Bestselling historical fiction author Roseanna M. White is among my favorite contemporary Christian writers. And not just because we went to college together! As someone who:
- has never said no to watching a Masterpiece Theatre costume drama,
- found The Bourne Identity among the most gripping books I’ve read, and
- spent the final few weeks of my latest pregnancy binging on Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers mysteries,
Roseanna’s novels are just how I like it—historical romances with a big slice of action and intrigue. As she says in her bio, “Spies and war and mayhem always seem to make their way into [my]novels.” I’m not complaining.
Roseanna is the author of over a dozen novels and novellas, including the Culper Ring series (Harvest House Publishers) and the bestselling Ladies of the Manor series (Bethany House), of which The Lost Heiress was a 2016 Christy Award finalist. In addition to being a writer, Roseanna is a graphic designer as well as an editor for WhiteFire Publishing, which she and her husband own.
She and I reconnected five years ago after I began working on my own fiction—I emailed and peppered her with a thousand questions, which she graciously answered. As Roseanna just released A Name Unknown (Bethany House, July 2017), I thought it’d be fun to celebrate her new book by asking her even more questions! We had a great chat about writing, books, and faith. I’m thrilled to be able to share our conversation with you.
RO: Roseanna, welcome to CatholicMom.com! So glad you’re here.
RMW: Thanks! Glad to do it.
Let’s start with an easy question: when did you know you wanted to be a fiction writer?
I’ve pretty much always known. Playing make-believe was always my favorite pastime as a kid; in first grade, when my teacher assigned a creative writing story, I became hooked. Ever since then, writing fiction was always at the top of my list of things I wanted to spend my life doing. I completed my first novel in middle school, another in high school, and had eight finished by the time I graduated college. It’s such a blessing to me that I get to do what I love!
You write both historical romance and biblical fiction. Do you have a favorite? Do you have a favorite historical period or subject?
I’m such a history nerd! I just love the subject. I love digging into a time period and discovering what makes it unique. In general, my favorite time period is whatever I’m working in at that moment. I’m very decisive like that. [laughs]
Tell me about your newest book, A Name Unknown (Bethany House, July 2017). It’s the first book of a new series, correct?
It is indeed. A Name Unknown is Book One in my Shadows Over England series. The series is about a band of street urchins, sticking together in order to survive the mean streets of London. But now they’re a family. And rather than picking pockets, they’re out for secrets to aid England in the Great War. Little do they know that as they follow the instructions of their mysterious employer, they’ll each end up discovering faith, love, and more adventure than even a family of thieves could anticipate.
In A Name Unknown, Rosemary Gresham is offered the challenge of a lifetime—determine whether Peter Holstein, a wealthy gentleman close to the King, is loyal to Britain or to Germany. When Rosemary arrives on his doorstep pretending to be a well-credentialed historian, Peter believes she’s the right person to help him dig through his family’s past. But how does one steal a family’s history, their very name?
When danger and suspicion continue to mount, both realize they’re in a race against time to discover the truth—about Peter’s past and about the undeniable attraction kindling between them.
Sounds exciting. Can you say what inspired you to write a story about thieves?
I love including themes of redemption in my stories, and I wanted to have main characters in this series in serious need of it, yet exhibiting morals and a code of honor that some of the nominal Christians in their world didn’t have. I’m always of the mind that the light of our Lord shines brightest against the darkness of the world—a theme explored in A Name Unknown because Rosemary has a deep-set fear of the dark. Ironic for a thief, which made it all the more fun.
Of course, to be honest, part of the inspiration for this came from a story my best friend and critique partner [author Stephanie Morrill]had been working on. It involved a thief, and I think I still had that in my head when I sat down to determine who the heroine should be in this story—I’d already established my hero. When I came up with this idea, I made sure to run it by her to make sure it wasn’t borrowing too much from her idea, and she assured me that beyond the word “thief,” they had nothing in common.
You and I attended St. John’s College (Annapolis, MD), which, despite its name, is a secular school. You once told me that our fellow writing alumni often give you strange looks when you tell them you write Christian historical fiction. What makes a story distinctively Christian? How do you explain it to non-Christians?
This is a great question! You might get many different answers to this question even within the Christian writing community, but my definition is that Christian Fiction is a story that involves a faith thread as well as a mystery/suspense/romance, etc. thread. Historically, many mainstream books included this—classic literature is riddled with examples. But as big publishers began asking authors to take out any mention of God and include more graphic scenes, the need for Christian publishers grew. Today, there are many houses and lines dedicated to providing a place where these themes can still exist. Some faith threads will be subtle or even allegorical, some will be the driving force of the book; but all point the readers to the Lord.
