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Friday, October 8, 2010


Today’s Book Club Friday guest author is Kathleen Ernst. Kathleen is celebrating the publication of her first adult mystery, Old World Murder, published by Midnight Ink.  She’s also written eight mysteries for young readers.  Several have been finalists for Edgar or Agatha awards. Kathleen is offering the winner of this week’s drawing the choice of any one of her sixteen titles -- either Old World Murder, one of her American Girl mysteries, or one of her Civil War novels. Everyone who posts a comment to the blog this week is entered in the drawing. You can read more about Kathleen and her books at her website. -- AP

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


Carol-Lynn Rossel said...

The book sounds fascinating.

Merry Lu said...

Thank goodness for all the great teachers out there who encourage, support and challenge us. And thank goodness we are able to see past the (few) teachers who have no vision and suceed where they predict failure.

Kari Lee Townsend said...

What a great series! Can't wait to check it out :-)

Unknown said...

I grew up in a crafty household and now my kids love arts and crafts too. This sounds like a great new series!

Janet said...

This is a book I've been looking forward to reading. We always visit historical sites when we travel. I will look for it tomorrow, and order it if it isn't in the store.

Unknown said...

What an interesting background for a writer of historical mysteries. I've got to look for this book.

Babs in Alabama said...

Wow, your life story would make a good book :) I will definitely read this book and wait for future ones. Thanks for sharing with us...it will make reading the book even more special. I wonder what your teacher would think now?

Kathleen Ernst said...

Thanks for the encouragement, everyone!

As for the teachers...it would be interesting to connect with that 8th grade art teacher. I feel as if I lost some years of fun because he was so contemptuous. But what a gift my English teachers gave me! In tenth grade, when I nervously showed my first novel to my teacher, she responded by showing me Writers Market and telling me it was important to learn about the industry if I was going to be a novelist. What a boost!

Unknown said...

This series sounds interesting! I will have to get the book and follow Chloe in her journeys.

Jill McCullough said...

Your 8th grade art teacher story says more about his teaching talents than his students' artistic talents. I'm glad you overcame. Your rosemaling sample looks beautiful. Good luck with your writing too!

Anonymous said...

Old World Murder is of special interest to me because I lived in Wisconsin until I finished college at the University of Wisconsin.

Please enter my name in the drawing.

Helen Kiker

Kathy said...

This is a series I'll definitely be reading. When my kids were younger I dragged them to every restored town and village up and down the east coast. I would have set up residence in Colonial Williamsburg if I could.

Janet said...

It is always so much fun to find out that you are good at something unexpected. I would imagine working as a curator was so very interesting. I am glad, however, you did decide to write and I will be looking forward to your books. I always enjoy learning something new when I read.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Helen - I'd hoped to introduce a wonderful historic site to people who had never been there, but I'm discovering that lots of people with WI ties are finding it a nostalgia trip! Hope you do as well.

Kathy - I grew up in the Baltimore area, so I visited Williamsburg at an early age also. I've got a great snapshot of me at about 6, wearing a tricorn hat and looking quite pleased about it!

Janet - You nailed something that's important to me as well. I love books that introduce me to some new world, career, activity, etc. as well as being a great read!

holdenj said...

I love visitng historical sites like that. And Old World Murder looks great! I can't wait for the subsequent stories, espeically the one about rosemaling! Thanks so much for the great interview/post.

Renaissance Women said...

Teachers can make us want to learn or in some cases created a need to 'show them'. Either way I believe that we follow our hearts and use what we learn, no matter what it is, when we create what is inside of us. I have enjoyed following your tour. Great information and looks to be a great book.

Jeanne S. said...

I can't wait to read this book!


I want to thank Kathleen Ernst for being our Book Club Friday guest today and providing us with a very interesting guest blog.

If you haven't posted a comment yet, there's still time to do so to be entered in the drawing for your choice of one of Kathleen's books. And be sure to stop by tomorrow to see if you're the winner.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Thank you, Anastasia. And warm thanks to everyone who took the time to comment. I enjoyed the conversation!

My blog tour is just getting started. You can find the schedule on my own blog, http://sitesandstories.wordpress.com. Lots more chances to win a book!

Merry Lu said...

Thank you, Anastasia, for having Kathleen as your guest. I haven't been much into blogs before, and I'm looking forward to following both of you now.

Kathleen, Old World is new to me and I'm excited to learn about it. My best friend has worked at Colonial Williamsburg for over 20 years caring for the sheep, cattle and chickens. So I'm looking forward to you possibly writing a book taking place there.

jeff7salter said...

Inspiring story of your dedication, in spite of that obtuse art 'teacher'.
I love visiting (and learning about) restored communities, forts, and the like. It would be the of work which could possibly lure me out of retirement. As if.
I'd love to be in the drawing for one of your books.
Jeff Salter

Kathleen Ernst said...

Hi Jeff - I can tell you that when I worked in the historic sites biz, we loved it when retired people applied for or volunteered for interpretive positions. All that experience! And lots of people who did so had a great time, after years in some pressure-cooker position or something. You never know, it might be great fun! (Or, you could just keep visiting, and enjoy historic sites with no pressure!)

Vicky said...

Thanks, Kathleen (and Lois for inviting her). Hearing about Old World Wisconsin brought back memories. I was there in the 1980's for lovely autumn day, which would have been when you were curator. (I could happily have spent longer -- so much to see!) The strongest memory I have was the octagonal barn, which I see has since been turned into a restaurant! It was an awesome structure then, so I'm glad to see it put to use where everyone can enjoy it.