Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Fiction in Real Places

by Kathleen Ernst

Is it wise to set a murder mystery in a real place? 

The first book in my Chloe Ellefson series, Old World Murder, is set at a large historic site where I once worked.  I used to be a curator at Old World Wisconsin; Chloe is a curator at Old World Wisconsin.  You know what they say: write what you know.

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Several writers advised me to fictionalize the setting, but I simply couldn’t do it.  I sent the manuscript to a former colleague before publication, and it made the rounds among administrative types.  Happily, they gave it a thumbs-up.

They weren’t just being kind to me.  They were being savvy.  In these difficult financial times, museums and historic sites are looking for new audiences, new ways to let people know just how much they have to offer.  In my case, I think the site staff realized that my books might bring a few new visitors to the site.  Yes, my fictional characters are involved in murder and mayhem.  But the site itself is portrayed—quite accurately—as a gem.

I’ve been delighted to hear from readers who have indeed discovered the site through Old World Murder and book 2, The Heirloom Murders.  I’ve got locations guides for each book posted on my website.  Readers can download them and take a Chloe Tour on their own, seeing each real building or place that appears in the books.

And this year, I worked with Old World Wisconsin staff to create special “History and Mystery” tours, focused on the Chloe Ellefson books.  Participants arrive before-hours for a behind-the-scenes look at locations featured in the novels. 
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I take guests into the buildings they read about and discuss the choices I made when writing the books.  I’m able to share some background about the site, providing pertinent context that didn’t quite make it into the novels.  Guests also get to visit areas that are not normally open to the public. 

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The curator of research, who has worked at the site since the 1970s, shares little-known stories about identifying, relocating, restoring, and researching each structure.  That’s a rare treat, and I can tell that participants would be happy to listen and ask him questions all day.

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The experience ends with a private reception and—of course—a booksigning.  The combination must be appealing, because the first tours have sold out.  One lady on the first tour flew in from New York!  So far we’ve raised $2,000 for Old World Wisconsin.

So is it wise to write about a real place?  For me, the answer is definitely yes.  I think Old World Wisconsin staff would agree.  The site supports and promotes my books; I support and promote the site.

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In future books, when Chloe visits other historic sites, I hope to do the same thing.  The Light Keeper’s Legacy, which comes out in October, is largely set in an old lighthouse on an island in Lake Michigan.  A special fund-raising tour there sounds like great fun to me!

For more information, visit http://kathleenernst.com

21 comments:

Shannon Baker said...

I love that you use a real place. Whenever I go to historic sights my imagination runs wild trying to think who lived there and what their lives were like. I love the historical angle of your books!

Lois Winston said...

Kathleen, I love the way you've tied your series into a real setting -- and such a unique one. There are some people who are adamant in their belief that authors should never set their books in real towns/places or ever use brand names. I do both, as do many other authors. I think it brings a genuine aspect to the books. It sounds not only silly but confusing when someone makes up a name for a place or product everyone is familiar with.

Maddy Hunter said...

As a reader, I love revisiting through fictional stories the places I've visited in real life. It's kinda like snugging into a cozy pair of slippers. It makes the reading experience more special, and probably more visualize, because... I've been there! I LOVE the Chloe Ellefson books, and it's my goal to visit Old World Wisconsin so I can see firsthand where all the murder and mayhem is taking place! I'm really anxious for the lighthouse book to be released. It can't be soon enough.

Jennifer Harlow said...

I think it's wonderful you used your book to help a museum you love. Very savvy.

Cricket McRae said...

What a great idea to tie tours of the setting in with your books -- definitely a win/win! And yes, I'd LOVE to visit Old World Wisconsin anyway, but I wouldn't know about it if it weren't for your mysteries.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Thanks for sharing your perspectives. Every author needs to make their own choice about what's best for her/his book, of course, but sometimes keeping it real is the way to go! I hope you all can visit OWW one day--it is indeed a special place.

Keith Raffel said...

Kathleen, I definitely approve. For me -- and for you too, it appears -- putting characters in real places makes them come to life more as we write and (we hope)as readers read. Bravo.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Keith, I think you described it perfectly. It was much easier for me to bring characters to life when I could visualize the settings in such great detail. That's why I couldn't try to fictionalize the setting.

And in addition to enticing readers to visit the historic site, these books also provide little "aha" moments to readers who are already familiar with these places. I like reading Laura Lippman in part because I grew up in Baltimore, and love how she nails specific details of place.

Alice Loweecey said...

This is a great idea. Kathleen. I've used both real and fictional settings in my books, depending on what the story needed. I love the idea of putting fictional characters in the real world--and it looks like your fans do too!

Sheila Webster Boneham said...

Excellent post, Kathleen! Can you hold one of your events in March? I'll be in WI! :-)

Seriously, I love learning about places through fiction.

Deborah Sharp said...

This is a great post, Kathleen ... I was also advised against using a real place, but in my Mace Bauer Mysteries, I kind of have it both ways. I acknowledge the real town of Okeechobee as a muse in my books, and use some landmarks from the area, but made up the town of ''Himmarshee'' as a stand-in. (That way if I have Main Street connecting with the wrong road, I don't get irate emails.)

Jess Lourey said...

I definitely want to visit after reading your first book, Kathleen. Your writing is beautiful, and it's just that much more interesting to me if I can actually visit the place being written about.

G.M. Malliet said...

Fiction is where I learned a lot about history! I know, that explains so much, doesn't it? Still, I think people read mysteries to learn a little something they didn't know before.

Linda Hull said...

I prefer real sites. It brings a sense of reality to the books and it gives people a setting they know or can some day visit. The tours are a terrific way to market and promote both your book and the place you've written about.

Beth Groundwater said...

Your history-mystery tours sound really interesting, Kathleen! I, too, set my novels in real locales, and the local townspeople and visitors really seem to enjoy spotting businesses, restaurants, rapids and ski runs mentioned in the books.

Dan Freas said...

Hi Kathleen, We have not yet met but I am the new (I guess I can still say that after six months) director of Old World Wisconsin. I just wanted to say how much I appreciate the attention your books have brought to OWW as well your continued support of the museum through the History and Mystery Tours! I learned a long time ago that we need to provide a variety of ways for people to access the past and your Chloe Ellefson books provide a great portal!

Kathleen Ernst said...

Thanks for sharing, everyone. Sheila, I'm afraid we don't have a tour on tap for March, but perhaps we could meet for coffee?

Deborah, you've found a perfect solution!

Gin, I learned to love history through fiction too. My mom was a librarian, and she got me started on that path. Obviously made a big difference!

Kathleen Ernst said...

Dan, thanks for stopping by! I look forward to connecting in person. I'm very happy to have a new way to support OWW, a place I will always treasure. I've been delighted to hear from families and book groups who visited the site after reading one of the books!

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Vicki Doudera said...

Great blog, Kathleen. What a treat for those readers to take that tour with you -- I bet they thought it was worth every penny.

NEW Communications said...

I love that your books are set in a place I am familiar with, after several visits when I was a docent at the museum in Madison (in fact, I met you once when you did a program at the museum).

Old World Wisconsin is an incredible place, and deserves to be the setting for well-written mysteries. The sights sounds and smells of a place like that add authentic charm.