Historical Novelist Guest Post: Jolina Petersheim

I’ve had the pleasure to get to “know” Jolina Petersheim, author of the soon to be released novel THE OUTCAST, on social media, and she is a delight. She is also a gifted and passionate writer whose heart shines forth in every blog post and piece she publishes. It is because of this and because I am fascinated by a Scarlet Letter themed novel set in an Old Order Mennonite community, that I can’t wait to read her debut.

Jolina is here today to discuss her process of choosing names for her characters. She holds degrees in English and communication arts from the University of the Cumberlands. Though The Outcast is her first novel, her writing has been featured in venues as varied as radio programs, nonfiction books, and numerous online and print publications. Her website is syndicated with The Tennessean’s “On Nashville” blog roll, as well as featured on other creative writing sites. Jolina and her husband share the same unique Amish and Mennonite heritage that originated in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, but now live in the mountains of Tennessee with their young daughter.

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“I was born in an old log house. It contained eight rooms: four up and four down, with chimneys at both ends. There was a spring in the cellar which was used to cool butter, milk, and other perishables. It sat very cozily in a little valley almost all its own.”

~ Leah Miller Erb, circa 1932, recalling her early life in The David and Anna Miller Story

Thirty-four years ago, my parents discovered their family names in the same ancestral record book, The David and Anna Miller Story, making them think that they were related. They were engaged at this point, and briefly contemplated calling off the wedding until they read further in the book, which revealed that my mother’s Miller side had worked for my father’s Miller side. This was the only reason both Miller families were included in the same book.

Now, all these years later, I am using this same ancestral record to track down names that correspond with an Old Order Mennonite heritage and therefore fit within the Amish fiction genre, like my flawed heroine Rachel’s last name “Stoltzfus” in my debut novel, The Outcast. Here are a few more names that stood out on The David and Anna Miller Story’s branches of family trees: Christian Longencker, Amos Zimmerman, Jacob Brubaker, Ann Kauffman, Abraham Miller, Elizabeth Erb, Leah Nissley, Fanny Metzger.

Though based in Nashville, my literary agent, Wes Yoder, was raised Amish on a farm in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He even attended my father’s Mennonite high school. Because of this heritage, he’s been able to help me understand the correct spelling of Pennsylvania Dutch names (similar to those above) that slip past my untrained eye.

Before we submitted The Outcast to publishing houses, Wes told me that the second narrator’s name, Benedict King, would not work. The Anabaptists (Amish, Hutterites, and Mennonites) had suffered persecution from the Catholics, so the odds were that no Anabaptist mother would name her child after a pope. My husband’s ex-Amish grandfather, Amos Stoltzfus, was the inspiration for my second narrator’s deceased perspective, so it seemed fitting that I would change the name from Benedict to Amos King, to honor Amos Stoltzfus’s memory.

Wes also informed me that the last name “Kauffman” is always spelled with two “f’s” (I had only used one), and that dried apple rings were actually spelled “schnitz” and not “snits.” Once these minor changes were fixed, and Tyndale House accepted the manuscript for publication, the editor pointed out that the use of Pennsylvania Dutch (a dialect of English influenced by Pennsylvania German) slacked off once Rachel left the Copper Creek Community.

To rectify this, I found a wonderful website that provided a table of Pennsylvania Dutch nouns. I learned a lot as I replaced Englisch nouns with Pennsylania Dutch: a basin became a weschbohl; stove became kochoffe; flowers became blummen. Pennsylvania Dutch is not recorded, so it is a rather difficult language to learn and speak. Even the person who composed the researched list admitted that he was not sure every word was spelled correctly. But the copyeditors at Tyndale double-checked every noun, trying to find the right spelling by comparing each word with the German language.

Fifteen years ago, if you would have told me one day I would be learning Pennsylvania Dutch nouns and pouring over names in The David and Anna Miller Story, I would have never believed you. However, here I am: thumbing through the same pages my parents once read, culling names from my ancestral family trees, and admiring the black-and-white images of my relatives who passed away long before my own birth. Once my daughter’s older, I hope she holds our Plain heritage close, so that it will be preserved for generations to come.

“Behold the work of the old

Let your heritage not be lost

But beneath it as a memory, treasure and blessing

Gather the lost and the hidden and preserve it for thy children.”

~excerpt from The David and Anna Miller Story

“Petersheim makes an outstanding debut with this fresh and inspirational retelling of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Well-drawn characters and good, old-fashioned storytelling combine in an excellent choice for Nancy Mehl’s readers.” Starred review (Library Journal)
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8 thoughts on “Historical Novelist Guest Post: Jolina Petersheim

  1. Thank you so much for letting me visit, Erika. I’m honored to be featured on Muse!

  2. I love reading about all the tiny but so very important details that go into a book. It’s hard to keep track of them all, but so fun to dive into research and learn about one’s roots. Still, thank goodness for editors! It looks like you’re in very good hands with Tyndale, Jolina!

  3. Jolina says:

    Yes, SO thankful for good editors who can catch my mistakes, Natalia! It’s interesting how you and I both went back to our roots for our debut novels. I guess it’s true what they say: Write what you know! : )

  4. erikarobuck says:

    Natalia–I am fascinated by every step of the process, too. It is so interesting learning about the intricacy of writing a novel.

  5. I’m so fascinated by ancestral heritage and words/surnames. As you know, Jolina, I grew up next to several Amish families in PA (the Millers, also), and went to college with a Mennonite friend (Weaver), who – unbeknownst to me – was a classmate of a Mennonite gal with whom I attended basketball camp (Brubaker). So fun to read about your research.

    On a personal level, I had the great fortune to stumble across a missing part of our family tree one day when I was Googling my name. Ha. Turns out long-lost Uncle Ron, whom I found through a cousin — another Melissa Crytzer — led me to the Crytzer graveyard of the 1800s in Kittaning PA, where the last name spelling changed significantly over the years (Critsor in 1828 to Crytzer in 1881). Fun stuff!

    • Jolina says:

      That is so much fun, Melissa, to find your last name’s original spelling! History just fascinates me! And, if you want to know something crazy: my sister-in-law was a Weaver and married a Petersheim. My other sister-in-law was a Petersheim and married a Weaver. Now I’m trying to hook up my other Petersheim sister-in-law with a Miller, which was my maiden name. So we will have switched, too, (if they work out). We all have the same PA Dutch heritage, without meaning to. Keepin’ it in the family, I guess! ; )

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