Thursday, October 17, 2013

Two Days in Amish Country, a guest blog by Linda Castillo

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Take the following words and put them in a sentence: Amish. Small-town drama. Police procedural. Edgy love affair. Woman in charge. Hard to do, right? It's all the more impressive that New York Times bestseller Linda Castillo has written five novels blending those disparate elements into seamless, edge-of-your-seat thrillers featuring former Amish chief of police Kate Burkholder, her complicated lover John Tomasetti, and the crimes of Amish and "English" alike in the remote rural setting of Painters Mills, Ohio.

One of the pleasures of reading Linda's work is the absolute authenticity she brings to her description of life in and around an Amish farming community. Today, she tells us how she earned that authenticity.

My love affair with Ohio’s Amish Country began about ten years ago on a cold January afternoon. There was four inches of snow on the ground and the mercury hovered around the twenty degree mark. I was travelling with my sister, Debbie, and my brother in law, Jack. We arrived in Fredericktown in northeastern Ohio and drove directly to the farm where Jack grew up. “The Farm,” as it is affectionately known, consists of a two hundred-year-old house on a hundred acres of farmland. We toured the charming old house, which was originally built without indoor plumbing or electricity, and over coffee, we talked about the history of the place. Eventually conversation turned to the Amish and the barn-raising next door, the Amish teenagers that got into trouble for drinking alcohol, racing their buggies through town (and something about buying or selling cigarettes) all during their “rumspringa” or “running around” period, which takes place before they are baptized. I learned the Amish are good businessmen, excellent farmers and generally make for some very good neighbors.

Later, we went outside to see the rest of the farm. I was marveling at the quiet loveliness of the snowy countryside when in the distance I discerned the unmistakable sound of shod hooves on asphalt. I looked down the road to see an Amish buggy approaching. The driver was clad in traditional Amish garb: black coat, black trousers, flat-brimmed hat and a full beard. Watching him, I felt as if I’d been transported a hundred years back in time, and in that moment the full impact of the contrasts between the Amish and “English” way of life struck me. I realized this much-overlooked and fascinating place had a story to tell, and I wanted to tell it.

When I arrived home in Texas, I began researching and writing the first book in my Kate Burkholder thriller series, SWORN TO SILENCE.

In the Spring of 2009, I travelled to Ohio again for the pre-launch tour of the book. After a whirlwind trip that took me from Cleveland to Columbus to Cincinnati to Dayton I had two glorious days left so I headed to Holmes County—the heart of Amish Country and home to the largest population of Amish in the world.

I arrived in Millersburg at dusk and went directly to the bed and breakfast where I was staying. The old house was built in circa 1885 and had been lovingly remodeled with much attention to detail. The proprietor told me much of the renovation had been done by the Amish.

The next morning, I woke to gourmet coffee and the best French toast I’d ever tasted. After chatting with the owner (and petting his very cute dachshund!) I was off on my adventure. The first thing I noticed about Amish Country was the beauty of the place—tall trees, manicured farms and green, lush fields. The roads are narrow, hilly and wind like a river through a picturesque countryside. Most of the Amish farms are set back from the road and are neat and well-kept. Many post signs at the end of their lane, advertising cheese, eggs or crafts for sale.

I spent an hour or so familiarizing myself with Millersburg. The small downtown area is chock full of antique shops, quaint buildings, well-kept homes and several cafes. I stopped a man walking his dog for directions and found him to be helpful and friendly. He recommended a renowned local cheese shop. Knowing I couldn’t return to Texas without sampling some of the local fare, I was on my way.

Heini’s Cheese Chalet has been in business since 1935 and sells over seventy varieties of cheese. One of the things that differentiates their cheese from other cheeses is that the milk comes from local Amish farms. It’s brought in daily in old-fashioned milk cans and manufactured on site by a master cheese maker. I sampled the baby Swiss and the goat milk cheese and found both to be absolutely marvelous.

Next, I swung by the local Wal-Mart for some bottled water. I was delighted to find covered parking for the Amish buggies and horses. Inside, I discovered many Amish families shop at Wal-Mart.

