Don't Let Research Run off with Your Story
by Suzanne Woods Fisher
Research is powerful for a writer of fiction. The right amount can set your story apart, give it a realistic tone, convince your readers to have confidence in your due diligence. But too much detail can bog down your novel (just ask my editor). The goal is to provide just enough information to reveal your expertise on the subject…and stop there. Never forget you’re writing a story.
Here’s an example: As I was starting to construct the plot and theme of Anna’s Crossing, I studied the 1737 ocean crossing of the first Amish to the New World on the Charming Nancy ship. I discovered horrific, stomach turning facts. Out of 312 passengers, twenty-four died on the journey. Mostly children—four from one family. Before it reached Port Philadelphia, the Charming Nancy ship lost one out of every nine passengers.
The condition of passenger life in the lower decks of an 18th century ship was truly pitiful. It was a miracle they survived at all. A child of seven years stood only a 50 percent chance of surviving the ocean journey, while those under a year of age rarely survived. How could I possibly write a novel that included the death of twenty-four children? Frankly, I wouldn’t want to read such a story.
So next I considered the 1738 ocean crossing of the Charming Nancy ship, captained by Charles Stedman, the same ship’s officer who had led the 1737 crossing. That year brought the largest year of German immigration…and the highest ship mortality. It became known as “The Year of the Destroying Angels.” To increase their profits, greedy captains and shipping agents allowed serious overcrowding in the ships. The Charming Nancy was among the most seriously overcrowded, with at least thirty-three more passengers than the previous year. It was thought that the ship might have been contaminated with disease from the previous year’s crossing. In 1738, the Charming Nancy lost half of its passengers before reaching Port Philadelphia.
Back I went to the 1737 crossing. Instead of wiping out a large amount of passengers, I concentrated on two significant deaths—one of a sailor, one of a young Amish woman—that were carefully paced so the reader wouldn’t get overloaded with tragedy.
My end goal was to create a story that didn’t hide the dangers my characters faced, but to celebrate the determination of these courageous pioneers. There was a bigger story to write about than the perils of an 18th century ocean crossing: Why the Amish left Europe, what they were hoping to find in the New World, and what gave these brave believers the inner steel to endure the journey.
But I’ll let you decide if I delivered a satisfying, credible novel, without letting the research run off with the story.
Suzanne Woods Fisher is the bestselling author of 'The Stoney Ridge Seasons' and ‘The Lancaster County Secrets’ series, as well as nonfiction books about the Amish, including Amish Peace. She is a Christy award finalist and a Carol award winner. Her interest in the Anabaptist culture can be directly traced to her grandfather, who was raised in the Old German Baptist Brethren Church in Franklin County, Pennsylvania. Suzanne hosts the blog Amish Wisdom, and has a free downloadable app, Amish Wisdom, that delivers a daily Penn Dutch proverb to your smart phone. She lives with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can find Suzanne on-line at www.suzannewoodsfisher.com. She loves to hear from readers!