When I was a child, my parents read to me every night before bed. This expanded my imagination and developing in me a love for reading. Even before I was old enough to go to school. By first grade, I was reading at a fourth-grade level, and the joke in our family was that in college, I was still reading at a fourth-grade level.

But seriously, what that bedtime reading instilled in me was a sense of wonder and curiosity that remains to this day. It exposed me to varied cultures, time periods and perspectives, enlarging my understanding of the world. I became a lifelong learner, following my late mother’s convicting example. Into her 80s, she was still not only a piano teacher but a piano student as well.

One of the reasons I believe fiction is important is that it offers readers access to the same sense of wonder I felt as a child. Another reason is that it helps us connect with others on a deeper level. When we read a novel, we in essence contract, or agree, with the author to temporarily suspend disbelief and enter the world and the scenarios he or she has created. We connect with fictitious characters viscerally, empathizing with their struggles and feeling their pain and joy. Fiction has the power to build bridges between people, even those vastly different from one another.

Access to wonder

Writing fiction has allowed me to rub shoulders with some of the great novelists of our day. Including many who ply their trade in the general market as opposed to the inspirational, where I’m most known (primarily for my “Left Behind” series and “The Chosen” series). I’ve found that many of my colleagues enjoy, as I do, hearing from fans who say things like, “Reading your novel changed my life.”

I’m not entirely sure what that means to a general-market novelist, but my readers are often more specific. They’ll mention moving from darkness to light, or even from death to life. They’ll tell me they came to faith after reading something I created. Imagine impacting others in a way so meaningful and transformative.

One reader said that a prodigal son came back to his faith after reading the first “Left Behind” title. He told his parents he was going to buy copies for the sketchy friends he’d been running with, but before he could, he died in a car wreck. His parents told us they bought books for those friends who attended the funeral, and that several came to faith in Christ after reading them.

Another letter was from a man in his 90s who said his eyes were so weak that he had to read Left Behind with a magnifying glass. He came to trust Christ for salvation “not because of what I saw through the glass but what I saw through my heart.”

Such letters trump any bestseller list or royalty check!

A new writing adventure

That ministry through words is partly why I was honored to be asked to hand-pick three Christian authors to write novels for Focus on the Family that would help readers think deeply about modern issues from a biblical worldview. I chose three of my favorite writer friends, all of whom are celebrated novelists with stellar reputations for their abilities to move readers’ hearts and minds. Angela Hunt, Tamera Alexander and Chris Fabry exceeded even my greatest hopes each producing a page-turning read that digs deep into a contemporary issue embodied in a compelling story.

Their novels examine real-world situations: a family reeling from the specter of suicide, a couple facing the perils of infidelity and the challenge of a loved one’s battle with dementia. As tough and raw as these issues can be, in the hands of gifted authors, the stories motivate readers to cheer for struggling characters and imagine how they can overcome battles in their own lives.

It was a privilege to come alongside and work with Chris, Angela and Tamera, colleagues who agree that stories well told allow us to explore the paramount questions of life in engaging and accessible ways. Novels allow readers to grapple with meaning, purpose and morality to an extent that isn’t possible through most other mediums. Fiction has the power to transport us beyond our rational minds into our hearts and souls. It can touch us in deeply personal ways, helping us answer the questions that matter most. 

Why I write

I started my career as a journalist. But soon discovered a passion for telling my own stories, creating my own characters and worlds. Through fiction I can travel to distant lands, explore different cultures and meet people from all walks of life.

Of course, writing fiction is not without its challenges. In fact, creating believable characters and engaging plots can be grueling. But for me, the rewards have far outweighed the challenges. Writing fiction has been a source of joy and fulfillment. Which allows me to explore my faith and share it with others.

As a novelist, I feel honored to be a part of this tradition. I’m eternally grateful for the privilege of sharing my stories with the world.  

