The romance genre is one of the top-selling genres in the world. Everyone knows the boy and the girl always get together in the end, but how they get there and what hurdles they have to overcome can make for a riveting story.

But for Christian authors, romance can be a touchy subject.

How do you write romance books that Christian readers want to read and tell their friends about?

I asked Sara Turnquist, a clean historical romance author of over 20 novels and the host of the Writer Wednesdays podcast.

Why do people read romance?

Thomas Umstattd, Jr.: What brings readers to the romance genre?

Sara Turnquist: Whether you’re talking about the Christian market or the secular market, readers gravitate toward romance because there is a love story within each of us—a reflection of our relationship with God and the void that only He can fill. This partnership with God, this coming to the Lord, can be seen as a form of romance. We long for it, and we desire that connection. We want to see two flawed characters come together and create something new and beautiful.

Thomas: That romantic story is at the core of who we are. We are made male and female, and it’s not good for man to be alone.

What elements make a novel a romance?

Thomas: Many books have romance elements. In Lord of the Rings, you have the romance of Aragorn and Arwen, but it’s not a romance novel. What makes a book a romance?

Sara: You bring up a very good distinction. Some action books, like the Lord of the Rings series, contain romance; but in true romance novels, the romantic relationship must be central to the story. It must focus on two people overcoming obstacles to find their happily-ever-after. A key element of a romance is this happily-ever-after ending.

Many trends in fiction have introduced stories where the endings are “happily for now,” rather than “happily ever after.” However, to be classified as a romance, there must be a satisfying conclusion where the couple ends up together, whether it’s happily now or happily ever after. Readers work through the book with the characters and expect this resolution.

Thomas: Romance readers don’t read to find out how the story ends. This genre is solidly escapist. There are three main reasons people read books: for education, escape, or entertainment. One of the biggest differences between escape and entertainment is that in entertaining reading, you don’t know how the book will end. That curiosity pulls you forward.

In contrast, with escapist reading, you hope the book won’t end because you already know the general outcome: the dark overlord will be defeated, and the guy and the girl will get together. It’s more about the journey than the destination. In purely entertaining books, the main driver is finding out the ending.

Books often have a mix of all three elements, but one usually dominates from a marketing perspective. For example, a book might be primarily marketed as an escape or as entertainment. There are trade-offs because the more educational a book is, the less entertaining it tends to be; and the more it serves as an escape, the less it entertains. These elements pull against each other as you find the proper mix.

Sara: I think some people come to historical romance expecting something more like historical fiction because they want to be educated. But education isn’t at the core of historical romance. The romance is core; it’s just set in a specific historical time period.

Thomas: Historical romance is more about the costumes and social norms of that day. For example, if you want to get away from modern dating social norms and the modern sexual ethic, you can escape to a historical period when the men were men and the women were women.

Sara: Many of our modern views are bleeding into historical writing, though, and that’s a challenge for the historical writer, particularly the Christian historical writer. We must present an honest view of what things looked like during that period. We don’t have to say it was right or wrong, but we must be honest about how it was.

How discerning are historical romance readers when it comes to anachronisms and historical facts?

Thomas: Do historical romance readers know which kinds of technology were invented during the period in which their story is set?

In my world of historical fiction, we live for those correct details. Historical readers know the Germans didn’t have the MP 38 until later. Getting the specific gun details correct is critical. Is that how it is with historical romance?

Sara: Some readers want historical accuracy, and they know what’s accurate and what’s not. Others are there to escape into the story, and they just pick up on things. If a character takes a shower in the 1500s, readers will recognize that clear violation of the historical timeline.

It’s important to know whether your audience is there to experience the story or if they’re history buffs.

What would draw a reader to a historical romance over a contemporary romance?

Sara: Historical romance provides the escape into the characters’ lives and into a world readers don’t belong to. Historical romance writers have to do some world-building to set the stage for a world modern readers haven’t experienced.

Historical romance readers typically prefer a certain time period for the setting. Some like the old west in the 1800s, while others prefer reading stories set in medieval times. There is some overlap in readership; but by and large, they stick to the time period that makes them feel comfortable.

Thomas: It seems like 90% of romance readers prefer the Jane Austen era, give or take 50 years. You don’t see many romances set in the 900s or the 300s. They’re typically set in the Victorian or Edwardian era. Is that a fair assessment?

Sara: It is fair. If we were to survey historical-romance readers, many would report liking the Jane Austen era because many of us were introduced to historical romance through Pride and Prejudice and similar stories.

But we’re seeing more biblical historical-romance authors emerge. They’re becoming very prolific and developing this readership that wasn’t very big 20 years ago.

