Old World Murder – A Retrospective

January 16, 2018

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.

The Early 1980s – A Pop Quiz by Mr. Ernst

January 13, 2018

Do you remember the early 1980s? The Chloe Ellefson mysteries written by Kathleen Ernst (my wife and better half) are set back then. When she first began working on the series I volunteered to do some general background research about the time period. This short, purely-for-fun quiz is based on some of what I turned up. Enjoy!

Answers are at the bottom of the post.

US President Ronald Reagan official portrait.

1.  In 1980 Jimmy Carter lost the US Presidential election to Ronald Reagan. Who was Reagan’s Vice-President?

Image of a chart.

2.  What was the highest rate of inflation in the US during 1980?

H.Fonda+K.Hepburn-GoldenPond

3.  Which two Hollywood Legends earned Oscars for their roles in the 1981 film On Golden Pond?

Photo of the Jarvic 7 artificial human heart.

4.  In 1982 the first human successfully received a transplanted artificial heart to replace his failing heart. How long did he survive afterwards?

WheelOfFortuneActors

5.  Which female started on what TV show in 1982? (Hint: she was still a cast member as of 2017.)

LeonidBrezhnev

6.  The US and the Soviet Union were locked in the Cold War when this Soviet Leader died in 1982. What was his name? (Hint: he ordered the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.)

SportsIllustratedBrewersCover1982

7.  The Milwaukee Brewers lost the 1982 World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals. What was the series called? (Hint: both cities were famous for beer.)

SueGraftonAuthor1983

8.  The first mystery in what grew to be a 25-book series was published in 1982. Who was the author? (Hint: she passed away in 2017.)

ArnoldInConanTheBarbarian1982

9.  The 1982 film Conan The Barbarian provided the breakthrough role for which actor? (Hint: this immigrant later became a US politician.)

AppleLisaDesktopComputer1983

10.  The Apple Lisa Desktop Computer was commercially released in 1983. What two revolutionary features did it introduce? (Hint: almost all computers now use them.)

NewsweekFeb1983Cover

11.  How many viewers watched the broadcast of the final episode of this popular, long-running TV comedy in February 1983?  

MotorolaDynaTAC1983MobilePhone

12.  In 1984 the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X became the first commercially available cell phone. What did it cost when first released?

 Answers

  1. Reagan’s Vice-President from 1981-1989 was George H.W. Bush, who then served as President from 1989-1993. His son George W. Bush was President from 2001-2009.
  2. In 1980 the official US inflation rate soared to a high of 13.5%.
  3. Katharine Hepburn won an Oscar for Best Actress and Henry Fonda won an Oscar for Best Actor for their work in the film On Golden Pond. Henry was the father of actress Jane Fonda, who was also featured in the film.
  4. The first patient to have his failing heart successfully replaced with an artificial one survived 112 days after receiving a Jarvik 7.
  5. The popular TV show Wheel Of Fortune debuted in 1982 and actress Vanna White has been turning letters on it for thirty-five years as of 2017.
  6. Leonid Brezhnev was the Chairman of the Soviet Communist Party from 1964 until his death in 1982. He started the Soviet War in Afghanistan, which ran from 1979-1989.
  7. The 1982 baseball World Series was nicknamed the “Suds War” because Milwaukee and St. Louis were both known for making beer.
  8. Bestselling author Sue Grafton published “A” is for Alibi in 1982. It was the first book in her popular, long-running mystery series about private eye Kinsey Millhone. (Note: in the third Chloe Ellefson mystery, The Light Keeper’s Legacy, Roelke gives Chloe a copy of “A” is for Alibi to take to the lighthouse on Rock Island.)
  9. Austrian-born bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger launched his film career in Conan The Barbarian. He later used his fame to become Governor of California.
  10. Apple’s Lisa Desktop Computer was the first commercially available computer with a Graphical User Interface (GUI) and a mouse. The Lisa cost $9,995 when introduced in 1983, equal to $24,600 in 2017.
  11. The final episode of M*A*S*H in February 1983 was watched by over 120 million viewers, more than any other US broadcast TV program. (Note: in the fifth Chloe Ellefson mystery, Tradition of Deceit, Roelke’s best friend Rick Alverez and his finance Lidia are planning a ‘M*A*S*H Bash’ party to watch the final episode.)
  12. The Motorola DynaTAC 8000X commercial portable cellular phone had a retail cost of $3,395 when commercially released in 1984, equal to $9,410 in 2017 dollars. Charging the battery took roughly 10 hours and provided 30 minutes of talk time.

