Archive for the ‘The Light Keeper’s Legacy’ Category

Washington Island Cook Book

June 8, 2015

I was thrilled to receive a copy of this community cookbook from a thoughtful reader. It’s a first edition, copyright 1947, compiled by the Trinity Lutheran Ladies’ Aid.

Washington Island Cook Book

“At long last your requests for favorite recipes of discriminating hostesses have been compiled in a ‘Washington Island Cook Book.’ The Island has been known for its outstanding homemakers, who specially (sic) delight in serving coffee to all who cross their thresholds.” (From the Preface)

Several scenes from The Light Keeper’s Legacy are set on Washington Island, and the rest are set on Rock Island—visible in the upper right corner of the map on the cover. Both are off the tip of Wisconsin’s Door County peninsula.

Light Keeper's Legacy by Kathleen Ernst

My husband and I have served as volunteer docents at Pottawatomie Lighthouse, in Rock Island State Park, for the past seven summers.

Pottawatomie Lighthouse

The lighthouse has been restored to its 1910 appearance, when Charles and Mollie Boshka lived there with their two children.

Charles and Mollie Boshka

This cookbook is a treasure for several reasons. First, it includes a number of recipes submitted by Mollie Boshka. Each one is a  tangible link back to that lovely woman in the photo.

Ice Box Rolls

MB's Sour Cream Cookies

MB's Corned Beef

It also reflects the families who settled on Washington Island in the mid-late 1800s and early 1900s.  Many of the women’s surnames are still common on the island today. Many of the recipes reflect Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, and Icelandic heritage.

Swedish Tea Ring

Icelandic Pancakes

Toward the end of The Light Keeper’s Legacy, a Washington Island friend makes Icelandic Pancakes for Chloe.

The recipes also capture an era when old traditions were blending with new.  The cookbook includes recipes for things like head cheese and vinerbrod (Danish pastry), and many include little or no instruction. The assumption was that anyone using the cookbook would just know how to put the ingredients together, or how hot the oven should be.

But the book also includes recipes for dishes like Texas Hash (which calls for 3 Tbsp. of something called “Spry”), Spanish Noodles, and several versions of Chop Suey.

Chop Suey Cake

In addition to several main dish recipes for Chop Suey, this one caught my eye. I have no idea how it got the name.

Finally, the book tells a story about the woman who once owned it.  I’ll never know her name, but I’ve got glimpses of her. She received the book from for Christmas in 1848; the inscription is Norwegian.

Washington Island  Cook Book inscription

And she used the book a lot.  Pages are dog-eared and sometimes stained, and she added notes by some of the recipes. It’s fun to imagine her flipping pages, deciding what to prepare for family or friends.

Pineapple Salad Cream Ring

This one made me smile because I grew up eating similar Jello salads.

I’m so grateful that this particular cookbook got saved, and passed from hand to hand…and ended up in my kitchen.

* * *

To read more about the Boshkas, see Making Jam for Mollie.  To learn more about Pottawatomie Lighthouse or Rock Island history, follow The Light Keeper’s Legacy link on the right side of this page.

The Empty Meadow

September 3, 2013

I had intended to write a novel “just” about Pottawatomie Lighthouse in Rock Island State Park. Why look any farther? Pottawatomie has it all:  a fascinating human history, a stunning location, an impressive and beautifully restored structure. My husband Scott and I have done stints as live-in docents for the past five years, so we know it well.

pottawatomie lighthouse

I write the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mystery series. Chloe is a curator at Old World Wisconsin, the large outdoor ethnic museum in Waukesha County where I once served as curator. A series about historic places, the magnificent lighthouse…it was inevitable. Clearly Chloe needed to spend time at Pottawatomie.

So I began planning the mystery novel that would become The Light Keeper’s Legacy. The basic premise:  Chloe travels to Rock Island as a guest curator, charged with developing a furnishings plan during the restoration process. Her peaceful island idyll gets off to a rough start when she discovers a body on the beach.

I wrote the first few chapters. Then something unexpected happened. During a non-docent visit to Rock Island, Scott and I explored the southern end of the island—something we’d never done.

