Fifteen Things You Should Know Before You Try to Write Mormon Missionary Fiction

  1. You are not the first person to write a Mormon missionary story. In fact, there’s a good chance that your Mormon missionary story has already been written.
  2. You stand a better chance of writing a good Mormon missionary story if you take the time to read Mormon missionary fiction written by other writers first.
  3. Mormon missionary stories can explore more than just the tensions between doubt and belief and individuality and conformity. Also, stories involving the pairing of an obedient with a disobedient missionary already have two strikes against them.
  4. It is okay for the missionaries in your story to be naïve; however, it is not okay for you, the writer, to be naïve about them and their experiences.
  5. Your story about the Mormon missionary who has sex is neither edgy nor original. It has been told many, many times before.
  6. Stories about Sister Missionaries are often more interesting and original than stories about Elders.
  7. I have never read a story about a senior missionary couple or a disabled missionary, but I want to.
  8. Mormon missionary stories do not need to be about white American young men. They do not need to involve Americans. Nor do they need to involve humans.
  9. Sometimes the best Mormon missionary stories focus on the characters who are not missionaries.
  10. Foreign and urban mission fields do not need to be danger zones.
  11. Your story about a misunderstood Mormon missionary intellectual has already been written.
  12. The best Mormon missionary stories maintain a global perspective without losing their intimate sense of place.
  13. The Great Mormon Missionary Novel is yet to be written.
  14. Mormon missionary fiction succeeds only when it becomes more interesting than real-life mission stories.
  15. Mormon missionary work has changed a lot in the past year. New Mormon missionary fiction should reflect this change.
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34 Responses to Fifteen Things You Should Know Before You Try to Write Mormon Missionary Fiction

  1. Wm says:

    16. Be careful not to exoticize the locals. The missionaries you are writing about may do so (and you may have done so if you served a mission), but you should not.

    17. Some of the best missionary fiction is about just before and somewhat after missionaries enter and leave their field of service.

    18. There are missionaries now serving in India. And Armenia. And Mongolia.

  2. Jonathan Langford says:

    19. In order to work, a Mormon missionary story must be about one particular individual missionary, and/or a set of particular individual missionaries, with their own specific characteristics — not about missionaries as a group/class/set.

  3. Jonathan Langford says:

    20. That funny incident isn’t as funny as you think it is.

  4. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    You could pretty much exchange “Mormon missionary” for “Mormon Bishop” and be equally right. Mormon Bishop (and Relief Society President) stories make me cringe.

  5. Emily Milner says:

    I want a bibliography to accompany this post. What should someone who wants to write an original missionary story be reading?

    • Scott Hales says:

      The best missionary story I’ve read recently is William Morris’ “Conference,” which is in issue 14.1 of Irreantum. I haven’t had the chance yet to read “The Revelation of Douglas Chandler” yet, which is in the most recent issue of Irreantum.

      Nephi Anderson’s Romance of a Missionary, along with The Castle Builder, A Daughter of the North, and The Story of Chester Arthur are classics of the genre–or at least are classics that contain missionary elements. They are worth reading to get a sense of the tradition.

      Some missionary novels I’ve enjoyed are Douglas Thayer’s The Tree House and S. P. Bailey’s Millstone City, although I have some issues even with these.

      Paul Rawlins’ “The Garden” and Laura McCune-Poplin’s “Salvation” in Dispensation are also good.

      I think reading lousy missionary stories can also be beneficial, so you can see what doesn’t work. Bradford Tice’s “Missionaries” is probably the epitome of lousy missionary stories I’ve read–but I’m sure there are worse ones out there. I was also not a fan of On the Road to Heaven and Elders.

      Yesterday morning I bought Angel of the Danube off amazon. I’ll let you know what I think.

      C. Douglas Birkhead’s “Baptisms for the Dead” is doctrinally suspect, but at least it’s creative and good fun (if you go for that sort of thing).

      Basically, read what you’ve got and look for more. Then try to make the genre your own.

      • Wm says:

        Thanks, Scott.

        To add on:

        Angel of the Danube is a must-read. The other must-read, actually the absolute must-read of all missionary stories, is Nothing very important and other stories by Bela Petsco.

        Other examples that Scott hasn’t mentioned above, include:

        The MTC and Into the Field by Benson Parkinson.
        Falling Toward Heaven by John Bennion.

        And then I think there are a couple more stories that ran in Irreantum that I can’t pull directly from memory.

        Two more in the vein of On the Road to Heaven (although less directly/overtly autobiographical than it) are Anneke Majors’s The Year of the Boar and Eugene Woodbury’s Tokyo South.

        On Popcorn Popping, we ran three stories that are about recent RMs:

        Return, which I wrote
        Returned by S.P. Bailey
        What Are You Waiting For? by Anneke Majors

        • Scott Hales says:

          I’ve got Falling Toward Heaven on my bookshelf, but it remains unread. I should get around to it soon…

          And I should get around to reading these others as well. I know Irreantum ran a review of “The Year of the Boar a few issues back and it sounded interesting.

        • Andrew H. says:

          Nothing very important and other stories had a strange pull on me as a Freshman at the BYU Bookstore, before I was particularly interested in reading Mormon lit. I read several stories over several months standing in the aisles. But did not buy it until a couple of years later.

          Falling Towards Heaven was a good novel, John Bennion should publish more fiction.

          • scott bronson says:

            I saw John Bennion at the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers (WIFYR) conference last week. When I realized that he wasn’t there as a faculty member, I asked him why he was at the conference. His response was immediate: “So I can learn how to write for someone besides depressed Mormon liberals.”

            So, I believe his intention is to publish more fiction someday. Soon as he figures out how to write it.

