Buggies and barn scenes: Alberta writer explains allure of Amish romance novels

There aren't any ripped bodices, but sometimes a bonnet is pushed askew.

'Amish romance fulfills a desire for … something simpler'

Edmonton-area author Patricia Johns says she began writing Amish romance novels because of the genre's popularity, but has found writing love scenes in buggies or barns to be fun. (David Bajer/CBC)

There aren't any ripped bodices, but sometimes a bonnet is pushed askew.

And when it does, it often happens in the barn.

The rules and tropes of Amish romance novels are well-known to both the genre's readers and writers, according to Edmonton-area author Patricia Johns.

Johns, a romance novelist with 27 books to her name and more set to publish later this year, recently found her way into the niche, pivoting from tales of cowboys and lawmen to love stories featuring the Amish, a conservative Christian group, known for living simply and eschewing modern conveniences of the wider world.

Johns said part of the allure of the books to non-Amish readers is they offer a window into a close-knit and collaborative community. (David Bajer/CBC)

Johns says the novels generally don't stray from the strictures of that conservative lifestyle, but argues that doesn't mean there isn't romantic tension. She likens it to writing historical fiction, exploring ways the characters can connect within the confines of societal expectations.

"A smaller thing can mean so much more because they aren't allowed to just touch each other. They aren't allowed to just fall into each other's arms. There certainly isn't any premarital sex," she said.

When the hero pulls the heroine toward himself and they — if boundaries are being pushed a bit — kiss, it's riveting, said Johns, adding that her own books would qualify as a "spicier read" by Amish standards.

"There are ways to write a story where your heart still really pounds for that kiss because there are so many things that aren't allowed for them. Amish can be very exciting still," she said. 

'Almost a fantasy'

The popularity of the genre was part of what drew Johns to give it a try, but she said she's come to really enjoy working on the stories, and in addition to doing extensive research on Amish culture, she's been aided by her personal experience.

Johns isn't Amish, but her father's side of the family is Mennonite, a distinct, but in many ways similar, group that also practises the tradition of Anabaptism.

She said she thinks part of the allure of these books to non-Amish readers is a window into a community that is more close-knit and collaborative.

"It's almost a fantasy where we're allowed to need something, and we're allowed to accept help. And I think that's something that's pretty poignant for our society right now," she said.

'A world of order'

That appeal may become more widespread as readers search for comfort amidst a global pandemic that has forced people apart, said Anna Marie Sewell, writer in residence at MacEwan University. 

"Any kind of things that extol the virtues of being in one place are going to be big, at least for the next little while because we are being forced to rethink mobility," she said.

Sewell, a longtime reader of romance fiction, said tropes and trends come and go in the genre, but that she thinks tales of moral uprightness set against agrarian backdrops might be something a growing number of readers reach for.

"Amish romance fulfils a desire for … something simpler, something less graphic, less explicit, less fast moving. Let's talk about sanity; let's talk about a world of order when ours seems to be more chaotic," Sewell said. 

Johns turned to writing Amish romance novels after starting out writing love stories featuring cowboys and lawmen. (David Bajer/CBC)

Though Johns is just beginning her dive into writing Amish romance, the genre is hardly new. Her friend, Kelsie Petersen, has been an avid reader of Amish novels for 15 years. 

"It's definitely my go-to," said Petersen, who lives in northern Alberta.

Petersen said she got into the genre through reading Christian fiction, and said that as someone who grew up in a strict, conservative environment, she can relate to the characters in the novels who often struggle with having to choose between following their hearts or their community's rules. 

"It highlights that no matter who you are, or the lifestyle you lead, the feelings and thoughts and emotions you experience are all kind of the same," she said.