Chloe And Me – Writing From Real Life
“Write what you know” is one of the first admonitions most writers hear as they start to learn their craft. I personally prefer “know what you write,” but we won’t quibble about nuances today. In any case, I followed the advice when I chose to set my new adult mystery series at an historic site called Old World Wisconsin. My protagonist, Chloe Ellefson, is starting a new job as collections curator at the outdoor museum.
Before Old World Murder even launched this month, though, came the inevitable question: “Is Chloe you?”
No, she’s not. Beyond the obvious (same site, same job) what Chloe and I have in common is superficial. She drives my old Ford Pinto, and she lives in the farmhouse I rented. She went to the same college I did, and her tastes in food and music echo my own.
Satisfying fictional characters, however, must be created with conscious thought and care. As I started crafting Old World Murder I knew that Chloe needed to be strong and assertive in some ways, and struggling and vulnerable in others. As a writer, I needed to create that balance. Real life doesn’t usually work out so neatly!
Chloe’s background is in many ways quite different from my own: she is a Wisconsin native, of Norwegian descent. (I’m grew up on the east coast, and do not have any Norwegian ancestry.) She spent five years living in Switzerland and working at an open-air museum called Ballenberg. (I’ve visited Switzerland, and loved touring Ballenberg, but that’s it.) Because I’m establishing a series, I have the fun of planning ahead, and letting my characters grow and change over an arc that is larger than any single book. When I need some element to satisfy the plan, I’ll make it up!
I will admit that creating Chloe’s unique personality and history also let her do a few things that I, alas, might only fantasize about. Tell off an arrogant boss or colleague? That’s something I’ve dreamed of doing at several jobs—haven’t we all?—but never did.
I recently heard author Sara Paretsky talking about her long relationship with her protagonist, the wonderful V.I. Warshawski. V.I. was introduced in 1982, so Ms. Paretsky has known her for a while! At a recent conference, when the topic of authors who kill off main characters was raised, Ms. Paretsky said she had no such plans. She’s had loss in real life; she doesn’t want to lose a character she’s grown so close to.
I’ve written two novels about Chloe Ellefson so far (Book 2 will be published next year), and already I think I understand what Sara Paretsky was saying. Chloe is me, and not me. She’s someone I admire, and someone I worry about. She’s become a friend.
Readers, what characters have you found most compelling? Writers, how do you balance the “me/not me” part of creating a protagonist? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
About the author ~
Kathleen earned a B.S. degree in Environmental Education from West Virginia University and a M.A. degree in History Education and Writing from Antioch University, Ohio. She spent over a decade working as an educator and curator for the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, and another decade scripting and producing instructional television series for the Wisconsin Educational Communications Board/Wisconsin Public Television. All these experiences provide a foundation for her current full-time job as a writer.
Kathleen lives in Middleton, Wisconsin, with her husband and cat. She grew up in Maryland, in a family that considered books as fundamental to life as food and water. She started writing as a child and never stopped! Today, she finds researching books as much fun as writing them.
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.
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Her newest book ~
Hoping to leave behind her heartbreaking past, Chloe Ellefson makes a fresh start as the new collections curator at Old World Wisconsin. This outdoor ethnic museum charms visitors with authentic historical artifacts and costumed employees who churn butter, make shoes, and reenact 1870s settlement life. But Chloe's first day on the job only brings misfortune when an elderly woman pleads with her to find the priceless eighteenth-century Norwegian ale bowl that she donated to the museum years ago. Minutes later, the disappointed woman dies in a mysterious car crash.
Throwing herself into a dangerous investigation, Chloe discovers that someone is desperately trying to erase all traces of the bowl's existence by any means necessary . . . including murder. With the unnervingly attractive part-time cop Roelke McKenna at her side, Chloe must solve a decades-old puzzle, catch a covetous killer, and stay alive in this deadly heirloom hunt.
Other books by Kathleen ~