A Memory of Muskets – A Retrospective

July 12, 2018

Although setting books at different historic sites and museums is one of my favorite things about writing the Chloe Ellefson series, I do enjoy getting her home to Old World Wisconsin every now and again. The 7th mystery, A Memory of Muskets, does just that.  Like me, Chloe thinks it’s special:

I should come out on site every single day, Chloe thought wistfully. It was a magical place, one of the few living history museums in the country where it was possible to wander all day and still not see everything. She loved inhaling wood smoke, and the acrid tang of coal from the smith’s forge, and the faint floury scent of native grass seed heads baking in the sun. She loved looking out the window of a period kitchen to see garden and field, and prairie or woods beyond. She loved watching the seasons change—loved feeling them change, much as Wisconsin’s early European and Yankee settlers had. Her responsibilities kept her indoors and behind the scenes all too often.

The Schulz Farm at Old World Wisconsin, featured in A Memory of Muskets.

I decided to focus on the experience of Wisconsin’s German immigrants during the American Civil War. I’d already established that cop Roelke McKenna was partially of German descent, and this allowed me to create a plot thread that had personal impact for him—and for Chloe as well.

And how could I fail to include Milwaukee’s beloved German Fest?

Another day at work.

Civil War reenacting provided the perfect activity to link the historical topic to outdoor museum work. I had been active in the hobby myself, sometimes driving many hours to participate in events.  I’d also coordinated an annual reenactment at Old World Wisconsin when I was a curator there. And I met Mr. Ernst when he attended his first reenactment at Old World, so I’ll always have good memories of my reenacting days.

When I’m starting to make notes for a mystery, I look for any source of controversy that can be used in the plot. Reenacting can be a surprisingly contentious hobby. Individual units have different standards of authenticity, and different goals. (Ironically, some reenactors who look fantastic don’t always act that way.) The worst thing a reenactor can be called is “farb,” a term that implies an absolute disregard for authenticity.

Since the book is set largely at Old World Wisconsin, I had to involve Chloe’s boss Ralph Petty, a “misogynistic megalomaniac with a graduate degree in micromanagement.”  Ralph invites a unit with wretched standards to participate in an event at the site, and writing the over-the-top scene where that group does a battle reenactment was great fun.

The death of an unidentified reenactor also provided a nice opportunity for Chloe to get involved in the investigation. The detective is impressed with her analysis of the victim’s belongings:

“You’ve told us plenty,” Goresko assured her. “Anyone would think you’re an experienced profiler.”

“It’s what I do every day, actually. Artifacts are clues to the people who left them behind. Sometimes I have only the tiniest scrap of information, and have to dig deeper to get a sense of the person who made or used the item, and how they felt about it. Analyzing a reenactor’s belongings isn’t much different.”

SPOILER ALERT:  Plot points discussed below!

The books I most enjoy reading have plots that present personal challenges to the main characters, and I try to do the same in my own stories. Chloe’s inability to enter the old cabin on the Roelke farm causes stress:

Squaring her shoulders, she approached the cabin. She opened the door, stepped inside…and instantly felt what she’d felt before. Something dark vibrated in this musty space. The air felt heavy with unhappiness. Chloe felt an uneasy tremor in her chest. …This was a sweet cabin, and she was going to have to tell Roelke that one of his ancestors left a whole lot of bad juju inside.

The Gotten cabin, in the Kettle Moraine State Forest near Eagle, served as inspiration for the old Roelke cabin.

Unable to hide her feelings, Chloe takes a leap of faith and tells him. Roelke’s reaction was intended to suggest that he has some old family issues weighing on him—bad memories from his childhood. Chloe is tapping into something much older, a moral dilemma that shaped the lives of Rosina, Leopold, and Klaus in the historical plotline.

We so often read about immigrants enduring absolutely horrible voyages from Europe to the US. While researching this book I found a wonderful account from a German man who wrote of delightful evenings spent on deck. That inspired Rosina’s experience, with the voyage providing a happy respite between challenges in old world and new. One reader wondered if she and Leopold could have found a private moment on board ship. I’m pretty confident that they could.

When Rosina finds herself pregnant, she has no easy options. Did she make an unfair choice when she married Klaus, or did she do the best she could in a difficult situation? I thought I might hear from readers unhappy to discover that Roelke descended from Leopold, but no one mentioned it.

