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Revisiting My Past
by Kathleen Ernst
“My novel is set in 1982,” I reminded the young cop driving the squad car on my first ride-along. “One of the things I need to research is how work for police officers has changed since then.”
He speculated on the aspects that had evolved—weapons carried, how technological changes have affected cops. He could not have been more helpful. But as we chatted, it suddenly occurred to me: in 1982, this impressive officer had probably not yet been born. Hmmn.
Lots of people have asked why I chose to set my new mystery, Old World Murder, in 1982. With a few notable exceptions, it is an era not often visited in fiction. It isn’t quite historical fiction (at least by the definition used by the Historical Novel Society); it isn’t quite contemporary. My agent was a little concerned that the 1982 setting might not be viewed with favor by acquiring editors. But there was, I explained, no way I could change it.
First, the novel’s protagonist, Chloe Ellefson, is curator of collections at large living-history site called Old World Wisconsin. Old World is a real and magical place, and I had the privilege of working there for over a decade—starting in 1982. The historic site I know intimately is that of the 1980s, not today.
Second, because Old World Wisconsin is a real place—and I plan to visit other real historic sites in upcoming books—it seemed respectful to put some distance between murderous events and the present-day.
Third, and perhaps most important, I simply wanted to revisit a time and place in my life that had been filled with amazing experiences. When you look back on your life, is there a period of particular intensity that you can recall in vivid detail? Perhaps a special summer, or the first months on a new job?
For me, that time is 1982. I had always loved visiting historic sites, and had longed to work at a good one. When I started working at Old World Wisconsin, I was assigned to the German area, which then consisted of three completely restored and functional farmsteads. For someone already working on writing historical fiction, having the opportunity to spend my days re-creating the chores and activities of 19th-century German farmwives was a heady experience.
People who work at historic sites do not get rich, or famous. The work is often hard and exhausting. People who become interpreters or curators generally do so because they love history, and love to share their passion with visitors. My colleagues were fun to work with. We shared a lot, laughed a lot, formed fast friendships.
Many mystery authors incorporate previous employers in their books at some point because they need to—fictitiously—kill someone off (usually a former boss, it seems!) I worked at Old World Wisconsin for twelve years, and I can’t say I didn’t slay a minor demon or two while writing Old World Murder. But most of all, the writing process took me back to a special, happy time in my life.
I’m lucky enough to earn my living as a novelist. But I’m a big fan of writing for its own sake. Intrigued? Grab your pen or keyboard, and get busy! What special time in your life would you like to revisit?
Kathleen Ernst is celebrating the publication of her first adult mystery, Old World Murder (Midnight Ink). She has also written eight mysteries for young readers. Several have been finalists for Edgar or Agatha awards. For more information see her website, or her blog.
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