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Friday, March 20, 2015

Don’t Let Research Run off with Your Story ~ Suzanne Woods Fisher

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.


Comment before 11:59 p.m. on March 31st for a chance to win a free copy of Anna's Crossing. We will randomly choose on April 1st. (Open to United States residents only) Make sure you leave contact information so we can get in touch with you.    


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 She loves to hear from readers!  


  1. Great article, Suzanne! Research is one of my favorite parts of writing. My debut novel involved a voyage in the 17th century and when I received the edits back, my editor included a note - "I don't know how to say this, but, umm, do you think someone could die on this journey?" :o) Yes, people did die of course, but I'd had a hard time including that in my romance! So I added an account of two young women who became ill with hallucinations and died (buried at sea). Years later young girls who were afflicted were thought to be witches. The interesting thing that turned up in my research was that today we would know it was most likely because they'd eaten some spoiled rye! Back then it was very mysterious! Love your books, Suzanne, and would love to win a copy of Anna's Crossing!

  2. What a fantastic post, Suzanne! ; ) My heart belongs to historical fiction - mostly because of the research. My home library is more than half non-fiction/history books. That's how much I adore that part of writing! But I received some very good advice from a well-known editor at a conference a few years back. She said, "You've got to walk the line with fact vs. story." Sometimes adhering to strict fact can overpower your story. You want to be accurate to the time and place of your story - of course. But there are times when facts are just facts. If they don't carry the story forward, they need to go.

    Thanks for sharing your heart in this post!

  3. Easy to do--let research run off with your story. It sometimes hard to know what to give way. Enjoyed the article, the book sounds interesting!!

  4. I totally agree about not wanting to use all the research in a book. While it is nice to know that it is historically accurate, the reader doesn't want to get bogged down with every little detail.

    I would love to read Anna's Crossing! It sounds great!

  5. I love to research, and use accurate descriptions to the story I'm writing. I've even been known as a research junkie. Your article made so much sense By keeping the details to a minimum and as just a back part of the story makes perfect sense. Thanks for a valuable piece of information!

  6. Ha Ha. April Fool! I forgot to pick a winner on the 1st. However, Rachel, I'm sending your email addy to the publicist. Expect her to contact you soon. If you don't hear from her give me a poke kelly(dot)klepfer(at)gmail(dot)com.


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