Archive for the ‘MUSEUMS’ Category

Chloe Tours at Vesterheim!

October 21, 2018

Exciting news!  Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum has scheduled two special tours based on the fourth Chloe Ellefson mystery, Heritage of Darkness.

Here’s the scoop on both tours:

November 10, 2018 | 1:00-4:00 p.m.

Location: Begin at Vesterheim’s main building lobby

Join us for mystery and intrigue at the museum!

This tour is for fans of Kathleen Ernst’s Chloe Ellefson Mystery Series. Kathleen’s fourth book in the series Heritage of Darkness, is set at Vesterheim Museum.

The special tour includes:
• Vesterheim Museum admission
• Guided tour to see Vesterheim artifacts and buildings featured in the mystery
• Special presentation Norwegian Courtship & Betrothal Gifts by woodworker Rebecca Hanna  (Note from Kathleen – Rebecca is wonderful. You’ll love her!)
• Treat break with Norwegian sweets mentioned in the book.

$20 per person

Spoiler alert: Read the book in advance—the ending will be revealed during the tour!

Reservations are due November 3, 2018
To sign up, contact Karla Brown at 563-382-9681 x107, or kbrown@vesterheim.org.

 

Heritage of Darkness Tour

November 30 | 2:00-5:00 p.m.

Location: Begin at Vesterheim’s main building lobby

Join writer Kathleen Ernst for mystery and intrigue at the museum!

This tour is for fans of Kathleen Ernst’s Chloe Ellefson Mystery Series. Kathleen’s fourth book in the series Heritage of Darkness, is set at Vesterheim Museum.

The special tour includes:

• Vesterheim Museum admission
• Guided tour to see Vesterheim artifacts and buildings featured in the mystery
• Special presentation given by Kathleen Ernst “The Chloe Ellefson Mysteries: Behind The Scenes!”
• Treat break with Norwegian sweets mentioned in the book.

 

$25 per person

Spoiler alert: Read the book in advance—the ending will be revealed during the tour!

Reservations are due November 23, 2018
To sign up, contact Karla Brown at 563-382-9681 x107, or kbrown@vesterheim.org.

# # #

I hope you can enjoy one of these special tours. Vesterheim is an amazing museum! I’ll also be signing Chloe books in the gift shop on December 1, from 1-4 PM during Vesterheim’s Norwegian Christmas celebration.

Why Belgians and Lace?

September 3, 2018

The 9th Chloe Ellefson Mystery, The Lacemaker’s Secret, is set in Green Bay and southern Door County, Wisconsin. It features the Belgian immigrants who arrived there in the 1850s.

The primary settings are Heritage Hill Historical Park in Green Bay, where a gorgeous Belgian-American farmhouse has been relocated and restored, and the Belgian Heritage Center in Namur, a wonderful history and cultural center.

Readers often ask how I choose locations, historical topics, and (in most cases) ethnic groups to showcase in each new Chloe Ellefson mystery. This isn’t always easy, as I have a long and ever-growing list of historic sites and museums I want to write about.

So how did Belgians and lace rise to the top of the list?

First, I only write about places I think readers would enjoy hearing about, and perhaps visiting. Heritage Hill Historical Park has preserved some phenomenal buildings, and my favorite is the Belgian Farm.

Massart Farm, Heritage Hill

The lovely Belgian Farm at Heritage Hill Historical Park previously belonged to the Massart family in Kewaunee County, WI.

Also, the Belgian Heritage Center in Namur is an incredible example of what a group of dedicated volunteers can do to preserve and share their history and cultural heritage. I first considered the Center a research stop, but decided I wanted to feature it in the book itself (even though I had to fictionalize its time of establishment to do so.)

BelgHeritageCenter

The Belgian Heritage Center is located in the former St. Mary of the Snows Catholic church, located in the community of Namur, in Door County, WI.

