In this episode of the Writing Momentum podcast, Chris and Gena are joined by author Laurel Thomas to discuss incorporating spiritual themes into fiction. They explore how to find and craft a theme, the benefits of adding depth to a story, and the importance of emotional impact. Laurel shares her process of starting with open-ended questions and weaving spiritual themes into her fantasy novels. She also addresses the possibility of adding themes into a manuscript that has already been started. The episode encourages writers to explore universal themes that resonate with readers, regardless of their religious beliefs.
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episode 91 transcription:
[00:00:00] Christopher: Hey, and welcome to the Writing Momentum Podcast. I'm Christopher Maselli. I'm here with my wife Gena. How's it going Gena? [00:00:05] Gena: Hello, it's going really well. We're so excited about this time that we get to spend with one of our favorite people. [00:00:12] Christopher: That's right. Laurel Thomas is back. How are you doing, Laurel? [00:00:17] Laurel: I'm good. I am glad to be here. [00:00:20] Christopher: Yay. But for those of you who don't remember, Laurel is a formal high school English teacher and she is also an award-winning author who has written for inspirational magazines like Guideposts and like Mysterious Ways, and she has ghosted nonfiction, and she also have multiple novels out like Rivers Call, When Stars Brush Earth. [00:00:39] Christopher: And what's the newest one that you have? Stones of Promise, right? [[00:00:43] Laurel: Stones of Promise, yes. [00:00:45] Christopher: Yes, there it is on the screen, for those of you who are watching on YouTube, Stones of Promise, those can be found at Amazon wherever good books are sold. And your books are really, they play right into what we're gonna talk about today, which is spiritual themes in fiction. 'cause I [00:01:00] know you include spiritual themes in your books, don't you? [00:01:05] Laurel: You know, I do Chris, I was thinking about this morning and so what I do, and I know that this probably has more to do with Logline, but I think of a question, like a big question, and I'll just think about it. Like for Her Name is Gatekeeper. [00:01:24] Laurel: The question that I was thinking about was that, think of the unlikely gatekeepers or deliverers who have been positioned at historic moments like Winston Churchill. I re-watched part of Darkest Hour and I don't, that movie just was just so amazing to me that here is this man, that he was the lone voice and really at the darkest part or the climax of the movie, he's totally along with the weight of literally civilized [00:02:00] world on his shoulders, and yet he was not the one that anyone would've chosen to take that place. So that, that question to me has been what I've based Her Name is Gatekeeper, my new novel on is just that question, what about these unlikely deliverers, the people you would never expect. [[00:02:24] Christopher: Yes. [[00:02:24] Laurel: And then all of a sudden history propels them into a place of action and into a place of what, visibility or spotlight? Not the good kind. [00:02:36] Gena: Yeah, I think with themes, I've heard different authors talk about theme and different, some people say, I don't think about theme at all. I don't really deal with theme. It's not anything that's on my radar. I just try to focus on the story. There are other people that say I look at theme at the end. I finish a book and then I think, what is the theme here? And then I weave [00:03:00] it back in. But for you, I love that your theme is really at the center of your foundation of creating your novels. So can you talk about that a little bit? And you've talked a little bit where you start with these questions and you go from there, but what makes themes so important for you? [00:03:21] Laurel: You for sure can get too heavy handed. That's why I like the whole question thing, because it's open-ended, right? So you're not forced into an outcome. And I think that's what people are saying when they don't want to be theme heavy or theme focused in the novel. They don't want the theme to take over in a way that makes like a predictable outcome or makes it too on the nose and so on. [[00:03:46] Gena: So I love the open-ended questions. But you still have to craft a good story out of them. Like when I was reading or writing Stones of Promise, so Alessandra, the main character, her [[00:04:00] mother is basically, sort of a mass murderer against the Magi, who are the good guys in the stories, the series. [00:04:07] Gena: So my question is what if forgiveness is impossible but required for saving the world? Hey, I write up the fantasy. We don't go with the little questions. So it was the walk of forgiveness when it really is impossible. And so that's was the basis of the story. [00:04:29] Gena: I can't say that I totally knew how all of that was gonna pan out. Because everyone has to walk out forgiveness