Introducing.... Kathleen Ernst

It's my pleasure to introduce you to Kathleen Ernst.  Not only is she a Wisconsinite (my home state) but she's also a quilter, a social historian, an educator and a truly fine writer.  Kathleen and I met through Women Writing the West where she is a past president  and a finalist for a WILLA Literary Award.  We have many things in common (except for that quilter thing!) and met in Madison, Wisconsin during the Wisconsin Quilt Show two years ago. (I'm a UW alum). She's written for adults and young adults and now she's written two books in what I hope will be many titles in the Chloe Ellefson Mystery series.  If you receive my Story Sparks newsletter, you'll read my review which is a good one.  I read these two titles while I was hospitalized for ulcers and they kept my mind off the pain so you know they have to be good.

The series is set in Old World Wisconsin, a historical site that I absolutely love visiting whenever I get the chance in Wisconsin.  Entire farmsteads of different ethnic groups have been preserved and are tended by interpreters dressed in traditional dress answering questions as Norwegian farmers, Swiss cheese makers, German gardeners, etc, etc.  It's like stepping back in time.   Wisconsin had the largest number of immigrant groups flow into the region in 1848, just a year before it became a state.  A great site  if you love history...or even if you don't, you'll find great intrigue in the mysteries set within that old world and deftly handled by a truly fine wordsmith.

1.  You've  created a new series with truly interesting characters.  I love Chloe Ellefson and really enjoyed watching her change from the first book Old World Murder to the second book recently released.  Did you start with the character and put her in the Old World Wisconsin museum or did you start with a mystery?
I actually started with the setting.  I started working at OWW in 1982 and stayed for twelve years,  and after being gone for a while I missed both the place and the wonderful people I worked with.  Once I’d decided to set a book there, I decided to make my protagonist a curator because I could write about that role with ease.

When I think about a new book, I consider both outer and inner plotlines.  The outer is the mystery itself.  The inner has to do with some personal issue the protagonist is struggling with.   My goal is that in the process of solving each mystery, Chloe learns a little something new, which helps her grow and change from book to book.  In Old World Murder, she was recovering from a serious bout with depression.  In The Heirloom Murders  she’s confronted with new challenges in her social life.

2.  While you were the curator of collections at Old World Wisconsin, did you ever encounter a real mystery such as the ones you've place before Chloe to solve?
Crimes do happen in the museum world.  Some people care about historic artifacts only in terms of market value.  Fortunately, I never had to personally confront a crime—or a criminal!

In broader terms, though, I dealt with mysteries every day.  So often I had the opportunity to clean or catalog a marvelous piece of folk art that, unfortunately, arrived at the historic site with no known provenance information to explain where the item came from.   I couldn’t (and still can’t) look at an artifact without wondering who first made, owned, or used it.  (Neither can I!) How did they feel about this object?  Was it a treasured memento, or a symbol of something  else?  To me, the real value of any artifact comes in what it can reveal about the past.

As resources permit, curators can do some sleuthing and try to discover what clues they can about a piece.  For example, we might never learn who actually painted a piece of Norwegian woodenware, but perhaps the distinct style can at least identify the region in Norway where the painter worked.

But when I was a curator I rarely had time to investigate an individual artifact.   That left me to imagine my own backstory for the object.   Some of those wonderings led directly to plot points in Old World Murder and The Heirloom Murders.

3. I love the references to the Norwegian bowl in Old World Murder.  Did that specialized bowl actually exist and is the history of it based on fact or your wonderful imagination?
When I chose to create a mystery around the disappearance of a single artifact, I had a lot to choose from—Old World Wisconsin has thousands of pieces in its collection.  I’d always admired and been intrigued by a carved and painted ale bowl on display in one of the restored Norwegian farmhouses.   It had been placed on a high shelf to suggest to visitors that while such pieces of old country folk art remained prized possessions, they were not used daily.

Ale bowls were common in rural Norway during the mid-1800s, a period when mass emigration was taking place.  These bowls were often ornately carved and beautifully painted in the style we know as “rosemaling.”  Some have handles carved to represent animal heads—horses and dragons are common.  Many found their way to the new world, despite being somewhat cumbersome and awkward to pack.  Imagine trying to make choices about what to take to a new home, with only a single trunk available! These ale bowls must have been special pieces.   When I hold an old ale bowl I wonder if it was made to toast a marriage, or if it rested on the coffin of a dear loved one during a funeral.

I didn’t want to use an actual artifact for my mystery plot, so I create one in my imagination, described as having handles carved to resemble cow heads.  At that time I’d never seen or heard of cow head handles, so I thought I was being quite clever.  Afterwards a reader sent me a picture of an old bowl with cow head handles.  So much for my originality!

I’ve blogged about ale bowls, so anyone curious about them can find lots of visuals by following these links:

4.  I'm torn between asking you about the historical pieces and the writing portions.  I found your portrayal of male characters to be really strong.  Roelke is a young police officer in the village of Eagle and his frustration with as well as his desire to protect Chloe are strong elements within both novels.  My nephew is now a St. Paul policeman so I felt a special affinity for Roelke's struggles.  Where did you get your insights about rural police work and its challenges?
I wanted to have two point-of-view characters, Chloe and a local police officer.  I knew I couldn’t create a cop without help, though.  I was so nervous about approaching the Eagle PD that I had a friend talk to the chief on my behalf.   Fortunately he agreed to meet with me, and he’s been an enthusiastic supporter ever since.

