JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (BP)–If it had not been for a persistent mother-in-law, author Catherine Palmer might never have been the Cinderella at the ball that launched her professional writing career.
Palmer, who was making up stories even before she could write, had written a “huge, medieval novel” in her spare time after earning a master’s degree in English from Baylor University in Texas. After publishers rejected it twice, she put it away until she received a call from her mother-in-law, Helene Palmer, three years later.
“She told me about a writing contest and said, ‘Why don’t you submit your novel?'” Palmer recalled. “She said it was a romance novel contest, but mine was not a romance. I never had even read a romance novel. She said, ‘Just change your book.'”
After revising one chapter and adding a hero, Palmer submitted her novel to the contest. The book won “Best Historical Romance Novel” and “Best of Show.”
“It was a shock, to say the least,” Palmer said. “Agents and editors came up to me and asked what other novels I had written, but that was the only one.”
Palmer immediately began praying about this opportunity. “I asked,
‘What did the Lord want from me? Why were doors opening to me in romance in a very secular publishing field?'”
Psalm 19:14 came to mind. “It says, ‘Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight,'” Palmer said. “So, I started writing and reading romance novels. I found a wide range of quality. But basically, I wanted to tell stories using moral standards.”
Sixteen published novels later, Palmer still is finding stories to tell. Several of her books have appeared on Waldenbooks’ and B. Dalton’s romance national best-seller lists, including one novel that stayed in the No. 1 and 2 spots for three weeks. A Christian writing in a secular industry posed some challenges, though.
Sexual contact is a characteristic of most secular romance novels, Palmer acknowledged, so “I had my characters married before any of that happened.”
During this time, she said, the Lord was saying to her: Write what was pleasing to him, and he would put her in the public eye as a voice for him. “And he has,” Palmer said. “I’ve done tons of public speaking, and even in the secular settings, I talk about my faith.”
“The Treasure of Timbuktu” and “The Treasure of Zanzibar” are her first novels released by Christian publishing company Tyndale House of Carol Stream, Ill. She also is a consulting editor for Tyndale and is helping the publisher set up a romance line.
Palmer said she made the switch from the secular market to the Christian market so she could express her faith message in more detail. “I wanted to show the vital importance of faith in Jesus Christ as the foundation of a successful marriage,” Palmer said. “In secular books, I couldn’t do that. Romance novels show the building of marriage. They show man and woman overcoming obstacles to the final building of a stable lifetime marriage happily ever after. To portray that and leave the faith out is to leave out the main element.” She and her husband, Tim, managing editor of the Missouri Baptist newsjournal Word & Way, will celebrate 20 years of marriage this year.
Palmer admitted the Christian fiction market is much smaller than the worldwide readership of secular romance novels. Palmer’s books have been published in six languages and have sold more than 1 million copies worldwide. Her final secular novel has been nominated for a RITA Award from the Romance Writers of America.
“I struggled in moving over to the Christian market,” Palmer said. “I have a faith message that’s very small in my secular books but an audience that is large. In the Christian market, I have a faith message that is very large but an audience that is smaller. Leaving my non-Christian audience (for the Christian market) would be like preaching to the choir.”
Then Francine Rivers, also a former secular novelist who now writes for Tyndale, gave Palmer some advice. “She told me, ‘Your books will strengthen the faith of believers and be used as a witnessing tool to nonbelievers.’ That’s what made the difference for me.”
Palmer’s readers also will notice some differences in her books. “As I have explored romance novels, I have determined that in a secular novel, there is a double-plot thread — an action plot, which moves the story along, and an emotion plot, which focuses on a relationship.
“In a Christian novel, there is a third plot — the faith plot. In a good Christian novel, those three elements braid back and forth, and the third one makes it more interesting because there is yet another level from the secular novels.”
Palmer’s latest books launch the HeartQuest series, Tyndale’s first romance line. “We see the need for good Christian romances,” said Rebekah Nesbitt, acquisitions editor at Tyndale. “Cathy is a well-read author; she has a great style and is very entertaining; and her message is challenging to Christians and non-Christians alike because it inspires them in their relationship or toward a relationship with the Lord.
“At Tyndale, her books have been very well received,” Nesbitt added. “Everyone has enthusiasm for her work, and if that’s any indicator of the market, then we expect she will do very well.”
The daughter of Southern Baptist missionaries, Palmer grew up in Kenya, Africa, where she became a Christian at age 8. “I’ve been walking on a faith journey,” she said. “I think that ties into my writing. My characters are on a faith journey.”
At 17, Palmer left Kenya to attend Southwest Baptist College (University), Bolivar, Mo., where she earned a degree in English in 1977. Her parents, Harold and Betty Cummins, are retired and live in Springfield, Mo. But Palmer’s experiences in Kenya influence her writing to this day.
“A lot of the experiences I had on the mission field have been translated into my books and fictionalized,” she said. “You write what you know and care about.”
In a series that will begin this fall, Palmer sets her story on the Kansas prairie which doesn’t draw on her “missionary kid” background. The first book, “Prairie Rose,” opens the series named “A Town Called Hope.” Also scheduled for a fall release is Tyndale’s anthology of four romance novellas, “A Victorian Christmas Tea,” in which Palmer’s story, “Angel in the Attic,” is the lead title. “The Treasure of Kilimanjaro” is set for release in 1998, and Palmer also has in the works a series set in Jefferson City, Mo.
She lives in Jefferson City with her husband and sons, Geoffrey, 11, and Andrei, 8. She is a member of First Baptist Church, Jefferson City.