While doing so we visited the site of a former fishing village.

meadow

At one time, perhaps three hundred people lived there.  This interpretive sign suggests what some of the buildings might have looked like.

Fishing village sign

Illustration Rock Island State Park, Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources; artwork by Benjamin Tollefson.

The village didn’t last for long. As men had to go farther from shore to fish, they needed bigger boats and deeper harbors.

Chester Thordarson, the wealthy inventor who purchased most of Rock Island in 1910, restored a couple of the small cottages and cabins still standing at the village site, intending to use them as guest accommodations.

Thordarson-oldest log home in Wis

Photo from Thordarson collection, courtesy Washington Island Historical Archives.

Rock Island oldest log002 - Version 2

Note the same cabin, barely visible on the north side of the cove. Photo from Thordarson collection, courtesy Washington Island Historical Archives.

The same spot today.

The same spot today.

Now, nothing physical remains.  A few shallow depressions—suggesting long-gone foundations—are all that can be seen of the fishing village.

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Yet something does remain, something intangible but compelling. As I walked through the peaceful meadow, I imagined the bustling activity it once held.

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I could almost see the little cabins, almost hear the thuds of a cooper’s mallet and the sweet tones of a Danish lullaby. I could almost smell the smoke of wood fires, the tang of new-caught fish, the wet green scent of drying nets.

Danish wife

As I wandered around the shallow harbor it was easy to imagine English and Irish and Icelandic and Norwegian fishermen hauling their boats onto the cobbled beach.

Danish fishermen

And, as sometimes happens when I’m writing, my vision for the book changed. I created an historical plotline featuring a family of Danish immigrants who settled on the fishing village in 1869. Ragna Anderson, a fictional woman from the Hedebo region of Denmark, became a major character.

Danish women

Ragna’s story is woven with Chloe’s more modern experiences. The two are linked by the lighthouse, and by one of the real families who lived and worked at Pottawatomie Lighthouse. Emily Betts appears in Chloe’s research, and as a character in the historical plotline. My novel is much richer because of the inspiration I found in that “empty” meadow.

On Rock Island, it is very easy to focus only on the magnificent lighthouse, and the equally magnificent Viking Hall and Boathouse built by Chester Thordarson.

boathouse, Rock Island

But those structures present an incomplete picture. Many people came and went from Rock Island without leaving any still-lingering physical evidence behind—European and Yankee fishermen, Pottawatomie and Menomonee and Huron travelers, French traders and explorers.

The same thing is true, of course, throughout Door County—and elsewhere. Next time you travel your favorite back roads, use your imagination and a guidebook or two to explore the landscape. Imagine who might have once peopled the peaceful forest; the tranquil field.  You never know what—or who—you might discover.

Location, Location!

August 5, 2013

Creating a vivid sense of place is one of my top goals when I begin a new Chloe Ellefson mystery. Each features real places that I think are very special.

So I’m excited to announce that—thanks to my husband Scott—you have two new ways to explore The Light Keeper’s Legacy‘s setting.

Light Keeper's Legacy by Kathleen Ernst

First is a Google Map.

TLL-GoogleMapFull448w

You can zoom around, and click on map pins see pop-up photos and descriptions.

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Second is a 12-page Locations Guide with maps and even more photos and descriptions—plus some recommendations for visiting Washington and Rock Islands.

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Both of these new ‘Book Goodies’ are free, and available on my website.  If you can’t visit Washington and Rock Islands, these resources will help you imagine the places described in the book.  If you are able to visit, they’ll help you plan your trip.

TLL-Locations Guide-RockIslandPage448wLocations Guides are also available for Old World Murder and The Heirloom Murders.

Enjoy!

Making Jam For Mollie

June 17, 2013

My husband Scott and I have served as docents at Pottawatomie Lighthouse, setting for The Light Keeper’s Legacy (the third Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites Mystery), for five years now. There are lots of stories to tell. I wove some of my favorites into the book—especially those concerning the Betts family, occupants in the late 1800s.

Visitors touring the lighthouse, however, see the structure as it appeared in about 1910. Charles Boshka was head keeper then.

Charlie Boshka

Charlie Boshka at an earlier posting.

I knew the basic facts of his time there, but until recently, all I knew about his wife Mollie was how lovely she was.