Thomas: I imagine the expectation for historical accuracy is higher for biblical romance because church-going readers know more about Bible times. If you’re familiar with the Bible, you’ll be somewhat more acquainted with ancient Hebrew practices than with the English in the 1400s.

Sara: I think so. People can be very sensitive to the biblical era for the reasons you mentioned.

Authors of biblical historical romance will often pick a character who was mentioned in one verse. It allows the author to introduce readers to parts of the culture we may not be familiar with, and we are introduced to characters who don’t exist in Scripture.

What tropes must you work into your story for it to be a romance?

Sara: One of the key elements in writing romance, including historical romance, is creating a heroine the reader can sympathize with. She doesn’t need to be perfect. She can even be someone we don’t particularly like at first, but we need to root for her. There must be something in her character, especially if she is to be redeemed throughout the story. Show us her redeeming qualities, even if they aren’t evident at the beginning.

You also need a strong hero, not necessarily physically strong, but with a strength of character that complements the heroine’s journey. He has his own journey to complete. It’s crucial to have two flawed characters. A story about perfect characters finding love and living happily ever after would be very short and unappealing to most readers. People want to see characters overcoming both internal and external challenges to find love.

Lastly, a happily ever after is essential. Readers invest in the characters’ journey, worry about them, and face obstacles alongside them. If you’ve written it well, readers will feel as if they’ve lived in the characters’ skin. They want to see the payoff at the end.

How important is it for the reader to see herself in the relatable heroine?

Thomas: There’s an argument that since Bella from the Twilight series is not a well-developed character, readers can more easily insert themselves into the character’s story.

As a marketer, I look at Bella’s lack of defining characteristics; and I think it has actually contributed to that book’s success. The reader can feel like a teenage girl that everyone wants. That’s the fantasy of the Twilight books and the reason it’s one of the bestselling series of all time. Even the spinoffs by other authors have become incredibly successful.

Does all romance need an empty heroine the reader can insert herself into? Or is that a particular kind of romance?

Sara: I would say that’s a type of romance; but for the Christian market, in particular, it’s crucial for readers to identify with the heroine in some way. I can’t speak much about the secular market as I don’t write for it. However, readers of Christian romance need to feel something for the heroine and relate to her.

The degree to which this is necessary depends on your audience. Some readers want to feel like they’re in the heroine’s skin from the beginning and see a lot of themselves in her. Others simply need to identify with a characteristic that helps them connect with the character enough to go on the journey with her.

Thomas: That’s a core difference between men and women. LEGO did a famous study when they were struggling to sell to little girls. They’re a toy company, but their market was mainly little boys.

LEGO conducted a study to understand how they could make LEGOs more appealing to girls. They observed children playing with LEGOs, and the differences were fascinating. When a little boy played with a Batman LEGO figurine, he would start talking like Batman and embodying the character. He adapted himself to the character, whether it was Batman or Luke Skywalker.

In contrast, when little girls played with the Batman figurine, Batman would start doing activities like shopping or having tea parties, becoming more like the girl playing with him. This highlights a key difference between how boys and girls engage in play, which extends to reading. Men often want to live a different life through the story, while women want to see themselves reflected in it.

This underscores the importance of knowing your target reader. Different readers look for different things in a story, and they face different challenges. They want to see heroes and heroines dealing with issues like their own. Understanding your reader, what I call “knowing your Timothy,” is crucial for connecting with your audience.

Sara: I think readers want to see characters walk out their faith in hard places so we can know it’s possible.

What makes a Christian romance different from a secular romance?

Thomas: What are the differences between Christian and secular romance novels? Obviously, the steam level is different; but you’ve alluded that there is an element of redemption as the character and reader work through their own brokenness and sin.

Sara: Christian romance novels depict different levels of faith. For a book to be classified as a Christian romance, it must have a Christian worldview. This doesn’t mean avoiding difficult topics or pretending sin doesn’t exist; but it should maintain a clean, Christian perspective in terms of language and themes.

Some readers prefer stories without explicit faith elements like prayers or detailed redemption journeys; they want characters who are already walking in faith. On the other hand, some readers and publishers look for stories that include a complete faith arc, culminating in a sinner’s prayer or a similar moment of redemption.

There are also Christian romance novels that focus on being clean, which means avoiding explicit language, gratuitous violence, or graphic content. These books might not mention faith explicitly and are more accurately categorized as clean and wholesome romance rather than strictly Christian romance.

Thomas: A clean and wholesome romance is similar to a Hallmark romance. It avoids PG-13 material and often leaves a noticeable absence where God would be, with characters acting morally without any religious context. I find this harder to believe because there is a sense of artificiality. In a Hallmark story, the characters behave in a way that reflects religious values; but the characters don’t have any actual religion. It seems inauthentic to me.