I hope you enjoyed the quiz. Over the next few months I’ll be back on this blog posting about things that turned up while doing detailed research about the historic timelines featured in each of Kathleen’s now eight published Chloe Ellefson mysteries.

Eight Books in Eight Months

January 9, 2018

My 9th Chloe Ellefson mystery will soon zip off to my publisher, and I’m already planning the 10th! That’s a milestone, and it seems like a good time to take a look back. My husband (AKA Mr. Ernst) and I have decided to do just that this year, with some treats along the way for readers.

Here’s how “Eight Books in Eight Months” will work.

Every month, from January through August, I’ll feature one Chloe Ellefson mystery here on Sites & Stories. I’ll start by posting  a reminder about the next book to be featured. I hope you’ll read along!

The second week, I’ll look back at my process for approaching the book, share insights about the topics and places covered, and prompt some discussion. We’ll see how Chloe and Roelke have evolved over time, both individually and as a couple.

Mr. Ernst always helps me with research, and every third week he’ll post about some of the interesting tidbits he’s discovered—many of which didn’t make it into the stories.

And every fourth week, we’ll give away copies of the featured book.

Many of you have told me you started the series in the middle, or read the books out of order. This is a great time to go back to the beginning and follow, or revisit, the adventures.

So dust off your copy of the first Chloe Ellefson mystery, Old World Murder. Happy reading!

Figgy Hobbin

December 28, 2017

I love exploring traditional foodways, especially if they have an ethnic flair. Not surprisingly, the protagonist of my Chloe Ellefson Mysteries does too. The latest book in the series, Mining For Justice, is all about the Cornish miners and their families who helped turn rough mining camps in what would become southwestern Wisconsin into communities.

One of the Cornish treats Chloe discovers is figgy hobbin—although historically, it wasn’t actually a treat. Her hostess, an elderly Cornish-American woman named Tamsin, explains that in old Cornwall needy people ate hoggans:

“Oh course, the truly poor people had to make do with hoggans,” Tamsin said. “Flatbread with a morsel or two of pork baked into it. My father said they were hard as rocks. Women made them of barley flour when wheat was too dear.”

Mine workers like these men and women might have made a meal of hoggans.  (“Dolcoate Copper Mine” engraved by J.Thomas after a picture by Thomas Allom, published in Devon & Cornwall Illustrated, 1832. Steel engraved print with recent hand color.)

Food traditions are not static. Hoggans evolved into figgy hobbin, a dish similar to mince pie, made with beef suet, lard, and raisins in a pastry, served with perhaps a little milk and sugar. (In parts of England “figgy” means raisins or currants, and some linguists believe “hobbin” is a diminutive of “oven.”)

The dish has evidently almost disappeared from Cornish tables, but an even sweeter version is alive and well in Mineral Point. Mining For Justice is largely set in that charming Wisconsin town. If you visit, stop by the Red Rooster Cafe for some figgy hobbin. Their dessert is topped with caramel sauce and whipped cream.

At the Red Rooster Cafe on High Street, Mineral Point, WI.

With advance planning you can also enjoy figgy hobbin at The Walker House.

Figgy hobbin is easy to make at home, too.  Here’s a basic recipe.

