Tuesday, March 1, 2011


Years ago, when I first started writing, (and no, I’m not going to tell you how long ago that was!) I had the opportunity to hear Phyllis Whitney speak. She was one of the first authors to hit it big with the romantic suspense genre, and I had been reading her books and admiring her work for years. I was so star-struck at actually seeing her that I probably couldn’t have told at the time what she’d said. But a story she told about how writers find success has stayed with me ever since.

I’m paraphrasing, but basically she said that making it as a writer is sort of like waiting for the right train to come along. While you’re waiting, you’re learning and reading and writing and practicing your craft in any way you can. And if you’re both diligent and lucky, eventually the right train for you will come along—you’ll find that the latest ‘hot’ thing is exactly what you want to write and what you do well, and you’ll be off on your journey.

Phyllis Whitney had written career books for young adults and ‘little’ romantic mysteries for years, never thinking of herself as anything but a working writer. Then, almost out of the blue, the romantic suspense craze hit, and she was ready to jump onto that train. A number of New York Times bestsellers later, she was still a bit bemused by how it all happened!

Taken as I was by Phyllis’s story, I certainly never expected that lesson to apply to my own writing life. I was working along, writing the series books I love for Love Inspired and Love Inspired suspense, and feeling terribly fortunate to have someone actually pay me for doing the thing I loved best in the world. I wasn’t really expecting anything else. Then, in an existing story set in my native rural Pennsylvania, I introduced a few Amish characters, wondering what my editor would say to that.

Her reaction was immediate—do more of that! The popularity of Amish fiction had just begun, and to my surprise, I found I was ready to jump on that train. I’d already built an audience for my work, and suddenly something in my own backyard, something that fit my own Pennsylvania Dutch heritage and lifestyle, was exactly what editors were looking for. Every publisher wanted an Amish author for his or her list, and there I was, ready and waiting.

No one has been able to fully explain the current popularity of Amish fiction. Why, in the midst of a wave of paranormal romances, would stories about simple families living without most of modern technology suddenly find a place?

My own feeling is that many of us are drowning in a sea of technological advances and constant input. The internet and the twenty-four hour news channels feed us a continuing diet of scary stories, and while what’s happening half-way around the world engrosses us, we don’t find the time for face-to-face interaction with the people around us. Maybe, especially in a time of economic uncertainty, we experience a longing to live for a few hours in a simpler society, where families are close to each other and people can work together without the interruptions technology brings. Maybe we can even draw strength from visiting a community in which people still have time to talk and are ready to drop everything to help a neighbor.

The ironic thing about the popularity of Amish fiction is that it has developed around a group of people who really want to be left alone to live separate from the world, as their faith teaches them. For the writer, this is a touchy business. I value my relationships with Plain People, and I try to write about them honestly and with respect. I can only hope I’m managing to do that in a way that doesn’t offend.

Like Whitney, I’m still a bit bemused, even as I’m writing a series of Amish romance trade books for Berkley and an Amish suspense series for HQN Books. Still, as she said, I was ready to jump on board when my train came along.

Someone more mathematically-minded than I am could probably create an equation from this. Maybe Preparation + Opportunity + Timing = Success!

I’m not saying that every career is meant to go in this direction, but I do believe there’s something almost magical about the results when the one subject about which you’re prepared to write, about which you can be most knowledgeable and passionate, suddenly penetrates the popular culture and creates an opportunity that couldn’t come in any other way.


Jackie S. said...

Marta, I agree with you that perhaps we desire a simpler life...thus the popularity of Amish stories! I do enjoy them!

Anonymous said...

I wish I'd had the opportunity to hear Phyllis speak. That's awesome. I grew up on her books. I did manage to post a birthday wish on her 100th birthday on her website though. I love her idea of the train. Congrats to you on jumping on your train when it came by. Many sales. :)

Sandra Dennison said...

Thanks for your post-I found it encouraging. I was also a Phillis Whitney fan. I'm still writing & waiting for the right train.

Anonymous said...

I agree. I remember when I was a teenager we would play out in the street, swim or get together to go to movies or friends. Today everyone is stuck at home playing games, texting or facebooking. I'm guilty of facebooking.