And speaking of moral dilemmas…Roelke meets Ralph Petty for the first time in A Memory of Muskets. In the end, he threatens to reveal Petty’s family secret if he doesn’t stop harassing  Chloe. Did you cheer Roelke on, or did you think he went too far?

I hope you enjoyed this glimpse of the complexities of hosting a Civil War reenactment at a living history museum.

Reenactors on the green at Old World Wisconsin, probably late 1980s. (Before the 2010 tornado took down the trees.)

You can explore relevant people, places, and the past on mwebpage for A Memory of Muskets. Resources include a Google map, images of key artifacts, a Discussion Guide, audio files, and links to lots of additional background material.

Death on the Prairie – Giveaway Winners!

June 28, 2018

Congratulations to CAROL SIGLE DOSCHER, MARLENE EZELL, and DEBORAH STANISH. Each has won a signed and personalized trade paperback of my sixth Chloe Ellefson mystery, Death on the Prairie.

8 Chloe Ellefson Giveaway Winners graphic for Death on the Prairie.

Winners were chosen randomly from all entries here and on my Facebook Author Page. Thanks to all who entered, and for the lovely comments too. Next month I’ll hold a giveaway of my seventh Chloe mystery,  A Memory of Muskets.

Death on the Prairie Giveaway

June 26, 2018

This year from January through August I’m holding monthly giveaways of my Chloe Ellefson mysteries. The featured book for June is the sixth in the series, Death on the Prairie.

8ChloeMysteriesGiveawayDOPFB476x476w

To enter the giveaway for Death on the Prairie, just leave a comment below before 11:59 PM (Central US time), June 27, 2018. One entry per person, please.

Three winners will be chosen at random from all entries here and on my Facebook Author Page, and announced the next day. Each winner will receive a personalized and signed trade paperback copy of Death on the Prairie
Good luck!

Death on the Prairie – A Retrospective

June 22, 2018

Front cover image for Death on the Prairie by Kathleen Ernst, published by Midnight Ink Books.I often say that I look for untold stories or little-known events when seeking inspiration for a new book.  With the 6th Chloe Ellefson mystery, Death on the Prairie, I took the opposite approach.

Laura Ingalls Wilder is one of America’s best known and beloved authors. Many adults came to love reading in part by devouring the Little House Books as children. Interest in Wilder’s life is so strong that the LIW Legacy and Research Association holds a conference every two years, where Wilder fans can catch up on the latest scholarship.

The publication of Prairie Girl:  The Annotated Biography, edited by Pamela Smith Hill, created a demand that took months to fulfill. More recently Prairie Fires:  The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser, billed as the first comprehensive historical biography of the author, won a Pulitzer Prize.

prairie

Clearly, I wasn’t going to be turning new ground. I wanted to do the book anyway.  Laura’s stories had a huge impact on me as a child, and it was no stretch to imagine they had a similar impact on Chloe as well:

Only another true Little House-lover could understand what the books had meant to her as a child.  It wasn’t just that she and Kari had “played Laura and Mary.” Or that Chloe had turned a back yard bower into a private playhouse she called Laura Land—soft grass and green leaves magically transformed into a log cabin. Laura’s adventures had captivated. Laura’s struggles had inspired. Laura had been a faithful friend when no one else understood. Laura’s stories had sparked Chloe’s interest in history, her hobbies, her career and professional passions.

This book led me here, Chloe thought.

Doing a LIW book had been in the plans for quite a while by the time I got started.  I had to wait until the time was right for Chloe and Roelke. If you’re familiar with the Little House books, you know that the idea of home is one of the main themes running through the series. What happens when one parent wants to settle and one doesn’t? How do people know if this is the place they’re meant to be? What happens when best efforts are met with tragedies and hardships?

In each Chloe book I try to let the 1980s plot reflect the themes of the historical thread. That meant waiting until Chloe and Roelke were wrestling with some of those same questions.  Specifically, Roelke is trying to decide if buying his old family farm is the right thing to do, and Chloe is trying to decide if she’s ready to move in with him.

It was an easy decision to have Chloe travel with her sister Kari on the Laura Land tour. My older sister and I visited all of the LIW historic sites together, and had a blast.