The other critical factor is how well the setting/topic of a new book can help reflect the personal journeys that main characters Chloe Ellefson and Roelke McKenna are taking in the series—together and individually. I think a lot about where they are emotionally at the end of the previous book, and where I want them to be by the end of the new book. I try hard to make the place and mystery plot reflect that.

One of the first things I learned about Belgian immigrants was that faith played a big role in their lives and communities.

Le Mieux Chapel, UWGB

It was common for Belgian immigrant families to build small chapels on their properties. This is the Le Mieux Chapel, in Green Bay, WI.

At the end of the previous book, Mining For Justice, Chloe and Roelke needed to consider what “having faith” meant in their relationship.

Despite all this careful thinking and planning, sometimes pure serendipity plays a role in book development as well. While attending a mystery conference a couple of years ago I met Bev, an avid mystery reader who knows a lot about lacemaking, and works with the lace curator at the National Museum of American History. She asked, would I be interested in touring the collection? Why, yes, indeed I would.

Karen

Karen, lace curator, shows me one of the many fabulous pieces in the National Museum of American History’s collection in Washington, DC.

I knew nothing about Belgium’s bobbin lace industry before my visit. The pieces of lace I saw were amazing. The stories I heard were compelling. Ideas about how bobbin lace might be featured in a future Chloe book started taking shape in my mind.

I hope The Lacemaker’s Secret might serve as a quiet tribute to the courage and tenacity of the early Belgian immigrants. Many of their descendants still live in northeast Wisconsin.

During the coming weeks I’ll share more behind-the-scenes information about the book, and its topics and themes. I’m excited about readers finally getting the chance to dive into The Lacemaker’s Secret

To learn about the book’s launch events, see my online Calendar.

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.

ToD-WashburnCrosbySepiaPrayerCycleSlide500x261w

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.

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.

The Heirloom Murders – A Retrospective

February 13, 2018

Welcome back to the behind-the-scenes look at the Chloe Ellefson mysteries! Up today: The Heirloom Murders, second in the series.

I knew where I wanted to go after wrapping up the first book, Old World Murder—Green County, Wisconsin, famous for its Swiss heritage. My father’s parents were born and raised in Switzerland, so that was a natural draw.

 

Fondue dinners in New Glarus became “research trips.”

Me and Mr. Ernst, New Glarus Hotel.

Spotlighting Swiss heritage, and places like the Swiss Historical Village & Museum and the National Historic Cheesemaking Center, satisfied my wish to celebrate Wisconsin’s cultural heritage and museums.

It was great fun to learn more about sap sago and other aspects of Swiss cheesemaking. And the timing was good—staff and volunteers at the Cheesemaking Center in Monroe were restoring the Imobersteg Farmstead Cheese Factory on their grounds while I was writing the book.

I knew nothing about heirloom plants, and how much diversity we’ve lost, until I went to work at Old World Wisconsin in 1982. I was fascinated by the topic, and the role historic sites around the world play in preserving genetic diversity. As I considered what aspect of museum work to showcase, heirloom plants and rare-breed livestock seemed like a good fit.

Antique apples like these may not look perfect, but they have more taste than some types bred to look good over long transports.

I’d known about the legendary Eagle Diamond, and thought it would be fun to fictionalize the story of its discovery and eventual theft. This book was the first in the Chloe series to include a thread of historical fiction, braided with the more contemporary plot strands. Reader feedback was positive, and I’ve used this approach in most of the later books.

Eagle Diamond

Five views of the Eagle Diamond. (Wikipedia)

Many authors say that the second book in the series is the hardest to write. (The first was written on speculation, without a contract; suddenly, there’s a deadline imposed on #2.)  The Heirloom Murders wasn’t harder to write, but it was challenging to market. The overall plot involved a woman’s death, a stolen diamond, Swiss green cheese, and heirloom gardening. Try summing that up in a concise but appealing way! And that’s without mentioning the main characters’ personal lives.