in ways that are intensely personal. I wasn't really sure how that was gonna work out on the page. And you still have to have a structure. One of the things I've learned from YouTuber, Abbie Emmons, she taught that you take the truth that you want to shout from the [[00:05:00] rooftops and you turn it upside down and make it a lie, and that lie becomes what your protagonist believes. [00:05:08] Christopher: That's a great exercise. [00:05:09] Laurel: Isn't it? Because then you have that lie that will make a character arc possible. And what I've found is that you wanna make that lie really strong, especially in fantasy. You really wanna make it a vow because vows are such a big part of our paradigms. [00:05:30] Laurel: And yet to break down those paradigms, it requires really, pointed conflict and pointed obstacles that go right to the very heart of that lie. We're traveling in a lot of directions here. Keep me on course. [00:05:47] Christopher: It seems to me like a theme like that, especially when it's spiritual in nature, right? That gets into the deeper things of who we are, right? And all of that, it kinda gives teeth to a novel, right? [00:06:00] You could write just a fun story, almost like a TV sitcom. That it may be a fun story, but it doesn't actually mean anything. But by incorporating that theme, it suddenly brings it to a new depth. [00:06:14] Christopher: Even if your novel is lighthearted, it still brings it to a new depth that you wouldn't otherwise have, I think. It really it makes all the difference. And you talked about how, you write a lot of fantasy. Does fantasy tend to lend more toward spiritual themes, those deeper things in life? [[00:06:33] Christopher: Or is it any kind of story? [00:06:37] Laurel: It could be any story, Chris. For me, it became fantasy. For when Stars Brush Earth. I'd had a dream years ago that Tom and I were living in this mountain Chateau. It was a big chateau and it was full of children. And I remember realizing that we were protecting them. [00:06:57] Laurel: And so I did research and [00:07:00] I realized, that the Jewish children were sent all over during Nazi German when the Nazis were really fueling World War II and the Nazis referred to children as useless eaters, and so they were sent to Mountain Chateau and to convents. But really, I didn't think I, I could write a story that big, I wasn't prepared to write like The Nightingale, which is, an incredible story about actual, Nazi occupation of France. [[00:07:38] Laurel: From the point of view of two sisters and their dad. So I knew I had to narrow it down, but for me, I felt like I could say what I wanted to say about protecting children in fantasy. And my whole premise was what is it about ourselves that we disregard, that the enemy [[00:08:00] recognizes and that the world needs? [[00:08:03] Laurel: Yes. Certainly to defeat the enemy. And so it, for me, that whole story began to unpack in, in fantasy where I could bring in a supernatural demon and I could bring in supernatural gifts in Mara that she thought were weird, but that she ended up really needing, in the end. Yeah, for me, fantasy is, has been a fun way to translate Perretti it translates spiritual things into story form. In a story, a good story. [[00:08:36] Christopher: Yeah. And I would think it would lend to actually helping you create your story when you have that theme. [00:08:42] Christopher: Because I've written books, for kids before that I'm not exactly sure what the theme's gonna be when I start brainstorming it. But then once I come upon that theme, it gives it a grounding that I know that, okay, this is what the main character needs to overcome, which is what you were talking about in the beginning when you talk about how the [[00:09:00] protagonist now has, you want to have them to believe the opposite so that they can overcome that. [00:09:05] Christopher: And it just, it's it really helps you even plot your novel in a lot of ways, right? And inform your characters. [[00:09:10] Laurel: I think so. [[00:09:12] Gena: Yeah, I was thinking when you were talking about the lie that your character believes, which I know you and I have been in a class before where we were working on that, what is the lie that the person that your character believes? [00:09:24] Gena: But it's interesting that if that lie is tied to the theme, like what you're talking about, but that really helps put some meat on a character, doesn't it? It really helps flesh 'em out. They're not flat. There's reasons for why they do what they do and what they believe. [[00:09:43] Laurel: Yeah. [00:09:44] Christopher: I'm imagining right now we have some people who are listening who are thinking, oh man, I've written half my book and I don't know what the theme is. Is it too late to incorporate the strong theme in their story? Or how can they go about that? Because I know you work with authors who come to you with stories who have been started, and I'm [00:10:00] sure you have to talk about working a