How to Write a Biblical Novel

Since the day that I started pursuing writing seriously back in the 80s, I have written autobiographical books, how-to books, children’s books, and novels in the steampunk, sci-fi and Christian fiction genres. But I have had a project in the back of my mind for at least a couple of decades: the story of Jonathan, son of Saul, and how he was passed over to be king of Israel.

Part of the reason I have put it off for so long was because the story intimidated me. I knew that, despite my knowledge of the story from I Samuel, I still didn’t know much about how people lived back then. And the way I write requires me to see it in my own head before putting it on paper. In addition, I found that the Bible story hit only the highlights. It was written to draw attention to specific incidents rather than a continuous story.

Knowing this, I have hesitated for quite a while. I actually started on the story a couple of years ago, but got three chapters in and didn’t like what I was seeing. My initial approach was just to take what the Bible told and retell it in modern language. The problem was the issues I listed above, plus the fact that it seemed bare-bones. It needed something more. I eventually gave up and put it aside for a while.

I decided this summer to make it my major writing project for the summer. Instead, initially I put together an anthology of short stories and a book on the psychology of writing, both based on previous work. Finally I ran out of excuses.

The first few chapters of Chosen, my new retelling of the Jonathan story, were a challenge. But eventually I came up with a strategy. I decided to tell a much larger story. One didn’t appreciate Jonathan’s story unless they knew about Saul, his father and the first king of Israel. And one didn’t really know Saul unless they understood the world in which they lived and the imminent danger of the Philistines.

And so I decided to add Saul as a somewhat-major character, as well as Achish, king of the Philistines, who pops up time and again in the Biblical version. I felt the story would be stronger if I tied many of the incidents together through motivation of minor characters as well as an element of conspiracy. I introduced Zephaniah, the famed Witch of Endor, as mother of Abner, general for Saul. And I felt there weren’t enough female characters, so in addition to Michal, Jonathan’s sister, I introduced Mara, who is the daughter of the mayor of Jabesh-Gilead and a potential love interest.

The story is doing a lot better now. I am currently on I Samuel 15, the story of Saul’s war against the Amalekites. The battle of Michmash was exciting to write and I hope readers will find it exciting as well. And there are more exciting scenes coming up.

If you are considering writing a Biblical novel, I guess the advice I would give would be to know the Biblical tale intimately, then be loyal only to those parts that are integral to the original story. I found my story deviating from the details of the Bible time and again for dramatic purposes. But the intent is still there, and there is a modicum of interpretation. Finally, there are many gaps in the story (women are rarely talked about), so don’t be afraid to flesh it out.

Chosen is months away from being finished–my goal is publication in May–but I look forward to sharing it with you soon.

One thought on “How to Write a Biblical Novel

  1. I share your dream of writing a book base on a bible story but feels very intimidated by it. I do not have any knowledge of biblical history. Your post is an encouragement to me. Thank you.

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