While writing When the Heart Cries, I took a midnight Amtrak ride with my youngest son. We traveled for eighteen hours, going from my home state of Georgia to Pennsylvania, where we stayed for a few days with an Old Order Amish family. My aim was for the trip to enhance the scene I wrote at the end of that book, in which Hannah boards a train heading for Alliance, Ohio.
When the time came to write the next book in the series,When the Morning Comes, I expected my earlier traveling experience to be sufficient research for when Hannah stepped off that train. But when I tried writing the opening, it didn’t sound or feel the way I wanted it to. I’d write five chapters and delete five chapters, over and over again. I longed to feel and hear the events as Hannah would. It soon became clear that I needed to see and feel what she would when she stepped off that train.
I try to experience life as my characters would whenever possible. While writing When the Heart Cries, I spent time in a neonatal intensive care unit to get a feel for the frailty of a preemie. I went to Hershey Medical Center and spent time on the same floors my characters did when they were injured. I washed dishes by kerosene lamp, drove a horse and buggy, and used a wringer washer to do laundry alongside my Amish friends. Those experiences helped me to write scenes that would hopefully come alive in the minds and hearts of my readers.
But as I struggled to write the opening of When the Morning Come, it dawned on me that although I’d experienced riding the rails, I needed to see the Alliance, Ohio, depot in person. So I made plans to board the Amtrak in Gainesville, Georgia, and change trains as needed until I landed in Alliance. I checked online to see how long the ride was and discovered that the train would arrive in Alliance around two in the morning. I could deal with that.
But as I attempted to finalize my itinerary, I kept hitting dead ends. I called Amtrak several times and spoke with different people as I tried to locate a cab company or bus line so I could get to a motel after arriving. No one was able to help me locate the needed information. I couldn’t chance landing in Ohio at two in the morning without a solid plan.
I told my husband something was amiss and we needed to drive there. Being the agreeable man I married thirty years ago, he took my word for it and made arrangements to take time off from work.
A few weeks later we pulled into the Alliance train depot. The night sky swirled with snow, but the thin white blanket couldn’t hide the eeriness of the rundown, abandoned building. A white-and-blue sign near the tracks indicated a pay phone. I climbed out of the car. Snow and gravel crunched under my feet as I walked toward the phone sign. The wind whipped through my coat as if it wasn’t there.
I reached the sign, but did not find a phone.
As I stood at that bleak, abandoned depot, Hannah’s life unfolded before my eyes.
By the end of our week’s stay in Alliance, I knew more than how a traumatized teenage Amish girl managed to survive away from her home, family, and community. I also knew who she became and why.
I found Hannah.
While I conducted my on-site research, Hannah’s world became clearer each day. I went to the hotel she stayed in during her second night in Alliance. The place truly is as I described it in the book, and I wasn’t brave enough to spend a night there.
Before my husband and I returned to Georgia, we drove from Alliance to “Owl’s Perch.” Owl’s Perch is the fictitious name of a real place in Perry County, Pennsylvania. I knew Hannah would drive there from Ohio several times in book three, When the Soul Mends, and I needed to take the route myself—with its toll roads, service plazas, and mountain tunnels. Although the roads themselves are not described in much detail in the third novel, Hannah’s feelings while she’s on those roads are an important part of who she is.
In When the Soul Mends, Hannah finds herself traveling from one world to another. Like most people, I find more than one world affecting my life. Whenever I spend time in the homes of Amish families, I can hear echoes from my own childhood, when the conflicting messages of acceptance and prejudice worked to separate my Amish-Mennonite friend and me.
These messages have been explored in the Sisters of the Quilt series, as readers journey with the Amish, Mennonite, and Englischer characters who are dealing with their hopes, desires, and faith as well as hidden prejudices and fears. Some of those characters find that God’s redeeming love is the one thread that has the strength to unite regardless of all else.
Whatever world Hannah found herself in throughout these three books, she had moments of understanding aspects of God, and those moments gave her strength and hope. In book one she discovered the concept of nevertheless—that if everything ends with God, then those who are in Him have a good ending eventually. In book two she realized that He is more powerful than any injustice in her life—past or future. And when she forgives herself or others, she’s trusting that nothing bad is more powerful than God’s ability to overcome it. In book three her journey leads her to realize that love is never perfect—not in her, nor in others—but love doesn’t have to be perfect when forgiveness is there to pick up the pieces.
Throughout this series, all three worlds—Amish, Mennonite, and Englischer—form the woman Hannah is becoming. It is my hope that you’ll take the last part of this journey with me, and that you’ll be encouraged by the One who has forgiveness and wisdom for each of us, no matter what world we’ve entered.