I recall the plot for my first Amish novel unfolding. Its title, Leaving Lancaster, presented itself like a banner waving in the breeze. My characters came alive in a blissful flurry. I sold my proposal, a synopsis and three chapters, to David C. Cook, a distinguished publishing house. Hurray!
Then a wave of panic swept through my chest as I realized how little I knew about the Amish. I’d read Amish fiction, but I could hear my professorial-father’s words in my ear: “Do your homework.”
Questions and doubts inundated my mind. What if I characterized the Amish incorrectly? Could I honor them, yet remain true to my Christian beliefs?
I decided to give it my best and opened my laptop for a look-see on Google. The information I found about the Amish was sketchy. What became clear was: they are private and prefer to live along side us Englishers (anyone not Amish) but not engage in our hectic world. They tolerate us, but our modern conveniences are viewed as a bad influence to their tight family units. Old Order Amish follow the teachings of the Bible vigorously, and also an unwritten set of rules called the Ortnung that varies from church district to district.
I take pleasure in writing fiction and don’t balk at doing research, because a fiction writer has to have his or her facts correct or the reader will doubt the whole premise of the book. But how could I delve into a community that didn’t want me to know about it?
I purchased books and found, to my relief, I’d stumbled upon the world’s authority on the Amish. I contacted Donald B. Kraybill, Ph.D. and his research assistant, Steve Scott (see this link), who became a mentor and friend. Both scholars generously helped me, and I went to bed reading their books every night.
But how could I understand the Amish without coming to know them? I couldn’t call or email people who didn’t use the Internet or own phones in their homes. I’d have to go to Lancaster County, PA; my husband wanted to come too. I prayed I’d meet local Amish individuals who would read my manuscript searching for mistakes and inconsistencies. My husband and I cruised up and down many a country road, with care to stay clear of the horse and buggies. We were captivated with the expansive farms and bounteous fields ploughed by draft horses or mules. Through persistence, I met gracious people who agreed to read my manuscript. I now consider them friends. With each trip, I’ve forged new relationships I treasure and strengthened ties with family members living in the area.
As I wrote and rewrote, I continued to do research on every facet of the Amish, including their unique language. I called the author of the most accurate Pennsylvania Dutch dictionary to verify the spelling and use of certain words. I’ve consulted with him several times since.
The result? Leaving Lancaster was a best seller in spring 2012! Its long awaited sequel, Pennsylvania Patchwork, released June 1, 2013. I’m working on the third book of The Legacy of Lancaster Trilogy for David C Cook. As long as I’m writing about the Amish I doubt my research will end, but the rewards are great!
Dora here. How much homework do you do for your writing?
Does your research involve visiting your settings?
The sequel to bestselling Leaving Lancaster is again set in the heart of Amish country. In Pennsylvania Patchwork, Holly Fisher tackles old grudges and secrets, struggles to make the right choice, and finds love.