If I had to sum it up in one word, I'd use "relationship." The major difference in a secular romance and an inspirational one really is that simple: the emotional connection (relationship) between the hero and heroine, and between the characters and God.
Aside from the stringent expectation of quality writing, certain additional standards exist in the world of Christian fiction. A writer hoping to place a manuscript in this market would do well to become familiar with those finely drawn lines and stay well within their borders.
I can point out the right direction. You'll have to choose the roads.
1. The sensuality meter
I was once challenged by a reader who felt the words "Christian" and "romance" conflicted.
"You cannot write about romance and call it a Christian book," he stated. "Christians don't partake in romance, at least not until after they're married. And no one wants to read about that stuff between a husband and wife. What's the point?"
How sad, this inability to distinguish between sex and romance!
Let me try to make it easy.
Romance is the wooing of another's heart and the emotions involved in that courtship.
Sex is the physical consummation of a physical attraction (no relationship necessary).
In a Christian romance, sex is off limits for the unmarried hero/heroine, and takes place behind closed doors for married ones. What's left? Relationship.
That said, eliminating blatant sexual activity is not the be-all and end-all of an inspirational novel. What is important is the interweaving of the characters' spiritual journeys into their livesand that includes their romantic overtures.
Physical attraction should be a part of the story, but it will be communicated through emotions instead of hormones. He may notice the way the heroine's dress accentuates her curves, but he won't focus on those curves. He'll be drawn to her sense of humor, her generosity, her sweetness of spirit. Neither is she blind to how he looks in those hip-hugging jeans, or the way his muscles bulge when he ropes that heifer! But her emotional reactions will supersede any physical ones. She'll be moved by his gentleness with an injured animal...touched by the respectful way he handles an annoying elderly neighbor...moved to tears by his love for children.
2. Christian protagonists
A Christian romance will focus on two relationships: the one developing between the hero and heroine, and the one between those characters and Christ. The latter must be clearly defined, either from the start of the story, or by the end of it.
Placing characters inside a church building on Sunday mornings, or having them say grace before a meal does not make a novel inspirational. It is acceptable to start a book with a protagonist who doesn't know or is estranged from God, but that spiritual rapport will grow and evolve throughout the storyline and must be reconciled by the last page.
3. Dealing with sin
In real life, Christian people live with and among non-Christians. So it is in the pages of a book. Contributing characters may smoke or drink, get pregnant before marriage, have abortions, cheat, steal, lie...even murder. That's life. These characters' non-conformity to a godly lifestyle adds color to the storyline.
It is crucial, however, that the main characters either stay on the straight path or find it.
Ultimate challenge: Do all of the above without turning the story into a sermon. Readers read for entertainment and escape. Any message the author wishes to deliver must be woven seamlessly into the storyline. The reader should not be aware of any spiritual lesson...until it's already learned.
What makes Christian fiction Christian? The differences aren't many, but mighty. I like to think of it as giving my readers a touch of Heaven in an earthly tale.
That's why I write on this side of the line.
Delia Latham lives in California with her husband and a spoiled Pomeranian. She writes inspirational romance and women's fiction, and loves hearing from her readers.