THE CRAFT OF WRITING – JUNE 2023
I’m excited to continue this year on the CRAFT OF WRITING blog by focusing on authors who write series. This month we welcome back award-winning author Randy Ingermanson. Randy is known for both his novels and his writing craft books on the Snowflake Method.
Randy has three series, but I’d like to concentrate on the two that cover the subject of ancient Jerusalem: The City of God series and the Crown of Thorns series. He has won two Christy Awards for excellence in Christian fiction.
Once again, we’re doing something fun for this interview. The name of each person who enters a comment will be put into the drawing for an ebook copy of Transgression, the Christy award-winning first book in the City of God series. So join the conversation and earn a chance to win.
(Former winners are excluded from the drawing.)
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Welcome back, Randy Ingermanson, to the Craft of Writing blog and thank you for joining us!
Hi Kay, thanks for having me back!
What was your first published book, and why did you decide to write it?
The first book I published was a nonfiction book titled Who Wrote the Bible Code? Back around 1997, a journalist named Michael Drosnin published a best-selling book, The Bible Code, which alleged that Jewish mathematicians had unlocked a secret code in the Torah that contained information about current events, such as the Persian Gulf War and a nuclear apocalypse that would be coming in 2004. Drosnin was an atheist who believed that the Bible code had been inserted into the Torah by time-traveling space aliens. Yes, really.
A lot of people believed in this “Bible code,” although I think very few were on board with the bit about time-traveling space aliens. Jeffrey Satinover, a Jewish psychiatrist, then wrote a best-selling book, Cracking the Bible Code, in which he told the story of the small group of Jewish mathematicians who had allegedly discovered the codes. A major claim of the book was that the Torah contained unlimited amounts of information.
I wrote my book to examine this extraordinary claim. There’s a branch of math called “information theory” that tells you how much information is in a text. So I wrote a computer program to measure the amount of information in the Torah that might be embedded in the way claimed by the Bible code people.
I found nothing remarkable. My book, Who Wrote the Bible Code?, explained my conclusions and how I arrived at them.
About the same time, I finally sold my first novel, Transgression, a time-travel novel about a rogue physicist who goes back in time to kill the apostle Paul. I have a PhD in theoretical physics from UC Berkeley, so I read up a bit on what physicists were saying at that time about wormholes and time-travel. Kip Thorne and Michio Kaku were two prominent physicists who had written quite a lot on the subject.
I was captivated by your City of God series. Why did you choose ancient Jerusalem for your time travel novel, and did you always intend it to be a series?
The City of God series was born out of my complete failure to sell a historical novel set in first-century Jerusalem. I began writing fiction in 1988 and I spent years writing a very heavily-researched novel, Blood Avenger, set in Jerusalem in the last few years before the Jewish Revolt of AD 66-70.
This was a critical period in world history, and the repercussions of that revolt have lasted right down to the present day. It led to the birth of rabbinic Judaism as we know it. The revolt changed the direction of Christianity. And the geopolitics of the Middle East is still driven by the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 and the exile of Jews from Jerusalem.
Blood Avenger went to editorial board twice at a major publisher and failed both times. It got fairly far at a second publisher, who finally declined it. An editor at that publisher told my agent that they had three reasons for saying no: 1) Most of their readers were women, and all my characters were men, 2) Modern readers are not interested in ancient characters, 3) The book was 160k words, and that was just too long.
My agent called me with the bad news, and I immediately told him I had an idea for a new novel that would evade all those problems. The lead character would be a female archaeologist from the 21st century. She time-travels back to the first century and must find some way to rescue the apostle Paul from assassination by the physicist who created the wormhole. And I thought I could write the novel in about 100k words.
My agent told me to go for it, and I immediately got to work. Unfortunately, my agent died about a year later, so he never got to see the book in print. But I sold the book without an agent to an editor I met at a conference. And the book, to the complete astonishment of my editors and myself, won a Christy award in the Futuristic category.
One lesson I learned was this: Failure is only failure if you let it have the last word. I succeeded because one editor cared enough to tell me what was wrong, and because I found a way to eliminate the negatives and try again.
But I didn’t really imagine a series until the book won an award. By that time, I had a new agent, and he asked if I had a series in mind.
I thought about it and decided that the character my readers loved most was actually the setting—ancient Jerusalem. I had researched Jerusalem so much that my readers felt like I took them there. At that moment, the City of God series was born.
Can you tell us a little about each of the books in the City of God series?
Yes, but that entails some spoilers. I’ll keep them to a minimum.
Book 1 is titled Transgression. Rivka Meyers is an American archaeology student who grew up in a very unusual religious environment. She’s both Christian and Jewish—a Messianic Jew—and she’s now studying at UC Berkeley and she feels extremely uncomfortable. How can she reconcile her faith and her studies? She goes to Israel for the summer to work on an archaeological dig. There, she meets an Israeli theoretical physicist named Ari Kazan and his American experimentalist colleague, Damien West.
