A friend recently asked me why I chose to write my book, “Daughter of Jerusalem,” in the present tense even though its story takes place nearly two thousand years ago. My short answer is: to make it come alive.
Can’t you almost hear a friend telling a story about something that happened yesterday or last week and using exactly the same technique? (“So I run up to him and ask him what the heck he thinks he’s doing.”) That friend knows instinctively that the present tense invests a now concluded incident with the aliveness of this very moment.
I first tried using it for story-writing when it was suggested at a writer’s workshop I attended about 20 years ago. I could see that it made my story sing, and I’ve used it on occasion ever since. That’s not to say it’s appropriate in all situations, but if you like writing stories, it’s definitely worth a try. Let me know if you have success with it.
Picking up on last week’s observations re biblical fiction, I can think of no more challenging or more thrilling subject for an author to build a story on than the life of Jesus. The challenge, of course, is in doing him justice–catching even a glimpse of what made him who he was and presenting it in a way that rings true for today’s readers. In attempting this, I had to see Jesus through the eyes of my fictional characters, especially Mara. I found myself asking: What sort of scriptural teaching has she heard up to this point, and how would Jesus’ teaching have been different? What would draw her to him? How would her one-on-one encounter with him be initiated in an age when women’s interactions with men were so restricted? The answer that came to that third question was straight from the Jesus I knew from Scripture: he’d have known she wanted to speak with him. And the moment of this realization was nothing short of soul-stirring. It was insights like this one that made “Daughter of Jerusalem” the most thrilling writing project I’ve ever undertaken.
Why would someone who loves the Bible want to use it as a springboard for a novel? Wouldn’t that tend to trivialize it? I asked myself this question years ago after reading a fine biography of Paul. Why, after writing this factual history of his life, did Henrietta Buckmaster want to rewrite his story in her novel “And Walk in Love”?
After reading it, however, I began to understand. Her research and scriptural study had given her intriguing insights into Paul’s life and character. I think she wanted to take them even further–to envision what it would have meant to actually walk his walk. For this she needed to extend herself beyond the boundaries of historical scholarship and plunge into the deeper waters of the creative imagination. But this plunge of hers has value for Bible readers primarily because she was already well acquainted with the world Paul inhabited and the ideas that shaped his interaction with it. Far from trivializing the Bible, fiction–when rooted in fact–can bring it to life for its readers and allow them vivid glimpses into the Bible’s inhabitants and their world.
A creative person—that’s what you have to be to write a book, right? All I can say is: it hasn’t worked for me.The more responsible I feel for being creative and coming up with ideas, the less success I have as a writer. Or anything else for that matter.
But in those quiet moments of listening to an inner voice that I’m convinced belongs to the true Creator, ideas can occur that are beyond my imagining. That’s when I know I’m on holy ground, and the results sometimes amaze me.