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.

KAE Schottler Sepia enhanced
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. 
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. 

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.

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.

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

No comments: