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.

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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?

Heritage of Darkness Giveaway Winners!

April 20, 2018

Congratulations to Gloria Browning, Julie Clabots, and Donamae Clasen Kutska! Each won a signed and personalized copy of Heritage of Darkness. Winners were chosen from all entries here and on my Facebook Author Page.

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

8ChloeGiveawayWinnersHOD-FB476x476w

Heritage of Darkness Giveaway

April 18, 2018

This year from January through August I’m holding monthly giveaways of my Chloe Ellefson mysteries. The featured book for April is the fourth in the series, Heritage of Darkness.

To enter the giveaway for Heritage of Darkness, just leave a comment below before 11:59 PM (Central US time) on Thursday, April 19, 2018.

Only one entry per person, please.

Three winners will be chosen at random from entries here and on my Facebook Author Page, and announced Friday. Each will receive a signed, personalized copy of the book.  Good luck everyone!

Researching Heritage Of Darkness

April 11, 2018

 

Image of a wooden Norwegian goat head (Julebukk) with the caption "Sometimes the darkness is inside."

 

Front cover of Heritage of Darkness, the fourth Chloe Ellefson mystery book by bestselling author Kathleen Ernst, published by Midnight Ink Books.Mr. Ernst here. This month the focus is on a surprise that turned up when researching a specific scene in this book, the fourth in Kathleen’s award-winning Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mystery series.

Heritage Of Darkness (HOD) takes place within and around the wonderful, world-class Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa. The story is set during December 1982, with historical flashbacks to the 1940s and 1960s.

This is the first Chloe mystery set at an historic site outside of Wisconsin. Other ‘out-of-state’ stories follow, but Kathleen intends to keep Chloe and Roelke firmly rooted at Old World Wisconsin and the Village of Eagle.

 

Image of a Norwegian wooden message tube (Budstikke) surrounded by text stating Dark Secrets Hidden In Norwegian Traditions.

 

Chapter Thirty

As Kathleen crafted HOD, she decided to add an attempt on Roelke’s life.

An isolated location was required — somewhere between Vesterheim in downtown Decorah and a nearby farm that Roelke would be staying at. After consulting a local map and exploring the area by car, Kathleen picked a farm to the northeast, across the Upper Iowa River. (The farm’s exact location remains a secret to protect the resident’s privacy.)

Part of the farm’s appeal was its proximity to a bridge over the river. Roelke would have to cross it when making the one-mile walk between the farm and Vesterheim where he was taking a Norwegian chip carving class. The solitary red pin on the upper right side of the satellite image below shows where the bridge is located.

 

Screen grab of a custom, interactive Google map of Decorah IA with pins marking where key scenes in HOD are located.

Above is a screen grab of a custom, interactive Google map of Decorah. It is one of many reader resources available on Kathleen’s HOD website page. (Map by Bonner Karger and Mr. Ernst.)

 

[NOTE: Each pin marks where a key scene in the book takes place. You can visit the HOD webpage to explore the map’s location photos and descriptions by clicking HERE.]

Kathleen and I initially scouted the book’s locations in warm weather, but given that HOD is set in December, we re-documented them in winter.

 

HOD-TwinSpansModernBridgeWinter500x375w

This photo reveals the partly frozen, snow-covered Upper Iowa River where someone tries to kill Roelke. (Photo by Mr. Ernst.)

 

The modern bridge looked new enough that we decided to confirm it was there in December 1982. Local Archivist Midge Kjome directed me to bridge-related newspaper clippings and photos in the files of the Winneshiek County Historical Society . . . where I found the following.

 

Excerpts from The Decorah Journal Newspaper June 21, 1984 article entitled "City, County cut ribbon to open new bridge."

Excerpts from “City, County Cut Ribbon to Open New Bridge” article, The Decorah Journal Newspaper, June 21, 1984. (Underlining added.)

 

Well, hunh. There was no bridge there when the ‘bridge’ scene was set!

Note from Kathleen:  I hate it when that happens.

Making matters even worse, I discovered that the original “Twin Bridges” was an historic iron truss structure built circa 1880. It had just one-lane, no lighting, and lacked a sidewalk. It also had low, skimpy side-barriers, and offered a steep drop to the river.

In other words, it was perfect for the scene Kathleen envisioned.

 

Black and white photo of the Fifth Street Twin Spans bridge over the Upper Iowa River on the northeast side of Decorah Iowa. Photo courtesy of the Winneshiek County Historical Society.

This undated photograph of the Twin Bridges, also known as the Fifth Street Bridge, looks south across the Upper Iowa River to the City of Decorah, Iowa. (Photo courtesy Winneshiek County Historical Society.)

