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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Write What You Know?


Mindy Starns Clark is the bestselling author of the inspirational Million Dollar Mysteries and the Smart Chick Mysteries, as well as the nonfiction how-to book, The House That Cleans Itself. Her novels include A Penny for Your Thoughts, Don't Take Any Wooden Nickels, A Dime a Dozen, A Quarter for a Kiss, The Buck Stops Here, The Trouble with Tulip, Blind Dates Can Be Murder, and Elementary, My Dear Watkins. Her first standalone mystery, Whispers of the Bayou, released in January 2008.

The old adage "write what you know" has always bugged me. How much do most of us really "know"? In the past eight years, I have written about murder, the NSA, cryptology, espionage, money laundering, art theft, Napoleonic history, the INS, explosives, poisons, and much more. Given that I'm neither incarcerated nor under an FBI watch, you can safely assume that I'm not living a dangerous double life.

Instead, like most writers, I depend on diligent research—not to mention a good bit of imagination—to write about topics far outside my own realm of experience. Despite a lack of firsthand knowledge, curiosity and a relentless search for answers can result in realistic and compelling storytelling. Write what you know, yes, but also what you want to know and are willing to learn.

Several years ago, I decided that I wanted to know more about the Amish. I live not far from Lancaster County, yet these quiet neighbors of mine were an enigma to me. I wanted an excuse to delve deeper, to learn more about their religion and lifestyle, to find out if they were a cult, as some claimed, or an earnest group of Christians. I also wondered why I always saw so many physically handicapped Amish people, far more than statistics would bear. Finally, after the Amish school shooting tragedy, I wanted to understand how they were able to forgive such an atrocity so fully, so quickly.

Thus, when I pitched a series of standalone gothic mysteries to my publisher, each with its own exotic locale, I included as one of those locales "Amish country." My editors loved the concept of gothic mysteries in varied locations and sent me to work first on Whispers of the Bayou, which focused on Cajuns and was set in Louisiana, and then on Shadows of Lancaster County, which focused on the Amish and was set in Pennsylvania.

As it turned out, getting an insider's view of the Amish life was among the most difficult research I have ever done, much harder than learning to build a pipe bomb or poison someone with an indigenous plant. There were plenty of books about the Amish from which I would pull my facts, but what I most wanted was to talk to Amish people, heart to heart, and hear straight from them what their lives were really like.

In the past, I have done some fairly nervy things for the sake of research, such as crawling into a hidden sapphire mine or floating down an alligator-infested bayou. It has all been worth it, as the best research is done by actually getting out into something and seeing it, smelling it, feeling it.

That's how I work, but in this case there was something about the Amish that kept me at arm's length. I chatted with many a kapped maiden who seemed friendly and receptive, but as soon my questions moved from idle chatter to book research, they politely found ways to end our conversations and move along.

I couldn't really blame them; the Amish of Lancaster county often feel like animals in a zoo, observed, photographed, studied ad nauseam. From what I have read, not only do they not like all of this attention, they are completely baffled by it. They don't get what it is that we Fancy folk find so fascinating about their simple lifestyle. I'm not sure I do either, I just knew that if I was going to write a good and accurate book, not to mention depict a lead character who was genuinely Amish, I needed to get inside an Amish person's head.

To that end, I began taking tours of Amish farms, going on buggy rides, and seeking out many of the Amish "experiences" that are for sale in Lancaster County—all in the hopes of understanding the Amish experience, of rubbing elbows with real live Amish folks who might be willing to talk. Everywhere I went, though I met many Amish people who were warm and friendly, they were also clearly uncomfortable with my persistence.

When I finally asked a self-acclaimed "Amish expert" and tour guide if he had any idea how I could arrange a sit-down meeting with an Amish person who was willing to answer some questions, he held out an open palm, winked, and told me that anything could be had for a price.
Startled, I changed the subject and soon left.

Driving away, the shock of that moment continued to pound in my ears. Everyone knows that an entire industry has been built up around the Amish, an industry that often borders on exploitation. Paying this man to set up an interview felt wrong somehow, especially given that the money would surely stay with him and not trickle down to whatever Amish person he roped into meeting with me. Here I had been seeking an inroad into the Amish mind, when all along I should have understood that what most Amish people wanted was simply to be left alone!