My original title for this book was “Deadly as Diamonds.” My editor changed it because another author with the same press had a book coming out with “diamond” in the title. When I saw him a few months later at a conference I gave him a hard time for “stealing” my key title word. Turns out his original title hadn’t included the word “diamond” at all, but it was changed for a similar reason!

SPOILER ALERT – plot points are discussed below!

The first thing I do when planning a book is think about the main characters’ emotional growth. Just when Chloe was finally moving on after what happened in Switzerland, Markus shows up. Chloe and Markus have a great deal in common.  Chloe and Roelke, not so much. That provided some good conflict.

A number of readers let me know that they particularly enjoyed meeting Johann and Frieda Frietag, even though they had a small role. That was a good reminder that minor characters need just as much care and complexity as the main ones!

I imagined Frieda bustling about this kitchen when Chloe and Markus visit. Swiss Historical Village & Museum, New Glarus.

The main mystery plot about Bonnie Sabatola’s death came from a late-night talk I had with an Eagle police officer. I was doing a second-shift ridealong and when we got back to the station, the conversation somehow turned to cases that had packed an emotional wallop. While working for another police department, he’d encountered a situation similar to what I described—a murder made to look like suicide.

The questions surrounding the case gave Roelke a lot to work with, and showed his tenacity. I’d already heard from readers who wanted to see more of him.  I hope his fans enjoyed his role in bringing the killer to justice. However, this book also revealed his trouble with anger management. Roelke threatens Markus with physical harm, and kicks Simon Sabatola. As an author, that may have been a risky choice, but I wanted Roelke to be a complex character, struggling with real issues.

So, what did you think? If read books one and two in order, did you want Chloe to end up with Markus, or Roelke? Did you understand Roelke’s anger, or was that indefensible? Was justice served? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

You can explore relevant people, places, and the past on my webpage for The Heirloom Murders. Resources include a Google map, a Locations Guide, full Discussion Guide, a recipe for Swiss Pear Bread, and links to lots of additional background material. Happy reading!

National Historic Cheesemaking Center. Photo by Mr. Ernst.

Wisconsin’s Civil War Draft

June 29, 2017

The 7th Chloe Ellefson Mystery, A Memory of Muskets, features the challenges faced by newly-arrived immigrants during the Civil War. Two plotlines show how German-born immigrants struggled in the 1860s and how a living history site like Old World Wisconsin can interpret those struggles a century and more later.

Larry H. at the Four Mile Inn, Old World Wisconsin, during a reenactment of the draft, sometime in the 1980s. Note the lottery wheel on the table.

One challenge that divided Wisconsin’s German-American community was the announcement of a draft in 1862. Many men of German birth or descent had already enlisted. Other German immigrants were vehemently opposed to compulsory military service—especially those who had left Europe to avoid just that.

This print shows a draft taking place in New York City. (Library of Congress)

Wisconsin was told to supply over 47,000 additional men to the Union Army. Governor Salomon, hoping to avoid conscription, protested that Wisconsin had already furnished five more regiments than previously required. He also predicted that if the draft could be postponed until after the autumn harvest, voluntary enlistments would rise (which proved true.) But in August, 1862, Salomon was ordered to begin the draft in counties where quotas had not been met.

A draft officer with a different style of lottery box. (Library of Congress)

Resistance to the draft was strongest in several counties along the Lake Michigan shore, where many German and Irish Catholics lived. Protests erupted in Sheboygan and West Bend. In Port Washington, a riot turned violent.

These ballots on display at the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum were used in Janesville, WI. Each eligible man wrote his name on a disc. Note the tool used to cut them.

The Wisconsin draft was largely unsuccessful. More than a third of the men drafted simply failed to report. Others purchased substitutes.