 

As her readers know, Kathleen is a real stickler for historical accuracy. It’s the museum curator in her. In this case she made an exception, wielding her literary license to shift the tractor-bridge crash forward in time until after the book concludes. Problem solved.

Powerful things, literary licenses.

Below is an excerpt from the resulting scene, which starts on page 284.

 

    Roelke walked north and east to the sounds of boots crunching snow and shovels scrapping sidewalks. The wind drove snowflakes almost sideways through the cones of light cast by street lamps. This may not have been my best-ever idea, Roelke thought as he approached the Upper Iowa River bridge. He was dressed well for wintry weather, but the snow was slowing him down. Best try to pick up the pace.

    Good plan, but he’d no more than tromped onto the bridge when both feet flew out from under him. He landed, once again, on his ass. “Danger,” he muttered as he clambered to his feet. “Bridge surface may freeze before road.”

    There were no lampposts on the bridge. He dug his flashlight from his pocket and scanned the single traffic lane, hoping to identify any additional icy spots. There was nothing to see but snow and the twin ruts of tire tracks. He set out again, this time keeping a hand on the railing.

    He was half way across the narrow bridge when headlights appeared ahead. A car was approaching the bridge, too fast. “Slow down,” Roelke muttered. “Slow down. Slow down, Goddammit!”

    The car didn’t slow down. As it hit the bridge the yellow beams went crazy, slicing the snow-hazy night. The vehicle was a dark blur, whirling, sliding, coming his way–Christ Almighty–coming his way and there was nowhere to go, nowhere to go. The bridge railing bore into Roelke’s hip until something had to give, bone or iron, and the car kept coming.

    Roelke leaned out over the river, away from the speeding mass of steel. He heard the relentless shussh of skidding tires. The car was seconds away from crushing him.

    Instinct pushed him over the railing in a wild twisting scramble. He managed to catch one vertical bar with his right arm. His other arm shot around too, and he clenched his right elbow with his left hand. The car hit the railing inches beyond the spot where he now dangled. The bridge shuddered. Roelke clenched every muscle. The car fish-tailed once or twice before the driver was able to straighten it out.

    Then the car accelerated on toward town. Roelke watched the taillights disappear with stunned disbelief and rising fury.

 

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 write it. Please feel free to leave us a comment below.

HOD is available in trade paperback and multiple ebook formats from independent booksellers as well as Amazon and other online resellers. Both formats includes a map of Vesterheim, photos of the Norwegian folk art featured in the book, plus a cast of characters.

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 HOD.

You can find a page full of details about it on Kathleen’s website, including a discussion guide, the Google map, the recipe for a dish served 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 HOD — and more — using the link below.

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

Next month I’ll post an article on this blog about researching the next book in the Chloe Ellefson mystery series, Tradition of Deceit, which takes place in Milwaukee and Minneapolis.

 

Heritage of Darkness – A Retrospective

April 4, 2018

Heritage of Darkness, the 4th Chloe Ellefson mystery, was the first to cross state lines. It’s set at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa.

By the time I started planning this book I’d visited this wonderful museum while writing the first Chloe mystery, Old World Murder, to study ale bowls. I’d also taken several classes through the museum’s folk art school.

Me with my first rosemaling instructor, Gold Medalist Joanne MacVey

 

I also learned the basics of Danish hedebo embroidery (featured in The Lightkeeper’s Legacy)  at Vesterheim. Here instructor Roger Buhr explains motif construction.

I’d enjoyed my own class experiences so much I wanted to feature that element in the book.  I also love Vesterheim’s annual Norwegian Christmas celebration, and decided to feature that as well.

Most importantly, this setting provided the opportunity to develop characters in new ways. A road trip to Vesterheim, where Chloe and her mom take rosemaling classes (Chloe is a beginner; Mom, advanced), let me explore a complicated mother-daughter relationship.

Also, at the end of Book 3, Chloe and Roelke have reached an understanding. They are a couple, and both want to see where their relationship might go. Having Roelke volunteer to come on the trip let their relationship develop as well.

SPOILER ALERT:  Plot points discussed below!

A mystery writer is always looking for ways to get characters in trouble, and for situations that might foster conflict. I was familiar with the old adage, Beware the man with many mangles, which referred to the tradition of men carving a mangle board for the woman he hoped to marry. If a mangle was refused, it could not be offered to another woman. How could I not use that bit of folk wisdom? Thus Emil was born.

This is a mangle board I painted as a class project.