Charles and Mollie Boshka

This was Charlie and Mollie’s wedding photo.

That changed when I had the wonderful pleasure of meeting two of the Boshkas’ descendants. Thanks to the generosity of Connie Sena and Kari Gordon, the handsome couple in the portrait displayed at the lighthouse are a little more real to me now.

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Some sheet music was among the family treasures. Charlie played the violin, and even composed at least a few tunes.

The couple had two children.

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Charlie and Mollie with their son, Lucien Nels, and daughter, Ella Josephine.

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I adore this photograph! It gives a hint of life beyond the daily requirements for lighthouse families.

I was particularly pleased to get glimpses of Mollie. She grew roses.

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Some of Mollie’s roses still bloom at the couple’s home on Washington Island.

And she was a knitter.

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Mollie’s needles…

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…and a closer view of her handiwork.

I hoped to find a lace pattern similar to these, practice over the winter, and knit during my stay at Pottawatomie this year. Time got away from me, so—maybe next year.

However, Connie shared another treasure with me:  Mollie’s recipe for rhubarb jam.

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The week Scott and I traditionally stay as docents at Pottawatomie Lighthouse comes right at the peak of rhubarb season. Perfect.

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That’s me, harvesting from the lighthouse garden.

Other than rhubarb, I brought the fixings for Mollie’s jam. I made a batch the day we arrived at Pottawatomie, and wrote the recipe out on brown paper.

rhubarb jam

Scott said the simmering jam made the whole house smell wonderful!

An added bonus?  The jam was delicious. I kept one jar for display, and we enjoyed the rest on our morning toast all week.

Mollie Boshka’s Rhubarb Jam
1 qt. rhubarb cut up fine
1 qt. sugar
2 oranges – grind rind and all
Let sit on back of stove until juices form.  Then let it boil good for 20 minutes.

Just before you take it off stove put in 1/4 lb. of walnuts, cut up fine
Also grind half a cup of raisins and put in the mixture.

*Note:  I omitted the sugar and added a splash of maple syrup instead. Also, I didn’t have a grinder, so I minced the oranges, walnuts, and raisins with a sharp knife.  Mollie’s reference to letting the rhubarb sit on the back of the stove harkens back to the days when the back burners of a wood-fired cookstove stayed warm; I stirred the rhubarb, oranges, and sweetener over low heat until it began to simmer.  I did not actually can the jam, but I plan to make another batch and freeze it in small containers.

It made me happy to bring a little something of Mollie back to the lighthouse.  And on chilly evenings, I could almost hear Charlie playing violin in the parlor—just as he did a century ago.

Pottawatomie lighthouse parlor

Gratitude Giveaway!

February 7, 2013

My latest Chloe Ellefson mystery, The Light Keeper’s Legacy, has received the 2013 LOVEY Award for Best Traditional Mystery!  This honor was bestowed by a vote of the readers, writers, agents, and publishers attending the Love Is Murder mystery writers’ conference in Chicago, the Midwest’s premier mystery/romantic suspense/thriller gathering.

Author Kathleen Ernst holding LOVEY Award

To celebrate, I’m giving away three special-edition Chloe Ellefson Mysteries totebags.  The bags feature the Chloe series tagline—Living History Can Be Deadly—and an original painting of one of Old World Wisconsin’s restored buildings.  A very talented artist, Tom Redman, created the delightfully atmospheric scene.

Chloe Ellefson Tote Bag

Interested?  Just leave a comment below, and your name will go into the drawing.  I’ll pull three names on Monday evening, February 11th.

I’m truly grateful for all the support I’ve received from readers.  I love what I do, and you make it possible!

LOVEY

UPDATE:  Congratulations to Carolyn C., Cheryl P., and Dixie B., winners in the totebag giveaway.  All three winners entered via my Facebook page.  Thanks to everyone who shared such lovely comments.  This was so much fun we’ll definitely do it again some time!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Library Box

January 21, 2013

“What did the library box look like?”

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The question came up last week when I visited a book group to discuss the 3rd Chloe Ellefson mystery, The Light Keeper’s Legacy.  A library box is featured prominently in the story, linking the historical timeline to the modern one.