Plum Creek

As I thought about the artifact needed to set the chain of events in motion, it didn’t take long to decide to focus on quilts.  Quilts are mentioned many times in the books. And by good fortune, I’d taken a couple of classes from quilter extraordinaire Linda Halpin, a quilt historian with a special interest in Laura’s quilts. In addition to kicking around some plot ideas with me, she made a gorgeous quilt featuring each of the patterns mentioned in the books.

Kathleen Ernst and Linda Halpin

Linda (on the right) and I took the quilt she made for me to the Ingalls family’s dugout site on Plum Creek (small sign in the background marks actual spot). Just because.

I decided it would not be appropriate to include a strand of historical fiction in this book.   Instead, I selected a quote from one of the books to open each chapter.  These epigraphs brought Laura’s prose front and center…and also served as clues to the mystery.

SPOILER ALERT:  Plot points discussed below!

I didn’t plan Kari’s role in the plot from the beginning, but part way through that idea began to take shape. I was exploring the complexities of finding a home, so why not let Kari play a role in revealing a new aspect of that?

Dealing with the issue also let me get Roelke into a philosophically challenging situation. I wasn’t sure how that would play, but I didn’t get any complaints.

The replica cabin at Pepin, Wisconsin.

For me, the hardest part of spending a year immersed in all things LIW was confronting the reality of Laura’s life. I, like probably most young readers, believed Laura when she said of her books that everything in them was true. Nope. Fictionationalizing the Little House books meant more than adding dialogue. At times it meant changing facts.

The books were also very heavily edited by Laura’s daughter Rose. That wasn’t the image I’d cherished all those years. I included a few small examples. However, I chose not to mention the couple of things that surprised and disappointed me the most.

Instead I let Chloe experience the same sense of surprise and disappointment I felt. The subject comes up at one of the first stops:

Marianne leaned back in her chair, eyeing Chloe with speculation. “Are you a book person, a TV person, or a truther?”

“I…um…” Chloe floundered.

“Some people don’t want to hear about anything Laura didn’t include in the books,” Marianne explained. “Some people love the Little House TV series, and don’t want to hear about anything that Michael Landon didn’t include in a show.”

“Ah.”  Chloe hadn’t watched the series herself, but she was familiar with it.

“And a few people want to know what Laura’s life was truly like,” Marianne continued.

“That would be me,” Chloe said.  “I’m a truther.” She was a curator, after all. A history professional.

Chloe isn’t able to maintain that lofty stance throughout the story. By the end, she’s decided that further LIW studies are not for her:  The scholarship was important, but Chloe wanted to keep Laura as the trusted childhood friend she remembered.

Me too.

That said, one of the best part of writing Death on the Prairie was the conversations with readers. So many people have their own memories of the books or the television series. It was a rare opportunity to share something that mean a lot to many of us. Thanks for joining the conversation!


Researching Death on the Prairie

June 20, 2018

Death on the Prairie / Looking for Laura Ingalls Wilder graphic by Scott Meeker.

Front cover image for Death on the Prairie by Kathleen Ernst, published by Midnight Ink Books.

Mr. Ernst here. As youngsters, Kathleen and her sister Barbara loved the “Little House” books by bestselling children’s author Laura Ingalls Wilder. So much so that as adults they toured the Wilder historic sites together.

So it’s not surprising that in Kathleen’s mystery, Death on the Prairie, Chloe Ellefson and her sister Kari also cherished Wilder’s books as kids, and as adults decided to visit places where the famous author lived. Write what you know.

This post focuses on researching and recommending the car that the Ellefson sisters take on their six-state road trip in this, the sixth book in Kathleen’s award-winning Chloe Ellefson mystery series.

Recognize their wheels from the image below?

Escape To Wisconsin bumpersticker graphic by Scott Meeker.

Kathleen did almost all of the research for this book – and had a blast. One of the few things she outsourced to me was researching and recommending an appropriate make and model.

Now that’s my idea of having a blast.

Chloe fans know she drives a rusty, rundown Ford Pinto. It’s based on one Kathleen owned when she, like Chloe, worked at Old World Wisconsin in the early 1980s. Their model was infamous for its gas tank, which could explode during rear end collisions — and its tires, which were prone to sudden blowouts at highway speeds. Kid you not.

Photo of a green Ford Pinto by Julia LaPalme.

Photo by Julia LaPalme.

