Local author Beth Webb Hart is not above using four-letter words on occasion. But she typically tries to keep them out of her characters' mouths.
"Sometimes a four-letter word would just be perfect right there [in a novel], and that's the way people really talk," Hart says. "But in the market I'm in, people are offended easily, so I do have to edit certain things like that. It's not ideal, but I do have to live with that."
Christian publisher Thomas Nelson is releasing Hart's fourth novel, Love, Charleston, this month. While the author's signature themes of love, hope, and faith have made her popular in the Christian fiction genre, her well-written descriptions of Lowcountry life have broadened her audience beyond the church-going crowd.
"For years, a lot of Christian books were all about the message, and they weren't that well-crafted," Hart says. "That's not really how I go about it. For me the story is the most important part, and the themes of hope or grace just sort of find their way in there inevitably because that's the perspective I'm writing from. I think the books that fail are the ones that just have the characters or the plot as sort of just a window dressing for the message that hits you over the head like a two-by-four."
Hart actually found the genre unexpectedly.
"I didn't really know that there even was a Christian fiction industry," she admits. "Often Christian art or religious art is considered pretty substandard. I just didn't know what that was all about or what that would be like. Then I started to do my research and found out that it was one of the largest growing genres in the whole industry .. I thought I'd give it a try, and they picked it up right away. There was such enthusiasm, and it just seemed like that was the door that opened so that was the door I was meant to walk through."
While she had struggled to find a place in the crowded world of Southern chick lit, the Christian crowd embraced her whole-heartedly — then the seculars followed. Publishers Weekly called her a "lovely, gifted writer." Her third novel, The Wedding Machine, was a finalist for the SIBA (Southern Independent Booksellers Association) Award.
"A lot of bookstores now see that faith is not an uncommon ingredient in any novel, but especially Southern fiction," Hart says. "That's just such a big part of our culture. We're in the Bible Belt."
Love, Charleston centers around two 30-something sisters and their cousin in Charleston. Hart originally planned for the book to focus on each of their struggling marriages, but her publisher suggested it was too depressing. So she threw in a love story between Roy Summerall, a widowed country preacher recruited to take over at St. Michael's Church on Broad Street, and the tall, red-headed Anne Brumley, a bell-ringer at the church. The various characters deal with everything from post-partum depression to money problems — issues Hart says she's closely witnessed in her own life.
"I tend to write about whatever season of life I'm in, and right now I'm in that sort of late-30s phase of, 'OK, we've been married for 10 years, we know what we have, we know what our struggles are, how are we going to get through it?'"
She admits that she has close ties to the character Della, a writer struggling to make ends meet by teaching (Webb previously taught at Ashley Hall) in order to support her daughter and artist husband (Webb's husband is a composer and professor at the College of Charleston).
"Once you have a child, your goals and perspectives change a lot," Hart says. "I definitely used some of my thoughts and experiences for her story line."
The book provides an insider's view of the Holy City; though Hart is originally from the Pawley's Island area, her husband is a native Charlestonian.
"I see a lot just by knowing his family and hearing all the old stories," Hart says. "That's something that interests me, since I'm not from here. ... Charleston was always the big city you came to when someone was sick or you needed a fancy dress or something like that. I'm able to sort of observe it and enjoy it."
As long as readers — Christian and non, local and "from off" — are interested in the same thing, Hart is sure to have a captive audience.