Secrets About Research

Secrets About Research, guest post by Shelley Shepard Gray

Since first getting published back in 2000, I’ve written a lot of books. I recently completed my 60th contracted novel, which was a milestone that still amazes me. When I first started writing I never imagined I’d sell one book.

Though I’ve written for several genres, most people usually ask me about my Amish novels and how those come together. I have to admit that writing an Amish novel that is relatable, is different from other books in the genre, and true and respectful to the Amish faith and culture can sometimes be a bit tricky. But perhaps that is why I enjoy writing these novels so much-they have helped me grow as a writer.

I’m currently writing my ninth series for Avon Inspire. This series is my longest-it’s six books. It’s also the first that will be published over two years. However, the process for HER SECRET, the first book in the series, began much the same as the eight series before. The first thing I did was research Amish communities and okay it with my editors. Most of my novels take place in Ohio. This is the easiest for me to research since I live near an Amish community and have quite a few Amish friends up in Holmes County. After I choose the setting for the novels, I also work with the editorial team on the series’ central theme. For this year’s series, we elected to set the novels Hart County, Kentucky and have them be fairly suspenseful.  

After those big decisions are settled, I visit the area. I chat with the Amish in the community, take lots of pictures of the scenery and houses, and plot out the book. Each Amish community can be very different from others. For example, in Sugarcreek, few Amish farm anymore there. So the Amish need to have jobs. Some of the men might be allowed to have cell phones for their work. That makes it handy as a writer, because my characters can communicate quickly and easily! However, in other communities, the church community’s rules might be more restrictive and the books need to reflect that. For example, in Pinecraft, FL, most Amish ride bicycles but in a few church districts in Lancaster County, PA no one is allowed to have a bike. It’s important to know details like that.

After all that is settled, I get my synopsis okayed by my editor and I write a sparse first draft. I realized quickly that if I tried to include too many details and descriptions about the Amish, the story dragged. I usually try to focus on a theme and a plot that could happen to anyone-but my characters just happen to be Amish. After I write a short first draft, I start adding details and descriptions.

Secrets About Research, guest post by Shelley Shepard Gray
Usually, I simply use my notes from my research trip. However, sometimes, I have to go to The Budget, which is the Amish and Mennonite newspaper. The Budget features reports from every Amish community in the world. I’ve also been known to either write a letter to my Amish friend asking for help with something, or even calling her. Most Amish don’t have phones in their house, but they do have a phone shanty. That’s a building that looks a lot like an outhouse but houses a phone that is shared by several families. My friend can listen to my message and then call me back. I used to really worry that I was bothering her, but I think she enjoys ‘being on deadline’ too!

Since I usually turn in a book every three months, around this time, I write a second draft, then hand it over to a beta reader who checks for timeline issues, word repetition, and about a dozen other things.

Whenever I get my first set of author copies, I always send a copy to my Amish friend who is so helpful. Years ago I asked her how I could improve my books. I was waiting for her to tell me what I was ‘missing’ in my Amish heroines’ characters. However, she told me some important advice that I’ve always taken to heart, and that is to always remember that the Amish are just like everyone else. My job is to make sure I write the best book that I can featuring characters who could be anyone’s next door neighbor. They need to be that relatable. That was a fairly tall order, but I’ve tried my best to do just that.

At the end of the day, it isn’t the extensive research or the attention to detail that makes a reader want to finish a book. It’s the story. That’s something I think writers and readers of any genre can agree on. Focus on the story first and everything else, with God’s help, will follow. 

Shelley Shepard Gray is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, a finalist for the American Christian Fiction Writers prestigious Carol Award, and a two-time HOLT Medallion winner. She lives in southern Ohio, where she writes full-time, bakes too much, and can often be found walking her dachshunds on her town’s bike trail.

Catch Up With Ms. Gray On: Website 🔗Goodreads 🔗Twitter 🔗, & Facebook 🔗!


  1. 60 books!! I have been missing out! I have seen great reviews on this book so I plan on starting with this one.


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