Researching the Amish

- by Charlotte Hubbard

While I had written a series of faith-and-family stories before I wrote ABBY FINDS HER CALLING, taking on a whole new genre about a culture who prefers to remain removed from worldly things (such as fiction!) requires fresh research, different methods—and, most definitely, on-site, hands-on experience among Amish folks.

While, yes, the Internet provides a lot of easily accessed information, there’s no substitute for being inside an Amish home or hearing the clip-clop, clip-clop of those beautiful horses’ hooves as a buggy transports you to another place and time—even though you don’t, in reality, leave the present day!

True enough, I immersed myself in dozens of Amish novels by Beverly Lewis, Cindy Woodsmall, Marta Perry, and other authors to get a feel for these stories before I submitted my proposal for the Home at Cedar Creek series. I knew immediately that these authors had an advantage because they lived near Lancaster County and/or had family who used to be Amish, so I looked for an angle that would set my series apart.

Since Jamesport, Missouri—largest Old Amish settlement west of the Mississippi—was only a couple hours from where I lived, it served as my home base as I devised my fictional Missouri settings.  Cedar Creek, for this series, is located in northeast Missouri where there really is a Cedar Creek, but no town by that name. Willow Ridge, which is located on some idyllic, imaginary spot near the Missouri River, for the Seasons of the Heart series I write as Charlotte Hubbard. Most people don’t think of Missouri as Plain country, but more than fifty communities of Amish and Mennonites live there.

I sincerely believe God gave me a nudge in Jim Smith’s direction, when he became my private tour guide in Jamesport. Because he grew up there—spent his youth among the Amish who now own the businesses around town—those families know and trust him. He got me into homes, back rooms of stores, and answered a gazillion questions about what he was showing me as he took me around, with the warning that I was NOT to say anything about being a writer. His Amish friends protect their privacy and refuse to be exploited in print or by the press, and of course Jim didn’t want to lose their trust in him as a local tour guide who brings guests to their businesses, either.

Now, Jim’s an email away if I have questions. And because the Amish in Missouri have some different traditions than those who live in Lancaster County, say, it’s important to have a source person when questions about clothing, wedding traditions, or other day-to-day details come up in my books—or when my editor nails me on a detail by saying “is this Amish?” in the margin of the manuscript I’m revising.

Recently Jim emailed me to say that I “passed the Amish test”—meaning the Burkholders, who own a store in Jamesport, are going to stock both of my series in their book section! This pleases me even more because they are the couple whose real-life house fire inspired the scenes of the fire and rebuilding of the Ropp home in ABBY FINDS HER CALLING.

Another informative source about the Amish is The Budget, the international weekly newspaper for the Amish and Mennonites. I thoroughly enjoy reading the weekly columns that scribes from each settlement in the U.S. (as well as places like Belize, Israel and Nicaragua) send in, along with recipes, the obituaries, the ads . . . it’s like the local society page of any small town newspaper, but on a worldwide level.

And in its way, it’s similar to Facebook in that you learn who-all went to visit Essie Miller’s sick mother or who was in the vanload of folks from Bloomfield attending Mose Troyer’s funeral two states away. Little tidbits of daily life, or carriage wrecks, or accidents on the farm remind you that Plain folks live a simpler life.

And the section asking for card and/or money showers for people who have incurred large medical bills (the Amish don’t believe in carrying health insurance: they take care of their own) astounds me. I’ve heard of families who received $70,000 or more from people all over the country, some of whom they don’t even know.

My “bible” for factual information is Dr. Donald Kraybill’s book, THE RIDDLE OF AMISH CULTURE—although, because his research is based on Lancaster County, some of his information differs from what I’ve learned about Missouri Amish. His accounts of church services, weddings, how people dress, schools, and everything Amish make his book my go-to resource when I describe such events in my stories.

Do I always get it all right? Of course not. But then, it’s just as easy to mess up information about people in your own non-Amish town or even in your own family when you write novels. My mission as I write these books is to imbue my characters with enough Amish flavor to fascinate my readers, to make them wish they could visit Abby Lambright’s sewing nook the Cedar Creek Mercantile, or to ride the county roads in one of James Graber’s custom carriages behind a beautiful retired race horse.

If my stories lift spirits and make my readers wish they could get their hands on the next book in the series (ROSEMARY OPENS HER HEART, 10/12) right now, instead of having to wait, then the research I’ve tucked between the lines of these stories has been well worth my time.

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