Kathleen Ernst is a social historian, educator, and author. Her Chloe Ellefson mysteries reflect the decade she spent as a curator at a large outdoor museum, and feature historic sites in the Upper Midwest. Library Journal says, “Ernst keeps getting better with each entry in this fascinating series.” Kathleen has also written many mysteries for young readers. Honors for her work include a LOVEY Award and Agatha and Edgar nominations. Kathleen lives and writes in Wisconsin.
Hi! Would you tell us a little bit about yourself? J
I’m a full-time writer who’s passionate about historic places and artifacts and the stories they can tell. I worked at an outdoor museum for twelve years, and have channeled my memories into the Chloe Ellefson Mysteries. Chloe works as a curator at the same historic site, and travels to different sites and museums as the series progresses. I’ve written many other books, but this series comes straight from the heart.
Otherwise…I was born on the east coast but have lived in Wisconsin for over 30 years, and love it. What little spare time I can find is devoted to gardening, knitting, rosemaling, and getting outdoors. My husband and I enjoy traveling to the kind of places I love writing about.
Do you have anything you would like to say to your readers?
I am enormously grateful to readers! I dreamed of being a novelist from a young age, and I wrote novels for 20 years (yes, really) before getting my first book contract. My newest book is my 37th, a number I find astonishing. Readers make it possible for me to do what I love. Thank you!
Please tell us about your newest release
My new release is The Lacemaker’s Secret, the 9th Chloe Ellefson Mystery. Here’s the official scoop:
Museum Curator Chloe Ellefson needs distraction from the unsettling family secret she's just learned. It doesn't help that her boyfriend, police officer Roelke McKenna, has been troubled for weeks and won't say why.
Chloe hopes a consulting job at Green Bay's Heritage Hill Historical Park, where an old Belgian-American farmhouse is being restored, will be a relaxing escape. Instead she discovers a body in a century-old bake oven.
Inspired by a courageous Belgian woman who survived cholera, famine, and the most devastating forest fire in American history, Chloe must untangle clues to reveal secrets old and new . . . before the killer strikes again.
I’m really excited about this one!
What was the inspiration behind this story?
I’m fascinated by immigrant history (the museum where I once worked focused on the 19th-century immigrant experience) and most of the Chloe mysteries feature a particular ethnic group. Doing a book about Belgian settlers had long been on my mental list. Heritage Hill, a State Historical Park in Green Bay, includes a fabulous restored Belgian Farm. Belgians are not one of the largest ethnic groups in Wisconsin, so their stories aren’t as well known as some. They are compelling, though.
I often feature folk arts in the Chloe books. Before I had a chance to do much research, I by chance met someone connected to the lace collection at the Smithsonian Institution. She arranged a tour for me, and I was introduced to Belgian bobbin lace. Not only was it an important industry for the country, it kept many impoverished girls and women fed. I knew I wanted to include that art in the book.
Tell us about your main character.
When the series began, Chloe Ellefson was starting a new job as curator at Old World Wisconsin and trying to recover from a bad breakup. It’s been satisfying to have her create a new life for herself and gain her equilibrium again over the course of nine books.
Chloe is passionate about history too, especially digging out the stories of unknown women who might otherwise be forgotten. She is a reluctant sleuth who would prefer not to engage in detective work, but in each mystery her knowledge of the past is essential to solving a crime. She makes a good companion for Police Officer Roelke McKenna, who is a dedicated cop but has no background in history or museum work.
Chloe is not afraid to speak up for what she believes is right—even if it means antagonizing her boss, Ralph Petty. She can be a little impetuous but she has a good heart.
What is your favorite personality trait of your main character?
Chloe follows her passions and is willing to speak truth to power. She’s also a bit braver than I would be in dicey situations!
What is your favorite personality trait of your villain?
A recurring villain is site director Ralph Petty. Petty is the quintessential bad boss! He’s described as a misogynistic micro-managing megalomaniac, and he is a perpetual problem for Chloe, who can’t quite bring herself to be as subservient as he wishes.
One of your characters is going on a shopping spree. Where does he/she go and what does he/she buy?
Chloe’s idea of a good shopping spree would be going to a farmers’ market and stocking up on fresh, local fruits and veggies. She’s a vegetarian, and accomplished in historical and multi-ethnic cooking and baking.
