It my pleasure to welcome Kathleen Ernst back to Escape With Dollycas today!
The new Chloe Ellefson Mystery, Death on the Prairie, comes out tomorrow!
Choosing a Setting
When I began conceptualizing the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mystery series, I knew I wanted my protagonist to be a collections curator at Old World Wisconsin. OWW is a large living history museum where I once worked, so I had that setting locked in my mind.
I also thought it would be fun to get Chloe out and about at times as the series progressed. I loved the early Anna Pigeon books from Nevada Barr, and eagerly anticipated each as a chance to vicariously experience a new national park. I wanted my series to introduce special historic sites and museums to readers.
The new Chloe mystery, Death on the Prairie, is the sixth. As the series has grown I’ve been delighted to receive readers’ suggestions for future settings. Equally delightful are invitations from staff at various historic sites and museums.
But choosing a setting for each new book is a complicated thing—especially since it’s not the first element I consider.
The most important factor is where my main characters are, emotionally speaking, at the end of the last book. Chloe usually takes center stage, but police officer Roelke McKenna is also a recurring character. In each book Chloe and Roelke discover things about themselves, and about each other. They grow emotionally. I want their journey to be reflected in the mystery plot, which has to do with setting.
In Death on the Prairie, Chloe embarks on a road trip to visit all of the homesites dedicated to Laura Ingalls Wilder, her favorite author. If you’ve read Laura’s books you know that the struggle to find a home is a strong recurring theme. I’ve wanted to write about the Laura sites for years, but I needed to wait until Chloe and Roelke were at a point where the issue of finding a home had resonance for them.
I also need a site or museum that has enough landscape, if you will, to support a mystery with lots of twists and turns. Old World Wisconsin is spread on 576 acres of land within a state forest—the largest outdoor museum of rural life in the United States. Over sixty structures have been moved and fully restored, including ten working farms and a crossroads village. All that provides plenty of room for Chloe to get into trouble.
The other sites Chloe visits are equally rich. The Light Keeper’s Legacy was largely set on an uninhabited island in Lake Michigan. Heritage of Darkness was set at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, housed in a big historic structure with an outdoor division of old buildings too. Tradition of Deceit was partly set in an abandoned industrial flour mill in Minneapolis, which historians were planning to turn into the Mill City Museum. Now that setting provided ample opportunity for excitement!
As much as I love one-room log cabins—and the people who have preserved them—I need more real estate to support a book. That doesn’t mean I can’t include such a cabin in a story, but it won’t work as a primary setting.
I also avoid historic structures that are, for one reason or another, a source of current conflict within a community. Is a town board divided on whether to keep funding the local museum? Is the debate causing hurt feelings and animosity among neighbors? I might one day fictionalize the kernel of dissent, but I don’t want to wade into a real debate about a real town and historic site.
The series starts in 1982 (when my museum career started), and my general plan is to write four books for each calendar year. The 7th Chloe mystery, which I’m writing now, is set in the summer of 1983. After beginning it I got an intriguing invitation that will likely lead to a mystery, but I think that particular book will also work best if it’s set in the summer. That means I have to wait several years before settling in on that.
Finally, I have to care about a place to choose it for a setting. I will spend a year or more “living” in that space while I explore its history and write the book. Loving the environment and local stories is a definite plus!
And I have to feel confident that readers will enjoy visiting a particular setting as much as I do. I love hearing from readers who visited the setting after reading a particular Chloe Ellefson mystery. Each book has a dedicated page on my website that includes maps and photos and, in some cases, tour guides to make site visits easy and armchair travel vivid.
My files of possible future locations are ever-growing. Do you have a favorite museum or historic site? I’d love to hear about it!
About Kathleen Ernst
Death on the Prairie is the 6th Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mystery. In addition to the Chloe series, Kathleen has written many books for American Girl, including nine about the historical character she created, Caroline Abbott. She also writes nonfiction, including A Settler’s Year: Pioneer Life Through The Seasons. Over 1.5 million copies of Kathleen’s titles have been sold. The Chloe series has earned a LOVEY Award for Best Traditional Mystery, and several of her mysteries for young readers have been finalists for Edgar or Agatha awards.
Death on the Prairie
(A Chloe Ellefson Mystery)
6th in the Series
Midnight Ink (October 8, 2015)
Paperback: 360 pages
E-Book – ASIN: B015CZD162
Chloe Ellefson and her sister, Kari, have long dreamed of visiting each historic site dedicated to Laura Ingalls Wilder. When Chloe takes custody of a quilt once owned by the beloved author, the sisters set out on the trip of a lifetime, hoping to prove that Wilder stitched it herself.
But death strikes as the journey begins, and trouble stalks their fellow travelers. Among the “Little House” devotees are academic critics, greedy collectors, and obsessive fans. Kari is distracted by family problems, and unexpected news from Chloe’s boyfriend jeopardizes her own future. As the sisters travel deeper into Wilder territory, Chloe races to discover the truth about a precious artifact—and her own heart—before a killer can strike again.
If you are a fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder you know there subsets to the fan base. The group that loves both the books and the television show, those that love the books but not the television show, those that loved the show but probably never read the books. Chloe Ellefson and her sister, Kari are in the book loving group. A friend has just given Chloe a quilt that supposedly made by Little House author to authenticate. The timing is perfect because Chloe has been asked to speak during a tour around the Midwest visiting all the places Laura and her family lived. Chloe invites her sister along and they embark on the journey of there dreams. Both are so excited as they reach their first destination but one of the traveler has some sort of attack and dies before the event even gets started. Chloe tries to help and she soon realizes this death was no accident. The tour continues but trouble follows them. Soon Chloe is looking for more than provenance for her quilt. She is on the trail of a killer.
I am a fan of both the Laura Ingalls Wilder books and the television show. I loved the Olesons, especially when the Mr. stood up to the Mrs. I am also a fan of Chloe Ellefson Mysteries. It started because they are set in Wisconsin but grew because I love Chloe and all the drama she gets involved in. I also like how real her relational with Roelke is, they take one step forward and sometimes two steps back, but you know they truly love and support each other. This time he is dealing with something back in Wisconsin while she is traveling and since the book is set in 1983 there are no cell phones so communication isn’t easy. Kari is also dealing with something and even in the same room she and Chloe are not communicating.
What makes this story interesting is that that the group is traveling from state to state, so the crimes of murder and vandalism fall into different police jurisdictions so it is hard for law enforcement to bring all the clues together, but Chloe is putting them together and putting herself in danger.
Kathleen Ernst always blends history with fiction in a very entertaining way. The other travelers and those guiding the tours were very detailed and unique. I could picture them easily. The mystery is thoughtfully plotted and I was surprised by the ending.
I did not realize that all of these historic sites existed. Now I want to take the tour myself, no dead bodies please.
The author is giving 1 copy of this book away!!
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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. Receiving a complimentary copy in no way reflected my review of this book. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”