A reproduction library box also happens to be my favorite object in Pottawatomie Lighthouse. When I give tours as a volunteer docent, I never fail to share it with guests.

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Photo by Kay Klubertanz.

Joseph St. Andre, who once lived at a lighthouse, explained the system in Living at  Lighthouse:  Oral Histories From the Great Lakes. “The Lighthouse Service had lending libraries. …Boats would take the box from one station to another one.  You had no choice of what library you were going to get. …They were good books.”

The lending libraries arrived in sturdy wooden cases, constructed to withstand the strain of transport from one lighthouse to the next.

Library box, Potawattomie Lighthouse, WI

I’ve heard and read about how precious these traveling trunks were. There may not have been a school accessible to the lighthouse children, especially in the 19th century. At Pottawatomie Lighthouse in Rock Island State Park, setting for The Light Keeper’s Legacy, two women taught school in the cellar during their time there. They no doubt welcomed each fresh installment of reading materials.

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But the libraries contained more than school books. Lighthouse families were often isolated, with long evenings to fill. The librarians who filled the trunks took care to provide a variety of books for all age readers.

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Light keepers and their families took pride in being well-educated. It’s easy for me to imagine how exciting the arrival of the supply ship was. Forget the lamp oil and dried peas; I’d make straight for the new library.

Mr. St. Andre echoed that sentiment when he was interviewed: “…Every time we’d get a library we’d start reading a book and everybody’d grab a book and sit in the corner and read. But you didn’t want to take somebody’s placemarker out of it, that was criminal.”

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Cast Iron and Memories

September 6, 2012

Pottawatomi Lighthouse, the oldest light station in Wisconsin, sits on top of a bluff on Rock Island, in lake Michigan. Rock Island is now a state park, and it provides the setting for my latest Chloe Ellefson mystery, The Light Keeper’s Legacy.

In the mystery, Chloe is hired to write a furnishings plan for the lighthouse.

The lighthouse was occupied until 1946, when the light was automated. Decades passed before an energetic volunteer support group formed to restore the lighthouse. When the Friends of Rock Island (FORI) returned the lighthouse to its 1910 appearance, they had to find period artifacts to furnish the rooms.

My husband and I have had the good fortune to serve as docents, helping visitors imagine life at Pottawatomie.  Here’s Scott talking with guests in the ground floor kitchen.

Although most pieces in the lighthouse came from elsewhere, one major exception can be found in the second floor kitchen. The original cast iron stove had been placed in storage. When the restoration was complete, FORI and park staff hauled the stove out, cleaned it up, and managed to get it back upstairs.

I’d have fond feelings for the stove simply because it is original to the building. But it also helps tell a great story.

And here I am at the old stove in the second story kitchen.

When I give tours, I often ask guests to guess what fuel was used to keep the lamp burning. The two most common answers are whale oil (which was used by the earliest keepers) and kerosene (used in later years). But there was an intermediate fuel, designated by the lighthouse service when whale oil became too expensive. What was combustible, cheap, and readily available in the upper Midwest?

Lard.

The lighthouse was designed to accommodate two families, with a kitchen on each floor. Since the second story kitchen was (obviously) closest to the tower, I imagine that during the lard era keepers constantly kept a kettle of fat simmering on the back of this stove.

Emily Betts, a real woman who lived at Pottawatomie Lighthouse with her family, served as assistant keeper during this time. Decades later, when she was 93, a reporter wrote of asking Emily about her most vivid memories from that era.

“… In cold weather, the oil would thicken and turn white and the light refuse to burn.  Emily and her husband would warm lard oil on the stove, wrap the bowl in hot towels, rush it up the tower stairs, and by keeping up this process the light was persuaded to burn through the long cold nights.”  (Door County Advocate, 12/5/1947)

I simply can’t imagine how she managed. The stairs are very steep. Emily had a large family, and would have been pregnant some of the time. (Her first two children were born at the lighthouse.)

I’ve climbed those stairs in a long skirt. I need one hand to hold the hem high enough that I don’t trip, and the other to clutch the railing.

In time lard gave way to kerosene. When the light was automated, kerosene gave way to electricity. Today a single solar panel on a metal tower powers the light at Pottawatomie station.

