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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

engage, entertain, enlighten

My basic approach to Christian fiction - and literary fiction - is my three e's: engage, entertain, enlighten. In other words: ENGAGE - the plot should be sufficiently interesting and the characters sufficiently intriguing to make the reader care about what happens in the story and what happens to the people in the story - the reader needs to be brought to a place of personal investment and involvement; ENTERTAIN - the story should move along at a decent clip yet with a sufficient blend of romance, suspense, humor, excitement, as well as a generous dash of thoughtful moments, so that readers are not only fascinated or thrilled but satisfied in terms of their emotions, their spirits, and their minds; ENLIGHTEN - the entire story should ultimately take the reader to higher ground and cause them to re-think, re-imagine, re-interpret what they believe or how they live, even if such a process is occurring very subtly - to sum it up, heart, mind, soul, and strength should be be affected. (The third "e" is often the missing ingredient and I'm not talking here of soapbox or personal agenda or doctrinal harangue - I'm talking about a writer making every effort to afford room for the grace of God to work its way into the reader's head-space and heart-space due to issues the story raises, profound issues that cause the story to endure instead of vanishing a few days after the final page is turned.)

My approach to Amish fiction is to show the reader the depths and intricacies and beauties of the Amish faith by embodying these elements in true-to-life characters, authentic and plausible and realistic stories, and by means of contrasting the Amish with the world around them. All writers should be aiming at creating characters that live and breathe and are real as well as stories that live and breathe and are real right along with them. But in the third area, that of contrasting the Amish world with the non-Amish world, I like to take my Amish out of their comfort zones and see how their faith stacks up not only when it is challenged by events within the Amish community, but also when it is challenged by events outside the Amish community. And to do that, I often take my Amish protagonists right out of the community.

For example, in my first work of Amish fiction, half the story takes place away from Lancaster County and occurs in Montana and other states west of Pennsylvania in 1875. In this storyline, a woman who was raised Amish has to not only choose if she will return to her Amish roots but how much of that Amishness and Christianity she will live out in the rugged world of the American West. Does her Amishness show through? Does it make a difference? Is it vital and vibrant enough to truly influence the non-Amish culture around her?

In my second work of Amish fiction, a young Amish man who wants to fly is coerced into enlisting in the army and winds up in France in 1918. He is ordered to engage in combat patrols against the Germans. What can he do? What difference will his Amish beliefs make when it comes to a kill-or-be-killed situation? Can Amish Christianity truly impact friend and foe in a combat zone or is it only safe and sound and workable in an Amish community in Pennsylvania, Ohio or Indiana. About one-third of this Amish story takes place in World War I Europe trying to answer those questions in an engaging and enlightening and yes, entertaining manner.

In my third work of Amish fiction, all three main protagonists are in Rumspringa and cannot decide whether they want to take their vows and be baptized into the Amish faith or not. When one of them becomes a runaway from the Amish community the other two set out to find her, a quest that takes the three of them from one coast of America to the other. Thus, about 75% of the book takes place away from any traditional Amish community. Nevertheless, whether they have taken their vows or not, all three carry their Amish upbringing with them wherever they go. So what they believe, or are not sure they believe, about the Amish approach to the Christian faith impacts their decisions and their relationships and everything they do or say from Lancaster and Philadelphia to New Orleans and Las Vegas and Oregon and Montana. Does the Amish way have anything to say to them about life and death choices in California? Can it reinforce their trust in Christ when fear is knocking on every door of their hearts and minds in Nevada? Does it help them pray? Or does it fail them? That's the Amish story that takes place on the highways of America from the back of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle - and it's as thoroughly-going a piece of Amish fiction as a story that stays home in Ohio or Pennsylvania.

That's how I write Amish fiction. That's how I find that the true meaning of the Amish faith in Christ opens up to me - by having an Amish story unfold at home and also having it unfold far away from home. After all, if home is where the heart is, the Christian faith, and the Amish version of the Christian faith, should be able to thrive wherever in the world it finds itself at any given time.

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