Damien is building a wormhole based on Ari’s theory. Against all odds, Damien succeeds. He, Rivka, and Ari end up in first-century Jerusalem. Damien’s secret plan is to assassinate the apostle Paul. When Rivka figures this out, she does all in her power to stop him. Ari is the odd man out. Ari hates what Christianity has done to his people for 20 centuries, and part of him would like Damien to succeed.
But Ari has a serious problem. For no good reason, Ari is in love with Rivka. Which is absurd. Ari is an atheist and hates Christianity. But there’s no explaining love. Against his will, Ari is crazy for Rivka. He’ll do anything to keep her from being killed in her nutball quest to save the apostle Paul.
Book 2 is titled Premonition. Damien has been neutralized, but the wormhole has collapsed, with no hope of it ever being reconstructed. Rivka and Ari are stuck on the wrong side, in first-century Jerusalem.
And they’re now married, despite extreme religious differences. Ari uses his knowledge of physics to become the best construction engineer in Jerusalem. Rivka has an eidetic memory (sometimes called a “photographic memory”). She’s read the history of the first century. She knows what’s coming. War will break out in the year AD 66.
But before that, in the year AD 62, a certain man James will be arrested by the high priest and executed. James is the brother of Jesus of Nazareth. He is the head of the Jesus Movement in Jerusalem. And Rivka knows him. She loves him as a father figure. She doesn’t want him to die. Ari claims that the laws of physics say you can’t change the past.
Rivka doesn’t care about the laws of physics. She aims to save James, by hook or by crook, whatever the cost. Her problem is that she’s a woman, and in patriarchal first-century Jerusalem, the premonitions of a woman are not considered believable. If Rivka is going to save James, she’s going to have to do it alone.
Book 3 is titled Retribution. Rivka now knows that she can’t change the past. The history books she read in the 21st century tell her that war is coming in AD 66. She knows she can’t prevent that. But the books also say that the Jesus Movement in Jerusalem will abandon Jerusalem shortly before the war.
The only problem is that the followers of Rabbi Jesus in Jerusalem show absolutely no urge to leave the city. And they won’t listen to a woman, because what does she know and how would she know it and why should anyone trust her?
And in the meantime, Ari’s knowledge of physics has brought him to the attention of certain young men who see a war coming. They want the war, and they intend to win. But they need war machines, better than the ones Rome has. So they need Ari’s extraordinary knowledge. Ari knows the coming war is doomed. And anyway, he’s a pacifist. But these young men are his friends. What’s the right, ethical, honest, intelligent thing for a physicist to do?
Your second series about ancient Jerusalem is Crown of Thorns. Please tell us a little about each of the books in that series.
First, I have to speak to the elephant in the room. Crown of Thorns is a series about Jesus of Nazareth. People have strong opinions about Jesus, and I can’t make everyone happy. I have to choose some point of view. My choice is to tell the story as known to us from the New Testament, with the viewpoint that the ancient Christian creeds about Jesus are true. The Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed, the Chalcedonian Creed. All true. But that’s a problem.
These creeds were written in part to oppose Gnosticism. And many gnostics claimed that Jesus was all God and not a bit human. But the creeds insisted that yes, Jesus was God, but he was also human. One hundred percent human. Fully human, like us.
As I look around today, I see a lot of people who view Jesus through gnostic lenses. For them, Jesus is a Superman who has no kryptonite. He never worried, never sweated, never forgot anything. For these people, Jesus was fully omniscient. He knew Fortran without studying. He knew quantum mechanics. He knew tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal. All inside his three-pound brain. In fact, he knew it all as a newborn baby. As a developing fetus. As a one-celled embryo.
In my Crown of Thorns series, I’m trying to get back to the ancient creeds which insist on the full humanity of Jesus. A man who sweats. Who has real fears. Real tears. A baby who has to learn to talk. A boy who has to learn to read. A man who has to find his way in the world. A man deeply immersed in the Presence of God, yes. But a man with a body and a brain, and all the human limitations that go with having a body and a brain.
For this series, Jesus is not omnipresent. Not omnipotent. Not omniscient. What he does and what he knows are gifts from God, just as the things we all do and know are gifts from God.
Some will be offended by that. Maybe they want a more gnostic kind of Jesus—only God, not at all human. Maybe they want a modernist kind of Jesus—only human, not at all God. They are not my target audience.
Some will be intrigued by the creeds. They want to know if the creeds can make sense—that Jesus was fully God and fully man, both at the same time. I’m writing Crown of Thorns for them, and only for them.
Now I can answer your question:
Book 1 is titled Son of Mary. Yeshua of Nazareth has grown up in a village that loves him and honors him because he’s a righteous man. But the village believes that Yeshua’s mother Miryam seduced some man of the village before she was married. That unknown man must be the true blood father of Yeshua. Which man of the village was enticed into sin by the wicked Miryam? The scandal has rocked the village for 30 years.
Miryam claims she’s innocent. But the village thinks otherwise, and one man of the village wants her stoned. That man also insists that Yeshua is no legitimate son of his father.