But the old iron stove, and Emily Betts’ description in an faded newspaper clipping, remain. They are tangible reminders of the long, cold, dark nights when keepers hurried up the stairs time and again to replenish light and clean congealed grease from the lens…while merchant captains steamed safely through Rock Island passage.

Pottawatomie Lighthouse is open for tours Memorial Day through Columbus Day weekend (October 7 in 2012) . Two ferry trips are required, so advance planning is important. A car ferry runs from the peninsula to Washington Island, and a passengers-only ferry runs from Washington Island to Rock Island.  The lighthouse is about a mile from the dock.

For more information:

Rock Island State Park:  http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/rockisland/

For Ferry information:  http://washingtonisland-wi.com/ferry-schedules/

Water, Water Everywhere, Nor Any Drop To Drink

June 29, 2012

So said Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his famous ballad, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  I suspect that some of the former light keepers at Pottawatomie Lighthouse (Rock Island, WI) muttered the same phrase.

Pottawatomie Lighthouse, built in 1858.

My husband Scott and I have had the privilege of doing docent duty there four times. We are proud members of The Friends of Rock Island (FORI), the volunteer support group which (in collaboration with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources) has done an extraordinary job of preserving, protecting, and interpreting the lighthouse.

The lighthouse has many tales to tell, but one of the stories that I find particularly compelling is the relationship between the people who once tended this lighthouse and water.

Pottawatomie sit on a cliff on Rock Island, in Lake Michigan. In the 1830s, a group of Detroit merchants and shipowners petitioned Congress to establish a light station on the island, in order to guide captains safely through the channel and on into the growing port of Green Bay. The petition was successful, and in 1836, David Corbin took up residence as first keeper.

View from cliff-top.  Beautiful, but a long way down.

It was rugged duty.  There was no easy way down the cliff, so Corbin hauled his water from a more sheltered landing over a mile away. As time permitted, he cleared trees and hacked a lane down to that small bay.  He kept a pony, and likely used it to haul water back to the isolated station.

His stone cottage was so poorly constructed that water condensed on the inner walls. But every gallon needed for cooking, cleaning, watering his garden, tending his pony, and maintaining the light had to be lugged in from the landing or captured from rainfall.

In 1858 a new lighthouse was constructed, designed to house two families. It included a gutter system to capture rainwater from the roof, and store it in cellar cisterns. Residents could pump water into their kitchen—pretty fancy!

Part of the original gutter system.

Rainwater stored in cellar cisterns could be pumped directly into the kitchen.

But by the 1880s, the cisterns failed and were pronounced unrepairable. That period was marked by several seasons of drought. Keepers begged the Lighthouse Service to dig a well. The Service seemed to be unconcerned. Stairs were constructed down the cliff to the beach below.

Some of the original stone steps leading to cliff’s edge.

For decades, families once again hauled every drop of water needed at the station either from the harbor over a mile away, or up 154 steps from the beach below the lighthouse.

And the staircase leading down to the water. (A modern replacement, but you get the idea.)

Old photos show that families kept big gardens. Some raised chickens and cows at the station, and grew hay. They were responsible for keeping the entire station spotless and ready for inspection at any moment. One keeper, William Betts, vented his frustration in the official log:  If the men who pretend to keep up repairs at the light station do not provide for a water supply before long, I shall quit this business. (July 31, 1884)

William’s wife Emily, who served as assistant keeper, appears as a character in my third Chloe Ellefson mystery, The Light Keeper’s Legacy (coming in October).  I wove in mention of the Betts’ frustration with the water situation. My first obligation is to tell an entertaining mystery that keeps readers turning the pages…but I hope that the book also provides a glimpse into the challenges faced by the Betts family and other long-gone keepers.

Joining The Club

October 12, 2011

People who live on Washington Island, off the northern tip of Door County, WI, have been known to tell newcomers that they won’t be true islanders until they stop at Nelsen’s Hall for a shot of bitters. I’d somehow missed the iconic tradition during my visits. But when I decided to place a scene at Nelsen’s in the third Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mystery, The Lightkeeper’s Legacy, I had to remedy that omission.

A venerable landmark.