theme in how do you work that in. After you've already begun working on your manuscript? [00:10:06] Laurel: Yeah, you can because I did that with River's Call. Often your first novel is your laboratory. Oh my goodness. Everything I knew I would add into River's Call and then I go, oh my gosh. There's no theme. There's no lie there 'cause basically with River's Call I wrote it as scenes and I made the scenes as sensory as I could from a young girl's point of view, because I'd been, I was a stepdaughter who came to Georgia for the first time in the summer times, and I remember the sensory parts of a new experience in the South in a way that was just, it's never left me. [00:10:45] Laurel: And so I found that was, valuable with Missy's point of view because young people tend to be more sensory about the way they see the world. And yet I didn't know for sure [00:11:00] how I was gonna weave the character arc in, and I had to do that. I had to add that in later. And I just inserted little bits of backstory about her mother. And then of course, the full realization of losing her mother and how it affected her comes out in the climax. So I think you can add it in. Hey, it's your story, right? You can go back and weave in what you need to weave in. [00:11:28] Laurel: Rene Gutteridge, our dear friend. She said writing a novel's being an artist, you paint the first picture, but then you don't have any details you're going to weave in life into that oil painting or that portrait. You're gonna add dimension and, I just had to get over the fact. Chris and Gena that the story's creation might be very messy, but that [[00:12:00] was okay because if I just kept going forward, I would learn what made it a really great story. [00:12:08] Laurel: I will say, Don't be a perfectionist about this. Look, if you have a good story, people read it and go, Hey, this is a great story. Boom. Let it go. You can write more novels, right? [00:12:20] Christopher: And I think it's important to, and this is a slightly different subject, but I think it's important to finish the book, right? I think sometimes we might hear things like this and think, oh, I didn't include that, so we want to go back and put it in, but we haven't finished the book. I think it's important to make sure you get that book done. Don't let things like this hold you up. But that said, if you're able to put in a spiritual theme into your book, you're probably going to find that it is so much deeper than what you originally thought it would be. It has so much more to it because now there's meaning now you're connecting with other people's hearts rather than just their heads. It's not just [00:13:00] an enjoyable read, it's something that might grip them in a different way. [00:13:03] Laurel: I totally agree. I think that really it's the dividing line between a good story and a great story is that emotional impact. And I know Gena and I were learning that with one of our master classes that Robin Patchen did. [00:13:19] Laurel: You can say you need emotional impact, but how does that happen exactly. And I remember with Missy, the main character in River's Call her life and her heart began to speak things that I remember as a young person. And I remember that shift when I realized that the world was not a happy place, that there were times that it was a very painful place. But that didn't mean that life wasn't good or that life was over. That one definitely evolved. And I agree. Before you launch it, I would say be sure that you have that strong emotional [00:14:00] element in your story because it doesn't have to be a complicated story to win the hearts of readers. [00:14:07] Christopher: Yeah. That's good. [00:14:08] Gena: And you've touched on a few things, but what are some things that writers need to watch out for when we're talking about adding these spiritual themes into fiction? [00:14:18] Laurel: That is so interesting, Gena, because I don't write for the Christian market. I have many friends who do, and I love that. And I love the Christian market. I just don't write for it. So my books have to be picked up by secular agencies. So there's not any scripture in them and they're all principles that I don't know. Unless she would know them. I don't know. [[00:14:45] Laurel: Would anybody really know about the Magi other than, the Magi who gave their gifts to Jesus? And yet that the whole concept of Magi was that they were doing more research, they were actually counselors to kings.