While Kathleen survived crisscrossing the country in her Pinto, she decided that the sisters would go looking for Laura in Kari’s car.

Note from Kathleen:  there’s nothing like commuting through mountains on two-lane roads in a Pinto back in the day!

DOP is set in 1983. In those days many car owners considered themselves lucky if their vehicles went 50,000 miles without serious problems. Thus the first criteria for the car search was finding one that could reasonably have less than 50K on the odometer.

Kari and her husband Trygve are Wisconsin dairy farmers, and thus are short on cash and chronically in debt. Their life is one of careful economy, maximum self-reliance, and hard work. So the second criteria was that her car had to be inexpensive to buy, simple enough to service themselves, and reliable.

And the final criteria was that Kari’s car had to be made in America, which many Wisconsin drivers strongly favored.

It was a challenge finding an older, low-mileage, inexpensive, reliable, American car.  There weren’t many — which made it easier to pick one.

The winner turned out to have been manufactured in Kenosha, Wisconsin by the now defunct American Motors Corporation.

Photo of 1969 AMC Rambler sedan chrome plate. Image by GR Auto Gallery.

Image by GR Auto Gallery.

A 1969 Rambler (the final year it was produced) fit the search criteria, though by 1983 this then 14-year old classic would have had more miles on it than desired. Fortunately, Ramblers had a rep for reliability.

Note from Kathleen:  Trygve is the kind of guy who takes good care of his vehicles.

Besides, what sounds better than taking a “Rambler” on a road trip?

Kari’s two-door blue sedan is the entry-level “Basic” model — lacking air conditioning, power steering, and power brakes. Even the dashboard cigarette lighter was optional.

1969 Rambler sedan print ad by the American Motors Corporation.

Print ad by the American Motors Corporation.

In terms of safety, the Rambler was typical for its time. The standard features list included seatbelts, an energy-absorbing steering column, self-adjusting brakes, hazard warning signals, padded instrument panel and visors, safety door locks, rear view mirrors, windshield washer and wipers, backup lights, and side reflectors.

Kari’s was the lowest priced American car available in 1969, with an MSRP of $1,900 (about $13,500 in 2018 dollars).

Only a German-made VW Beetle cost less.

Photo of a yellow 1969 VW Beetle.

Photographer unknown.

1969 AMC Rambler sedan front driver's side exterior photo by GR Auto Gallery.

Image by GR Auto Gallery.

Kari’s Rambler was a rear wheel drive vehicle mated to a low-powered 6-cylinder engine that ran on leaded gas. It often had to be downshifted when climbing hills — or to force it to speed up quickly — as Chloe has to do at one point in the story.

Photo of six cylinder engine compartment of 1969 AMC Rambler. Image by GR Auto Gallery.

Image by GR Auto Gallery.

The car’s 3-speed manual transmission was shifted using a long lever on the right side of the steering wheel column – an arrangement known as “a three on the tree.”

Driver's seat view photo of steering wheel and instruments of a 3-speed AMC Rambler. Image by GR Auto Gallery, edited by Scott Meeker.

Image by GR Auto Gallery, edited by Scott Meeker.

This transmission had a vertical H-shaped shifting pattern. Drivers depressed the clutch (the third pedal on the left above) when shifting gears. They pulled the shift lever toward them and then either up to get into Reverse or down to get into 1st gear. Shifting from 1st to 2nd required pulling the lever up, pushing it forward, and then up again. Going from 2nd to 3rd (top gear) involved pulling the lever down.

Despite being a compact, the Rambler was roomy, with bench seats front and back.

1969 AMC Rambler sedan front bench seat photo by GR Auto Gallery.

Image by GR Auto Gallery.

1969 AMC Ramble sedan rear bench seat photo by GR Auto Gallery.

Image by GR Auto Gallery.

It also had a big trunk, which Chloe uses to securely store a large archival box containing a precious antique quilt that once belonged to Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Photo of open trunk of 1969 AMC Rambler. Image GR Auto Gallery, edited by Scott Meeker.

Image by GR Auto Gallery, edited by Scott Meeker.

Here’s a video that provides a quick tour of Kari’s car.

Video still of 1969 AMC Rambler 2-door sedan by GR Auto Gallery.

Image and video by GR Auto Gallery.

Now when you read about Chloe and Kari ramblin’ through Wilder territory, you’ll be able to envision their ride. Enjoy the trip!

