"Wherever men have lived there is a story to be told." Henry David Thoreau

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Author Interview: Kathleen Ernst

You live in Wisconsin but grew up in Maryland. How did your early life influence your desire to become a writer?

I grew up in a house where books ranked right up there with food and shelter.  My mom was a librarian, and my dad was a voracious reader as well.  I devoured historical fiction from an early age.  My parents took us to lots of museums and historic sites, and before traveling somewhere new, my mother would find historical novels set in the appropriate region or time period. By the time we reached Williamsburg, Plimoth Plantation, etc., that place was already alive in my imagination.  Obviously the combination of historical fiction and real place resonated with me!

One of your first jobs was working at the Old World Wisconsin museum. This seems like the dream job for an historical author. What did you do there and how did it help you with your writing?

Dream Job Old World Wisconsin
It was a dream job!  Old World Wisconsin is a magnificent site, with sixty-seven restored buildings, including a village and ten complete working farmsteads.  The restoration periods range from 1845 – 1915.  I spent two years working on the site in period clothing every day—feeling the seasons change, gaining sensory impressions, getting hands-on experience with everything from spinning flax to tamping sauerkraut to milking cows.  In the evenings I’d write.

I became curator of interpretation and collections after that, and spent the next decade planning new events, doing research for the foodways and domestic crafts program, and working with the site’s enormous collection of artifacts.  Almost twenty years have passed since I left OWW, but I still draw upon things I learned during those years for almost every book I write.

You worked as a Project Director and Scriptwriter for public television.  Your series, Cultural Horizons,  won an Emmy. Can you tell us more about the series and writing for TV?

Television was a very different medium for me.  I was used to painting pictures with words, and I had to learn how to craft scripts that let visual image carry half of the stories.  But it was wonderful training and experience.

Cultural Horizons was an educational series intended to help kids understand that “culture” refers to more than race and ethnicity.  We wanted viewers to think about their own cultural identity, and to become comfortable with people who might initially seem to have little in common with them.  I’m thankful I had the opportunity to work on such an important project!  Winning the Emmy was, as they say, frosting on the cake.

Tell us about your American Girl History Mystery series, and the other mysteries you wrote after that series ended.

Editors at American Girl decided to launch a series of historical mysteries featuring girl sleuths back in the 1990s. I’d had a few historical novels for kids published at that time, and my experience working at the historic site was also a plus.  The editor called me out of the blue and asked if I’d like to try my hand at a History Mystery.

I ended up writing three books for the series:  Trouble at Fort La Pointe, about the fur trade era in Wisconsin; Whistler in the Dark, set in post-Civil War Colorado; and Betrayal at Cross Creek, about a Scottish immigrant girl who settled in North Carolina during the Revolutionary War.  I got to choose the settings and create the characters, and I loved exploring such varied settings and topics.

When that series ended, I was invited to write mysteries for some of American Girl’s core historical characters—Kit, Josefina, Molly, and Kirsten.  These were great fun too!  Until recently, one of my Kit mysteries—Danger at the Zoo—was my bestselling book.

Tell us about your new series featuring historical character Caroline Abbott.

I leapt at the chance to create a new historical character!  When American Girl offered me the project, the only thing that had been decided was that she would live during the War of 1812. Having grown up in Maryland, the War of 1812 stories I knew best involved Baltimore and Washington, DC.  But after considering various options we decided to set the series in Sackets Harbor, New York, on the shore of Lake Ontario.  The British were a short sail away in Canada (called Upper Canada at the time), so Caroline would experience war right on the border.  I also felt that this chapter of the war was less well known than, for example, what happened at Fort McHenry.
The struggle to control the Great Lakes was dramatic, and historical events provided lots of fodder for the six original books in the Caroline series and the mystery that followed.  This marks the first time one of American Girl’s historical characters finds herself in the middle of a battle.

Caroline Abbott’s family owns a shipyard, and she dearly loves sailing.  When the war comes, her father is captured and held by the British.  Caroline, her mother, and her grandmother must face challenges and adventures on their own.

One of the things I’m most proud of is the interplay among that trio of characters.  Grandmother survived the Revolutionary War, and helps Caroline discover that action is more satisfying than complaining and worrying.  Mama calmly takes charge of the shipyard in her husband’s absence, and demonstrates a woman’s ability to handle a complex business.

Caroline is a girl of high spirits, who is tries hard to learn from her mistakes. Based on feedback we’ve received from readers, Caroline resonates with modern girls because she demonstrates that everyone can find some way to improve a challenging situation and become an everyday hero.

You have also written a mystery series for adults, featuring character Chloe Ellefson. Tell us about this award-winning series.

Pottawatomie Lighthouse
After being away from Old World Wisconsin for a number of years, I realized how much I missed the place, the people who work at historic sites, and the museum world.  I was busy writing children’s books, but whenever I had a break I worked on an adult mystery featuring a curator at OWW.  That manuscript became Old World Murder, first in the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites series published by Midnight Ink. 

Old World Murder takes place almost exclusively at OWW.  Additional books take Chloe to other historic sites. She has no wish to be involved with solving crimes, but in each book her knowledge of the past is key to understanding a modern murder.  The series lets me explore themes and places I feel passionately about, which is very satisfying.

The second book, The Heirloom Murders, was honored by the Council for Wisconsin Writers, and the third, The Light Keeper’s Legacy, recently earned the Lovey Award for Best Traditional Mystery.  My guess is that my genuine love for historic sites and women’s history comes through and appeals to like-minded readers.

You have said that Hearts of Stone is one of your personal favorites. Why?

The main character in Hearts of Stone is a teen named Hannah, who lives in the politically-divided mountains of East Tennessee during the Civil War.  When her parents die, and neighbors announce their intention to send Hannah and her three younger siblings to different homes, she takes a risk that she hopes will keep her family together.  Hannah faces hardship and disappointments, and eventually ends up in a refugee camp established by the Union Army in Nashville.  Only when she learns to redefine “family” does she find hope for the future.
I wrote this novel in large part to honor the thousands of nameless children who ended up in similar circumstances during the Civil War.  Any who survived with their spirit intact must have been tremendously resilient.  I find their stories—and therefore Hannah’s—inspirational.  A number of readers have told me that Hearts of Stone is one of their favorites, too.

Every book, whether historical or contemporary, involves a lot of research. What do you like most about the process? And how can an author know when he/she has done enough to start writing?

Volunteer Docent
I tell kids that research is like a treasure hunt:  you never know what you’ll find until you go digging!  I never tire of this part of the process.  I cast a very wide net, approaching every new theme or topic from as many different directions as I can—looking at primary resources and visual images, walking the ground, trying my hand at crafts and foodways, reading secondary sources.  Often it’s some small detail that resonates and sparks a plot point.  My favorite part is finding some largely-unknown story, and illuminating it through my fiction.

When is enough?  For me, it’s when I feel I have enough context to create a character and plot that are imbedded in the chosen time and place.  I always return to research during the writing process to learn more and answer specific questions, but that broad understanding is critical, I think, to avoid writing a contemporary story about characters who wear old-fashioned clothes.

Writers are told not to follow trends, but to follow their heart. How do you decide what projects to pursue so you don’t waste your time writing something that won’t sell?

That’s an important but tricky question!  Like many writers, I have several novels that I believe in, but that never sold.  I’ve worked with half a dozen traditional publishers, and (after many years of work) I now earn my living as a writer.  When I consider a new project, I try to think how I can frame my passions within what I know about the ever-changing publishing industry.

For example, I knew the mystery world well by the time I started the Chloe Ellefson series.  Before plunging in, I thought hard about how to set the series up, where I saw future books going, and how I’d promote them.  I have a strong “platform” because as a former sites person, I can write about Chloe’s world with authority.  (The series is set in the 1980s in part because that’s the era I remember.)

As the series has progressed, I’ve made deliberate choices about which historic sites and museums to feature—partly to keep the series fresh and partly to reach new audiences.  But most important, I love writing this series.

What’s next for you?
The fourth Chloe Ellefson mystery, Heritage of Darkness, will be published in October, 2013, and I’m under contract for another that will come out a year after that.  I’m also working on a new project for American Girl, and a nonfiction book for the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.  I am truly grateful for the opportunities that have come my way!

To learn more about Kathleen and her books check out her website/blog, and Amazon Author Page.


Linda Sandifer said...

Thanks for a great interview, Kathleen, and giving us so many wonderful stories to read.

Mary E. Trimble said...

What a great in-depth interview. I have been a long-time admirer of Kathleen and have read many of her books. Good job!

Karen Casey Fitzjerrell said...

I love the line "research is like a treasure hunt." Wow! says it all for me. Thanks Kathleen and Linda

Eunice Boeve said...

Very interesting. Hearts of Stone sounds really good and so it goes on my ever growing list. I wish we had one more life-time just to read. :-) I like what you said about a small detail. I write historical fiction, too, so enjoyed reading this Q&A blog. Thanks you two.