Confused, I began to question my project. A part of me wanted to scrap the whole thing, but then I thought of those original questions that had first sparked my interest: my confusion over the high number of Amish handicapped, my curiosity at their salvation and their ability to forgive so easily. From my reading, I had already learned some startling facts about Amish DNA, genetic research, and a physical peculiarity that plagued them known as the "Founder Effect".

I decided to form my plot around those original questions—as an outsider looking in. I'd also make my main character a regular person just like me, one who'd had interactions with the Amish community but had never been Amish herself. Instead of using unethical means to get an insider's view, I would depend on more standard, second-hand methods of research (such as books and documentaries) and use my outsider status to my advantage.

As it turned out, the changes I made led to a stronger plot, one that respectfully addresses the Amish faith, their genetics, and their forgiveness. Through the eyes of my non-Amish heroine, I feel like I was able to avoid exploiting anyone while still creating a heart-pounding story of cutting-edge genetics, Amish forgiveness, and a young woman grappling with a tragedy in her Lancaster County past.

Considering the struggle I went through with research, I don't know that I'll ever write another Amish book. But I'm glad I wrote this one, if for no other reason than I got my questions answered; I learned what I wanted to know.

After that experience, I also created a new, extended version of my adage: Write what you know, and write what you want to know and are willing to learn. But if your pursuit of knowledge leads you to places you don't want to go, then don't. Instead, rethink your plot and make changes accordingly. In the end, not only will your story will be better for it, but you'll likely sleep better, too.

What Shadows Darken the Quiet Valleys of Amish Country? Anna Bailey thought she left the tragedies of the past behind when she took on a new identity and moved from Pennsylvania to California. But now that her brother has vanished and his wife is crying out for help, Anna knows she has no choice but to come out of hiding, go home, and find him. Back in Lancaster County, Anna follows the high-tech trail her brother left behind, a trail that leads from the simple world of Amish farming to the cutting edge of DNA research and gene therapy.

During the course of her pursuit, Anna soon realizes that she has something others want, something worth killing for. In a world where nothing is as it seems, Anna seeks to protect herself, find her brother, and keep a rein on her heart despite the sudden reappearance of Reed Thornton, the only man she has ever loved.

11 comments:

Terri L. Gillespie said...

Mindy, what a great article! Thanks for sharing your struggles and resolutions--even when the answers weren't easy.

Can't wait to read Shadows of Lancaster County.

Anyone who hasn't read Mindy is missing out on powerful themes, impeccible writing and can't-put-the-book-down stories.

Gina Holmes said...

Great piece, Mindy. Loved your behind the scenes research process.

Lori Benton said...

Great post, and Shadows of Lancaster County has intrigued me. It's the DNA aspect. Feels fresh and original--to me at least!

Avily Jerome said...

Wow, what a great article!!! Thanks so much! I, too, have been enormously frustrated by the "write what you know" idea. I know poopy diapers. :) But if I add to that the part about "what you're willing to learn," a whole new realm of possibilities opens up.
Thanks so much!!!
And your story sounds very intriguing- thanks for sharing the synopsis!

KINDRED HEART WRITERS said...

I learned from thie article, too, and thank you for sharing this behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to write a compelling and original story. I look forward to reading the novel. Cheers*

Johnnie

Marci said...

Great article, Mindy - and a good reminder to do our homework no matter where it might lead. :)Marcia

Carrie Turansky said...

HI Mindy, This was such an interesting post. Thanks for telling us the rest of the story. I am looking forward to reading your new book!
Blessings,
Carrie

pat jeanne said...

Hi Mindy. As I read your interview I was reminded of your talk to our writers' group on the topic of how to conduct research. I'm in the midst of my own and refer to those notes. Thank you, Ane and Mindy.

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Lynda Schab said...

Well, after reading about all the trouble you went through this time around, your article didn't do much to change my absolute loathing of research. LoL. Yes, sigh...I know research is necessary to create a great story. I DO it, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. It's obvious that's why I can't get enough of your books - you actually spend loads of time on research to make your stories authentic and totally believable. Thanks for the peek into your latest experience. Can't wait to read this one!