Monday, August 1, 2011

Writing Your Research Into the Story

Happy Manuscript Monday, dear readers. Annette here. Picture this: there you are, researching away and wondering how to include those great tidbits into your story without reader feeding. Today we have Adina Senft, author of Amish fiction, to share her secret. Enjoy!

Writing Your Research into Your Story

by Adina Senft

Over the last year, I’ve been on a very steep research curve, with a move from contemporary romance and young adult novels into Amish women’s fiction. About the only thing these worlds have in common is that a woman is at the center of the story, and she has emotions that the reader identifies with. But the setting—oh my! In a culture where even the way you tie the strings of your prayer covering conveys a social statement, getting the details right has been a constant education.

Once the research details are captured, the writer faces a new dilemma: how much do you put in? You’ve spent a week tracking down exactly the fact that will spin your plot in a new direction, but how do you present it on the page without the reader going, “Uh-oh, infodump ahead”?

Here’s the secret, in three little words: Point of View.

Characters experience their world in one of two ways:

·       From the inside out, where they bring their experience (and their baggage) to bear in order to affect the world around them and from the outside in, where the world puts pressure on them to change.

For my Amish characters, their world is familiar, so describing it in detail is out of character if you’re in deep point of view. Yet the reader needs to understand the world and see it as vividly as the character does. So what the writer can do is present the world (and all that research) not by describing it, but by having the reader experience it as the character moves through it, touching, tasting, and observing.

As an example, I spent an afternoon visiting with an Amish woman, who was kind enough to let me examine the way she does her hair and how her prayer covering (Kapp, in Pennsylvania Dutch) fits on her head. I learned that the Amish woman pins her Kapp to her hair in three places with straight pins (not bobby pins, which are forbidden), and that the teenage girls rarely tie their strings. It’s a sign of submission to authority if the Kapp covers the top of the ear and the strings are tied (usually at the bottom, where they lie on the chest, as on the cover of The Wounded Heart).

But how to present even a little of this interesting cultural information? Here’s how I did it, right on page 2:

Amelia laced up her sturdy oxfords—no sneakers on this blustery day on the bare end of October—and wrapped her knitted shawl over her chest, tucking the ends into her black belt apron. She checked that her hair was tucked neatly into her Kapp by habit and that its three straight pins—one on the top and one on each side—were in order by feel. A pan of cinnamon buns and two jars of applesauce went into her carry basket, wrapped in plastic and towels.

A character is getting dressed to go out, and the weather affects what clothes she chooses. I don’t explain what a belt apron is, I don’t translate Kapp, because in deep point of view, she wouldn’t be explaining that to herself. She’s on her way to a quilting bee, and her concern is that she’s dressed warmly enough to go out and she has the food she’s bringing to share. The reader gets the picture, and also gets the impression of a community-oriented woman who knows the Amish standard for appearance so well that she hardly needs to think about it.

Research can be a lot of hard work, both out in the field and in the library. But bringing it to life on the page through your characters is the reward as you spin your world out of words and invite your reader in to share it with you.


The Wounded Heart by Adina Senft
Adina Senft grew up in a plain house church, where she was often asked by outsiders if she was Amish (the answer was no), she made her own clothes, and she perfected the art of the French braid. She holds an M.F.A. in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University in Pennsylvania, where she teaches as adjunct faculty. 

Writing as Shelley Bates, she was the winner of RWA’s RITA Award for Best Inspirational Novel in 2005, a finalist for that award in 2006, and, writing as Shelley Adina, was a Christy Award finalist in 2009. Three of her books have shortlisted for the American Christian Fiction Writers’ Carol Award for book of the year. Of her fiction, publisher and industry blogger W. Terry Whalin has said, “Readers will be lost in the vivid world that [she] paints with incredible detail and masterful storytelling.” 

A transplanted Canadian, Adina returns there annually to have her accent calibrated. Between books, she enjoys traveling with her husband, playing the piano and Celtic harp, and spoiling her flock of rescued chickens. These days, she makes period costumes and only puts up her hair for historical events and fun. Learn more at her website.