from readers who want more humor in inspirational romances. Just because someone is a Christian, that doesn't mean he or she can't be a funny person.

Moderator: Obviously you wouldn't use curse words, but what about words like 'darn' and 'gosh'?

Veda: I've worked for Heartsong Presents, and that publisher doesn't allow those type words because they are substitutes for profanity. I may not agree with that, but I follow the style sheet of the publisher I work for.

Moderator: Are the settings important? Why or why not? How do you choose one?

Veda: Settings are the foundation for story, in my opinion. It sometimes takes on the importance of a character. I have never set a story in a place where I've never been. If I know the place, I can use little details that make it come alive. For instance, when I wrote Under A Texas Sky set in Abilene, TX and which uses the ruins of old Fort Phantom Hill, I took a video camera out there and viewed the stark chimneys that were left after the place burned. I heard the wind and how it howls through the ruins. I watched the video several times while I was writing that book and it reminded me each time of the eerieness of the place.

When I was writing A Sense of Place set at a TV station, I had to go to the TV station and spend a day. I was allowed in the control booth, in the engineer's booth, in the studio, even in the remote van, and I interviewed tons of people about their jobs. I didn't use all that information, but I had a real strong sense of what it took to put the news together at a TV station. After I finished the book, I went back for another day to make sure the details I included were right, then I did the revisions. The setting had to be real enough that the reader could smell, touch, see, and hear the noise of the place.

Moderator: That kind of research sounds like fun! Should a romance be set in the city or in the country? Which is more popular?

Veda: I asked my editor that very question. He said that by writing what I know, I was able to make the setting real, and that was all that was required. A city or rural setting doesn't determine if a book is good or not, but it does add to the story. As long as the reader can identify the setting, that's all that matters. I've actually used small towns that I've made up, and I've used cities that I've named. It's easier to use a real city, like Kansas City that I used in A Question of Balance, because making up a city is tough. Making up a little town is much simpler and it can be believable. A city is big enough that you can make up a little portion that you can use, and then fill in with a few places that people would know. I've used the Royal's ball park in KC, and if I were writing about NYC, I would work in some places that most people have seen on TV.

Speaking of NYC, now that my oldest son lives there, I've visited a couple times, so I may be using it as a setting. It certainly is used a lot on TV, because there are so many people who can identify the setting, but before I was there and rode the subway, I saw the trains on TV but I didn't smell them. Off the subject, but that smell thing is so important. You know how you mention popcorn in a theater, and you're immediately taken there. That's what you need in a book. The scene you write is set somewhere, and if you include the smell of the place, flowers in the park, oil and grease beside the subway track, you will put your reader right beside the main character.

wendymh: I'm reading A Question of Balance. I'm very impressed! I was hooked right away with the characters who are intelligent and good people who I would like to have as my own friends. I relaxed and am enjoying getting to know them as new friends.

Veda: Wendy, you're wonderful to say that. My characters are my friends, and I hate to see them go when I finish a book.

AnneKelly: Are your romances contemporary or historical?

Veda: Anne, I've only written contemporary romances, but I've written historical middle-grade novels that were in the American Adventure Series put out by Barbour Books that also required a Christian setting.

Katonah: My romance stories for young readers are based on Native American tradition and cultures; should they be sent to Christian publishers?

Veda: My first thought is no, Katonah, because they are probably not based on Christianity. They sound very interesting though, especially since I have a touch of Cherokee blood myself.

wendymh: Is there an age group that is off limits or not popular in inspirational romance?

Veda: Good question, Wendy. Twenty years ago the regular romance publishers had very specific guidelines for their heroines. They had to be between this age (usually 19) and that (somewhere around 23). Seems like the hero was always 36. I don't know why. I've not had any guidelines on age, but there seems to be some unwritten rules. Most of my heroines are nearing thirty. I've not written about anyone older than 30, but I do know that there are some that are older. In order to appeal to all ages of readers, the age of the main character must be an age that the readers can relate to.

Heartsong has a reader sheet at the back of their books and it asks for reader age. They range from teen-aged girls to women in their 80s. But the majority would fall between 35-55 (I'm making an educated guess from the ones that are sent to me.) Look at TV shows. What age are the main characters there? They have to be young enough that many viewers can identify with their problems. That's the thing. The problems of a 30-year-old are different than those of a 50-year-old or a 22-year-old. So, the story problem (or conflict) would dictate what age your heroine should be.

wendymh: Are romances always about young people and weddings? Can an inspirational romance also be about a husband and wife rekindling romance after 30 years in a context of good taste and no sex?

