Researching The Light Keeper’s Legacy

 

Color photo by Kay Klubertanz of author Kathleen Ernst and "Mr. Ernst" serving as docents at the 1858 Pottawatomie Lighthouse on Rock Island, Wisconsin.

 

Photo of the front cover of The Light Keeper's Legacy, the 3rd Chloe Ellefson mystery by Kathleen Ernst, Published by Midnight Ink Books.

This article explores examples of how technical research and photographic documentation were used to help Kathleen write the award-winning third book in her Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mystery series.

The Light Keeper’s Legacy (TLL) takes place in two time periods:  A modern one in September 1982 featuring Chloe and police officer Roelke McKenna; and an historical thread stretching from 1869 to 1906.

Kathleen first included an historical timeline in the previous book, The Heirloom Murders. Based on reader feedback, she crafted a more extensive one for TLL. It tightly braids together the two storylines, their characters, histories, and mysteries.

This set the standard for most of Kathleen’s follow-on Chloe books.

 

Black & white historic photo of a log cabin on Rock Island, Wisconsin.

 

Kathleen does the vast majority of research for each mystery, and TLL is no exception. She spends a lot of time doing this, and is very good at it. But only a small part of what’s uncovered ends up influencing or appearing in her books. Those choices are one of the reasons Kathleen’s stories have a descriptive richness, enabling readers to immerse themselves in her books.

Chapter 42

Most of The Light Keeper’s Legacy is set on Washington and Rock Islands, just off the tip of Door County, Wisconsin, in Lake Michigan. There are no bridges to either island; access is by public ferry boats and private watercraft — and in the case of Washington, by small aircraft. This remoteness plays a key role in the book.

Chapter 42 includes a number of exciting scenes. Below are brief excerpts from two, followed by examples of the research Kathleen used to craft them.

As the chapter begins, Roelke is trying to land a small plane on a grass runway at the airfield on Washington Island.

 

Google satellite map of Washington Island, WI.

Imagery Copyright 2018 Google, NOAA, Terrametrics.

 

Since I hold a private pilot’s license, Kathleen asked me to pull together the technical details she’d need. The following is from the book.

 

[Roelke] made two left turns, which brought him in line with the runway.  Airspeed and descent looked good. “Washington Island traffic, Seven-Seven-Echo on final for Two Two.”  There were trees near the approach end of the grass strip, so he set the flaps full down.

He was clearing the woods when the deer bounded from cover. Three of them, all does, running straight toward Two Two.

Dammit. Roelke pulled back on the yoke and shoved the throttle forward, trying to get the Cessna to climb. Instead of ramping up the engine hesitated.

What the hell was wrong? A few eternal seconds later, the engine recovered with a roar, but airspeed was still dropping. The stall warning began to wail.

I’m screwed, Roelke thought. He was seconds away from a crash.

 

Below is the cover page of the six-page research paper I prepared.

 

Scan of the first page of the research report about Roelke's Flight to Washington Island, created for The Light Keeper's Legacy Chloe Ellefson mystery by bestselling author Kathleen Ernst.

Copyright 2011 Kathleen Ernst, LLC

 

Feel free to review the research; you can download a PDF copy by clicking HERE.

The second scene from Chapter 42 involves two unknown assailants who trap Chloe alone in the lighthouse, pursuing her to the very top of the four story building.

 

Google Satellite map of Rock Island, WI.

Copyright 2018 Google, NOAA, Terrametrics.

 

As Kathleen scoped out the setting and considered what Chloe would do in this situation, I took photos to serve as reference material for use when she wrote the scene later.

Note from Kathleen:  This was one of those afternoons where I had to be careful to keep my voice down. No need for visitors to hear Mr. Ernst and I discussing the logistics of mayhem.

 

Chloe didn’t waste time on a glance through the hatch. She’d slowed Balaclava Man down. Maybe even disabled him. Guy Two could be after her any moment though. The instinct to run-run-run buzzed through her brain.

She couldn’t go down. She couldn’t go up. Only option: going out.

Chloe dropped to her knees beside a low wooden door, wrenched it open, and scrambled onto the narrow walkway outside the lantern room. “Oh God,” she whimpered, clutching the paint-sticky railing, fighting a wave of vertigo. The trees and picnic table and outhouse below looked dollhouse-sized.

The roof’s peak stretched south from the lantern room. The roof itself fell steeply on either side. Chloe’s stomach twisted again as she imagined trying to creep down to the gutters without falling.

Wait. A heavy cord of braided copper ran from the lightning rod on top of the tower down the west side of the roof before disappearing over the edge of the gutters.

Chloe bit her lip hard. Would the cable support her weight? And even if she did make the gutters without somersaulting into thin air, what then?

 

Below are some of the photos, with descriptions linking them to the passage above.

 

Pair of color photos of the stairs leading up to the floor hatch in the lightroom at the top of the Pottawatomie Lighthouse on Rock Island, Wisconsin.

Left: Chloe’s view as she races up the stairs into the lantern room. Right: Her view from the lantern room looking down through the hatch to where her pursuers will emerge.

 

Photo taken in lantern room of the Pottawatomie Lighthouse on Rock Island, WI.

Chloe’s view of the low wooden door to the narrow walkway outside the lantern room. Visible to the right is part of the Frenel lens that surrounds, magnifies, and directs the lamp light at night.

 

Photo taken from the Pottawatomie Lighthouse lantern room looking south.

This reveals the steep fall of the lighthouse roof, and why Chloe’s view of the picnic table and outhouse made them look dollhouse-sized. On the right side of the photo is the heavy cord of braided copper that runs down from the lightning rod to the roof and over the gutters.

 

Photo of the west side of the Pottawatomie Lighthouse showing the braided copper wire.

Here’s a ground-level view from the west of the braided copper cord running from the lightning rod (just visible atop the lantern room) down across the roof and over the gutters to the ground.

 

Now that you’ve had a chance to compare excerpts with some of the research used to write them, we’d love to hear what you think. Please leave us a comment below.

But Wait, There’s More

Hopefully this article has piqued your interest in discovering more about the ‘people, places and the past’ in the The Light Keeper’s Legacy.

There’s a whole page full of information about it on Kathleen’s website, including a discussion guide for the book, a custom Google map and a locations guide about where key scenes are set, a recipe mentioned in the book, a slide show of objects featured in the story, public radio interviews with Kathleen about the book, additional blog posts, links to booksellers that carry TLL — and more. To explore them, click HERE.

Next month I’ll post an article on this blog about interesting things that turned up whle researching Heritage Of Darkness, the fourth book in the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mystery series.

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3 Responses to “Researching The Light Keeper’s Legacy”

  1. Sandra Radford Griswold Says:

    Thru your research photos I can now feel what Chloe saw and relate better what she was feeling. I think sometimes when we read a book, we take for granted all the research that goes into authenticating the writing process. Keep up the hood works.

  2. Kathleen Ernst Says:

    Mr. Ernst here. Thanks for your kind and insightful comments. I believe that well-written historical fiction deliberately cloaks the underlying research, so that readers are not distracted from being immersed in the story.

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