I recently considered “going Amish.”
Not the way you may be thinking.
An agent I know asked me to consider writing a novel with an Amish community as the setting.
“Amish sells,” she told me.
Why? Apparently, people are living such complicated, crazy lives these days, they look to the Plain people and the simple life depicted in Amish books for escape.
“But I’m not Amish,” I said. “I’ve visited the Amish community in Holmes County, Ohio. It’s only a few hours from where I live. But my only other experience with the Amish is through a research study I read in graduate school.”
“You’re more than qualified,” she assured me. “I can sell anything Amish.”
I was not convinced. I had a few ideas for my next book, but “anything Amish” was not among them. Still, I am not one to say no without a bit of thought and research.
My mother enjoys Amish stories so I prevailed on her to loan me a few of her books to read. Suffice it to say there is Amish and there is Amish. Beverly Lewis and Wanda Brunstetter probably have the best Amish books I’ve read so far.
I read a couple of others that lacked authenticity. They seemed to have taken an existing story and force fit it into a buggy. Authenticity is important. Throwing in a smattering of Pennsylvania Dutch and a quilt here and there won’t cut it.
I decided to dig out the ethnography (eth-naw'-graf-ee) I read in graduate school titled Children in Amish Society: Socialization and Community Education. It was written by John Hostetler, a man born into an Old Order Amish family.
Good ethnographic research relies on multiple pieces of evidence to accurately portray a particular culture. I have read ethnographies describing deaf culture, the culture of teens in a parochial school setting, and the Navajo culture among others. Ethnographies are not merely stories of a culture or one person’s perception. They rely on careful observation and accurate field notes, interviewing “informants” (people within the culture being studied), collecting artifacts, conducting surveys and so forth.
I share this because I believe a good ethnography is a reliable resource for understanding a culture and a great resource for writers –one that is often overlooked by new writers.
Central to any cultural group is their language, food, religion, and music. An ethnography following an anthropological model will examine these areas as it describes the people, their values and beliefs. It will give accurate details describing the rituals and events important to shaping their cultural norms and it will describe how the geographic location supports the group’s way of life.
Finding an Ethnography
There are over 800 ethnographies listed on Goodreads alone. I am not convinced they are all rigorous in the research method used, but still believe a writer could study these to inform his or her writing. Personally, I am drawn to university libraries housing large collections of ethnographic research.
Summing It Up
To make my decision about “going Amish” I read several Amish novels. I pulled out a couple of ethnographies written to explain Amish culture. I prayed about it.