Sunday, August 29, 2010


I'm currently writing KATIE'S WAY, the fifth book in my Pleasant Valley Amish series, and in this story Katie Miller, the protagonist, runs a quilt shop in the village of Pleasant Valley. One of the most delightful aspects of writing this book is that it gives me a wonderful excuse to visit Amish quilt shops!

Quilting isn't restricted to the Amish and Mennonites, of course. It's popular around the world, probably beginning as a way to make good use of the small scraps of material left over from other projects. Although quilters now often buy the materials they use, planning the color effects as carefully as any other artist, there's something very special about those old quilts made from scraps. We have a lovely Double Wedding Ring quilt that was made by my mother-in-law's aunt in the early 1900s, and when I look at it, I can easily imagine which pieces came from a little girl's pinafore, which from a man's work shirt. It's the story of a family, told with love in stitches and scraps of fabric.

I don't think that anyone would argue about the quality of quilts made by Amish and Mennonite women. The quilts are functional, befitting a community which values making things for use, not just 'for pretty.' But they are also often works of art, with each bit of color, each element of the design, each stitch even, an expression of a woman's gift.

The Amish tend to use traditional designs, although some newer patterns have worked their way into their repertoire, especially in quilts that are made to sell. The Log Cabin, the Double Wedding Ring, the various Star patterns are used over and over again in endless combinations. The quilt on my bed, handmade by an Amish woman from Lancaster County, is a lovely combination of Log Cabin and Star, done in shades of blue and yellow with touches of white. The older Amish quilts, which were made for use by the maker, were typically made with scraps from clothing fabric, always plain, and in the deep, rich, saturated colors used for clothing. Background and binding were typically done in black.

If you're interested in Amish quilts, you definitely want to plan a visit to the People's Place Quilt Museum in Intercourse, Pennsylvania. Their displays change from time to time, but they are always enthralling. On my most recent visit I was captivated by a Tumbling Blocks pattern so designed that it almost made me dizzy to look at because of the effect of movement it gave. The People's Place Quilt Museum is on the second floor of the Old Country Store, which sells a huge variety of quilted items handmade by local residents, mostly Amish and Mennonite women. It also has what has to be one of the best collections of quilting fabrics I've ever seen. I can never go in there without buying something!

And if you're near New Holland in Lancaster County, you must visit the Witmer Quilt Shop. Emma Witmer runs the shop she inherited from her mother out of her home. The day I visited with her, Emma had over 150 quilts in the three first floor rooms of her house. She has a number of women who do the actual quilting, but Emma herself picks out every color and every fabric that goes into the quilts. Emma's shop is open every day except, as is the case with all Plain-run businesses, on Sunday.

I'm not finished yet. I have several Amish quilt shops yet to visit, and I hope I can resist the temptation to buy more than I can afford while I do this research!

Saturday, August 21, 2010


We definitely have more than four seasons here in the Pennsylvania countryside--like Mud Season, for instance, which comes early in the Spring. But this time of year it's definitely Canning Season!

My husband has a bumper crop of Roma tomatoes in the garden, so I'm into making and canning spaghetti sauce right now. Over the years, we've worked out a system which keeps most of the mess out of the kitchen: he picks the Romas, washes them outside with the hose, and processes them with the Squeezo clamped to the wooden picnic table in the backyard. In case you're not acquainted with this great device, it's a hand-operated grinder that separates the pulp and juice from the skins and seeds. The characters in my book ANNA'S RETURN make sauce this way in one scene which comes straight from life!

Here's my recipe for homemade spaghetti sauce:

Starting with about 14 quarts of tomato pulp, begin cooking it down in a large kettle. Add 1 cup of sugar, 1/4 cup of salt, 4 cloves of minced garlic, and a large onion, chopped fine. For seasoning, I prefer to use the fresh basil and oregano that's growing in pots on our patio, but you can also use dried. If using dried, add about 4 tablespoons of the herbs. If using fresh, chop a generous handful of the leaves. Add a pinch of red pepper.

Cook this down for about 4-5 hours. You should end up with about 10 quarts of sauce. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Fill hot jars and process in either a water bath or pressure canner. If you prefer the sauce thicker, you can always add a small can of tomato paste when you use each quart.

We generally use about twenty quarts of spaghetti sauce in a year, along with tomato juice and whole tomatoes. With just the two of us at home, we don't eat nearly the amount we once did! Still, I think it's well worth the effort. Fresh from the garden food has a taste nothing else can match, and I love to look in the cabinet, see all the rows of filled jars, and know we're prepared for the winter!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Amish Reading

No, not reading about the Amish, or even writing about the Amish, but what are the Amish themselves reading? Do a quick internet search on the subject and you'll find a lot of opinions, ranging from the rudely uninformed who can't imagine that Amish people read to those more thoughtful articles which express valid concern over the number of books currently being published about a group which prefers its privacy and isolation. Do the Amish find it offensive that so many books are on the shelves about their way of life?

As the author of a number of novels which feature Amish characters, I can't help but be concerned about how my books are viewed by the Amish themselves. So to find out, I went looking. I first visited a small bookstore which is run by Amish owners and has primarily an Amish and Mennonite clientele. The morning I was there I was the only English person in the store. I loved seeing the huge array of books for children and teens, including all the Little House books as well as some more contemporary authors. As I browsed the shelves I noticed the books which seemed to draw the most female adult customers. That was the section devoted to Christian romance! It included a number of Amish romances along with works by other Christian authors like Karen Kingsbury, who seemed to have quite a following. One Amish woman held several novels featuring covers with bonnet-clad heroines, and she worked her way through the shelves, seeming to check for those she hadn't read yet. Clearly she didn't have a bias against Amish romances!

I wish I could say that my books were there, but alas, they weren't. However, I did find them in a nearby Amish-owned gift shop which had spinner racks of books. All three of my Pleasant Valley books were featured, so I introduced myself to the owner and asked if I might put bookmarks in the books. He was happy to have me do that, saying the books sold very well.

I've also spoken with several librarians who confirmed the Amish interest in Amish-themed romances. One pointed out that she always knows when harvest season is winding down, because her Amish members begin coming back to the library. Many Amish are great readers, she says, perhaps because they're not sitting in front of the television every evening. Come to think of it, I'd probably get through more books if I gave that up, too!

A final bit of confirmation came from a close friend who grew up Plain. She sent three of my books to relatives who live in a Hutterite community, and I waited with some trepidation to hear what they thought. Fortunately the verdict was positive--they enjoyed the books and felt that I had portrayed the Amish characters honestly and with respect.

So maybe that's the key--to write the best books I can, showing the Amish as the real people they are. That's all any writer can do, after all.