But Wait, There’s More!

Hopefully your interest has been piqued into discovering more about the ‘people, places and the past’ that went into making Death on the Prairie.

You can find a page full of details about it on Kathleen’s website, including an author’s note and discussion guide, a Google map featuring scene locations, photos and descriptions, a slide show of objects featured in the book, a public radio interview with Kathleen, plus additional blog posts, links to booksellers that offer DOP — and more.

Just click on the link below.

http://www.kathleenernst.com/book_death_on_prairie.php

Next month I’ll post an article on this blog about researching the seventh book in the Chloe Ellefson mystery series, A Memory of Muskets, which takes place at Old World Wisconsin — the actual outdoor museum where Kathleen worked, and Chloe works — and German Fest in Milwaukee.

Tradition of Deceit Giveaway Winners!

May 25, 2018

Congratulations to Stephanie Guile, Shannon Jurkus, and Micha Rader! Each won a signed and personalized copy of Tradition of Deceit. Winners were chosen from all entries here and on my Facebook Author Page.

Thanks to all who entered, and for the lovely comments too. We’ll hold another giveaway next month.

 

Tradition of Deceit Giveaway

May 23, 2018

This year from January through August I’m holding monthly giveaways of my Chloe Ellefson mysteries. The featured book for May is the fifth in the series, Tradition of Deceit.

To enter the giveaway for Tradition of Deceit, just leave a comment below before 11:59 PM (Central US time), May 24th, 2018. One entry per person, please.

Winners will be chosen at random from all entires here and on my Facebook Author Page, and announced the next day. Each winner will receive a personalized and signed trade paperback copy of Tradition of Deceit. 
Good luck!

Researching Tradition of Deceit

May 15, 2018

Interstate 94 Highway sign for West to Minneapolis and East to Milwaukee.

Front cover of Tradition of Deceit, the fifth book in the Chloe Ellefson Mystery series by bestselling author Kathleen Ernst.Mr. Ernst here.  In Tradition Of Deceit (TOD) Chloe and Roelke get caught up in separate mysteries, in separate cities, each facing deadly perils on their own.

Chloe’s in Minneapolis helping her friend Ariel at the Minnesota Historical Society work on transforming an enormous abandoned flour mill into a museum.

Roelke’s in Milwaukee running a very personal, and unofficial, investigation into his best friend’s murder.

Though separated by hundreds of miles, the mysteries and threats that Chloe and Roelke each face are culturally and historically linked.  Their experiences take place during February 1983, with historical threads set in 1878 and the 1920s.

This post focuses on researching a key transition scene in TOD, the fifth book in Kathleen’s award-winning Chloe Ellefson mystery series.

ToD-WashburnCrosbySepiaPrayerCycleSlide500x261w

At the end of Chapter Thirty-Five, Chloe comes into possession of what later proves to be an important clue:  a piece of Polish paper-cutting art called wycinanki (pronounced vee-chee-non-kee) discovered in “No Man’s Land” — the female worker’s break room in the long-abandoned Washburn-Crosby Gold Medal flour mill in Minneapolis.

The first thing that presented itself was a rectangle of heavy cream-colored paper, corners marked with pin holes. Despite a film of dust, and the passing years’ inevitable fading, a collage of cut and layered paper still suggested a vivid rainbow of color. A central bouquet of stylized flowers was flanked on each side by a rooster. She gently lifted the piece. Pride in creation, determination, feminine strength . . . all those seemed palpable.

She was pretty sure that this glorious example of wycinanki had been made long before the mill closed in 1965. It so closely resembled what Roelke had tried to describe on the phone that an ice chip slid down Chloe’s spin. Ariel had said that a motif of flowers and roosters was common. Still, it was uncanny that this piece, left behind in No Man’s Land, echoed whatever it was that Roelke had found in Wisconsin decades later.

Was it even remotely possible that the same woman had created each wycinanki? “If so,” she whispered to whomever might be listening, “why did you leave this beautiful piece in No Man’s Land? And how did you get from Minneapolis to Milwaukee?”

Kathleen asked me to research how the woman who created the wycinanki piece could have traveled the 350 miles from Minneapolis to Milwaukee in 1921. Turned out, her options were limited.