How do you understand fiction writing as Christian witness? The end point of telling a story isn’t apologetics, after all!
I consider writing Christian fiction to be my calling and my ministry. I’ve always maintained that story is the best vehicle for teaching—whether it be teaching about how World War I affected the lives of the people on the homefront in Great Britain or about how God’s children are to be a light in the world. My stories aren’t just a vehicle for a lesson, of course. But as I write them, I pray that the Lord will help me demonstrate some Truth about Him to my characters, and through them, to my readers.
In your biblical novel A Soft Breath of Wind, the heroine is able to see angels and demons at work around her, and in your historical novel The Reluctant Duchess, the hero hears the audible voice of God. As you write, do you ever imagine God as a story character? Not that you would presume to contain Him within your imagination, of course! But I assume you see Him at work in your characters’ lives. How does that play out in your mind?
I do, yes! To me, God working in our lives isn’t a question. It isn’t something I can choose to include or not. It’s an indisputable fact. All I can do is discover in what ways God’s hand would be visible to these particular characters, how they would interact with Him. So my thief who’s afraid of the dark sees the Lord as light. My heroine in the next book in the series is a musician, and she hears His voice as a melody. I think we all hear God or know Him a little differently; and by showing characters who do the same, I really hope to make my readers pause and wonder where His fingerprints might be on their lives that they’d never even noticed before.
We both studied the “great books” in college: philosophy, literature, theology, and the like. During and after college I was snobbishly scrupulous (or scrupulously snobby!) about reading “commercial” or “genre” fiction. It took me a long time to get over that and enjoy a well-written, engaging trade paperback. Did you ever struggle with this?
This is a hilarious question solely because I always had a genre novel with me at St. John’s. ALWAYS. And one time during junior year, one of the guys in my core group said, “Why do you have always have a non-course book with you?” And I replied, “Because I value my sanity.” Other people had other ways of decompressing after an intense day or class—often involving alcohol or cigarettes—I chose fiction, both writing it and reading it, and I think it kept me happy and, yes, sane during the intense program of literature at St. John’s.
It also helps to remember that in her day, Jane Austen wasn’t considered literature. She was pop, genre fiction. The same can be said of Don Quixote or Shakespeare. It’s the test of time that determines whether something is pulp or literature, not the subject matter. So to those who sneer, I just roll my eyes.
Remember that weary, dreary February junior year when we were slogging away through weary, dreary German philosophy? I would have been overcome by melancholy had not a friend ordered me to read her well-worn copy of Cheaper by the Dozen. Talk about belly laughs! This example may be my best argument in favor of reading genre fiction. Catharsis can be good for the soul, right?
It can, yes! It can provide escape, catharsis, laughter, tears, and just a reminder that there’s a world outside our own. Sometimes that’s the most valuable thing to realize when we’re in a season of overwhelm!
Speaking of catharsis: some criticize romance genre fiction as “emotional pornography,” that is, some readers become addicted to the emotional high they get when reading a love story. There’s some truth to this claim, especially concerning stories with a lot of sexual tension. And yet many of the best books of all time are love stories or contain love stories. How do you navigate this issue?
I know there are people for whom this is true—though I think often it’s more true of secular romances. But I’ve certainly heard even Christian romance attacked for this reason, and it gets my dander up! Jesus Himself used marriage—the relationship between a man and a woman—as a teaching device. So why shouldn’t we do the same?
In my stories at least, the love story is always a symbol of God’s love for us. And through their budding relationship, the hero and heroine both always grow closer to the Lord. They have to learn to rely on Him or trust Him or even see Him clearly for the first time through the faith of the other. This, I think, is what a good relationship, a good marriage is meant to do—to draw both parties ever nearer to God.
You’re a Baptist who was raised Methodist and I’m Catholic. So let’s jump to ecumenical matters. Can we say what makes a story distinctively Catholic or Protestant or Orthodox? Do you notice any general tenancies of subject, theme, or character? This may be an impossible question to answer as stories reflect not only the religion of the individual writer, but also the writer’s national and ethnic culture. (I’m thinking of The Brothers Karamazov, which is both Russian AND Orthodox.) Still, care to take a stab at it?
I think the two big deciding factors are (1) the characters and what kind of story they demand and (2) whether the author is trying to discuss a subject. For instance, I had a complaint once from an Orthodox Jew that my novel Jewel of Persia read like it was written by a Christian. Which it was, of course; and one of the themes I was examining was what salvation meant in the Old Testament. Christian readers understood this—apparently Jewish readers didn’t much like it. But either way, clearly my own agenda was shining through.