Veda: Yes. My romance Callie's Mountain was voted #1 by Heartsong readers in 1995, so I was asked to write a sequel using those characters. Since I had them walking down the aisle at the end of the first book, I had to have them married in the second book. But the problem I had with a married couple was that I didn't want to give them problems in the marriage. I really liked Callie and Morgan. So, I looked at my own life for the solution. My sister had just been in a freak accident. The swimming pool filter blew up in her face while she was turning it on. Her jaw was broken, her nose flattened, her face swollen so that she looked inhuman.

It was a horrible time in my life, so I could write about this very same accident happening to Morgan, who happened to be a singer. Would he be able to sing again? I knew he'd be on a breathing tube, a trach tube, so he wouldn't be able to talk for awhile. I knew every part of the medical procedure, and the fear of not having an identity for awhile until plastic surgery could be done. This was a man in the public eye. He needed his voice and his looks. And it was up to Callie to keep his spirits up and help him find his faith again (not that it was gone, just faltering). People many times ask, "Why me? What did I do to cause this?" And that's the problem I gave to Morgan. Their marriage wasn't in trouble, but they had a problem that needed to be solved.

Moderator: Wow! What an awful accident! Veda, should there be a heavy issue in each book?

Veda: I really don't like heavy issue books. I mean things like child abuse, violence, abortion. I read a romance for enjoyment, not for a lecture or an essay. I want a good read, not a statement about society, so I don't read romances with heavy issues. I much prefer humor in a romance. And even though Morgan was in a bad accident, he kept his sense of humor most of the time. That book was not the fun of writing the first Callie/Morgan book because there was more at issue than getting the two together.

Moderator: Is there a lot of research involved in a historical romance?

Veda: Tons. With an historical novel, you must set a date for it to happen. Say, 1882. Anything that wasn't invented by that date can't be included. Any town that wasn't around by then can't be in the book. The clothes must be the ones people would wear back then, the names must be the ones used then. I once set a book in 1832 (not a romance) and had a man with a broken leg. I had to call a doctor to see if it would be set in plaster or just a splint. If I got it wrong, I would get a letter from a reader about it, you can count on that. No matter what the year, someone is an expert on it, so the writer had better know what she's creating is a real world. I once used 1903 for a book and had to research the kind of cars that a wealthy family would have, since there weren't many on the market. I chose an electric car, and had fun with an older woman learning to drive it.

Moderator: Do you have any favorite web sites you use for historical research?

Veda: I'm on the kindergarten level of computer usage. That I'm in a chat room is a big deal to me. I do use the Internet for research, but mostly at this stage, I'm just inputting a word or phrase in a search engine and see what pops up. I don't trust the Internet a lot. After all, anyone can put junk up there. Even I have a web page. (Because my son designed it for me over his Christmas break from college.) I will shamelessly plug it: I like the library. I like books that have pages. I like the smell of books. And I sit in this computer chair too much already. I use the Internet as a starting point to build a bibliography, then I head to the library.

Moderator: Can you use actual historical people? Why or why not? If you do, how much "fictionalizing" can you do?

Veda: You may use anyone in the public domain, but I wouldn't be slandering them. I've used Teddy Roosevelt in a historical middle-grade book. I made sure he was in Minneapolis in April, 1903, and he was in a parade, so I made one of the main older characters know him from long ago. She called to him and stopped the parade, then introduced the young main characters to the President of the US. I think you should treat historical characters as you would want to be treated if someday you're an historical person. The person should not be out of his true character.

Moderator: Do you develop a character sketch for each person?

Veda: Absolutely. I learned that the hard way. I had a hero with blue eyes on page 4 and with gray eyes on page 29. I caught that in the ms. before I submitted it, but after that, I always filled out a character sheet. I include more than just the color of eyes and style of hair. I give him a real background: parents, siblings, education, hopes, dreams, enemies, friends. I do that for the hero and the heroine. Sometimes I fill out character sheets for a few minor characters if they're going to be in the book quite a bit. My character sheets are a standard form that someone gave me. You can make up your own. You don't always use all the information. Who cares if his favorite food is pepperoni pizza? That may never come up in a book. But it might.

