Biblical Fiction: Research & Creativity
By Violet Nesdoly
When you read the Bible, do you ever imagine the characters’ lives beyond the page? What did Sarai give up when she left Ur of the Chaldees? Why was Rahab so willing to hide the spies? Did rebellious Hophni and Phinehes ever give their dad’s young apprentice Samuel a hard time? If you have such flights of fancy, maybe you should consider writing biblical fiction—a fiction genre that expands on Bible events and in which Bible characters play a part.
It was just such wool-gathering that got me started on writing Destiny’s Hands about a dozen years ago. When I read the Exodus where God tells Moses about a young man, saying “I have filled him with the Spirit of God with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts,” I was fascinated (Exodus 31:3 NIV). A man filled with the Spirit to make crafts? What was he like? Did he have some training from Egyptian smiths and craftsmen, renowned for their gold-work? Did God prepare him spiritually for the special task he was given? How might that have happened? And so I was off on the years-long journey of researching and writing Destiny’s Hands—a biblical fiction about the exodus.
Biblical fiction is a type of historical fiction. Writing it has many similarities to writing historical fiction of any kind. It also has differences.
Historical fiction writers must research the era of the time about which they write. Writers of Bible fiction are no different.
To write Destiny’s Hands I read the Bible and Biblical commentaries, dictionaries, and guidebooks. I accessed material online and in the library: time lines, maps, and books about Egypt. I read other biblical fiction books set around the same time and place my book would be set: Moses: the Deliverer by Ellen Gunderson Traylor, Journey and The Shadow Women by Angela Hunt, and The Priest: Aaron by Fancine Rivers. I watched YouTube clips about the route of the exodus and movies like The Ten Commandments.
Researching biblical -time events may be more difficult than events in some eras because they are ancient and there isn’t agreement about when significant things like the exodus took place. When no mention of an event is made in secular histories, it’s hard to pin-point an exact date. In writing Destiny’s Hands, I decided to avoid adding details of things about which I was unsure, like exactly which Pharaoh was on the throne at the time.
Well-known characters and events
Like other historical fiction that includes famous real characters, biblical fictions often include well-known Bible characters. In a way all people who read and love the Bible feel they know these characters and own them in some way. I was keenly aware of that.
Just like a writer who includes a historical figure, like Winston Churchill, is careful to have her Churchill resemble the one of history, so I tried to portray characters like Moses, Aaron, and Miriam as they appear in the Bible. I also wanted to depict events accurately.
To help me with details of biblical accuracy I linked each chapter (in the Scrivener software on which I wrote my first drafts), with the Bible account of the events I was writing about. That way I could, with a click of the mouse, be on BibleGateway and re-reading the story from the Bible any time I needed to refresh my memory.
Fortunately for me, in Destiny’s Hands my main character, Bezalel, appears only briefly in the Bible and is never described. Therefore I felt I could take the liberty of developing him according to my imagination.
Link character and theme with modern readers
One of the challenges of writing historical fiction is to find characters with whom modern readers will relate and whose concerns will resonate with readers in the 21st century.
Writing about men may not be quite as difficult in this regard, as for them the motivations of meaningful work, power, wealth, and adventure span the centuries. I found it a little more difficult with women characters, however. Aside from the timeless theme of romantic love, a modern woman’s concerns can vary significantly from her sisters in biblical times.
There are only a few Bible women who got their sense of worth from, say, starting a business, leading the tribe, being a captain in the army, or having it all as in combining career with family. And so as we fictionalize Bible characters, to be true to their times we need to somehow link their goals and aspirations to the modern reader while at the same time not superimposing our values on them.
One way I found to do this was to go one layer deeper and ask, What gave biblical-time women the sense of accomplishment and acceptance that having a successful career as a mom and policewoman, say, might give a modern woman? Of course the next question might be, How does one make motherhood as exciting to read about as a cat-and-mouse chase with the bad guys?
These are a few of the things that I as a writer of biblical fiction grapple with. As I am beginning to develop a story that goes on from Destiny’s Hands with a woman as the main character, I’m continuing to learn about and be challenged by writing this interesting and satisfying genre of fiction.
About this Contributor:
Violet’s biblical fiction Destiny’s Hands (published by Word Alive Press) was a finalist in the 2013 Word Awards, Historical Fiction category. Visit Violet online at her website, Facebook Page or Amazon author page.