Danish immigrant Tom Nelsen built the tavern in 1899. He lived to be 90, and credited his long life to his habit of drinking nearly a pint of Angostura Bitters every day. When that pesky Prohibition law went into effect, Nelsen blithely applied for a pharmacist’s license and dispensed bitters as a stomach tonic—despite the fact that it’s about 90 proof. Today, Nelsen’s Hall has the honor of being the state’s oldest legally-operating bar.

The hall was much more then a tavern, though. Over the years it has served as a social center for the island community. Memorabilia that decorates the main room provides lots of reminders.

Photographs and old tools, mounted near the waitstaff station.

Some of the walls are of stovewood construction, as seen in the open section here.

Once, island residents came to Nelson’s to watch movies.  This equipment dates to 1910.

The original bar, dating back to 1850, now showcases old ads.

When my husband Scott and I  visited recently, we told the waitress that we wanted to try the bitters.  She served up two shot glasses filled with a dark reddish liquid, and we tossed ’em back.  Not too bad, I thought.  A second later I realized that my nostrils felt hot.

Nelson’s serves more Bitters than any other location in the world.

We were invited to sign the Bitters Club membership book. The waitress pulled out two membership cards, dipped her thumb in the dregs of my glass, and provided the official seal. Each year more then 10,000 people visit Nelsen’s and join the Bitter’s Club.

Scott and I followed our initiation with dinner, which was quite good—definitely not your basic munchies. I won’t order bitters again, but it was a fun evening. Do you think the IRS will question our bar tab?

Anyway, I like businesses that celebrate tradition.   If you have a favorite, do let me know!  I’m always game for a new adventure.

Beyond Death’s Door

June 16, 2011

Chloe’s off to the lighthouse!

Pottawatomie Lighthouse, Rock Island State Park, WI

Well, she will be at some point, anyway.  It’s always been my plan to get Chloe Ellefson, curator and protagonist in my adult mystery series, out and about. Yes, she’ll stay rooted at Old World Wisconsin. What fun, though, to have her travel to different places!  It will let me showcase some of my favorite historic sites.

For the past three years, my husband Scott and I have been lucky enough to serve as volunteer live-in docents at Pottawatomie Lighthouse, on Rock Island, in Lake Michigan.

Ready for guests.

Pottawatomie is the oldest light station in Wisconsin.  The original 1836 stone cottage and tower were replaced in 1858 by a magnificent lighthouse. Rock Island is a state park. A support group, Friends of Rock Island State Park, worked with the DNR to fund and manage the structure’s restoration.  FORI also coordinates the docent program.

It takes two ferries to reach Rock Island, which is off the tip of Door County—the first from the mainland to Washington Island, and a second from Washington to Rock. It’s well worth the trip.

Swans in Jackson Harbor, Washington Island; taken from the second ferry.

The restoration is magnificent, the setting is spectacular, and I love sharing lighthouse stories with visitors. Scott and I give tours from 10-4 each day. After that, things get pretty quiet.

After hours.

History, beautiful scenery, and long evenings…lets just say that for someone with an over-active imagination, like me, it didn’t take long for plot ideas to start swirling in my brain.

A month or so ago I submitted a proposal to my adult series publisher, Midnight Ink, suggesting that the third book in the series be set on Rock Island. I hadn’t heard anything by the time Scott and I left for our week-long stay. Just before getting on the first ferry—and going out of cell phone range—I checked email. A message from my agent was in my Inbox. Midnight Ink had given the lighthouse book a green light.

The book’s working title is Beyond Death’s Door. Death’s Door is the passage separating mainland Door County from Washington Island. As the name suggests, it’s treacherous.  While the ferry made it’s crossing that morning, I sent thank-you emails to my agent and editor from the middle of Death’s Door. It seemed appropriate.

So at some future date, in book 3, Chloe will be off to Rock Island. She’ll stay at the lighthouse, with no phone, in the off-season when few if any people are on the island. And while of course she’ll encounter murder and mayhem, I suspect she’ll love being there as much as I do.

Fresnel lens and view from the lantern room.

Update:  Book 3, now titled The Lightkeeper’s Legacy, will be out in autumn, 2012.