Yeshua believes his destiny is to rule the kingdom of God on the throne of his ancestor David. But that’s not going to happen if his own village rejects his claim to be descended from David.
Yeshua’s father is now dead. If Yeshua wants to clear his mother’s name and clear his own path to be acclaimed as the son of David, he needs to do something. Drastic. Now.
Book 2 is titled Son of David. Yeshua has cleared his name and is free to pursue his goal of sitting on the throne of his father David. He’s got a small group of men who follow him, most from the village of Capernaum. Yeshua’s big problem is that the ancient prophecies don’t explain how the kingdom of God will come in. The Roman empire stands in the way. The entire Jewish world believes there will be no kingdom of God unless Rome is destroyed—by military might. But who will do the destroying?
One theory says that a military leader, a Mashiach, will rise up and lead an armed revolt against Rome, and God will bless the efforts of this man.
Another theory says that the Angel of the Lord will come down from heaven and destroy the enemies of God’s people. Then the Angel of the Lord will choose the anointed king of Israel to rule on the throne of David.
These two theories can’t both be right. Yeshua sees that if he follows the wrong one, his dream will fail. But he’s also beginning to question the basic idea he’s grown up with all his life—that the kingdom of God requires violence—either by a human Mashiach or a war-like Angel of the Lord.
How will Yeshua bring in the kingdom of God? He must make a decision. The fate of his people depends on it.
Do you have plans for future books in either of your series?
Yes, I expect that the City of God series will eventually have 7 or 8 or 9 books, and the Crown of Thorns series will have 4.
How do you keep a series fresh after readers become familiar with the stories?
It’s easy when the stories are driven by real history because the story of the world never ends. One problem gets solved, and then life moves on and some new problem leaps up.
Also, in my case, a major component of my fiction is the setting. For City of God, that setting is first-century Jerusalem. For Crown of Thorns, the setting expands to cover all of first-century Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. My readers absolutely love that setting, and it will never grow stale for them.
The reason readers love my setting is because of my research, which I began back in the 1980s. I’ve been to Israel several times and I’ve worked on archaeological digs in both Jerusalem and Galilee. I’ve got thousands of pictures that I took all over Israel. And I’ve read a crazy number of books about the history and archaeology and religion of first-century Israel.
How do you handle the situation where a reader jumps into the middle of a series without reading the first book?
I try to prevent that. I only promote Book 1 in each series, and I try to make it crystal clear that these books are in a series. If people ignore my excellent advice and start in the middle, that’s on their heads.
What advice would you give an author who’s considering writing a series?
Do it! The great thing about a series is that your marketing simplifies. You don’t have to promote all your books. You only need to promote Book 1 in each series. Then that book promotes the rest of the series.
Also, story development is a lot easier when you write a series. You’ve already worked out the characters and the setting in Book 1. Now all you need is a new plot for each book, and new character arcs (if your story has a character arc).
There is a key decision you have to make in writing a series. You must decide whether the series is:
- One long story in several parts (like The Lord of the Rings)
- Several complete stories that all combine to form a larger story (like Harry Potter)
- Several complete stories that each stand alone (like the Jack Reacher series)
If the books in your series are part of a larger story, then you need to map out what that story is before you publish any of the books. And that takes a lot of work. It also requires the right sort of brain, because not all writers are wired to love planning. Some great writers hate planning and some love it, and you can’t change who you are and how you’re wired.
If the books in your series are not part of a larger story, then you can just write the books as they come to you. They don’t have to be in any particular order. You should maintain some sort of “story bible” to help you keep track of what happened and who the people are. Consistency matters. But you don’t have to worry about some overarching story arc.
Where can we find out more about you and your work?
For those interested in my books on how to write fiction, I have a website at www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com where I blog when the spirit moves me.
For those interested in my novels, I have a website at www.ingermanson.com where I blog for those interested in first-century Israel, and I run an email newsletter for those interested in my books.
Thank you, Randy, for being with us today.
Thanks for having me, Kay!
Randy Ingermanson wants to take you on an adventure to ancient Jerusalem. He has worked on archaeological digs in both Jerusalem and Magdala and thinks it’s fun to swing a pick, sift dirt, haul buckets, move stones, fill sandbags, wash pottery, and sweat like a pig with dozens of other crazy people. A favorite memory is facing down two pickpockets in a back alley in Jerusalem. On his bucket list is a wish to someday windsurf across the Sea of Galilee.
Randy likes to mix science, religion, history, romance, philosophy, and adventure into his novels. That’s just asking for trouble, but he doesn’t seem to know any better, and his friends are too kind to explain the matter.
He has a PhD from UC Berkeley in theoretical physics and has won two Christy awards for excellence in Christian fiction. Library Journal has called him “one of the best authors of biblical fiction today.”
Randy lives in the Pacific Northwest and works as a manservant to two surly and demanding cats. Visit Randy at www.ingermanson.com.
For a limited time, you can get a free e-book: “7 Tales About Jesus & His Family” at www.ingermanson.com/follow. You can’t get this e-book anywhere else.