Sometimes though, it’s simply a matter of being correctly in the viewpoint of a character. A Lady Unrivaled, for instance, probably shouldn’t be termed a Russian Orthodox book, but one of my three primary characters is indeed Russian Orthodox, and one of the things I had to learn in order to write her effectively was what that would mean, what set them apart from other European branches of the Church and Catholicism, and how that would pull on a character even when she had fallen away from her faith. In this case, Kira’s story was obviously not a reflection of my own—but I think it provided a rich thread in the tapestry of my story.
This may be another unfair question, but I’ll ask it anyway. Of all the characters you’ve written, do you have a favorite?
Totally unfair! Or at the very least, I’m not sure I can answer it! In some ways it might be Ella from A Lady Unrivaled, who is very optimistic and always looking for a reason to smile—much like me. In other ways, it could well be Peter from A Name Unknown, who is a stammering novelist. I obviously enjoyed writing about a writer!
Have you ever had a character you didn’t like, or misunderstood, perhaps? Did that present any challenges to you as a writer?
There are certainly characters I don’t like—like the abusive father in The Reluctant Duchess—and it’s a challenge to figure out how to portray them. One of the most frustrating, though, was the hero in Book Two of the Shadows Over England series. When I first started writing his opening scene, I just didn’t like him at all. He felt flat and whiny and not at all like a person I wanted to spent the next three months of my life with. So I deleted those pages. I drove to my piyo class, wracked my brain for who to make this guy, and eventually settled on a character I wrote during college, in a book that will never see the light of day. I borrowed the personality of this guy—missed my turn for class and had to backtrack, I was so involved in how to turn Giovanni into Lukas—and rewrote the scene the next day. Sometimes it’s hard to delete the hours we already put in, but it can save so much trouble in the long run!
You wear a lot of different hats: wife, mom, bestselling author, graphic designer, editor, business owner…I’m a bit in awe of your industriousness. When do you write? How much coffee do you drink?
Only two cups a coffee—and those are half-caf. [laughs] I get up at 5:30 on weekdays so I have a couple of hours of quiet writing time. At 7:30 I take my shower, then the time before 9 is spent tying up loose ends for the morning, feeding the kiddos, etc. In the evenings, I usually spend time with my hubby. If I’m on a deadline crunch, I might write for an extra hour in the evening, but I’m not a night person, and my brain and creativity is usually fried by then.
In general, my priorities are this: kids and their school first throughout the day, then writing, then editing and designing. So school projects might take up time I’d usually be spending on one of my work tasks some days, and writing deadlines take precedence over design work.
And you knit! Beautifully, I might add. Is there anything you don’t do well?
Why thank you! I do enjoy knitting—it gives me a way to be creative and productive while watching TV. And I love being able to create things to give as gifts.
As for things I don’t do well—if you saw the disorganization of my house, you wouldn’t have to ask that question!!
You once told me that you regularly pray for your readers. What specifically do you pray for when you pray for them?
Well I pray, for starters, that my books end up in the right hands. As you mentioned above, sometimes romance novels in particular can be harmful to people with certain emotional issues, and I never want to contribute to that. So I pray that those who would be harmed by my books will not find them. I pray that those who do read them are drawn closer to the Lord through them. I pray that they’ll be used in the lives of my readers to build them up, not tear them down. Basically, I pray that these stories into which I pour my heart and soul be used to build the kingdom of God and strengthen His church—to show His people that no matter where they’re from or what they look like or what church they go to, He loves them, and He has a plan for them, and they can learn to hear His voice. That no matter their story, they know that He can use it in His.
About Roseanna M. White: Roseanna M. White pens her novels beneath her Betsy Ross flag, with her Jane Austen action figure watching over her. When not writing fiction, she’s homeschooling her two children, editing and designing, and pretending her house will clean itself. Roseanna is the author of over a dozen historical novels and novellas, ranging from biblical fiction to American-set romances to her British series. Spies and war and mayhem always seem to make their way into her novels… to offset her real life, which is blessedly boring. She passes said boring life with her husband and kids in the beautiful mountains of eastern West Virginia. You can learn more about her and her stories at www.RoseannaMWhite.com. Follow Roseanna on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram, and visit her
Amazon Author Central page and Goodreads author page.
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Copyright 2017 Rhonda Ortiz
About Rhonda Ortiz: Rhonda Ortiz is a writer and graphic designer living in Michigan. She has written for a variety of Catholic publications and was a contributor to The Catholic Mom’s Prayer Companion. Rhonda is also Art Director and Web Editor of the literary magazine Dappled Things. Learn more at rhondaortiz.com or follow her on Instagram.