Back in my rental car, I headed out of town to explore the rural countryside. U.S. 62 is a narrow and winding two-lane highway. A few miles out of town, I came upon an Amish man and woman traveling in a buggy. Naturally, I slowed down and followed at a safe distance. I could plainly see that the Amish man was pushing the horse to trot faster, as if knowing the “English” drivers behind him would become impatient. To my dismay, he was right. The driver in the little red car behind me gunned the engine, making a rude gesture as he sped past us. I was appalled and embarrassed by the man’s behavior, and I realized the cultural differences between the Amish and the English can sometimes cause conflict.

While there, I took a few photographs of the countryside, of old farmhouses and other places of interest. I had wanted photos of the Amish as well, but I couldn’t bring myself to photograph them. In the course of my research, I had discovered many don’t like having their photos taken. Various reasons are given for this aversion. Some believe any kind of portrait demonstrates vanity or a lack of humility. Others feel that personal likenesses violate the Second Commandment regarding “graven images.” Whatever the case, I felt as if snapping a photo would be an invasion of their privacy, and so I didn’t.

On my way to the airport in Dayton, I drove past an Amish man and his large family traveling in a buggy. The highway was busy with a speed limit of 55 miles per hour. I watched as the cars lined up behind the buggy, passing only when the oncoming flow of traffic allowed. It seemed dangerous. As I passed, I glanced over at the man, and I saw the stress in his face. I wondered how often he had to travel this busy highway. I wondered if he ever felt as if he were in danger. I smiled and waved as I slowly drove past. The man and his two little boys returned my smile and waved back. That exchange, however small, felt very genuine and right.

The Amish way of life has remained virtually unchanged for two hundred years. About eighty percent of Amish children choose to join the church when they turn eighteen. They choose the Amish ways over all of the things the “English” way of life has to offer. That fact alone speaks volumes about the enduring spirit of the Amish. I believe the culture will continue on for another two hundred years, unchanged and, for the most part, unaffected by the rest of the world.

What do you think, dear readers? Could you embrace the Amish lifestyle? Or do you prefer to get your exposure through marathoning Amish Mafia on the Discover Channel? And what do you think of Linda's unique take on the police procedural? Do you like her genre-blending? Let us know, and one lucky commenter will get a copy of the most recent Kate Burkholder mystery, HER LAST BREATH!

 Linda Castillo's Kate Burkholder series has been called "absolutely stunning" "chilling" and "masterful." You can find out more about Linda and her books, including the most recent, HER LAST BREATH, at her website. You can friend Linda on Facebook and follow her on Twitter as @LindaCastillo11.


  1. Thanks for an intriguing glimpse into Amish Country. In this day and age, it would seem as though the cultural differences between Amish and “English” shouldn’t have to cause conflict. We should all be better at that whole “getting along with each other” thing. I’m looking forward to reading “Her Last Breath” . . . .

  2. Linda, the way you blend genres seems natural, and the different cultures' living together yet not together, almost interwoven but not—and not blended, attracts me me to read your books.

    I like your informed interest. It seems that you observe with careful and considerate noninterference.

    Thank you, Julia for this introduction.

  3. Hello, Linda! I love your books and Kate (and Tomasetti.) I must admit I didn't think the tv movie did justice to your characters and your story but your books are fabulous.

    I've been to Lancaster County, PA, a number of times. Most of it is way too touristy for me. It must be very difficult for young Amish to learn about and avoid the temptations of the English way of life. I wonder if more leave now after their Rumspringer than in the past.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. I always look forward to your next book.

  4. Welcome, Kate! And congratulations on your mad success... and fascinating how your experiences seem to have colored your own life! Do you look at the world through different eyes now?

  5. So happy to see Linda here are JRW.

    Like Marianne, I often find myself in and around the Lancaster, PA area and I always delight in the Amish "vibe."

    Once we saw some Amish children out playing with a frisbee, but they were in their complete Amish garb (black dresses on the girls, trousers on the boys) and I wondered what that must be like. Din't see the best clothing for a day playing outside.

