Meow! I interview author Kathleen Ernst!
Tradition of Deceit is Kathleen Ernst’s thirtieth book. In addition to the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites series, she has written many books for American Girl, including nine about the historical character she created, Caroline Abbott. 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.
R: Welcome, Kathleen! Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became interested in writing.
My parents raised their daughters to understand that in terms of basic needs, books rank right up there with food and shelter. We often visited historic sites and places, and before the trips, my mom (who was a librarian) always looked for historical fiction about the relevant place or time. By the time we arrived, the setting was already alive in my imagination. I started writing my own stories when I was nine or ten, and everything I write is either historical fiction or historical in nature.
After college, I went to work at a huge outdoor museum called Old World Wisconsin. It includes ten working farms that interpret the period 1845 – 1915. The years I spent there provided great practical training for a writer!
R: What writers in your genre would you say have made the greatest influence on your writing?
I must start with Laura Ingalls Wilder. I adored her books as a child, and I’ve enjoyed rereading them as an adult too. I look for books with well-developed characters and a strong sense of place.
My list of favorite authors in the adult mystery world include Dana Stabenow, Julia Spencer-Fleming, and G.M. Malliet. Some of my favorite children’s books include Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy (Gary D. Schmidt), Hattie Big Sky (by Kirby Larson), and The Ballad of Lucy Whipple (Karen Cushman).
R: Tell us about your books – you write for both children and adults. Which is your favorite and why?
I love writing for both audiences, which I why I juggle both!
I’m working on the 6th book in the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mystery series. Chloe is a curator at Old World Wisconsin (where I used to be a curator), and the series lets me explore compelling historic places and themes. The second main character, Roelke McKenna, is a policeman. In each book, Chloe’s knowledge of the past is needed to help solve the mystery. This series comes straight from my heart.
I’ve written for a number of children’s publishers, but most of my books for young readers have been published by American Girl. I created Caroline Abbot, the latest Historical Character, and my books about her include two mysteries. Caroline lives in the middle of the action during the War of 1812, so I had no trouble finding plenty of material!
R: Tell us about your latest releases!
Tradition of Deceit will be published in November, 2014. Chloe solves a murder after traveling to Minneapolis to help a friend develop a proposal for a museum at an abandoned flour mill complex—which in real life is now the fabulous Mill City Museum. Meanwhile, Roelke investigates a friend’s death in one of Milwaukee’s most fascinating neighborhoods, the Old South Side. Polish heritage and culture link the two plotlines, and Chloe and Roelke face new challenges both personal and professional. I’m very excited about launching this one.
R: Which of (your character) adventures was the most fun for you to write? Were any of them the least amount of fun?
In the adult series, I like writing Chloe herself. She’s a lot like me—but braver. The third book, The Light Keeper’s Legacy, takes place at an old lighthouse on an island in Lake Michigan; for six years, my husband and I have had the privilege of serving as live-in docents there for a week at a time, which has been an amazing experience.
I also enjoy creating fictional women for the historical plotline in many of the Chloe mysteries. I like to think that in my own small way, I’m giving voice to some of the anonymous women in history who met enormous challenges.
While writing the Caroline stories I got to go sailing on a reproduction 1812 sloop – great fun! In that series, I’m quite proud of creating three generations of strong females. Grandmother survived the American Revolution and shows Caroline that women can face whatever they must. Mama capably takes over the family business when Caroline’s father is captured by the British. Caroline sometimes makes mistakes, but she has a good heart and is quite courageous when she needs to be.
R: Do you have an “how I got my agent” story you’d like to share? How did you feel when you got the call your first novel had sold?
After lots of rejections, my book career started with a small press. Getting the green light was wonderful, but the best moment was when that first box of books arrived. I’ve worked my way up from there, step-by-step. I’m currently paired with my fourth agent—the first three left the business—and she’s wonderful. The first, decades ago, took me out to lunch. I was in my 20s, and his kindness made me feel like a real writer.
R: What’s a must have for you when you are writing? What aids the creative process?
I take several week-long writing retreats each year—just me, my cat, and my laptop. (Kathleen's cat, Sophie, pictured above) Having a week to completely focus is marvelous; and since I write multiple books a year, it also helps me meet deadlines. A café mocha every day helps too.
R: If you had access to a time machine, which historical moment would you travel to and why?
Must I really pick just one? I’ve written about many time periods and places, and whenever I’m immersed in a particular story, I so wish I could get a peek back in time.
R: What is one thing your readers would be most surprised to know about you?That I wrote novels for 20 years before selling one.
R: What do you hope readers will most take away from your writing?
I hope readers will come to care about my characters. I hope readers close a book and think, I’d like to learn more about that topic! Or, I want to visit that historic site! I often hear from readers who have done just that, and it’s wonderful.
R: What are you working on at the moment / next?
I’m mid-way through the next Chloe Ellefson mystery. I’m also working on a nonfiction book for the Wisconsin Historical Society, A Settler’s Year: Pioneer Life Through The Seasons. Both will be published in 2015.
R: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
A pantser, although I use the term wader. I start with an idea and wade right in.
R: Where can we find out more about you and your work?
My website, www.kathleenernst.com
My husband and business partner, Scott Meeker, designed and maintains the site. We’ve worked hard to provide lots of goodies, resources, and background information for each book.
Readers can also join me on Facebook. In addition to general news, I do lots of giveaways there.
And, I write a blog called “Sites and Stories,” which provides lots of behind-the-scenes glimpses of each book’s background.
R: Do you have any advice for beginning writers?
Take the time to develop your craft before worrying about selling. When you find an author you love, take the time to analyze why you love her books. What can you learn from them? Write what you feel passionate about and enjoy the process. The writing business can be grueling, so it’s essential that we take joy from the writing itself.
Just for Fun:
Night or Day? Night.
Dog or Cat? (answer carefully) Cat! (ROCCO: YAY!)
Beach or Pool? Beach.
Steak or salad? After 40 years as a vegetarian? Salad.
Favorite Drink? Arnold Palmers (iced tea/lemonade)
Favorite Book? Too Many To Count
Favorite TV Series? The Big Bang Theory, Longmire
Favorite Movie? Sweet Land, Glory, Last of the Mohicans, The Immigrants, Rob Roy…
Dirty Martini or Pina Colada? Pina Colada
Hawaii or Alaska? Alaska
Finish this sentence: If I could meet anyone in the world, past or present, it would be one of my female ancestors, who came to North America from Amsterdam in 1625 as one of the founding families of New York.
Leave a comment for a chance to win any one of Kathleen's Chloe Ellefson mysteries: Old World Murder, The Heirloom Murders, The Light Keeper’s Legacy, Heritage of Darkness, or Tradition of Deceit (out in November, 2014). For extra entries you can:
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Winner chosen by random.org. Contest ends Sept. 20 at midnight. Good luck!