In contrast, an actual religious person, whose life is shaped by their faith, would naturally exhibit the fruits of that faith. You would expect to see the influence of the Holy Spirit, sanctification, and conviction of sin in their lives. This genuine expression of faith distinguishes clean and wholesome romances from Christian romances.

How do you determine how steamy is too steamy in a Christian romance?

Sara: To be classified as a Christian romance or clean romance, you need to limit intimate scenes to just kissing and “close the door” for anything beyond that. This means you can allude to a married couple experiencing intimacy, but those scenes should not be described in detail.

Some Christian authors choose to have the first kiss happen at the very end of the story, which can bring a sense of fulfillment and closure. Others might introduce kissing earlier, increasing the heat level a bit. There are various approaches, but maintaining a “closed-door” policy for anything beyond kissing is essential.

Thomas: It also depends on your target reader. Your target reader has a specific expectation. Maintaining the Christian sexual ethic is key.

From a marketer’s perspective, Christian romance ultimately is a shelf in the bookstore and a category on Amazon. But it’s also a set of reader expectations. Readers expect Christian romances to follow the Christian sexual ethic that marriage is between a man and a woman and sexual activity doesn’t begin until the marriage does. That’s been the sexual ethic of Christians for 2,000 years, and we’re not changing it now.

You could write a book that doesn’t follow the Christian sexual ethic, but it won’t be considered by Christian readers to be a Christian book if it doesn’t follow the Christian sexual ethic.

Sara: That’s very true. You’ll have an angry audience and bitter readers if you promise a clean Christian book and you don’t deliver.

Some authors have tried to write one book for both markets; but by the time they discover it doesn’t work, they’ve already upset their readers.

Thomas: There’s a lot of money in erotica. You can view erotica as a lucrative portion of the publishing industry, or you can view it as a less-lucrative portion of the pornography industry.

The more you ratchet up the steam, the more money you’ll make. It’s very tempting to chase those dollars, but it will eventually move you from where you started.

We see authors, musicians, and celebrities chasing the money, saying, “If I just hide my faith a little bit more, I can make a little more money.”

Sara: I do think there is a place for something in between. When I was growing up reading Christian romance, the stories were very sweet, like a Hallmark movie with a faith element. The men were generally static characters, almost perfect, while the women went through a significant journey throughout the novel. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but I’ve noticed a trend in Christian romance toward grittier stories.

Although the term “grittier” is overused, it accurately describes the emerging space in Christian romance. These stories feature more physical interaction up to a closed door and address deeper, more complicated issues in the characters’ backgrounds and the challenges they face. I think that trend reflects a desire for more realism and complexity in the genre.

Thomas: Of all the genres, romance seems to be the most influenced by trends. What’s selling today in romance can differ significantly from what was popular a year ago.

For example, I’m currently reading an epic fantasy from a decade ago; and it remains just as compelling now as it was back then. The tropes in epic fantasy tend to evolve slowly.

In romance, the types of men that women find attractive can shift frequently as opinions and desires are influenced by who the popular actors are. For instance, in the 90s, Fabio appeared on 90% of romance covers, but that’s no longer what women want. Keeping up with these trends is crucial in romance, including Christian romance.

There was a time when alpha males and billionaires were very popular, but their appeal has waned. Understanding what women are currently looking for is essential from a marketing perspective because what you’re selling is often the man.

When Fabio was holding a woman on the book cover, he boosted sales by 30%. When he was featured on the cover by himself, he boosted sales by 45%.

How do you decide whether to put the man on the cover or both the man and the woman?

Sara: In historical romance, it’s common to feature the woman or the couple on the cover. Another option is to have no people on the cover, but those are rare. In my niche, it’s uncommon to see only a man on the cover.

Examples of Christian romance book covers

While there is a trendiness in historical romance, it is less pronounced than in contemporary romance, which tends to reflect current trends more closely. I understand what you’re saying about the types of men women are attracted to, but there is a difference between what the general market and the Christian market look for in a man.

A Christian woman seeks a man with inner strength, vulnerability, and a desire to follow God’s will. We want to see men who honor the women in their lives in the way God intends.

How do you identify the kind of man that would appeal to your reader?

Thomas: Do you just write the kind of man that would appeal to you and hope he will appeal to your reader? Or do you research?

Sara: I think this aligns with the concept of writing to trends, where you must craft your story and characters based on what’s currently popular. However, the danger of following trends, such as the vampire or Amish trends, is that by the time you finish writing your book, the trend may have already shifted. Very few authors can successfully capitalize on a specific trend for long.