Were you surprised by the behavior of any of your characters or the direction of your plot at any point while writing?
I don’t outline, so to a certain extent I always encounter surprises when writing the books. I start by thinking about where my main characters were emotionally at the end of the previous book, and where I want them to be at the end of the book I’m about to write. I think about what settings and story ideas will reflect the struggle the characters will face. Then I wade in and see where the characters and story take me.
How long did it take you to write this book?
I’m on a book-a-year schedule for the Chloe Ellefson series, although I sometimes work on other projects for other publishers simultaneously. I’m always planning ahead so I can plant appropriate seeds for future books.
Of all the books out there, why should readers choose this one? (What makes your book stand out from the rest?)
Since there are indeed many wonderful books in the mystery world, I’ve tried to create something unique. I write about topics and themes and places I care about. My first job is to tell a good story, but readers tell me that they love learning something new in each installment. The stories are character-driven, with a strong sense of place. Chloe and cop Roelke McKenna grow and change in each mystery. I hope they are strong enough characters to admire, but at times vulnerable enough to make readers care about their well being.
Most of the books include a strand of historical fiction, so readers actually learn more about the past than Chloe can do through her research. And the books provide a glimpse of life behind the scenes in the museum world.
Is there an underlying theme in your book? If so, tell us about it and why/if it’s important to you.
In The Lacemaker’s Secret, the question of spiritual faith is considered by several characters. Wisconsin’s Belgian immigrants were generally quite devout, but the trials they faced provided fictional strain for my main character in the historical timeline.
When the book opens Roelke is wrestling with a decision he made in the previous book, Mining For Justice—one that changes the way he feels about himself as a cop. He doesn’t feel comfortable attending church…and yet, it just may be that a friendly priest can help him come to terms with his moral dilemma.
Roelke and Chloe are also dancing around the idea of getting engaged; the fact that Roelke was raised Catholic, and Chloe is more of a spiritual free soul, presents a challenge as well.
Fiction can often provide powerful life lessons. What message do you hope readers get from your book?
I write about the past because I find the lives of so many of the people who have gone before us to be inspiring. I’d love to think that some of my characters might inspire readers as well.
I also hope that the stories show that history matters; that historic places are important and that old objects can sometimes tell powerful stories. Nothing makes me happier than hearing from people who read a Chloe mystery and then felt compelled to visit the featured historic site or explore a topic further.
Is there an author or book that influenced you or your writing in any way growing up or as an adult?
I often cite Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series as a major influence. When I was a child in suburban Baltimore, her books delivered me to other times and places. (I had fun writing Death on the Prairie, the 6th book in the series, which has Chloe visiting each of the homesites dedicated to Wilder.)
Do you think you may ever go into another genre? If so, which one?
I’ve written quite a few historical novels for young readers, two nonfiction books, and some poetry—so obviously I enjoy different formats and different audiences. I wish there were more hours in a day…
What is the hardest part of writing in your opinion?
I love writing stories. The business end of things can be challenging.
What is your favorite part of writing?
Disappearing into my imagination; visiting fascinating places while doing research; meeting wonderful readers.
Which do you consider more important, plot or character?
What advice do you have to offer to an aspiring author?
Take the time to learn your craft. Then learn about the publishing industry. Believe in yourself and follow your dreams.
Where can we learn more about you and your books?
Please visit me at kathleenernst.com; or join me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kathleenernst.author/
Favorite kind of chocolate?
Dark, fair trade, preferably combined with peanut butter.
Cats or dogs?
Cats. (My name is ROCCO, and I approve this answer, meow!)
Do you read more than you write?
No, although I wish I could! Deadlines are always looming.
I like historical dramas such as Glory, The Last of the Mohicans, Rob Roy, Foyle’s War, and Poldark (TV).
Favorite book to movie?
I’m a fan of Shetland, Inspector George Gently, and Longmire.
Thank you so much, Kathleen!
Kathleen will give away a copy of The Lacemaker’s Secret to one lucky commenter!
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Winner will be chosen at random using random.org. Don’t forget to mention all you’ve done in your comment. Good luck! US entries only please! Contest ends midnight, September 17!