    I admire them, but know there is no way I could live that lifestyle. I love to get the glimpses in via novels though.

    I actually enjoyed the Lifetime movie. No where near the depth of the books, of course, but in terms of adaptations, far from the worst I have seen. I wouldn't mind them making some more.

    Thanks for the post Linda.

  6. Hi Joan--I totally agree w you re cultural differences. It seems like there's always someone out there who can't behave themselves and that's unfortunate. Generally, I think conflict is minimum. Thanks and hope you enjoy Her Last Breath!

  7. Thanks Reine. One of the things I try very hard to do is to depict the Amish culture correctly--both positives and negatives--and be respectful. Such an interesting culture. And the research is always so much fun. :-)

  8. Great post Marianne. I must admit I enjoyed AN AMISH MURDER (but I could be biased!) :-) I'll be making my first trip to Lancaster County at the end of the month. Looking forward to it. Last I heard about 80% of Amish youths end up joining the church after rumspringa. With all the "English" temptations out there, that seems like a pretty high percentage. But I think that number speaks to the the importance of family in the culture.

  9. Great question, Hank. (and thanks to all of the Jungle Reds for having me here today!) I spend so much time researching and reading about the Amish and have made many trips to Ohio's Amish Country. I don't really see the world through different eyes, but I have a much deeper understanding of the Amish and and I'm ever aware of how THEY perceive the world around them.

  10. There's no way I'd choose the Amish way of life;
    I think the intrusiveness of the community would kill me.

    But I found HER LAST BREATH fascinating.
    It felt so real that I thought you'd grown up Amish.

  11. Linda, the richness of your setting always amazes me, plus your suspense keeps me on edge. What a great balance you maintain!

    This may sound like a silly question, but when you write/channel Kate, do you work with Method acting techniques?

  12. Edited to add the trailer for AN AMISH MURDER, which you can see streaming online at!

    Shizuka, I agree with you. When I first read SWORN TO SILENCE,I thought perhaps Linda had Amish in her background.

  13. I have great admiration for the Amish way of life but am too materialistic to change at 72! Your books are on my wish list after watching An Amish Murder on Lifetime.
    As to the Amish Mafia - I've seen a few bits and pieces and it makes me cringe.


  14. Absolutely LOVE this series! Linda, you are an amazing writer! I, too, thought you were raised Amish. Well done!

  15. We spent some time near Lancaster PA one year, enjoying the Amish culture. You could always tell when a farm was Amish as there were no electric wires running from the road. We saw plowing with teams of eight mules. everything so neat and clean and peaceful.

    Could I do it? Women are supposed to be silent and subservient to men, and wear drab clothing... so the answer to that is Hell NO!

  16. Hi Linda! Isn't it interesting how we are sometimes drawn to completely different cultures--and don't you sometimes wonder why?

    Love your books--will have to check out the Lifetime movie.

    My first thought on whether or not I would want to be Amish was "Are they allowed to read?"

    I guess that nails my priorities...

  17. Linda, I love your books,and I'm eager to read the latest. I'll save it for quiet weekend in which I can hole up with my coziest blanket and hot chocolate so I can savor the story.

    I hadn't heard of the Amish until the movie Witness with Harrison Ford. (When was that -- mid-80s?) I was fascinated, but also perplexed. Why would people live so old-fashioned-like, and especially, why would women choose to live like that?

    I do wish I could go back to a quieter time in my life -- things are too hectic and stressful, most of the time -- and I can appreciate why people might choose the Amish way. I'm way less ignorant about the Amish since reading your novels, and I like that.

    I wonder ... How often do Englishers convert? And if, somehow, an Amish and Englisher fell in love, and the Englisher converted, would the Englisher be accepted? Or would the Amish partner be exiled?

    I imagine it would be tough transition for an Englisher. Talk about culture shock!