        • scott bronson says:

          To add one more: Honorable Release by David Gagan.

          I’ve read it twice and enjoyed it both times, but can’t find it on my LDS lit shelf now. Apparently I’ve loaned it out — awhile ago — and I can’t remember to whom.

          • Th. says:

            .

            Do you have a link or something for this book? I can’t find it. Even BYU doesn’t seem to have a copy.

          • Katya says:

            Theric – Try searching under “Gagon” with an “o.”

          • Scott Hales says:

            “It depicts a world of danger and intrigue, dark rituals, poverty, despair, and violence: a world where western values crumble upon contact with the jungle.”

            This also causes me some worry: Missionary novels–at least those set abroad–that try to affirm and privilege “western values” by casting the “third world” as inherently dangerous and threatening.

      • Wm says:

        I have some additional thoughts, but included several links so the comment is currently any moderation. Would someone be able to fish it out? Thanks!

        • Scott Hales says:

          Done!

          For some reason, I’m not longer receiving email notifications for new comments or moderation requests.

    • Jessie says:

      I like Angel of the Danube and The Tree House the most. Douglas Thayer also has a short story called “Elder Thatcher” that’s quite interestingly constructed; I particularly like the last line. I also think that Dean Hughes does some good work describing missionaries in his two historical series “Children of the Promise” and “Hearts of the Children”, especially what happens when a son serves in the same mission his father did, with the weight of his family expectations on him. I’ve read Falling Toward Heaven twice, and I think it is interesting in the way that the mission experience is only really a small part of the plot, but still informs the rest of the novel.

  6. Emily Milner says:

    Thanks, Scott.

  7. Jonathan Langford says:

    And, of course, one of the classics of Mormon drama, Fires of the Mind by Robert Elliott, is a missionary story. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s high on my list — in Mahonri’s new anthology!

    I had a more positive reaction to On the Road to Heaven, although I agree that The Tree House is better as an example of missionary fiction — even if the missionary experience it depicts is now more than 60 years out of date.

    I remember year ago reading a collection of (possibly linked?) short stories titled Elders and Sisters, by Gladys Clark Farmer. They weren’t badly written, but I remember thinking that they were a bit superficial in their depictions of missionary life and/or missionaries as individuals.

    It’s a surprisingly common phenomenon, in the missionary fiction I’ve read, to put characteristics related to the missionary-ness of the missionaries in the foreground, while downplaying individual character and personality elements not related to the mission. I prefer works, like The Tree House, that make the central character(s) individuals first, and then look at the missionary experience through the lens of personality. It’s been a while since I’ve read them, but it’s my recollection that Johnny Townsend’s missionary stories are also like this (at least, those I’ve read), often complicated by the main character’s internal struggles with homosexuality.

    We really need a comprehensive bibliography of Mormon missionary literature…

    • Scott Hales says:

      It seems that a lot of people have read On the Road to Heaven and that I am in the minority as one who didn’t like it.

      My question is: What am I missing about that novel? Why do people like it so much? I find it to be one of Zarahemla’s weaker titles–despite the fact that it has on its cover some of its best blurbs.

      • Wm says:

        I agree that the second part in the mission field is weaker, but I really liked the first part.

      • Jonathan Langford says:

        For me, part of it is generational and cultural, in Newell’s viewing of Mormonism as not simply an answer to the hippie movement of the 60s but as its natural, if unexpected, destination: an answer not only to the kids in western Oregon whose culture I envied even as I deplored their values, but also to the stodgy Mormons who couldn’t see anything of value in kids in long hair and tie-dye. And part of it is the stylistic juxtapositions, though admittedly at times those struck me as slightly contrived rather than fully natural.

        Certainly the mission isn’t the main point of the narrative, nor its strongest part. Yet it completes the action of the first (conversion) part of the story. In that sense, it works for me, though it’s not nearly as memorable.

        • Scott Hales says:

          I personally felt as if the missionary section undercut the hippie section. He goes from being a peace-loving hippy to a Mormon missionary who is smug about his apparent talents and dismissive of those he teaches, their lifestyles, and culture. And then he ends up beating up a kid who calls him out with anti-American comments. For me, Kit’s conversion has a retrograde effect on him. It’s like he trades his admirable hippy principles for a Mormonism that makes him a less-likable, less-Christlike human being.

          The mission section ruined the book for me.

  8. Andrew H. says:

    Scott Hales asked on Twitter, “Are there any Mormon missionary novels that take place in the United States? That is, other than the novelization of “God’s Army”?” My answer is too long for Twitter, so I’ll put it here.

    Anderson, Paris. Waiting for the Flash. Scottin, 1988. Interesting “journal-as-novel” about a missionary dealing with mental illness. He also wrote “You: A Missionary Story.” Sunstone, Sept. 1987.

    Blackhurst, Deanne. Turning Hearts. Covenant, 2010. Sister serving in California. I haven’t read it. Said to be similar to the film “Errand of Angels”.

    Laws, Gordon. My People. BYU Family Studies Center, 2001. “Novels of the next great films” series. Distributed by Excel. Missionaries (one a Norwegian skinhead) in Los Angeles and a Mexican-American gang member. Somewhat similar to States of Grace, which came out a few years later.

    Petsco, Bela. Nothing Very Important and Other Stories. Meserveydale, 1979. Orion, 1984. 1980 AML award. Connected missionary short stories set in California (one of the missionaries is Hungarian). Fantastic.

  9. Jonathan Langford says:

    Update: Kjerste Christensen is currently recruiting entries for a Mormon missionary literature bibliography over at A Motley Vision: http://www.motleyvision.org/2013/mormon-missionary-literature/

    I invite everyone to take a peek, look at what she’s included, and add any titles you may be aware of.

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