When I began working with Jerry Jenkins on adult fiction for Focus on the Family, I had an idea that was a little far out, even for me. But I wrote the story anyway, Jerry went through it, and we handed it in . . . and Focus rightly told me that it wasn’t what they had in mind. I’d written a story that addressed several social issues. And Focus wanted a story that was, well, more focused on one issue.

Some anonymous writer once said, “If you want to write about war, write about one man’s war.” I wanted to write about suicide. So I decided to write about the suicide of one man to help readers see how suicide can affect everyone in a family for generations.

I took a deep breath, cleared my calendar and started over. The topic of suicide had occurred to me at the beginning of the project. But I think I shied away from the depth of grief involved. It’s not an easy subject to talk about, and yet it affects families every day. My husband is a youth pastor, and we have seen the devastating effects of suicide on parents, children, grandparents and society as a whole. My husband has conducted more funerals of young people than he wants to count.

Because I’d spent several months writing a story that didn’t work, to save time I started with things I knew—like the Airbnb we operate on our property, the caboose in our front yard and the grandchildren we adore. From that point on, it was a simple matter of putting myself in the grandmother’s heart and head and living the experience. Not easy, but oh so important.

It’s my hope that What a Wave Must Be—the novel I was reluctant to write—will save thousands of lives. Not only by stopping potential suicidal situations but also by demonstrating that in Jesus we can find hope and peace and answers.

As for that other story? One of these days I’ll pull it out and rewrite it. Until then, it can sit on the back burner and percolate. It was more important for me to write What a Wave Must Be. 

The stories that have lived inside me the longest are often the most difficult to write. And A Million Little Choices was certainly that. Not only because of the subject matter—marriage and infidelity—but also because these characters are so real to me and the settings so tangible that the first words on the page often felt frustratingly inadequate and thin compared to the living, breathing movie inside of me.

The story is about two women from different centuries who live in the same house and share strikingly similar journeys. The setting is Atlanta, where I was born and raised. Even the antebellum house depicted in the dual-timeline story is personal.

After youth group on Sunday nights, a bunch of us would often drive to Atlanta. We’d sneak into an old, abandoned, boarded-up antebellum home. We’d wander around with flashlights, brushing aside cobwebs and breathing in plumes of dust. It felt like walking through time to me. I recall thinking about the people who’d lived in that house and wondering what their lives had been like. Experiences like that are where my love of history took deeper root.

Yet the seed of that love was first planted when I was 9. On a trip to Germany.

But before you think it was too glamorous a trip . . . there were eight of us in a VW Bug. Times were different back then. My mom, brother and grandmother sat in the back. My aunt and uncle were up front, and their two babies were passed from lap to lap. And me? I sat in a cubbyhole in the back, fake-smoking little bubblegum cigarettes as we chugged around Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

It was when we toured a 12th-century castle on the Rhine River that something happened. Feeling the cold stone wall beneath my hand as we descended into the belly of that castle changed me forever. Yet it wasn’t until nearly 35 years later that God revealed what He would eventually do with the seed He planted that day. His timing is always perfect.

Saving Grayson is my 84th published book. In a lot of ways, it was the hardest book I’ve ever written. Within the writing, I hit a wall. I felt like I had missed the story and hadn’t done justice to Grayson and his battle with dementia.

In the process, I realized that those around him couldn’t love the Grayson they knew. They had to love who Grayson is today. That made me ask, How do you love someone well who can’t respond? 

This reminds me of one of my favorite novels of all time, To Kill a Mockingbird. One of the central points Harper Lee made was that when you do something good for the simple reason that it’s good, you don’t expect a response. The act is the reward. So as I wrote about Grayson, I wound up asking hard questions about myself. Am I worth something because I can tell a good story? Do I have to achieve something to earn love? This is the most profound struggle for the Christian. We can either try to earn God’s love and forgiveness and mercy or receive it freely. That shift in my perspective unleashed the story for me and helped me complete the novel.

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