What's really important is to establish the mind set of the character. What would he like more than anything in the world? What would make him feel successful? What would make him feel like a failure? What makes him angry? What makes him sad? What makes him laugh? Once I have answered these questions, I have a much better idea of how this man will act when I plunk him down in a situation. I also know how he will respond to the heroine.

She also has a character sheet and has the same type of questions. Sometimes I cut a picture out of a magazine and put it up so I am reminded of a certain character. Sometimes I think of a person I know and build a character around that person. I did that in The Governor's Daughter. A student I knew had a political family, and it was such a different life than mine that I was fascinated by it. Imagine campaigning for your father when he ran for governor. I haven't seen this woman in twenty years, but I remembered our talks about people wanting to know her for who her father was, not for who she was, and my character and her internal problem was born.

sunnystuff: How much prep work goes in the book, i.e. full outline, full character sketches, etc.?

Veda: I start with character sketches (the forms I fill out). I've done as little as a Post-It note outline. But I've found the writing is much better if I plot the book out in chapters. Once I had established myself with Heartsong, I could submit a proposal and not have to write the book before I submitted it, so I learned to write a synopsis and that turned into my loose outline. I've never stuck to an outline exactly. Some character always does something that leads me down a different path. And when it's hard to control your heroine or any character, I've learned that it's just best to let her go her way and see where she's headed. Usually her personality leads her.

Moderator: Can I use multiple viewpoints? If so, what are the difficulties in this? Are there tricks or tips you can share for using a multiple viewpoint effectively?

Veda: I really like two viewpoints in a romance. I certainly know the female p.o.v, but I'm always interested in the male viewpoint. Maybe that's because I have three sons. I'm the only female in the household, so I find it pretty easy to slip into the male point of view. The first time I did two viewpoints, I alternated chapters so the reader wouldn't be confused. There's nothing worse than 'jumping heads' in the same paragraph. As a reader, I identify with the point of view character. If that's always shifting, I'm confused. So, the switch must be very clear.

As I got better at viewpoint, I would sometimes switch viewpoints in the same chapter, but not within a scene. Each scene had its own viewpoint character. I chose who would see the action by who had the most at stake in that scene. There have been a few times when I thought it necessary to switch viewpoints within a scene. When I've done this, I've used physical action to make the switch. For instance, I'd have the hero walk over to the window and look out. Then I could follow him and slip into his mind.

Moderator: That's very smooth! Veda, what kind of "package" should a romance writer submit to an editor?

Veda: I'm sure different publishers may have different requirements, but I think as a rule a proposal should be a synopsis (short, probably two pages) and the first three chapters. This will give an editor an overview of the story and a good idea what kind of writer you are. I don't know of any romance publisher who wants to see the entire manuscript as a first submission. If the editor likes the proposal, she'll ask for the whole thing. Here's the deal: If it's your first romance, you'd better have it finished so when you get the request to send the manuscript, it's ready to box up.

sunnystuff: Do you have to be careful with subplots? Can the hero be working through other problems while falling in love with the heroine? Can she be working on separate issues, but falling in love with the hero?

Veda: Subplots are very necessary. Your hero isn't going to meet the heroine and then forget his job, his other responsibilities and focus only on her, even though we might like that kind of attention. He has a life. She has a life. Then they meet. Of course the book will focus on what is keeping them apart. And they should both be in most of the scenes, but there are times when character development demands that one character act alone. I know that some romance writers would disagree with me and say that all scenes must have both characters, but one of my most powerful scenes is with just the woman doctor in A Question of Balance. Before I sold that book, I sold that scene as a short story, and it won an award. It is important to who she is, and once he learned about the scene, he reacted to it, but he wasn't in it.

wendymh: How long a time span can be in an inspirational romance? Can it be 30 years and deal with important highlights regarding faith? Or is there a limit of a year or two?

Veda: Just like most romances, the time span is relatively short. I think that a year is a long time. Thirty years would be a saga. The thing to remember is that this is first a romance, secondly an inspirational story. An editor once told me not to forget that. Most of the readers are already Christians. They may have questioning times, but they are reading a love story, not a sermon. They don't want the author's opinion. The readers want the character's opinions.

In a romance novella, I've never let my characters live through more than a week. Short stories usually take days, so I go with the one-year rule on romance novels. The way to know an editor's opinion on how long it should last is to read the books that publishers put on the shelf. If you read ten new books and all take place in a year or less, then that is what you should aim for. If you read a couple that take five years, then you'll know that that time span is allowed. It's hard to imagine a romance going on a long time. After all, there is a formula. Remember that the couple will get together at the end. If you have an unhappy ending, you don't have a romance.