1 batch of your favorite pie crust
extra flour for rolling
1 T. grated orange peel or 1 T. orange marmalade (optional)
3  T. cinnamon
1/4  c. brown sugar or raw sugar
1/2 c. raisins or dried currants
1/2 c. chopped walnuts or pecans
3 T. melted butter

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Roll pastry into a rectangle about 10 x 8 inches. Brush pastry with the melted butter. Mix orange peel, cinnamon, sugar, dried fruit, and chopped nuts and spread in an even layer over the crust. Leave some open space around the perimeter to facilitate rolling.

Roll gently into a log.

Place on an oiled cookie sheet with the seam at the bottom. Bake until crust is golden brown, about 30-40 minutes. (Note:  I brushed the top of my roll with egg white, something several of the recipes I consulted recommended. For my taste, that created a too-brown top, so I wouldn’t do that again.) Slice and serve.

If desired, top with warm caramel sauce and/or whipped cream.

Enjoy!

Giveaway Winners

December 1, 2017

Congratulations to Bethany Davis, Deborah Schindler Dingledy, Stephanie Romig, Rosanne Tucker-Gilliam, Madelon Willard, and Michelle Vechinsky! Each of these Giveaway winners will receive a complete set of six signed, personalized, first-release Caroline Books, published by American Girl.

Winners were chosen at random from all entries here on Sites & Stories and on my Facebook Author page.  Thanks to all who entered!

Gratitude Giveaway

November 29, 2017

In honor of my young readers, I’ve decided to hold a Six Books For Six Readers Giveaway!

Each of the six lucky winners will receive a complete set of six signed, hardcover, first-release, beautifully illustrated Caroline books, published by American Girl.

To enter, leave a comment below before Midnight, US Central time, Thursday, November 30, 2017. One entry per person. Winners must provide the name of a reader or library so that I may personalize the books.
Winners will be chosen at random from among all entries here and on my Facebook Author page, and announced on December 1.

Pendarvis – Part 2

November 21, 2017

The last post highlighted the three most famous historic structures at Pendarvis Historic Site, Polperro, Pendarvis, and Trelawny. All played a role in the 8th Chloe Ellefson Mystery, Mining For Justice.  But there’s more to see.

Pendarvis Historic Site

After leaving those buildings, steps lead up the hill to the upper property.

Pendarvis Historic Site

Looking back, over the rooftops, you can see the pool across the street from Pendarvis. It was a CCC project, and some of the stones came from dismantled cottages. Pendarvis house is on the right in the foreground.

Another building featured in the mystery is the row house on the upper property.

Pendarvis Historic Site

The upper rooms on the right are used for staff offices (including Claudia’s in Mining For Justice.) The cabin on the left end was home to the Martin family. When renovating the row house Robert Neal and Edgar Hellum created a replica Cornish pub called a Kiddleywink in the cellar.

Pendarvis Historic Site

The pub comes to life during special events.

The historic site also owns property across the street that was once covered with mining operations. Pick up a walking tour guide at the visitor center before setting out.

Pendarvis Historic Site

You’ll have to use your imagination to picture the hill with no trees—just the diggings of miners searching for lead.

The hill is pockmarked with depressions left by miners digging out shelters for themselves.

Pendarvis Historic Site

The easiest badger hole to see in this photo is in the upper right corner—the depression where trees are now growing.

You’ll also find evidence of later mining ventures. A large zinc mine was operated here from 1906 to 1913.

Pendarvis Historic Site

The old equipment and the beautiful building date to the zinc mine era.

I hope this mini-tour will help you picture the action in Mining For Justice. Even better—go see Pendarvis for yourself!  The site buildings are open seasonally, but Mine Hill is accessible all year.

Pendarvis – Part 1

November 15, 2017

It’s lovely when readers tell me that after reading one of the Chloe mysteries, they toured the historic site or museum spotlighted in the book. Pendarvis, the site featured in Mining For Justice, the 8th Chloe Ellefson mystery, is a great place to visit!

Pendarvis

For those who aren’t able to make the trip, here’s a mini cyber-tour of the site.  (Warning:  includes mild spoilers.)

