Old World Murder – A Retrospective

Thanks for joining me as we take a behind-the-scenes look back at the Chloe Ellefson mysteries! First up: Book 1, Old World Murder.

A little backstory: I worked at Old World Wisconsin, a large outdoor museum near Eagle, from 1982 through 1994. The first two years I worked as an interpreter; the rest of the time I served as curator of interpretation and collections.

Me at Old World Wisconsin’s Koepsell Farm, 1983.

The next decade was spent developing and scripting children’s educational programs for Wisconsin Public Television. I also started publishing historical fiction for young readers during this period, including mysteries for American Girl. These were great opportunities! But I missed the historic sites world.

What better way to reconnect than to write about a curator who visits different sites and museums? The Chloe Ellefson series was born.

Since I was writing “on speculation,” meaning I had no contract, it took seven years to complete the manuscript for Old World Murder because I had to work around projects with actual deadlines. Not ideal, perhaps, but it did give me lots of time to conceptualize the book and the series. In each story, Chloe’s passion for history would be needed to solve modern crimes.

Chloe is a lot like me, but she is definitely fictional! I did not grow up in Wisconsin, or move to Europe. And I have no Norwegian ancestry. Chloe also has slightly heightened powers of perception, which occasionally enable her to experience strong emotions resonating in old buildings.

I needed a character to provide the necessary law enforcement perspective. Fortunately the Village of Eagle Police Department’s chief was open to working with me, and got me started on ride-alongs. Officer Roelke McKenna would not exist without the department’s help.

Eagle Police Department.

I decided to start the series in 1982 because that’s the period I remember. Also, it seemed wise to put some space between visitors’ modern experiences at the sites and even fictional murder and mayhem. Finally, that period makes it necessary for characters to solve mysteries without cell phones and Google, which is a plus for plotting.

My first job, of course, was to tell a good story. But I also developed some goals for the series:

  1. Introduce readers to wonderful historic sites and museums.
  2. Celebrate Wisconsin’s heritage and cultural diversity by featuring different ethnic groups.
  3. Spotlight folk arts and food traditions.
  4. Explore different chapters of Wisconsin/Midwest history.
  5. Provide a peek at museum work.
  6. Fill in gaps in the historical record with fiction.
  7. Honor everyday individuals who faced and surmounted incredible challenges.

Old World Murder is set at Old World Wisconsin. I featured a Norwegian story in part so it had personal relevance for Chloe, and in part because I had loved working at the two Norwegian farms restored at Old World.

That’s me heading into the 1845 Fossebrekke cabin, 1983.

And I chose to feature a missing ale bowl because this one in the Kvaale Farm had always intrigued me.

I created Gro Skavlem and her story to fill in one of those gaps I mentioned. So often as a curator I was frustrated by some gorgeous piece of folk art with no documentation. Who had created the piece? How did they feel about it? How was it used? Finding women’s stories is always challenging. Gro gave me the chance to suggest a smart, talented, capable woman.

SPOILER ALERT – some plot points are discussed below!

When I started writing mysteries, I learned to quickly identify anything that could be used to get a character in trouble. Sheep shears could do damage. So could Ossabaw hogs.

Ossabaw Hog, Old World Wisconsin.

The storage trailers described in the book were those I inherited when I was given collections care responsibilities. (Please note: for many years now OWW has had a dedicated full-time collections curator, and a modern storage facility.)

Collections storage in the early 1980s. Old World Wisconsin photo.

Some readers have wondered whether there was actually a murder in Old World Murder. In the draft I submitted, a murder definitely took place in the book’s first chapter. However, the manuscript was 20,000 words too long for the publisher’s norms.  That first death could be snipped without impacting the overall story, so it was sacrificed. Did Joel kill Mr. Solberg, or was it an accident? That’s left open to interpretation.

A few readers were uncomfortable with a protagonist who’s recovering from clinical depression. I believe that everyone deserves to find themselves in a book, including those with mental health issues. Chloe’s depression also gave her a reason to risk her job by standing up to Ralph Petty.

And of course, Chloe’s depression gave Roelke a chance to step up in a big way! Old World Murder introduces the possibility of a relationship between Roelke and Chloe…if her ex, Markus, doesn’t get in the way.

So…what did you think when you met the characters for the first time? Did you know Chloe and Roelke would be good for each other, or did their differences appear insurmountable? Did Chloe’s ability to perceive strong emotions seem unlikely, or have you perhaps experienced something similar? Did you have a favorite—or least favorite—character?

You can explore relevant people, places, and the past on my web page for Old World Murder. Resources include a Google map, a Locations Guide, full Discussion Guide, and links to lots of additional background material. Happy reading!

Studying ale bowls at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa.

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6 Responses to “Old World Murder – A Retrospective”

  1. Nijole Etzwiler Says:

    I have loved each of your books but especially Mining for Justice. The different story lines were so interesting and gripping.
    Have been to all the State historical sites so really enjoy reading about them, and as a former curator myself (in Sauk County), appreciate all the info about artifacts, research and other historical procedures.

  2. Charlotte Shirven Says:

    Love your books, just as I loved being trained by you and working with you at OWW. Many fond memories What fun we had😀

  3. MJ Samer Says:

    I have enjoyed your books very much! I thought your comment about setting it in the 80s was interesting. Sue Grafton said much the same thing with her mystery series. Her character, Kinsey, like your Roelke kept notes on index cards. I like Chloe’s cop boyfriend and think they are a kind of yang/yin couple and you write about their interactions in a believable way. Sometimes, though, like in the book I just finished set in Iowa –forgot the name. She takes rosrmaling classes from her mom– it seemed like she and Roelke had super human endurance at the end. Not believable to me. I was exhausted reading it and thought the characters should be, too. But it was a good book. Keep writing them, but show me the characters working out or going for a run so I can believe those other scenes.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, MJ! It’s been fun for me to revisit the 80s, although certain aspects of pop culture from the time make me shake my head. I do like to push characters to the limit when writing climax scenes, and Chloe and Roelke are both young and fit. But I’ll keep your comments in mind!

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