I also decided to focus on some ancient winter customs. In the pre-Christianity days, many in northern Europe believed December’s shortest, darkest days brought evil spirits swooping through the sky. People developed traditions to help ward away the evil. By the time Christian Norwegian immigrants came to the Midwest, those traditions had evolved, but still persisted in the form of julebukking. Since the book came out I’ve talked to many people who remember disguising their identity with a costume and going out to visit neighbors.

This reproduction in the Vesterheim collection represents the Christmas goat. In ancient times a goat head, real or effigy, was used to ward away evil.

That offered some interesting possibilities for a mystery plot! The whole notion of having a chance to act up led to the scene near the story’s end, which takes place in Vesterheim’s Open-Air Division:

The julebukker whipped something from behind his back and shoved it toward her. Chloe glimpsed glowing animal eyes, wicked animal teeth, wildly streaming animal hair—all evoking the childhood memory of the threatening strangers brandishing a bloody goat head on a stick.

…Chloe tried again to wrench away from the devil-creature. Her boots slipped over the drop-off beside the house. The julebukker swung her hard, like a mean child playing crack-the-whip, and released her abruptly. Chloe flew head-first toward the home’s stacked-stone foundation.

My working title for the book was The Power of Darkness, harkening back to those old times. My publisher changed it to Heritage of Darkness to get a “history” word in the mix, a trend which had been established in the first three books. (Old, Heirloom, Legacy.) I trust my many Norwegian friends know the sentiment isn’t personal!

I also trust that my many rosemaling friends know how I admire their work, and how much I enjoy painting myself—even though I have no innate aptitude.

I am always the slowest painter in any class. I think just about everyone else had left for the day when this picture was taken.

Chloe has a miserable time in her rosemaling class, but I wanted to leave open the possibility that some of her challenges stemmed from her own preconceived ideas. This led to one of my favorite moments in the story:

“Do you know what I have loved most about rosemaling?” Mom asked.

“Winning your Gold Medal.”

“No.” Mom stared at Chloe’s tray, but her gaze had turned inward. “Every time I pick up a brush, I feel connected to the old days when skilled painters traveled through Norway’s remote valleys. Rosemaling was done in the winter, so the artists probably traveled by sleigh, or perhaps just on skis. I picture isolated families welcoming the rosemaler into their dark little cabins—back in the days when most people lived in windowless houses with just an open hearth to provide warmth and light. Can you imagine what a joy it would be to have the painter at work while snow fell and wind howled? Can you imagine how people felt while watching the painter bring such vivid life and color to their world during winter’s bleakest, darkest days?”

“Well…I can now,” Chloe allowed.

A small step forward for Mom and Chloe.

By this point in the series, some readers were asking if/when Chloe and Roelke’s relationship would become intimate. Since this is a Traditional mystery, with no explicit sex or gore, I crafted a scene that I hoped conveyed the moment without spelling it out. Perhaps I should have been a wee bit more explicit, because I heard from a couple of people who’d read the book and were still wondering when the two main characters would have sex.

My talented friend Ellen Macdonald made this chip carved candle plate to represent the gift Roelke gave to Chloe, used in the hotel scene.

I also heard from a reader who complained about my sloppy writing, referring to the fact that about mid-book, I repeated a thought.  Chloe and Roelke are, in their separate lodgings, going to bed.  First Roelke thinks:

Tonight, with a killer wandering Decorah and a December wind rattling the windows, he really, really wished he could fall asleep with Chloe in his arms.

In a later scene, in Chloe’s point of view, she has the same thought:

Tonight, with a killer wandering Decorah and a December wind rattling the windows, she really, really wished she could fall asleep in Roelke’s arms.

I crafted that echo in hopes it would convey the growing bond between them; how they both wanted the same thing; that they were connected in thought even if physically apart. One never knows how such things might strike any individual reader.

While Chloe and Roelke’s relationship took a big step forward, Chloe’s relationship with Mom is only somewhat improved. I could have wrapped the book up with some moment of complete harmony and understanding between the two women, but it would have felt—at least to me—too pat and unrealistic.

What did you think?

You can explore relevant people, places, and the past on my webpage for Heritage of Darkness. Resources include a Google map, color images of key artifacts, a Discussion Guide, a recipe for Chloe’s Tomato Soup, and links to lots of additional background material.

A final thought:  People often ask how employees feel about me setting a murder mystery at their historic site or museum. I always chat with key staff before starting a new book, and make sure everyone is comfortable with the idea. The staff and volunteers at Vesterheim have been wonderful, and Mr. Ernst and I have made many friends within the Norwegian-American community. (We even celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary in Norway!) The decision years ago to create a protagonist of Norwegian descent has brought wonderful things we couldn’t have imagined. We’re grateful.