I’ve had the chance to ask questions that directly pertain to my own plots, but much more importantly, I sometimes do ride-alongs.  I love spending a whole shift with one of the officers, simply learning about how they respond to the calls.  I quickly learned one of the big reasons that many cops love their work:  no two days are ever the same.   The cops I’ve come to know are part of the community, and work hard to make that community a safer place.  Their work is hard and sometimes dangerous, and I’m in awe of what they do.

All that let me create Roelke McKenna, who is a part-time cop in the village near Old World Wisconsin when the series begins.  He is young, and still has some things to learn.  But he has a good heart, and truly wants what’s best both for the village and for Chloe.   I think they make a good pair.  Chloe doesn’t see herself as a sleuth, but she often has the historical knowledge that’s ultimately needed to solve the mystery.

5.  In The Heirloom Murders, rare seeds become part of the plot. Is the preservation of ancient crops an interest area of yours or did that part of the story grow out of work being done at Old World?
I knew nothing about the importance of heirloom gardening before going to work at Old World Wisconsin.   We’ve lost an alarming percentage of vegetable, fruit, and flower varieties in the last century.  Once produce came to be shipped long distances, growers focused only on varieties that look good after cross-country transport.   Small seed companies disappeared as agriculture became Big Business.  Why is that not a good thing?  We’ve lost a lot in terms of taste and diversity, but we may also have lost the only varieties able to survive the next blight to come along. 

Historic sites and museums have long played a vital role in perpetuating old varieties by planting period gardens and saving seeds.   The gardens become good representations of what people might have been grown a century ago, and help educate visitors about the topic.  In my own garden I plant only heirloom varieties now, and it’s much more interesting!

6. I have to say that your "turning points" are the most inventive of any I've ever read.  No wild car chases but rather misery in pig pens or fear in the Finnish sweat lodge. Were you hoping to find intriguing sites for those pivotal moments or did those grow out of the story line?
One reader told me her favorite line in Old World Murder was this:  “Chloe did not want to die in a hog pen.”   Happily, I haven’t had to struggle to find those intriguing sites for pivotal moments because the setting is so rich.  I want all of Chloe’s struggles to be imbedded in the places she lives and works and visits.  As I develop the story lines, lots of wonderful and unique possibilities present themselves.

7.  Your previous young adult titles have won awards and you've had poetry published as well.  Now you're writing mysteries and if I remember correctly, you've also published articles and essays.  What's your favorite genre to write in and why do you think that's so?
Ooh, tough one.  I love writing for young readers because it is profoundly joyful to see them excited about reading and history, and to hope that in some small way my books have nurtured that excitement.  I love poetry because of the focus on rich and concise language; the ability to, and challenge of, telling a story in a few lines is also appealing when I’m in the midst of slogging through an unruly novel’s first draft!  And I love writing novels for adults because the form allows me to explore topics and themes I’m passionate about in more depth.

I have written articles and one nonfiction book, Too Afraid To Cry:  Maryland Civilians in the Antietam Campaign.  While I’m enormously proud of it, I don’t expect to do another like it any time soon; I spent a dozen years doing research and one whole summer dealing with permissions, footnotes, and bibliography.  At this point, I don’t have that kind of time!  Many of my blog entries are essays, and I’ve enjoyed having the opportunity to explore that short form there.

8.  My readers often want to know about author's writing life.  Could you share what a typical day might be like for you? What's the best part about the writing process for you?
A typical writing day sees me leaving the house and holing up somewhere with my laptop.   I can write with background noise as long as none of it has anything to do with me.

I often set Mondays aside for catching up on email, website updates, writing blog posts, etc.  Those things usually leach into other days as well.  If I’ve been able to actually write all day, I often work in the evening on those odds and ends.

I’ve become pretty adept at working on more than one book at a time.  I may spend several days pounding through a rough draft of an adult mystery, and then spend several more days revising my next children’s book.  

9.  What's your greatest challenge as a writer?
Simply protecting blocks of time to write.  Notice I said “protecting,” not “finding.”  I spend more time on the business of writing than I do on writing the books themselves, so preserving good chunks of time is essential.  Three or four times a year I go away for a week and focus on writing—ideally in the location of whatever novel I’m working on.   In addition to doing research, I find that being on the actual ground is inspiring.

10.  What are you working on now?  I hope yet another Chloe Ellefson mystery with intriguing complications  that teach us all new things about history and the present, too.
I’m nearing completion of the third Chloe book, tentatively titled Beyond Death’s Door.   Chloe accepts a weeklong consulting gig which takes her to Pottawatomie Lighthouse on Rock Island, which is a state park in Lake Michigan off the northern tip of Door County, Wisconsin.  The lighthouse is remote, with no electricity, phone lines, or indoor plumbing.  As you might imagine, Roelke isn’t thrilled with this idea!

Spinning 1983
In real life the lighthouse has been magnificently restored, and for the past few years my husband and I have had the pleasure and privilege of serving as live-in docents there for a week at a time.  I love the site dearly, and writing this book has led me to explore new aspects of the island’s history.  The historic structure, and the island’s geography, have offered plenty of fodder for those pivotal moments.

In time, I’ll get Chloe across state lines to explore other historic sites.  I’m always open to suggestions!  And my next children’s book will be out in September, 2012. 

Thanks so much for joining me on my blog!  I truly appreciate you and your writing.  Take good care of Wisconsin for me!
My pleasure, Jane, and thank you for both your own books and for all you do to nurture and encourage other writers.   And while I am not a Wisconsinite by birth, it is my home and I am fiercely protective of it!  I’m truly grateful that my Chloe books let me shine my wee bit of lantern light on its rich history.