  • Minneapolis is located on the Mississippi River and Milwaukee on Lake Michigan, but there are no connections between the two cities by water.
  • There were roads between them back then, but stretches were still unpaved (the Interstate Highway System was decades in the future) which may be why long-distance motorized bus service did not yet exist.
  • And the first rudimentary airline passenger service was still years away.

So how did people travel long distances in those days?  I discovered that back then America enjoyed an extensive system of railroads offering scheduled, reliable, relatively affordable passenger service.

September 1921

LIDIA TOOK THE TRAIN from Minneapolis to Milwaukee. She knew there was a large Polish community there, and although she’d managed to hide away a few coins after grocery shopping these last few months, she couldn’t afford to travel any farther. 

MilwaukeeRailroad1920TimeTableCover100x211w
As a little boy I spent many happy hours playing with model trains.  I loved watching and riding real trains too — and still do all these (many) years later.

Which is to say I was absolutely delighted when Kathleen asked me to dig up the details of Lidia’s train trip.

In 1921 the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway (widely known as the “Milwaukee Road”) offered regularly scheduled daily passenger service between Minneapolis and Milwaukee.

 

Color photo of a map showing the upper Midwest portion of the Milwaukee Road's railroad lines in 1920.

The Milwaukee Road’s extensive rail lines and stations serving the upper Midwest in 1920. The highlighting shows Lidia’s route from Minneapolis on the top left, down the Mississippi River to La Crosse, then across Wisconsin to Milwaukee. (Map in author’s collection.)

Black and white photo of the Minneapolis Milwaukee Road railroad station circa 1922.

Lidia departed from the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad Depot in downtown Minneapolis. (1922 photo in author’s collection.)

2014MinneapolisMilwaukeeRoadStation500x398w

This is the renovated Depot today in its new role as the Marriott Renaissance Minneapolis Hotel. (Image by the author.)

But with every clack of the turning wheels she felt herself moving farther and farther from Matka and Grandfather Pawel. From Bohemian Flats and Minneapolis and the mill. From her whole world. She’d had no time to say good-bye — and she wouldn’t have dared, anyway. 

Vintage black and white photo of a C.M. & St. Paul railroad passenger train pulling into Hastings, MN circa 1920.

A coal-fired steam engine train like Lydia took, stopping in Hastings MN on its way south along the Mississippi River. (Source unknown.)

Lydia had to change trains in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She approached a woman in worn clothes who looked to be about her size and offered to exchange clothes. “Why?” the woman asked suspiciously, eyeing her stylish dress.

“I need to disappear,” Lidia whispered.

Ten minutes later she emerged from the ladies’ room wearing a heavy skirt and faded blouse. “Be careful,” the other woman said, before disappearing into the swirling crowd in her new finery. 

Image clipped from 1910 postcard showing the type of railroad passenger cars that Lidia rode.

Milwaukee Road passenger cars at La Crosse, from a 1910 postcard. These are similar to what Lidia rode in. (Author’s collection.)

Postcard of the the C. M. & St. Paul Railroad Deport in Milwaukee, circa 1900.

Lidia arrived at Milwaukee’s 1886 Everett Street Railroad Depot, formerly located immediately south of what is now called Zeidler Union Park. (Postcard in the author’s collection.)

Color photo of the modern office block that replaced Milwaukee's Everett Street railroad station.

Office block that replaced Milwaukee’s Everett Street Railroad Depot when it was razed in 1966. (Google StreetView Copyright 2018.)

She’d arrived in Milwaukee weary, nauseated, anxious, and broke. Now she sank down on an empty bench, watching other travelers. She seemed to be the only person in the station with no one to meet and nowhere to go. With a surge of panic, she wondered if she’d just made a colossal mistake.

We’d love to hear what you think, now that you’ve had the chance to compare the scene with some of the historical research used to help write it. Please feel free to leave us a comment below.

TOD is available in trade paperback and multiple ebook formats from independent booksellers as well as Amazon and other online resellers. Both formats include an Author’s Note, a Cast of Characters, and photos of the places and Polish wycinanki folk art featured in the book.

But Wait, There’s More!

Hopefully this article has piqued your interest in discovering more about the ‘people, places and the past’ that went into making TOD.