Personally, I create characters whose stories emerge from their backgrounds and the journeys they need to undergo to reach their happily ever after or to become their new selves.

Thomas: Amish isn’t actually a trend. It’s here to stay, and I can explain why from a psychological perspective. Every genre has a psychological motivator for why readers are drawn to that genre. Certain kinds of readers are drawn to certain genres for specific psychological reasons.

For instance, mystery readers find a lot of psychological satisfaction in the puzzle being solved and justice being done. A person who likes to figure out puzzles finds mystery to be a satisfying genre. They find that bringing order to chaos is psychologically satisfying.

Amish readers have a sense of future shock. Future shock is like culture shock in your own culture, where you feel like you don’t recognize your own country anymore.

I recently heard a WWII vet who participated in D-Day 80 years ago say, “I don’t feel like I live in the country that I dropped into D-Day for.” He’s experiencing future shock and saying, “It’s not the same country that my buddies died for.”

While everyone can relate to future shock to some degree, certain people find it very painful and exhausting. When they want a break from the pain, they can escape with an Amish novel because Amish culture is exceedingly static.

When you write Edwardian or Victorian fiction, you’re tapping into eras of rapid technological change. The Victorian era, in particular, saw significant advancements, which even inspired a whole sci-fi genre. In contrast, the Amish community resisted such changes, creating a clear distinction. While the Amish trend may not last 100 years, it will likely remain vibrant and popular for at least the next 20 years due to its unique psychological appeal.

This differs from trends driven by current popular actors. For example, the type of actor women find attractive today differs from five years ago. Recently, “mousy men” became popular on TikTok, but this is likely a fleeting trend.

Sara: I will push back a bit because while Amish fiction is more of a subgenre, I believe it reflects a longer-lasting trend, though “trend” might not be the best term. In my time writing, I’ve observed a significant increase in people reading Amish romance, followed by a slight decline.

We may be discussing different types of readers. Some readers are drawn to Amish romance due to a deep psychological need, while others gravitate toward whatever is currently popular or being advertised. Amish romance enjoyed a period of heightened popularity, but its appeal is waning a bit.

Thomas: Amish fiction was once novel and attracted readers looking for the latest trend. However, it is no longer new. When it first emerged, it was revolutionary and unique; but after 20 years, it has lost some of that initial excitement.

You make an interesting point: Different readers can be drawn to the same genre for various reasons. Some readers are attracted to what’s new and exciting; and when that fades, they move on. Others are core fans who remain loyal to the genre. Understanding your readers allows you to cater to their preferences. Knowing why people are drawn to your genre helps you engage and thrill them.

Sara: It’s so important for you to understand that you are writing for your reader. Sometimes we miss that. Part of the art is for you, and the other part is a partnership with God. But when it comes to marketing, you must know your target audience.

There is an audience for what you write.

We can debate the size of the audience that wants what you write, but there will be a market for you; and you need to know where those people hang out, what they like and hate, and what excites them or makes them skip your book.

What mistakes do you see new Christian romance authors make?

Thomas: What mistakes do you see Christian authors making when they’re trying to write Christian romance novels?

Sara: One mistake I often see in my subgenre is either focusing too much on the historical aspect or not enough. It’s all about balance. This can be said for every genre, including Christian romance. In contemporary romance, I notice a tendency to chase the latest trends, like hockey romances or billionaire romances.

Sometimes, we prioritize following trends over writing the story that God has given us. Not that you can’t place the characters God gives you in different situations—that’s part of the art—but trying to follow trends too closely is a common mistake I see people make.

Thomas: If you’re trying to pay the bills with your writing, then it makes a lot of sense to write what readers want. There’s a big difference between an author who relies on their writing income and one who has financial support from a wealthy spouse, independent wealth, or retirement. Retired authors often have the luxury of writing whatever they want without worrying about money.

For those who depend on their writing to pay the mortgage or pay for their kid’s braces, it’s essential to know what resonates with readers. They have to be more mindful of current trends.

In contrast, some authors focus on niche interests, like writing Viking romances set in Sweden during the Viking age. They might write a story about whether a man will stay true to his wife or bring back a new slave girl, without caring whether it resonates with readers. They write purely for the love of the story.

Sara: I believe there can be a balance between the two. While those of us who rely on writing to pay the bills need to treat it as a business, we can’t completely ignore the artistic aspect. Writing professionally can sometimes feel like drudgery. It’s hard work, and it’s a job. You won’t always feel like writing when it’s time to write. However, there is an art to it, and a piece of us goes into our work. We can’t entirely disconnect from that.

