Facebook Fans Asked Cindy Woodsmall
Do you have family ties with the Amish community that has inspired your writing?
--Donna Butler Simmons
While growing up in Maryland, I had a best friend who was an Amish-Mennonite. The moment I stepped inside her house, I could sense that there were a lot of differences between her home and mine. My friend, like all the females in her family, wore the prayer Kapp and caped dresses. Her parents didn’t allow television or radios, and many other modern conveniences were frowned upon. We only attended school together for a couple of years before her parents withdrew her from public school and began a school of their own for all the Amish-Mennonites in the area. Even though we didn’t see each other at school, we continued our friendship by spending the night in each other’s homes, sneaking off to meet halfway between our two places, or meeting at her aunt’s home, as she was my closest neighbor inside that dairy-farming community.
My earliest childhood memories are of spending hours at a time developing stories. And I had a vivid imagination. So when this girl and I became friends, my imagination started filtering the differences and devising stories. That time in my life planted the first seeds of writing about the “Plain” life.
As an adult, my first connection was with a woman who’d worked at an Amish birthing center for twenty years. She wasn’t Amish, but she knew a lot of Amish women, and she took my questions and parts of my manuscript to an Amish friend of hers. I wasn’t a published author at the time, nor did I have a book contract. I just had a story I was working on. It was based on my personal experience with my Amish-Mennonite friend while growing up, years of research, and, of course, my imagination.
After a year of asking questions through a third party, I received an invitation from the Amish woman to come to her place and talk with her face-to-face. I took my youngest child with me and we boarded a train in Georgia. I traveled by Amtrak, because my character would travel that way at one point in the three-book series, and I used that time for more research. Once I arrived, the Amish woman and I found that we had a lot in common. By the end of that trip, I’d interviewed several men and women, and gone to many Amish homes, farms, and cottage industries. The Amish woman told me to call her at her phone shanty if I had any more questions.
That was a lot of years ago.
Today she and other Amish friends help me brainstorm my stories before I begin writing them. These same friends also read my manuscripts before they go to print, and we discuss the slightest details about living Old Order Amish until I’ve depicted their lifestyle accurately. I’m careful not to share anything she feels should remain private, but what is covered in the novels is very authentic.
How do you pick the names of the places in your books?
It’s a fun process! I create the main setting of the story in a fictional town next to a real town that I’ve visited. Because my ties to the Amish community are real, I keep the story’s town fictional so no one can think I’m writing about actual people in an actual place.
I begin my search of the perfect town name by studying the history of that region. When the background of a nearby town strikes a chord, I begin to play with the real names of other places nearby. I can spend days researching different names online to see what feels right for that story.
Sometimes I call my Amish friends and ask if a certain place or area has a nickname among the Amish. It often does, and I may incorporate some version of that. In other words, if I’m told the Amish nickname is Blue Pond, but the pond isn’t even there anymore, I might come up with the name Dry Lake. While I was in Pennsylvania visiting the real setting for my first series, Sisters of the Quilt, it reminded me of Owl’s Hollow, a little place in Alabama where I used to visit while in high school because a friend of mine lived there. So I named my fictional town Owl’s Perch.
What made you want to be a writer?
--Cherie Shuman Otis
I blame my mom. Seriously, one of my earliest childhood memories is of my mother reading to me before bedtime. After she left the room, I reworked every story she’d read to me. If Cinderella had been the ugly one, how would that change the outcome? If the stepsisters had been the nice ones, how would that have affected the story? I hated when I became too sleepy to continue working on those ideas and imagining the new story lines. That was the beginning of my love of thinking about plotlines and characterization.
When I missed school due to illness (which happened way too much), I had to stay in bed (no television!), but Mom brought me easy-to-read rhyming books, which made that time special. Over the summer, she’d get books from the library and promised that if I read the books, we’d go to those settings … and we did! (Of course, she picked out books with locations that were within easy driving distance or along the way from Maryland to Alabama, where we visited my grandparents.)
But while in high school, I had an experience that turned me off to writing. Our English teacher gave the class a creative writing assignment, and my mother helped me brainstorm it. She was my first reader, and we spent days talking about it. Working on it with her was a lot of fun, but I had no idea the teacher was going to turn the assignments in to a countywide writing contest. All I wanted was a good grade on the assignment, and I received it. But the teacher never returned my story. Months later the students were called to the gymnasium for assembly, and awards were given out for various things. When my name was called, my heart about stopped. And when I went up on stage, I was given a three-foot trophy. After the assembly was over, I stuffed the trophy into my locker, turned to a friend, and said, “I’ll never write again!” And I meant it. I was mortified! When it was time to go home that day, I hid the trophy under a sweater and put all thoughts of writing behind me.