Polperro House features unusual architecture.

Pendarvis Historic Site

The lower floor features exhibits of mining equipment.

Pendarvis

A steep flight of steps leads to the upper level, which is furnished to reflect a Cornish immigrant family in the 1830s.

Polperro - Pendarvis

Polperro

Here’s the top of the staircase.

Polperro - Pendarvis Historic Site

Polperro

This house also includes a root cellar dug into the hill behind.

Pendarvis

From there, a walkway leads from Polperro…

Pendarvis Historic Site

to the next houses on the tour, Pendarvis and Trelawny.  Both are traditional stone cottages.

Pendarvis Historic Site

The back door to Pendarvis leads into the kitchen…

Pendarvis house

then on into the parlor/bedroom.

Pendarvis

Looking to the right as you enter the main room.

 

Pendarvis

Looking to the left. The hatch above the bed leads to a crawl space.

The final house on Shake Rag Street, Trelawny, tells the story of Bob Neal and Edgar Hellum, whose efforts to preserve old buildings lead to Pendarvis Historic Site—and launched a preservation ethic in Mineral Point that continues to this day.

Pendarvis Historic Site

The path to Trelawny.

Formal exhibits describe how the men used the buildings.

Trelawney

The photos were taken during the period when the men ran a nationally-renowned restaurant featuring traditional Cornish food.

While other rooms show how the house looked when the men were in residence.

Trelawney

 

I hope this photo tour helps you visualize the action in Mining For Justice. Visit the site website to learn more about visiting Pendarvis yourself.  Visit my website to learn more about the Chloe Ellefson mysteries.

Next time:  the rest of Pendarvis!

Bal Maidens

October 23, 2017

Many of the Chloe Ellefson mysteries, which are set in the 1980s, include a plotline set further in the past as well. The 8th adventure, Mining For Justice, features Cornish immigrants who arrived in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, in the 1830s. Most were mining families, attracted by news of lead deposits in the southwestern part of what is now the state of Wisconsin.

I knew I wanted to create a strong Cornish woman for the historical plotline. And I decided to begin her tale in Cornwall so I could quickly establish both her strength (physical, and of character) and her vulnerability.

Readers meet Mary Pascoe when she is eleven years old and working as a bal maiden—bal, meaning “mine” in Cornish, and maiden referring to young or unmarried women. Bal maidens did manual labor on the surface of mine sites, processing ore.

Note the female workers in the foreground.  (“Dolcoate Copper Mine” engraved by J.Thomas after a picture by Thomas Allom, published in Devon & Cornwall Illustrated, 1832. Steel engraved print, hand-colored later.)

Women in the far southwestern regions of Great Britain have likely done tin and copper mine work for centuries, and written records date to the 13th century. In the 1800s it was common for girls to begin at about ten years of age, but documented cases show that a few started doing mine work as young as six years old.

Three Bal Maidens.  (Woodcut, Peeps into the Haunts and Homes of the Rural Poulation of Cornwall, 1879.)

The work was difficult, sometimes dangerous, and often done in the open air, exposing workers to harsh weather. Some of the duties included spalling (breaking ore into smaller pieces with long-handled hammers),

(Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, 1858)

and cobbing (breaking washed and sorted ore into even smaller pieces with a different hammer).

(Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, 1858)

Some observers worried not only about physical strain, but about the impact of working in rough conditions, near men, on the female workers. In Mining For Justice, Mrs. Bunney, from the fictional Christian Welfare Society, expresses her concern to Mary:

It’s not only the danger inherent in mining work that troubles me. I’m worried about your soul. You are surrounded daily by rough men who use foul language. Young ladies like yourself should be cultivating modesty and grace. How can you do that here?

Mary was a capable worker, and like many of actual bal maidens who were interviewed, she didn’t especially mind the work.