You can find a page full of details about it on Kathleen’s website, including a discussion guide, Google maps of Milwaukee and Minneapolis featuring scene locations and photos, an original 1930’s Washburn Crosby Gold Medal Flour cookie recipe for the Old-Time Cinnamon Jumbles that Chloe bakes in the story, a slide show of objects featured in the book, public radio interviews with Kathleen, plus additional blog posts, links to booksellers that offer TOD — and more — by clicking on the link below.

https://www.kathleenernst.com/book_tradition_deceit.php

Next month I’ll post an article on this blog about researching the next book in the Chloe Ellefson mystery series, Death on the Prairie, which takes place at six Laura Ingalls Wilder homestead historic sites.

Tradition of Deceit – A Retrospective

May 8, 2018

Front cover of Tradition of Deceit, the fifth book in the Chloe Ellefson Mystery series by bestselling author Kathleen Ernst.As I began conceptualizing Tradition of Deceit, the 5th Chloe Ellefson Mystery, I had several goals in mind. Since main characters Chloe and Roelke were getting along pretty well by the end of the previous book, I figured it was time to throw a new challenge their way:  distance.

I’d heard good things about the Mill City Museum after it opened in 2003. For much of the book, Chloe is in Minneapolis while Roelke is in Milwaukee. Both get tangled in murder investigations that involve good friends. How will they cope?

Back of the mill complex.

In Chloe’s day the mill was an enormous abandoned industrial site. The opportunity to have Chloe visit an urban historic site was intriguing. The mill itself told important stories from the days when Minneapolis was the flour milling capital of the world. After one visit I knew it had great potential as setting for a murder mystery. 

Taking notes on a behind-the-scenes tour.

Featuring this site also had good potential to satisfy another series goal—to provide a glimpse of the challenges inherent in museum work. In the 1980s, the abandoned mill provided shelter for many homeless people. This presented a dilemma for the historians working to turn the site into a museum. Chloe’s decision to help a friend develop an interpretive plan for the mill put her right in the middle of the debate.

Homeless Protest Master combined

(Star Tribune, May 2, 1990)

Choosing the mill as the setting also let me feature Polish immigrants and their experience in the new world. New food traditions and folk art! A thread of historical fiction gave me a chance to imagine the challenges faced by an immigrant woman named Magdalena and her descendants.

IMG_0802 - Version 2 – Version 3

Magdalena was skilled at Polish paper cutting, such as this piece displayed at the Old South Side Settlement Museum, Urban Anthropology Inc., Donated by Konkel Family.

Cop Roelke McKenna’s experience of trying to solve a friend’s murder in Milwaukee let me echo some of these same themes. Milwaukee was home to a large population of Polish immigrants as well. That commonality let me link Chloe’s mystery with Roelke’s.

Basilica of St. Josaphat

The Basilica of St. Josaphat, Milwaukee.

And, Roelke fans were letting me know they’d like to see even more of him. In Tradition of Deceit Roelke faces his most painful and challenging investigation. New aspects of his character are revealed as he follows both his heart and the sketchy clues.

I don’t outline stories in advance, so when I begin I’m not sure where any given story is going, or exactly how it will be resolved. This book had a more complicated structure than most, but in the end I think the pieces fell into place quite nicely. It’s one of my favorites.

SPOILER ALERT:  Plot points discussed below!

During my first scouting trip to the Mill City Museum, I learned about the tragedy of 1878, when the first Washburn A Mill exploded because no one at the time understood that the flour dust clouding the air was combustible. Eighteen workers died.

Harpers Weekly, May, 1878.

I wanted to include that in the book, but anyone working in the mill at that time was male. How to get a woman in the building? Playing with that question led to the creation of Magdalena and the historical plotline. I needed a plausible reason to get her into the mill on that tragic night.

One of readers’ favorite characters in this book is Pawel, a mill worker who gives Magdalena a chance to dream of happier days:

Magdalena regarded him. Pawel was a big man with massive shoulders and corded muscles rippling in his arms. He spent his 12-hour shifts rolling 196-lb. barrels of flour from the packing machines into train cars. He was part of the Polish Eagles, a six-man crew that usually bested other packing teams when challenged to a race.   No one would pick a fight with Pawel.

But unlike some of the other laborers, Pawel had a gentle manner. His face was broad and plain, his hair the color of dried mud, his hands huge. No one would call him handsome, but Magdalena liked him. She thought he liked her. Maybe, she thought, just maybe…

General Mills included this engraving from the 1880s in a 20th-century ad.

