I’m grateful to Anastasia for allowing me to be a guest on her blog. And I’m grateful to readers! I love my work, and I’d be nowhere without you.
I loved art until the 8th grade. That year my art teacher quickly divided students into two unofficial but obvious groups: Those Who Have Talent, and therefore belonged there, and Those Who Have No Talent, and therefore had no right taking his time. During our first project, which involved painting, he made it clear that I was in the second group.
Fortunately, my language arts teachers were much more affirming. I wrote my first novel when I was fifteen. It took many years and many manuscripts before I sold a novel, but I believed I’d break through one day.
I didn’t take any more art classes in high school or college. But when I went to work as an interpreter at Old World Wisconsin, a large living history museum, I was excited about the opportunity to learn a variety of 19th-century domestic crafts. In my first season I learned how to spin wool and flax, how to weave, how to quilt, and how to make coiled rye-straw baskets. (I never quite got the hang of the basketry, although I did pretty well on the others.)
After a couple of years I became curator at the historic site. Among other things, I supervised the domestic craft program. Old World Wisconsin includes ten completely restored farmsteads and a crossroads village. The buildings represent a variety of ethnic groups and their folk traditions. I actually got paid to research the handwork relevant for the women of each group depicted! I helped train the interpreters, who in turn shared the activities with visitors. And I loved every minute of it.
That hands-on practice also served me well as I developed my skills as an historical novelist. I could write about warping looms, scutching flax, and tatting lace because I’d done all of those things.
I left Old World Wisconsin in 1995, after twelve years on staff. I never forgot how much I loved the site, though. So when I decided to write an adult mystery series, I chose to make my protagonist, Chloe Ellefson, a curator. Old World Murder is set at the site I know so well. And one of the great pleasures of developing the series is thinking about different ways handwork can play a role in the plots.
Future books will find Chloe traveling to different historic sites, much as Nevada Barr gets her wonderful protagonist, ranger Anna Pigeon, to different national parks. The plot of Old World Murder revolves around a rosemaled Norwegian ale bowl. In book 3 or 4, I plan to have Chloe learn more about the traditional Norwegian folk art of rosemaling, or “rose painting.”
I knew about rosemaling from a curator’s perspective, but in order to understand Chloe’s experience, I decided to take a rosemaling class. Last summer I signed up for five days at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa. Perhaps I subconsciously still believed I belonged in the “No Talent” group, but I went to Decorah believing I was there for research purposes, nothing more.
The five days of class were intense and challenging. But much to my surprise, I felt in love with the art. I hadn’t held a paint brush since the eighth grade, and it felt wonderful. I couldn’t be more proud of my first two projects.
So crafts have always played an important role in my writing. Learning about historical handwork fed my early novels…and now, my newest book has circled me back to the pleasure of learning a new art form.
I hope you enjoy meeting Chloe in Old World Murder, and will want to follow her to new sites as the series unfolds. I also hope you won’t wait as long as I did to learn, or return to, an art form that appeals to you!
Thanks so much, Kathleen! One of the best parts of Book Club Friday is discovering all the varied backgrounds of our guests. And I’m in awe of the fact that you were able to master tatting, something even I haven’t yet mastered!
Remember, readers, leave a comment and your name will go into the drawing for your choice of any one of Kathleen’s novels. Be sure to stop back tomorrow to find our if you’re the lucky winner. -- AP