Prairies and Plots with Kathleen Ernst

Mystery author Kathleen Ernst is guest-posting today as part of her blog book tour for the first book in her new mystery series, Old World Murder, featuring historian Chloe Ellefson. Kathleen’s not a new hand at writing mysteries: her novels for the American Girl series have been nominated for both the Edgar and the Agatha awards. Join me in welcoming Kathleen as she looks at how landscape and place have influenced her work–and her new character.

I’m grateful to Susan for allowing me to be a guest here.  And I’m grateful to readers!  I love my work, and I’d be nowhere without you.  Leave a comment here, and your name will go into a daily drawing for one free book.  The winner can choose any of my sixteen titles.  Old World Murder, one of my American Girl mysteries, a Civil War novel—the choice will be yours!

I remember the moment I fell deeply in love with prairies.  In 1981, my mom and I participated in a National Wildlife Federation program in Wisconsin, and took a naturalist-led trip to study prairie plants.  From the parking lot, I was almost mesmerized by the gentle flow of grasses and flowers waving in the breeze.  Then two sandhill cranes launched from their hiding place a few feet away, ungainly and impossibly graceful, chortling their primeval cries. (Sandhill cranes below from iStock Photos.)


I was fresh out of West Virginia University’s forestry school, where I’d studied environmental education.  I’d taken a lot of history and writing classes as well, which perplexed my advisor but made perfect sense to me.  How can we write about, teach about, even think about the past without understanding the relationship between people and their environment?


I had planned to settle in the Appalachians, but six months after that first crane sighting, I packed my rusty Ford Pinto and moved to Wisconsin.  I’d accepted an interpretive position at a large living history museum called Old World Wisconsin.  The site sprawls over almost six hundred acres within the Kettle Moraine State Forest.  Woods, ponds, and prairie remnants provide environmental context for the restored farms and village buildings.

OWW Hafford prairie
We can, of course, experience only a semblance of any historical landscape.  (Wisconsin son and conservationist Aldo Leopold once wrote, “What a thousand acres of compass plant looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.”)  Still, the historic site’s landscape provides room for visitors to reflect on what they’re experiencing, and to imagine the region as it looked when Europeans and Yankees and black settlers were first migrating to the area.

I left Old World Wisconsin twelve years later, but this evocative place never left me.  Recently I channeled my memories and imagination into Old World Murder, the first book in the Chloe Ellefson/Historic Sites mystery series.

Chloe, the protagonist, is a curator at Old World Wisconsin.  She’s emotionally fragile, and struggling to leave a difficult episode in her life behind.  Respite comes from the setting itself:

…From this spot Chloe could see the Raspberry School, brought from the northern tip of the state; the 1845 Fossebrekke farm, a tiny log cabin nestled between trees and corn patch and pig pen; and the more substantial Kvaale farm, restored to its 1865 appearance.  Two interpreters in period clothing walked down the Kvaale lane, baskets over their arms.  A farmer attacked weeds in the Fossebrekke corn patch with a hoe.

The air smelled faintly of wood smoke.  The sound of the school teacher questioning a class drifted through the open windows of the school.  A sandhill crane’s faint rattling call drifted earthwards.  …Chloe allowed herself to simply soak in the intangible pleasures and sensory delights that compensated historic site workers for long hours and low wages.


Chloe, a Wisconsin native, returned to Wisconsin to heal in a familiar environment.   I left behind my beloved Appalachians to settle here.  Both of us have come home.  I still haven’t totally defined the allure of a prairie landscape, but I think it has to do with space, a sense of limitless possibilities…and the timelessness still heard in a sandhill crane’s cry.

For more information on Kathleen’s books, please see her website, or her blog. From here, her book tour heads on:

10/27 – – an interview
10/28 – – Creating a Cop
10/29 – – The Muse

Thanks, Kathleen, for showing us how the prairie landscapes and the stories of those who have lived there changed your life and that of your new protagonist, Chloe Ellefson!