Thomas: Right, because that’s what readers want. They want you to put your heart and soul into your work. If you don’t, they’ll read another author who does.

Writing is hard work, though not in a physically demanding sense. There are real jobs where people work outside without air conditioning, such as roofing, which involves significant physical labor and danger. Roofers face risks to life and limb, with more fatalities from installing solar panels than from nuclear power plants. But the roofer doesn’t have to be emotionally vulnerable on the roof.

In contrast, writing is easier physically but more challenging emotionally. Authors are expected to be emotionally vulnerable and invested. Writers need to convey deep emotions to engage their readers, especially in emotionally charged genres like romance. The adage “no tears in the author, no tears in the reader” highlights that expectation.

Nursing is a job that demands both physical and emotional presence. Nurses must be fully engaged both physically and emotionally, which makes it one of the toughest jobs. It requires a full commitment of one’s self, which is incredibly challenging; but I imagine it’s also rewarding. I have much respect for nurses because of their demanding and essential work.

Sara: I would argue teachers would also fit into that category. They’re physically with kids in the classroom, and they also care deeply for their students.

Thomas: If you’re an author struggling with writer’s block, I recommend getting a photo of your friend who is a nurse or teacher and posting it next to your monitor. Beside that person’s picture, write a note to yourself, “Stop whining. The teacher doesn’t get to have teacher’s block, and the nurse doesn’t get to have nurse’s block. They’ve got to put in the IV, whether they’re feeling it that day or not. They have to work because people’s lives are in their hands.

Stop whining that writing is so hard. Every job is hard. However, some hard jobs don’t get the kind of respect or money that is available to the author. While the typical nurse makes more money than the typical author, the top authors make far more money than the top nurses. The top authors make crazy money.

Sara: Writers who write when they don’t feel like it are probably the more professional authors. People who write for the joy of it, and there’s nothing wrong with that, are probably more prone to whining,

Thomas: If you’re a hobbyist, you must realize you’ll get hobbyist-level results. It’s fine to be a hobbyist and to write for fun. Journaling and telling stories is rewarding.

What advice do you have for someone starting to write their first Christian romance novel?

Sara: Become aware of the different subgenres of romance as part of your research. It’s crucial, especially in romance, to understand the conventions and expectations of the overall genre and the specific subgenre you’re writing in. You can do this before writing or figure it out after you’ve written your story.

Even if you are independently publishing and plan to sell your book on platforms like Amazon, you will need to categorize it. Categories are not bad or wrong; they simply indicate where your book should be shelved and help readers find it.

Thomas: You find your category by reading lots of books in your genre. A common mistake among new authors of all genres is having only read a few books in their genre or having read only the classics.

If you compare your book to Narnia or C.S. Lewis in your query letter to an agent, they will view that as a red flag. It suggests you’re unfamiliar with more recent books in your genre and what appeals to modern readers. Remember, you’re not C.S. Lewis, and even he wasn’t an icon when he started—most people haven’t read Pilgrim’s Regress.

Read widely in your genre. Pay for those books; don’t just borrow them from the library. You can’t, in good conscience, ask others to buy your book if you don’t pay to read other people’s books. Once you’ve read a shelf’s worth of books in your genre, you’ll be much better positioned to write in it.

I also recommend authors read as many different authors as possible and focus on popular books. Reading an obscure book by an unknown author won’t be as educational as reading the most popular book in your genre by the most successful author. Understanding what works in the market will help you write a book that resonates with readers.

Sara: I agree, and I recommend not being afraid to underline or highlight parts of the book that stand out to you. Note phrases you like or interesting plot twists. Take notes as you read books in your genre.

It’s also important for aspiring authors to read craft books and attend conferences. There are craft books for romance written for the general market that contain excellent advice, even if some parts don’t apply to you. Don’t dismiss a popular or well-regarded romance guide just because it includes elements you don’t plan to use. There’s often valuable information to be gleaned.

Thomas: If you’re looking for a romance author to read, I would suggest Sara Turnquist.

Tell us about your podcast for authors called Writer Wednesdays.

Sara: I started this podcast based on a study that found that 80% of artists, including writers, struggle with some form of mood disorder. I am part of that 80%. Having walked that journey and knowing how lonely it can be, I want other struggling writers to see a face, hear a voice, and feel seen.

On my YouTube channel, I discuss this journey of writing and dealing with depression. I talk about what to do on days when you’re so low that you can’t make progress on your story. When do you push through, and when do you hold back? How do you find that balance? We navigate all these challenges together on my YouTube channel.

  • Connect with Sara Turnquist.

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