By Suzanne Woods Fisher
I just returned home from a trip to Amish country. Part of the trip was a book tour to promote my new release, The Imposter. Some book signings, some speaking events, and two TV appearances. Exciting, exhausting! Part of the trip was focused on research for an upcoming series, including scheduled appointments with docents, scholars, and experts in their field. Fascinating, brain-overloading!
But the best part of the trip was the time set aside for just…wandering. Soaking up details, paying attention to the environment, meeting people, noticing nature, looking, listening, observing. That unstructured time of wandering often ends up bearing great fruit as I return home and get down to the business of writing a novel.
Here’s an example: Over the last few years, I’ve traveled to Amish country during the height of each season. The differences of the seasons, especially in and around farming areas, are profound. There are details that can’t be captured in a book-you have to be there to notice them.
In the springtime, you can see for miles. The fields are getting plowed under with fertilizer and the aroma of sour manure is rather pungent. A keep your car windows closed kind-of-pungent!
But come back a few months later, say mid-July, and you might feel claustrophobic, closed in by the towering green cornstalks. Unlike the sweet corn we find in the grocery store, this corn is a field corn, or dent corn, that will be chopped and used for fodder to feed the farm animals.
Return again in the autumn and the cornstalks are now brown and dry, rustling like crisp paper in the gentle breeze. Amish farmers work in the fields late into the night, with lanterns to guide their patient horses as they scramble to get their corn cut. “When the time is right,” one farmer told me, “we want the corn out of the field as fast as we can harvest it.” The stripped fields look almost dangerous-short stalks, about a foot tall, jut up from the land, ready to impale a foolish trespasser.
And then comes winter. In some parts of the country, the stalks left in the field are bundled into shocks. About one hundred stalks are gathered to stand upright, tied at the top like a round teepee-frame, so the stalks can continue to dry down. It’s a back-breaking, labor intensive job; the corn blades are sharp and often cut workers’ hands and arms. Throughout the winter, the dried shocks will be used as bedding or fodder for a farmer’s horses, cows and pigs. One woman told me that shocking is an old tradition, know-how that is passed from father to son. “It’s becoming rare,” she said, even amongst the Amish who can be a tiny bit slow to update.
And suddenly I had new scenes to weave into an upcoming story, including the art of corn shocking. Could I have learned about those details if I had read them in a book? Maybe, but probably not. There’s just nothing like original sourcing to bring vibrancy, credibility, and even inspiration to a story.
That time of wandering-that is a form of original sourcing for an author. The best kind of research. It’s all yours to discover.