The lesson I eventually learned from that experience is that we as teachers and parents are often doomed. Even when we try to encourage our children, the experience can undermine them. I just couldn’t deal with the spotlight or feeling I’d done something that special.
But I never did free my heart of the desire to create stories, and I slowly worked through most of my reservations. My mother died unexpectedly in 1998, and her death was the catalyst that made me need to put the stories inside me down on paper. In 1999, with my three children still living at home, I sat down to write. It was therapeutic after losing my mom, and I thought that if I wrote out some of the stories swimming around in my heart, they’d leave me alone. Instead, one story—Hannah’s story from Sisters of the Quilt—seemed to demand that I focus on telling her story in such a way that readers could see her life unfold in their minds and hearts.
I attended my first writing conference in 2002. That was a life-changing event for me. Although still reticent and unsure, I poured my heart into writing, and by 2005, I found a publisher who believed in Hannah’s story and in me as a writer.
I loved Plain Wisdom: An Invitation into an Amish Home and The Hearts of Two Women. I’ve read it several times. Do you still visit Miriam Flaud?
I’ll share your encouraging words with Miriam. She’ll be thrilled to hear them! We communicate often through letters, packages, and phone calls, but we haven’t seen each other in over a year. It’s a situation we are both hoping to remedy soon!
On our last visit, I pulled out of her driveway, tears choking me because we hadn’t had enough time together. As she stood under that perfectly clear sky, wiping her eyes, a rainbow appeared in the distance behind her (apparently it was raining somewhere). When I think back on that parting, I trust that one day we’ll get to visit until our hearts are content.
What is your favorite place to feature on your next book?
That’s an interesting question. I guess my favorite place should be whichever one helps sell the most books, but in reality the most interesting place is my website blog and Facebook. The response from my reader friends is so encouraging!
What's next, Cindy? Love your books…
Great question, and thank you!
Because the answer to that question is always evolving and changing, I’d like to take this opportunity to invite readers to sign up for my FREE newsletter. It will hit your inbox four times a year and has answers to all the “what’s next?” questions. http://www.cindywoodsmall.com/plain-talk/newsletter/
Right now I have two new projects. The first one came as a surprise to me while I was writing book three in Amish Vines and Orchards. Later it became a surprise to my publisher.
The surprise is, I’m writing a book four in that series! I’ve not done that before or even imagined it. For Every Season will bring closure to those who’ve been aching to find out where Rhoda, Samuel, and Jacob will find themselves, and the reader will know which wonderful brother Rhoda chooses. But as I neared the end of this third book in the series, I faced a dilemma—to write an extra five to seven thousand words rushing the reader through what happens to all the characters in the future through added chapters and an epilogue, or to ask my publisher to allow us all to go on one more journey with Rhoda, Samuel, Jacob, Leah, Iva, Phoebe, and Steven.
I decided to turn my manuscript in to my editor and not say anything about a fourth book. But I wasn’t surprised when she called me and said, “You know what I think readers would enjoy the most? For you to restructure Leah’s journey and give her time to mature … for you to show the healing in the life of the brother who doesn’t face the future with Rhoda by his side … for you to write a fourth book.” She asked how I felt about that, and I, of course, told her I’d be delighted.
So, for readers who love family sagas, and these characters in particular, I will have a book four in the series: Seasons of Tomorrow. I don’t have a release date or a cover yet, but I’m finishing up this story as a labor of love and am grateful for the opportunity.
The other surprise is that I’ll soon be writing my first stand-alone novel. If you’ve read my novella The Dawn of Christmas, you may remember Andy Fisher. He’s the older brother of the main character, Levi, and Andy is raising his son alone because his wife left him years ago. Only rarely would the Amish allow divorce, and if the circumstances are such that divorce is allowed, remarriage is never permitted. So Andy’s life has hung in limbo for a lot of years. I fell in love with Andy’s story a long time ago, and I can’t wait to write it! The working title of the book is The Day Before Tomorrow. Does his wife return? Can she redeem herself? Or will she find a way to free him from living Amish just as she freed herself?