  18. Hi Linda! I happened to see that Lifetime movie and enjoyed it. We lived in Summit County Ohio for 18 years and used to run down to Holmes County fairly often. There was a nice winery in Sugar Creek we'd buy from. And the cheese place in Millersburg. Yum. That is a beautiful part of Ohio. My view of the Amish darkened a bit after hearing of a puppy mill some ran somewhere in PA. Also we auctioned off our rural acreage when we moved to Minnesota. Some of the folks interested were Amish. I'm glad they didn't win because they would have cut all the trees down to sell. Our place was about 500 acres and had beautiful first growth trees in some areas. Oh well. I used to get a kick out of the Mennonite families who would go to Sea World and then on to McDonald's for dinner as a treat. For the most part the Amish are an admirable group. We've dealt with them in NE Ohio also, and SW Minnesota. By dealt, I mean we have purchased goods from them at markets. I know I couldn't live the life though. Women aren't really equal partners with their husbands in their culture.

  19. Hey Kristopher-glad you enjoyed the movie. Wanted to let you know…I talked to the producer a few weeks back. She’s looking to make more, but didn't know if or when it would come to fruition. Fingers crossed.

  20. Shizuka—Totally agree re the intrusiveness. There have been times when I’ve felt badly for the Amish when I’m there bec they’re trying to go about their daily lives and (some) tourists are snapping photos and ogling

  21. Thanks so much for your sweet comment, Rhonda. Okay so I had to look up “method acting” and I would have to say I do employ some of those techniques when I’m writing. I’m betting there are plenty of writers out there who do the same. Interesting!

  22. Julia--thanks so much for adding the trailer!

  23. Ditto your thoughts on the Amish Mafia, Karen B. Glad you enjoyed the movie and hope you enjoy the series as well.

  24. Awwww....thanks for your sweet note, Lana!

  25. Interesting observation re the electrical lines, Rhys. Another thing I noticed when I'm in Holmes County is that the Amish areas are VERY dark at night. And yeah..totally with you on that resounding Hell No!

  26. Hey Deb--wanted to let you know. The first time I toured in Holmes County, an Amish man was part of the reading group associated w the library where I did an event. I was a little worried about meeting him bec if you've read the books you know there's a certain level or language and violence. Well....he loved the book (Sworn to Silence) I thought that was quite interesting.

  27. Thanks, Lisa. Really great questions. The Amish culture and lifestyle boils down to their religion. I’m generalizing, but they believe modern conveniences are worldly and sinful. They believe in obedience to God. And they also believe in separation (for the most part) from the rest of the world. I don’t personally know of anyone who, as an adult, has converted. But I bet they would be welcomed. The Amish church is a redemptive place. That said, the Amish are human and I’ve heard they like their gossip and that can be hurtful to anyone who is different. I do know an Amish man who was adopted by the Amish at the age of fourteen. He’s still Amish and has completely embraced the plain life.

  28. Hi Pat--Glad you enjoyed the movie (so did I!) Unfortunately I’ve heard of the puppy mills, too. Makes me sad--I have no respect for anyone who would do that. That said…I believe it’s a small percentage of Amish. I talk to a lot of people in Holmes County and I’ve spent time at two Amish farms summer before last and have not seen it. While I do admire the Amish and I think they would generally make good neighbors, they’re not perfect (like the rest of us.) Thanks for such a thought provoking post!

  29. I am so looking forward to reading your book, Linda. My only personal experience with the Amish was in Lancaster, PA, during the summer, while in the area for a work conference. One thing I noticed besides the lack of electric lines and the night-time darkness was the incredible number of fireflies over their lands. While most of us no longer even see fireflies, there was an unexpected abundance there, which made for an almost magical appearance. Gail in Seguin

  30. ANd here I am again, late to the party. But I has to say, that I absolutely love your books, Linda. And I've read everyone. I grew up outside Lancaster County, PA. In Reading, PA, and I am familiar with the Amish, so while your books take place in a different state, I always mentally place them into my native area. Love love love them and looking forward to the more on the homefront with Kate and Tomasetti. Ive already read "Her Last Breath" and found it chilling...

  31. I loved the Kate Burkholder series and have all five on my Kindle.. Will there be another?