Moderator: How soon should I expect a response after submitting? What if it goes on too long with no response?

Veda: Wouldn't we love turnaround mail? But that's a fantasy. Usually publishers give a time estimate in a listing. I used to double that, then when that time span passed, I'd write a status letter. It was very short, stating that I'd sent this manuscript on this date and wondered what its status was. I always enclosed a self-addressed stamped envelope with the status letter for an easy reply.

Moderator: What if the editor asks for revisions or makes suggestions? Should I make changes and resubmit to her?

Veda: I have always thought that my words were not golden. Again, I learned that through revision. If an editor disagrees with something I've written, we talk, and I usually bend. I once had a teacher chaperone the high school prom. I had her dance. Since that might offend some readers, the editor wanted it changed. Fine with me. I just needed her at the dance. So, I didn't even rewrite the two lines, the editor did, but she cleared it with me before she changed it. Some writers disagree with me. How dare them! They don't want to change something they've written that's important to them. I'm not talking about a word or comma, but something substantial. I've never come up against that, so I don't know how I'd react, but I'm a writer. I'm not an editor. I stick with what I do, and I let an editor do her job.

There was one time (can't remember the book) that every contraction that wasn't in dialogue was changed. Didn't became did not. Wouldn't became would not. It sounded so stilted to me, and I didn't see it until it was in print. In my mind I saw some freelance editor right out of college. She still had her freshman comp teacher telling her that contractions didn't belong in formal writing and I agree. But a romance isn't formal writing. It's actually in a conversational tone, not in an essay form. So I was a bit upset when I read the first few lines. My husband read it and said he didn't even notice. A friend read the book and said that faded into the background as the characters took over the story. So it wasn't the big deal that I thought it was during the first half hour I was pouring over the book.

Moderator: How long should the chapters be?

Veda: I aim for chapters of about twenty pages. But I've had short chapters of five pages and longer chapters. It just depends on the scenes in the chapter.

AnneKelly: Will the publisher's preferred time span for how long a period the book should cover be in their guidelines?

Veda: It might be, Anne, and it might not be. Most editors would say it depends on how long it takes to tell the story. Just think about real life and how long a couple would be seeing each other before deciding that they were made for each other.

Moderator: What's the best marketing research I can do?

Veda: The only answer is to read the romances that the publisher publishes. Of course a writer should have guidelines, but there's no short cut to learning how a good romance goes together. Read, read, read.

Moderator: Is there a style sheet available from most inspirational romance publishers?

Veda: I believe many publishers have style sheets. Certainly Heartsong does. A new one just came out that has the way certain words should be spelled. For instance, Sunday school doesn't have school capitalized.

Moderator: What is the basic contract like?

Veda: There are three types. One is a work-for-hire contract where the publisher owns all rights to the book. At one time Heartsong had a basic contract that was for a set fee, no royalty, but the rights were owned by the author. That's the second type. And there's the third type, a royalty contract where the author usually gets an advance, and once that advance has been earned by copies sold, she gets a royalty or percentage on each book that sells.

Moderator: Do inspirationals pay as much as regular romances?

Veda: My experience is no. Although most publishers don't want their writers talking money. I've talked to some writers of regular romances, and they make more. Their print run is much bigger, so they should sell more.

Katonah: Should manuscripts for Christian publishers lack any physical contact such as "a kiss"?

Veda: How could a good romance not a have a kiss? I've always had kisses. It wouldn't seem real without it. I certainly don't have the couple thinking carnal thoughts, but what's wrong with a few kisses?

Moderator: I'm sorry to have to stop here, but we've run out of time. Veda, thank you so much for coming tonight and sharing with us on the topic of writing inspirational romances. Many of us like to read them, and writing them sounds like fun! You've given our viewers a lot of helpful information tonight.

Veda: Glad I could help. Remember, my comments are my own opinions. Others may disagree, but I like to think my opinions reflect my experiences with inspirational romances.

Moderator: Thank you, Veda! Do come back to the Long Ridge Professional Connection Room in two weeks when we'll have Anne Helgren speaking on the topic of "Niche Writing." Anne has written nonfiction books on animals, science fiction novels, and other types of niche writing. Is it important to find your niche? If so, how do you find the one where you'd be most happy and successful? Come back in two weeks to ask Anne Helgren your questions! And now, good night, everyone!

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