A handful of my massive reference book collection

Have you ever had something happen and thought, No one would believe this? Maybe truth really is stranger than fiction.

I was pondering this question while out in the yard. Well, I was recalling the fact that a family member had accidentally dropped two air-conditioning units out a second-story window. Different occasions and different sides of the house, but same result. If I wrote about those incidents in the book, would readers believe me?

We authors come up with some zany scenarios we let go because they’re unbelievable. “But it’s fiction, isn’t it?” you might say. Actually, in fiction, authors must often strive to seem more believable than in true life. And get their facts right.

I heard recently of mistaken identities in conjunction with the horrendous bombing attack at the Boston Marathon and learned that a book with a similar storyline regarding mistaken identity was written several years ago. And how about all the unlikely coincidences that actually happen in our lives, like the couple I know from high school re-meeting and finally getting married? A fine editor once told me of my manuscript, which he liked, there were too many coincidences. “But that really happened,” I said. He told me it didn’t matter; readers would not accept too many happenstances even if they occurred in real life. And I think he’s correct.

In many ways a fiction author needs to be as accurate as a nonfiction writer. When I read a book and a fact is blatantly incorrect, the book’s general premise flattens like a punctured tire. At least, I don’t take it and its characters seriously. Sometimes I do enjoy a fluff piece; the author writes an unlikely fairytale, the threads seamlessly weave together, and it’s OK because I’m not heavily invested. And I wouldn’t expect exactness in a science fiction or futurist type of book either. But I particularly enjoy reading a fiction novel where I learn something new about people in general or a place and time, and I trust the author has done his or her homework.

An insider’s look into an Old Order Amish quilt shop

Why do I ponder these notions, other than my mind is constantly juggling thoughts? Because I’m writing about the Amish, a group that although it comes under scrutiny, is not well understood. One element that makes the Amish so intriguing is that giant unknown. Readers would like to step into their private and secluded world—not an easy feat. Even when I contact or call an Amish friend (some manage to have phones) I realize that even if we’ve grown close, we live in different worlds—although my Amish friends and acquaintances are forthright and helpful. When I’ve asked Amish and Mennonites to read my manuscripts, they’ve lovingly attempted to catch my foibles. I certainly appreciate their taking the time to help me. I’m also grateful to many experts who have kindly assisted me, I think because they comprehend my intense desire to portray the Amish correctly. Their generosity has been tremendous.

On the other end of the spectrum, the media and reality TV shows have had a feeding frenzy with the Amish recently, as seen on the TV show Amish Mafia, a total fabrication, and the amount of news coverage given to the beard cutting incidents. Maybe there are authors who’ve jumped on that bandwagon and distorted the truth about the Amish. But I believe the majority of my fellow novelists go to great lengths to capture the culture and create believable characters.

If you’re interested in doing a little sleuthing of your own, I highly recommend anything by esteemed Professor Donald B Kraybill, whose Riddle of the Amish is beautifully written (I always appreciate good writing!), and his former research assistant and author Stephen Scott, whom I dearly miss. Another excellent resource is Erik Wesner’s Amishamerica.com.