This draft drum was also used in Janesville.  (Wisconsin Veterans Museum)

And not all the opposition came from eastern Wisconsin. Sheila R., a Chloe reader who is an archivist at the Walnut Creek Historical Society (Walnut Creek, CA), kindly shared several letters she’s transcribed. They were written by David Seely of Elk Grove, Lafayette County, in the southwestern part of the state, to his children in California:

“Oh Ben and Emily what a Sad war this is. …There was a draft here last week of 160 men out of this county, 5 from this grove. There is a good deal of fus (sic) and I understand there is a Company of soldiers at Darlington to force the drafted men into the service as they are not willing go. A good many have run away. Some to Canada and the balance not heard from…” (Dec. 18, 1862)

“They have not been able to force the drafted men from this State into the ranks, we will be in a war here before long if things don’t Change for the better—if the north can’t whip the south the war ought to Cease and North and South compromise on some sort of terms…” (February 7, 1863)

“The people don’t pay any attention to the Draft—I don’t think 500 soldiers could take one drafted man out of this county— the people here are determined to stand up to their Rights and Resist Tyranny.” (February 15, 1863)

“All drafted men are getting their $300.00 to buy out from the service, and those that Cant Raise it will have to go poor Devils.” (November 23, 1863)

Clearly, this was an important issue during the war.

Reenactments can be a fun way to learn about not only battles and military tactics…

Old World Wisconsin.

…but social issues and homefront activities—like the draft—as well.

Mary K. and Bev B. showing the type of relief activities undertaken by civilians, Sanford House, Old World Wisconsin.

I hope A Memory of Muskets:  A Chloe Ellefson Mystery can do the same thing.

Laura Land Tour: Bonus!

February 14, 2016

It’s been great fun to showcase the Laura Ingalls Wilder homesites featured in Death on the Prairie: A Chloe Ellefson Mystery. There are also a few sites I wasn’t able to include (much as I wanted to).

If you’re driving from Pepin, WI, to Walnut Grove, MN, an easy detour takes you to the Spring Valley Methodist Church Museum.

Methodist Church Museum

In 1873, Almanzo Wilder’s parents moved their family from New York to Spring Valley, MN. Six years later Almanzo moved to South Dakota, where he married Laura. After multiple tragedies, Almanzo’s parents evidently encouraged Almanzo, Laura, and daughter Rose to recuperate in Spring Valley. They arrived in May, 1890, and stayed until October, 1891.

Methodist Church MuseumThe museum includes exhibits about the extended Wilder family, as well as other items of local interest.

If you’re heading west, and have even more time for a detour, consider a stop in Vinton, IA, where Mary Ingalls attended the Iowa College for the Blind.

Mary Ingalls School Site

I understand there are exhibits inside. The old building was closed for repairs when I visited, but I enjoyed imagining Mary on the campus.

Mary Ingalls School Site

And finally, Farmer Boy readers should keep the Wilder Homestead in Malone, NY on their travel wish list.

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Almanzo’s boyhood home has been beautifully restored.

Wilder Homestead

We owe another debt of thanks to the local residents who formed the Laura and Almanzo Wilder Association, and purchased the land in the 1980s. Archaeological studies determined that the house was original.

Wilder Homestead

During my tour, it was very easy to picture the Wilder family in those rooms. (Alas, no interior photos allowed.) My favorite moment may have been examining the parlor wallpaper for traces of stove blacking.

The original outbuildings were gone, so the Wilder Association has replicated those structures. They relied on sketches Almanzo made for Laura when she wrote Farmer Boy.

Wilder Homestead

Since so many scenes from Farmer Boy take place in the barns, that part of the tour was equally poignant.

Wilder Homestead

The site is also special because the local landscape remains rural.

Wilder Homestead

Wilder HomesteadI expect the Wilders saw deer in the orchard too.

* * *

AMeet Caroline: An American Girln aside:  Malone, NY, is not close to any other Laura sites. However, it is an easy drive from Sackets Harbor, NY, setting for my Caroline Abbott books from American Girl.