[[00:15:00] They were feared when they came on the scene. [00:15:03] Laurel: Because of the weight that they carried. And none of that comes with scripture, but it's all true. And of course I love redemptive arcs. So basically that's a positive character arc. But I think that a negative character arc can also be very authentic and certainly, Redemptive. [00:15:26] Laurel: I've never written one, but does that answer your question? And I think you can write spiritual stories without having so much of a Christian theme that's very what plain or very what's the word I'm looking for? [[00:15:41] Christopher: You said earlier on the nose do you find that sometimes authors get too preachy or too in your face with these spiritual themes to where they override just even the story themselves? [00:15:56] Laurel: Probably. Yeah, I don't know Chris. I'm sure they [[00:16:00] could. The fiction that I read is pretty much across the board and I thought Hunger Games has a incredible spiritual message that we were putting our children on the altar of entertainment and living a life that was like totally sensual and totally whatever. But our children were on an altar and they were ready to be sacrificed. And so to me, even though Suzanne Collins did not write that, the Hunger Games as a spiritual novel, I heard a spiritual theme in that trilogy. [[00:16:35] Christopher: Yes. Yes, exactly. [00:16:37] Gena: And I think that's what, as we're talking about spiritual themes for those of us who are Christian, we recognize that the, there are these themes that are very near and dear to our hearts and to our faith. But for the person who is not a Christian, there are still those spiritual themes. The message of forgiveness is fairly, is universal. The message of [00:17:00] even hope in the midst of tragedy or horror is a universal message. When we use the word spiritual, we are obviously thinking about in light of our faith, but for the person who may be holds a wider view or just a different view, some of those themes are still, they're just so core to humanity. They're core to humanity. But I do love when redemptive themes and redemptive messages are worked into fiction, because that just gets me excited and I just love it. [00:17:40] Laurel: Me too. Because I think it would be hard for me to write a story that didn't have it, a redemptive theme, because I believe that redemption can touch the deepest and the darkest. [00:17:53] Laurel: So if I couldn't write that, then it wouldn't be me. I just finished Tosca [00:18:00] Lee's book about, it's a thriller and I noticed that her themes that she weaves in are very redemptive too. So that was a fun read. [00:18:10] Christopher: That's good. Tell us a little bit about, you've got a book here that's out right now called Stones of Promise. Does that have a spiritual theme in it? [[00:18:15] Laurel: Yes. Stones of Promise was the one that was all about forgiveness. What about when forgiveness is impossible? [[00:18:22] Christopher: Yes. Yes. [[00:18:23] Gena: I love that. [00:18:24] Laurel: What about when it's your mother? So it, it touched on so many deep levels and so then putting it in that fantasy, that kind of epic fantasy where if she doesn't forgive, her gift is not released in a way that it needs to, for her world to be saved. That's like a one-liner, but it was a lot of fun to write and I, Tom and I lived in the desert for oh four and a half years in Midland, and so there's a lot of the desert in Stones of Promise that I remember with clarity not having [[00:19:00] been raised in the desert. Again, I remember the sensory things about the sky and what a dust storm looked like when it was approaching and things like that. [[00:19:12] Laurel: So it was a lot of fun to write. [00:19:13] Christopher: That's so good. Just drawing from what you know. I love that. That's so good. [[00:19:17] Gena: I love that. [[00:19:17] Christopher: And where can people find you, they can find your books on Amazon. Where do they find you? [00:19:23] Laurel: Yes, you can find me at www.writewithlaurel.com. I'm also active on Facebook. Laurel A. Thomas is my author page. Also Write Your Heart Out is my business. So you can find, Write Your Heart Out on just about everywhere, Facebook and Instagram. And we have a weekly, on Tuesdays at noon, a weekly community that meets called Writer's Round Table, and it's just a fun hour long community where we talk about a craft tip and then share how that affects our writing, so. [00:19:59] Christopher: [00:20:00] I love that. I love it when we're writing together, we're building that community and as we talked about before, not making it a solitary venture, but it's something that we do together. And so thank you so much for being on the podcast this week. Laurel. [[00:20:12] Gena: Thank you, Laurel. [00:20:12] Christopher: It's always good to have you. [00:20:14] Laurel: Thank you. Thank you. I've enjoyed it. [00:20:17] Christopher: All right. We hope you enjoyed this podcast. If you did, would you please rate, review, subscribe, and share it with someone else who might want to know about incorporating spiritual themes in their fiction, 'cause it can make all the difference in that book that they're writing. [00:20:31] Christopher: This is what we do. We get together with other writers because we know that alone, it's hard to get our writing done, but writing can be something that we do together because together what Gena? [[00:20:41] Gena: We have writing momentum. [[00:20:43] Christopher: All right. Bye-bye.