It would have felt too pat to have Magdalena visit the mill simply to see Pawel. Instead she goes to obtain some flour in hopes of baking a treat for him.

In the end, Magdalena’s legacy collides with Roelke’s search for answers to Rick’s death. When Roelke’s struggling to find Erin, the young woman who’d fled her abusive husband years before, his first clue is a business card decorated with wycinanki:

“All I have is this.” Danielle scrabbled in her pocket. “I found this sort of business card thing this morning under the coat hooks we use.”

Roelke felt his nerves quiver as Danielle extracted a creased business card. An address, a phone number—he’d be grateful for even the tiniest scrap of information.

He didn’t get an address. He got chickens. Two very pretty chickens, flanking a bouquet of flowers, printed in vibrant colors. It was all very artsy, and not the least bit helpful.

I made this wycinanki piece to represent the one described in the book.

Tradition of Deceit is all about power—who wants it, and what they’ll do to get it; who has it, and what they’ll do to keep it. One of the people abusing power is Professor Everett Whyte, the man found stuffed into a turn head distributor in the old mill. Whyte’s male students and colleagues admired him; his female students, not so much. I based Whyte on one of my college professors who made inappropriate suggestions to me and other female students. When I reported my professor’s behavior, my advisor replied, “Is he up to those old tricks again?” Evidently it was well known that my professor harassed women.

The turn head distributor at the Mill City Museum.

The book is also about secrets. Secrets, abuses of power, and geography might have meant the end of Chloe and Roelke’s relationship. Was Roelke’s emotional reserve understandable? Had Rick been right to keep a secret from his best friend? What did you think?

You can explore relevant people, places, and the past on mwebpage for Tradition of Deceit. Resources include a Google map, color images of key artifacts, a Discussion Guide, recipes, and links to lots of additional background material.

Ten Favorite Books

May 4, 2018

I’m lucky to have some wonderful indies in my home state of Wisconsin.  One of them, Books & Company in Oconomowoc, celebrated Independent Bookstore Day last week by creating a display featuring four Wisconsin authors and 10 of their favorite books. I was honored to be included.

Picking just ten was tough, but it was an interesting exercise. Here’s my list, in no particular order.

Little House Big Woods

Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

When I read this as a child in suburban Maryland, the Big Woods of Wisconsin seemed impossibly far away. This book began my fascination with the pioneer experience—and like other books in the series, holds up well for adult readers.

Sand County Almanac

A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold

I was introduced to this book while attending West Virginia University’s School of Forestry, long before I imagined moving to Wisconsin. Leopold’s “land ethic” is more important now than ever.

Time_and_Again

Time and Again, by Jack Finney

Originally published in 1970, this book has become a bit of a period piece itself. But anyone who loves history is likely to enjoy the tale of a secret government project to send a chosen few people back in time.

220px-Gone_with_the_Wind_cover

Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

Although I haven’t read this book in many years, I adored it as a teen. It made me want to write historical fiction equally capable of sweeping readers away to other times and places.

moberg

The Emigrants, by Vilhelm Moberg

When I moved to Wisconsin in 1982, and started working at Old World Wisconsin, I devoured immigrant literature. This is one of my favorites.

loganRemembersBkCvr1Web

The Land Remembers, by Ben Logan

My husband and I read this lyrical memoir aloud, and I’ve returned to it many times.

animal.vegetable

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver (Anything by Barbara Kingsolver!)

Few books actually change my life. This one did.

Delights

Delights and Shadows, by Ted Kooser

Iowa-born Kooser, a former US Poet Laureate, writes lovely and accessible poetry.

Hattie

Hattie Big Sky, by Kirby Larson

This tale of a young woman homesteader had an unexpected ending that’s stayed with me.

track

Track of the Cat, by Nevada Barr

The first book in the mystery series featuring National Park Service Ranger Anna Pigeon. Although the recent additions have veered in a different direction, I loved the early books, each set in a different park. I thought of these as I developed my Chloe Ellefson mysteries, which feature historic sites and museums.

* * *

In our fractured world we need stories more than ever—to entertain, to inform, to inspire, to connect us. Independent stores are absolutely indispensable. Booksellers aren’t just passionate about reading. They also know their customers, and can help place just the right book in their hands. As a reader, and as a writer, I’m grateful.

What books would you include on your list?