Archive for the ‘Whistler in the Dark’ Category

Whistler In The Dark

May 18, 2013

THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY

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When I attended interpreter training at Old World Wisconsin in the spring of 1982, the Curator of Textiles showed us a photograph of a Wisconsin woman wearing trousers beneath a knee-length skirt. The image shows a woman in a farmyard, staring straight at the camera, with a man and child behind her.

I don’t have permission to post that photograph, but you can see it on the Society’s website HERE. The photo shows a woman who clearly was no stranger to hard physical work, and wasn’t afraid to dress appropriately.

I was fascinated by that image, and knew that one day I would write a story about the reform dress movement. I had an opportunity to do that with my second History Mystery, Whistler in the Dark.

When people think of 19th-century women wearing trousers, most think of Amelia Bloomer. She was one of the reformers who believed that women’s cumbersome fashions were both impractical and a symbol of women’s inequality.

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The movement was prominent in the 1850s & 1860s. Because it was so controversial, many activists decided that women should work first to obtain the right to vote, and the dress reform movement faded.

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The Reform Dress movement inspired more than one composer.

Many of the women who campaigned for dress reform were well educated urban dwellers. Reform movement leaders like Amelia Bloomer are often celebrated.

But other women quietly chose to wear trousers because their work or environment made pants not only more practical, but safer as well. I’ve read copies of The Sibyl, a 19th-century newspaper promoting dress reform, and found the letters to the editor particularly revealing.  Some of the correspondents wrote of wearing their Reform Dress while working on their farms, but only out of sight of neighbors.

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Here are two clippings that reveal why some people thought women’s clothing style were in need of reform.

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A snippet from The Sibyl, the newspaper devoted to Dress Reform.

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From a memoir, Glimpses of an Earlier Milwaukee, by Bill Hooker.

But there was lots of opposition, too.

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A cartoonist’s view of dress reform. Some women who dared wear their trousers in public did get pelted with tomatoes or eggs. (Punch, 1851)

Once I’d settled on a theme, I considered location. I knew I wanted my Dress Reformer, Emma’s Mother, to be a working woman. I set the book in Colorado because after the Civil War, opportunities for a newspaper editor like her would have been more likely in the West.

And I wanted to help readers think about all sides of the issue. Emma is not be an enthusiastic supporter of the Dress Reform movement. I also created other strong and, I hope, admirable women characters, such as Tildy and Miss Amaretta—each with their own ideas.

As always, doing research on location was an adventure. Twin Pines is a fictional town, but in my mind it is geographically and historically similar to Golden, Colorado.

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Clear Creek History Park in Golden, Colorado.

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This interpreter showed me the type of scales used to measure gold.

After visiting historic sites and museums, I also spent some time simply exploring the landscape, so I could get a sense of how Emma—a Chicago girl—might feel about her new home.

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What a beautiful area to investigate!

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The twin pines.

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Can you imagine Emma climbing one of these trees in a long skirt?

Writing Whistler in the Dark let me think about the fascinating issue of Dress Reform, learn about women in the newspaper business, and go hiking in beautiful Colorado. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!

**

PS:  When Whistler in the Dark was published, my friend Joan Haight made me a Reform Dress to wear to events.

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This was taken at American Girl Place in Chicago.

However, when the book was honored as a WILLA Award Finalist by Women Writing the West, I chose to wear more modern attire!

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American Girl and Me

May 17, 2012

I know lots of American Girl fans are eager to learn more about the new Historical Character coming this fall. Since I created the character, I am too! Her name was announced this week:

I had a marvelous time writing six books about Caroline. While I can’t tell you anything more about her yet, I can answer one of the most common questions I hear from readers:  “How did you get started writing for American Girl?”

Actually, I first connected with American Girl long before anyone at the company knew that I was a writer! When the first books and dolls were introduced in 1986, I was working as a curator at Old World Wisconsin, a large outdoor museum. During the day I got all kinds of hands-on experience with historical activities, from gardening to cooking to crafts. I also had the fun of conducting research to support new events and programs at the museum.

That’s me working at one of the Norwegian farms at Old World Wisconsin.

In the evenings, I wrote historical novels. During those early years I was practicing, learning the skills I needed to be a successful writer. And I had big dreams about that!

While American Girl was developing its first Historical Characters, I got a few telephone calls from researchers at the company. They called me because I was a curator, not knowing that I was very interested in writing historical stories. Sometimes the researcher was looking for a particular antique to use as a model for an object in one of the stories. In each case, I would check the antiques in Old World Wisconsin’s collection to see if we had something that might be helpful. If so, I’d take a photograph and send it to American Girl.

Some of old objects are on display at Old World Wisconsin.  Many more are kept in storage.

Once or twice someone from American Girl read me a short paragraph from one of the stories being developed. They wanted to see if the specific details about some process or activity were accurate. I could tell that everyone involved with American Girl cared a lot about getting the details right.

Whenever I got one of those calls, I was happy to help. And each time I hung up the phone I’d think, I’d love to write American Girl stories one day!

After working at Old World Wisconsin for twelve years, I moved on and took a job developing programs for public television. I was still writing in my spare time, and in 1996, my first historical novel was published.

Soon after that, editors at American Girl decided to develop a new line of books called History Mysteries. Someone who worked at the company knew of my interest in historical fiction, and she recommended me. The editor in charge of the History Mysteries called and asked if I’d like to try writing one. That call was a huge surprise.

Of course I said yes!

That was the first time I tried writing a mystery.  It took me a couple of attempts to get the story put together well, but in time American Girl accepted my manuscript.

This was my first book written for American Girl. The main character, Suzette, lives in northern Wisconsin

Later I wrote two more History Mysteries, Whistler in the Dark and Betrayal at Cross Creek.  After Betrayal at Cross Creek was published, the company ended the History Mystery series.

The editors knew how much readers were enjoying the historical mysteries, though. They decided to publish mysteries about the main Historical Characters. My editor invited me to write a mystery about Kit.

It was a real privilege to write a story about such a beloved character! I worked hard to develop a story that fit well with the first six Kit books. I traveled to Cincinnati to learn as much as I could about Kit’s time and setting.

Danger at the Zoo was the first book I wrote about one of American Girl’s Historical Characters.

In time I also wrote a second Kit mystery, as well as mysteries about Josefina, Kirsten, and Molly. (You can find stories and pictures about all these books on my website:  http://kathleenernst.com)

This is my most recent American Girl book. It was fun to write a story about Molly!

I was having a fine time writing these books.  Then, one day, I got another telephone call from American Girl.  Editors were ready to plan a new Historical Character.  Would I be interested in writing the books?

Of course I said yes!

Next month, I’ll share a bit about how that project developed.  Stay tuned….