(Illustrated Itinerary of the County of Cornwall, by Cyrus Redding, 1842)

However, Mrs. Bunney’s questions and indifferent treatment during the fictional interview do leave Mary wondering, for the first time, about her self-worth.  The question stays with her after she immigrates to the territory that would become Wisconsin.

I love having the chance to shine a little candlelight on everyday women who, a century or more ago, did amazing things but left few concrete records behind. I hope my fictional foray into the life of a woman who knew hard work and heartache before leaving Cornwall honors the legacy of Cornwall’s bal maidens.

Miners and bal maidens with typical equipment and protective clothing at Dolcoath, 1890.  (Wikipedia)

# # #

To learn more about bal maidens, visit the Bal Maidens and Mining Women website, which includes a list of books on the subject by Lynne Mayers.

Mining For Justice Event Details!

September 10, 2017

 

Mining For Justice, the 8th Chloe Ellefson Mystery, is officially slated to be released on October 8th. But we’ve got three special early launch activities planned.

 

 

 

RADIO

I’ll join popular host Larry Meiller during his Wisconsin Public Radio program on September 28 from 11:45 AM to 12:30 PM, discussing Mining For Justice and taking calls from listeners.

Larry’s show is streamed live over the Internet and broadcast over WPR’s Ideas Network (AM 930, 970, and FM 88.1, 88.3, 88.7, 88.9, 89.1, 90.3, 90.7, 90.9, 91.3, 91.7, 91.9, 107.9).

Listeners are encouraged to contact the show to ask questions and make comments. This can be done via Facebook or Twitter, by email to talk@wpr.org, or by calling (800) 642-1234.

 

LAUNCH PARTY

The official Mining for Justice launch party will be held on September 28 evening at the Mystery To Me, Madison, WI, 6:00 PM.

Mystery to Me is a fabulous independent bookstore. I’ll introduce the important themes in the book and answer questions. Enjoy Cornish Saffron Buns and door prizes. 

Yes, there is a Green Bay Packer game that evening at 7:30. We’re starting a little earlier than usual—and Mystery to Me has teamed up with Brocah, just down the street.  They offer great TV viewing, and have specials planned too.

 

CORNISH FEST

 

What better place to launch Mining For Justice than the 25th Annual Cornish Fest in Mineral Point, Wisconsin!  The book is largely set at Pendarvis Historic Site in that charming town.

Saturday, September 30, 11 AM  Mining For Justice Book Talk at the Opera House, 139 High Street.  Free.

Join me as I open a window into my creative and research processes, sharing some of the many challenges I encountered as I worked to construct a riveting mystery while remaining true to the real people of history whose lives I sought to honor.  Books will be available for purchase and I will be happy to sign them!

I will also be signing books at Pendarvis Historic Site during their Crowdy Crawn, 1-5 PM.  Free.

Crowdy Crawn is a Cornish expression that refers to entertainment that is “a mixture of things.”  This year’s event will include traditional craft demonstrations such as spinning, quilting, basket making, knitting, and rug hooking, and Cornish storytelling.

And, I will be signing books during the Pasty Supper, starting at 5:30 PM, at the Walker House, 1 Water Street, Mineral Point.

Pasty Supper and More:   Dine on the Walker House Salad, Beef Pasty, Pasty Sauce, Saffron Bun, Figgyhobbin, Wollersheim Red/White Wine or New Glarus Spotted Cow beer, or other Beverage (Soda, Coffee, Tea).  Pizza for kids.  Entertainment with ghosts and Tommyknockers. $14.25 + tax., 9 and under $6.65 + tax

Sunday, October 1, Mining For Justice illustrated program, Pendarvis Education Room, 11 AM.

Join me for a presentation featuring the buildings and artifacts that inspired plot elements.  Books will be available for sale and signing.  And you’ll have plenty of time to tour Pendarvis afterwards!

I am excited about these launch events, and I hope you can join the fun!  I’ve got lots of other events planned for the fall, too.  You can always find more schedule information on my website’s Calendar page.