And, I’ve yet to visit the Keystone Area Historical Society in South Dakota.  Carrie Ingalls lived here for 35 years, and the museum’s collection includes family memorabilia. I think another road trip is in order…

Laura Land Tour: Walnut Grove, MN

December 6, 2015

In 1874, when Laura Ingalls was seven, her parents purchased 172 acres of land two miles north of Walnut Grove, MN. As readers of On The Banks of Plum Creek know, the family moved into a dugout on a rise above the creek.

My older sister and I visited together—just as Chloe and her older sister Kari do in Death on the Prairie:  A Chloe Ellefson Mystery.

Plum Creek

In 1947 Garth Williams, tapped to illustrate a new edition of the Little House series, identified the dugout location on a farm.  As I’ve heard the story, he knocked on the farmhouse door and explained his discovery to the surprised family.

Plum Creek

Not only has that family graciously permitted Laura seekers to visit their property, they have enhanced the locale to help guests imagine Laura’s time here. Their generosity of spirit—and work—have made this one of the most special stops along the Laura trail.

The property is still a working farm. Admittance to the Dugout Site is on the honor system.

Plum Creek

A narrow lane leads to a small parking area. Some of the cropland has been turned back to prairie.

Plum Creek

Oh my, Chloe thought as she got out of the car, this is the place. Prairie grasses and flowers rippled in the breeze. Birds were serenading the new day. And just ahead, lined by mature trees—

“It’s Plum Creek,” Kari whispered reverently.

Plum Creek

A modern bridge provides safe access.

Plum Creek

Nothing remains of the dugout but a hollow in the ground…

DOP-PlumCreekDugoutSign-Color300dpi

…but wild plums, dragonflies, and other landscape elements have changed little since Laura’s time here.

Plum Creek

Plum Creek

Walking trails allow visitors to wander in this special place, and to imagine young Laura at play.

Plum Creek

A couple of picnic tables are available, but that’s it. No souvenir shops or other modern intrusions. It’s lovely.

DSCN9629

To learn more (and buy souvenirs), head to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in nearby Walnut Grove.

DSCF0098

One room is devoted to the family’s experience.  Some of my favorite artifacts on exhibit include a sketch Laura made from memory many years later…

Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, Walnut Grove

Laura’s sewing basket…

Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, Walnut Grove

And some of Laura’s china.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, Walnut Grove

Guests can learn more about the people mentioned and/or fictionalized in the books.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, Walnut Grove

An exhibit devoted to Garth Williams’s illustrations shows how some of the images evolved.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, Walnut Grove

Another room displays memorabilia from the Little House On The Prairie television series.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, Walnut Grove

The museum complex also includes a number of other buildings, and a covered wagon display.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, Walnut Grove, MN

(Note:  I’m very grateful that photography is permitted at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, so I can share these glimpses with distant Laura fans.)

When I visit Walnut Grove, I always have lunch here. Just because.

Walnut Grove, MN

Travelers should note, however, that Walnut Grove is a small town with limited amenities. More information about the Dugout Site, the Museum, the annual pageant (more about that later) and visitor services can be found HERE.

The drive to Walnut Grove from the Masters Hotel in Burr Oak, IA, takes about four hours. If you’ve got a bit of extra time, and want to experience all things Laura, build in a stop at the Spring Valley Methodist Church Museum.

Spring Valley Methodist Church Museum

After Laura married Almanzo Wilder, they experienced a number of disastrous heartbreaks and in 1890 briefly moved to Spring Valley, MN, to stay with with Almanzo’s family. Among the local history exhibits are records and documents related to Laura and the Wilder family.

I’ve enjoyed, and learned from, both museums. But if I’m driving through Minnesota and time is short, I’m always drawn back to Plum Creek…

Ingalls Dugout Site

…where the spirit of young Laura Ingalls can always be found.

Plum Creek

For more information about Death on the Prairie, including links to other tour stops, photographs, maps, and much more, please visit my website.

Next stop:  De Smet, South Dakota!