Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Wreaking Havoc

The plot of my new Chloe Ellefson mystery, Heritage of Darkness, reflects the fundamental challenge I face each time I begin a new book in the series.  First, I pick a town and museum or historic site that I love to serve as setting.

Then, I start making (fictional) trouble.

Heritage of Darkness is set in Decorah, Iowa. The plot sees Chloe, her mother, and boyfriend/cop Roelke McKenna visiting Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum for folk art classes in December. The week gets off to a bad start when Chloe peeks inside an artifact trunk and finds a woman who was attacked and left for dead.

This is the trunk, which is on display in the Norwegian House exhibit at Vesterheim.
"I'll never be able to look at that trunk the same way," one of the curatorial staff told me after reading an advance draft of Heritage of Darkness.

Another key scene takes place in one of the buildings preserved in the museum's Open-Air Division. A volunteer who leads tours there had much the same reaction.

The Valdres House (in red) provided just what I needed.
Fortunately, both the volunteer and the curator thought that Heritage of Darkness was great fun.

Since all the books in the Chloe Ellefson series deal with the past, I work hard to learn as much as I can about not only the events that drive the actual plot, but the history of the museum or historic site being featured. I have a filter in my brain that automatically picks up on anything that I might be able to put to use in a mystery.

When I began writing the series, several writer-friends advised that I use fictional historic sites. I did consider that, but in the end couldn't do it.  My plots are inspired by real events, and I love having the opportunity to share museums I admire with readers.

Many readers seem to love that too. Some have the fun of reading a mystery set in a place they know well. Others are intrigued by what they read, and follow up by visiting the site.

So far, everyone involved with the host museum for each book has embraced the Chloe mysteries with enthusiasm. The books are set thirty years in the past, which provides some distance. Also, since I only write about places that I truly love, I think that in the end, that honest affection shines through more brightly than the passing details of a murder mystery plot.

Last week I had the pleasure of officially launching Heritage of Darkness at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum.

Here I am with Steve Johnson, Vesterheim's Director.
It was a wonderful experience, in part due to the partnership that emerged as I worked on Heritage of Darkness. The staff has been phenomenally supportive. The museum gave us permission to include photos from their collection in the book, for example. In return, I'll do my best to introduce the museum to a new audience.

It's exactly what I hoped would happen when I began conceptualizing a mystery series featuring an historic sites curator.

I'm grateful for all the museum staff and local readers who have forgiven me for wreaking fictional havoc at the sites featured so far in the Chloe series. I hope to keep writing Chloe Ellefson mysteries, and building partnerships like this, for a long time.

Display at the Vesterheim Museum Store.

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Beth Groundwater said...

You troublemaker, you! An added benefit of setting each book in a real historical site is that the gift shop at each site can sell autographed copies for you.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Beth, that's true! Vesterheim and Old World Wisconsin have been very supportive.