Amy Lillard’s THE QUILTING CIRCLE and Building a World

Have you ever loved someone who didn’t love you back in the same way?  Have you ever gotten what you wanted at the exact wrong time and wondered how you would cope?  Have you ever felt mistreated by someone you love and hoped they would come around before you take off?  

These are the dilemmas facing the protagonists of the three novellas in The Quilting Circle.  Each of the women is a member of the Wells Landing community of Amish folks that Amy Lillard has placed in Oklahoma.  (Ms. Lillard would be quite grateful if you’d visit her web site.  You can also purchase the book on Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, or at your local indie bookstore.)

My first experience with Ms. Lillard’s work was her novel Saving Gideon, about a fancy-pants rich girl who finds out her crummy filmmaker boyfriend is cheating on her.  Avery drives away, angry, and ends up crashing her car near an Amish man’s farm.  I think you get the drift of how things work out.

I liked The Quilting Circle for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the way Ms. Lillard build the community of Wells Landing.  The three novellas, originally sold on their own, are “More than Friendship,” “More Than a Promise,” and “More Than a Marriage.”  Ms. Lillard engages in a nice bit of worldbuilding.  Clara Rose is the star of “More Than a Friendship.”  She’s engaged to a handsome and honorable Amish man…but her best friend Obie has been acting strangely around her since the wedding was announced.  (What EVER could be the reason?  Hmm…)  Clara Rose turns up in “Promise” and “Marriage,” as many other characters.

The subject of worldbuilding has been on my mind a lot of late; I’ve written three YA novels that take place in the same school and community and I just finished the first draft of an Amish romance that begins a trilogy that requires me to depict a Plain community.  What are the advantages of setting your work in a shared universe?  A well-built world allows you to spend less time on thinking up the mundane details of your world.  What does the nearest town look like in your short story?  If you’ve built a world in your head, you don’t have to wonder.  In my YA universe, I know where the drug store, burrito place and diner are so characters can make a visit when they need to.  Where will all of the cool kids go for a blowout party?  I know whose rich parents are often out of town.  I don’t know how long it takes you to think up these tiny details, but I like that I can save my mental bandwidth for my characters and plot.

Let’s think about why people read Amish romances.  One big reason?  No stupid cell phones.  No stupid politics.  No fears about what is happening in the world.  In “More Than a Marriage,” young Tess Smiley loves her relatively new husband, but there’s a problem: he seems to love his cell phone more than he loves her.  His job gave him the cell phone for work, and now the guy won’t stop playing with his Facebook account, won’t stop texting.  He seems to have no time for her!

Here’s how Ms. Lillard handles the thorny issue of Facebook in an Amish romance novel.  One of the reasons that people like these books is that they don’t have to deal with social media for a little while.  Look at this section from early in the novella:

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Ms. Lillard can bring up these parts of society that readers are trying to escape because the characters don’t like them either and they are part of the protagonist’s burden.  It’s much easier to deal with these facets of the modern world when they are treated in the right way.  Here’s another way to think of it.  Say you’re an accountant.  You go on vacation to get away from numbers and spreadsheets.  The last thing you want to see is an Excel file.  That is, until a James Bond spy-type figure asks you for help in defeating an international spy ring.  (Feel free to come up with a better example and to leave it in the comments below.)

Perhaps most importantly, a well-built world sprouts new work and new ideas.  Ms. Lillard makes use of this principle in The Quilting Circle.  No, we don’t learn the whole backstory of everyone in the actual quilting circle, but Ms. Lillard doesn’t need to struggle to think of what next to write; there’s always another member of the group who deserves a novella in the sun, so to speak.  (The conceit is also a smart one; anyone can join the quilting circle at any point.)

The Quilting Circle presents us with three compelling protagonists who work through their internal and external struggles to find lasting love, even if it didn’t come in the form that they expected.  As a long-time aficionado of unrequited love, I loved Clara Rose and Obie’s story the most.  Ms. Lillard offers us a rich depiction of the former’s character, which is to be expected, but I thought that Obie and her husband-to-be were also drawn in an advantageous manner.

It bears mentioning that another of the great things about worldbuilding is the advantage to the reader.  Perhaps Ms. Lillard will decided to write more about the Amish of Wells Landing and I can check back in to see how Clara Rose and Obie are doing…

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