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How I became a novelist at 79

Or: why a grandfather wrote a series of teen girl fiction

What fascinates me is the incredible way our loving God gives us unexpected windows of opportunity to serve him, irrespective of one’s age. Five years ago, as a young 78-year-old, you could have knocked me down with a Seniors’ Card if you had told me that I would become an author, writing three children’s novels in three years.

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When my son and his wife, together with their four children, were posted to Europe for missionary service, my wife and I were delighted that they had responded to God’s call to serve him as missionaries but were also naturally sorry that we would be separated from them for extensive periods.

One of the costs of serving overseas as a missionary is the separation of grandchildren from their grandparents.

One of the costs of serving overseas as a missionary is the separation of grandchildren from their grandparents. The well-known saying about grandchildren’s visits – “It’s lovely when they come and lovely when they go!” –  is not true when the ‘going’ is for two to three years. Both sides miss regular opportunities to bond through play, sharing family history and generally enjoying each others’ company. Thanks to emails, for us it has not been as great a cost as our own parents must have felt 40 years ago, when our missionary service separated them from our kids.

Our son’s oldest daughter, Claudia, was about ten when she was first given her own email address. We were delighted to have this speedy means of communicating with her and were soon corresponding at least once a fortnight. The question then arose, what to tell her in our emails? This didn’t prove difficult, as it provided opportunities to send photos from our family history (for example, “This is what your dad looked like when he was your age”), tell anecdotes, jokes and riddles and keep her up-to-date with our happenings.

Claudia’s suggestion that I should write her a ‘proper story’ has had an outcome I never anticipated. Instead of just ministering to my own granddaughter, my novels are now reaching hundreds of young girls I have never met. Hopefully, this is encouraging their faith in Jesus.

After a couple of years, Claudia, then 12, wrote to us and said, ‘Grandad, you are very good at telling stories, why don’t you write a proper story for me?”

Well, that was an unexpected challenge, but I decided to give it a go. What could I write about? I decided the best subject would be a girl a year older than Claudia, who would get into various adventures. But I also wanted the story to encourage Claudia to grow in her faith in Jesus.  I called the girl ‘Olivia’ as that was a popular name at the time. I gave her a location – Canberra – as that was the part of the world I knew best. I gave her a Christian family – professional parents and three younger siblings. Then all I had to do was create some interesting and amusing situations and crises that would provide plenty of excitement and opportunities to test Olivia’s faith.

You may well ask, what does a 79-year-old man know about 13-year-old girls? Well, having brought up just one daughter, you might conclude that I didn’t know very much. But it is amazing what living in the same house as one teenage girl can teach you about teenage girls! (I can sense parents of teenage girls reading this nodding their heads in agreement!)

In addition, when I was a teenager myself, I had a sister younger than me by just two years. Our son, two years younger than his sister, provided a basis for my ideas on how siblings relate, so he was the model for Olivia’s oldest brother.

I was surprised how much I enjoyed writing the first novel. But, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, as one thing I have learnt is that when the Lord calls a person to a particular ministry, he wants to bless the person doing the ministering, as well as those being ministered to.

When I emailed my first novel to my granddaughter, she was enthusiastic – “I love it, Grandad!” With that response, I thought I should try out my novel on some of the girls in our church. They all responded positively in a questionnaire I put at the end, so that raised the question, should I try to get my novel published?

At the time, I knew little about Christian publishing, but I soon discovered there were very few Christian publishers and none was interested in my book. Then a friend suggested self-publishing, using one of the free websites where you can publish your novel in digital format as an ebook. So that is what I did. My book soon became available free to the whole world – amazing!

One of the questions I asked the girls at church was, ‘Would you like to know what happened to Olivia next?’. They all wrote ‘Yes’, so one year later I had finished a sequel. Then followed another sequel, so now I had a series of novels, published under the subtitle ‘Olivia Robertson Series’.

Meanwhile, I finally found a publisher (Adeline Press) willing to help me produce paperback versions of my novels, provided I covered the basic costs. It was at this point I learnt about ‘print-on-demand’. Till then I had imagined that one still had to print a big quantity of a paperback to make the unit cost economic. But with print-on-demand, you order small quantities as you need them. So my three novels for girls aged eight to 15 are now available as both ebooks and paperbacks.

Excitingly, the first novel, free online at amazon.com.au as an ebook has had more than 2000 downloads. Claudia’s suggestion that I should write her a ‘proper story’ has had an outcome I never anticipated. Instead of just ministering to my own granddaughter, my novels are now reaching hundreds of young girls I have never met. Hopefully, this is encouraging their faith in Jesus.

Sales of the paperback version so far have been just a few hundred. The second and third novels as ebooks are available from amazon.com.au for a small charge. They are moving slowly, but periodically Amazon offer them for free download. The titles of the three novels are: Olivia’s Teenage Challenge (for 8-12-year-olds); Olivia’s Secret Love (for 10-13-year-olds) and Olivia’s Blue Mountains Adventure (for 11-15-year-olds). All three books are available from amazon.com.au or as paperbacks from koorong.com or vision.org.au/store.

Geoff Horne is a former Director of Scripture Union (ACT) and served for eight years with Scripture Union of Tanzania. He is retired and lives with his wife Patricia in Canberra.

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