It is my pleasure to have as my guest Kathleen Ernst. Welcome, Kathleen. I have found your experiences with reenacting fascinating and am delighted to have you tell our friends more about it.
I’m grateful to Mary for allowing me to be a guest today. 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 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!
My husband, daughter Meg, and I reached Spring Hill, TN, in a driving rain. The temperature was dropping. The parking lot—a field intended to hold the vehicles of 10,000 or so Civil War reenactors and their gear—was a sea of mud. The actual camping areas were located well beyond the parking lot. The horses and wagons provided to help haul gear had trouble slogging through thick muck on the hilly terrain.
Fortunately, my family was traveling relatively light. Meg and I would be spending the weekend in a recreated refugee camp, helping visitors remember that soldiers weren’t the only people affected by military campaigns during the Civil War. After we hiked to the clearing where the refugee camp was being created, Scott helped Meg and me set up our little tent. We watched him tramp off to find his military comrades, the incessant rain darkening his wool coat and dripping from his hat brim.
Welcome to the wonderful world of reenacting.
That weekend was challenging, to be sure. It was also one of the best experiences I had during the decade plus I spent reenacting. The people organizing the refugee camp had done an amazing job of researching and presenting a bit of life as it might have been for some of the thousands of Southern civilians left destitute and homeless during the war.
It also provided me with an amazing opportunity to immerse myself into the 19th century for a few days. We talked with visitors as they came through, but at the end of “public time” each day, we ladies and children were alone in the clearing, with no modern intrusions in sight. I savored the richness of sensory details the experience provided. One evening we heard hoofbeats, and a column of Union cavalry emerged from the trees and rode past our camp. A woman ran to the lane, shouting “Give ‘em hell for East Tennessee!” Her portrayal provided a vivid reminder that the pocket of Union sympathizers in that area suffered terribly during the war. It was an unexpected and magical moment.
I knew before the weekend was over that I needed to channel the experience into a novel. The result was Hearts of Stone, about a young woman named Hannah Cameron from East Tennessee. After Hannah and her younger siblings were orphaned, they wandered through Tennessee and eventually took shelter in a refugee camp—much like the one I helped portray.
If you write historicals, there’s a good chance that someone—or many someones—reenact your period. Even if you don’t want to participate yourself, visiting a reenactment can transform a story from ho-hum to wow. Reenactments can provide a myriad of specific sensory details to bring your story to life. Learn what musket smoke smells like, listen to musicians playing period music, discover (with permission) what homespun linen feels like. If you get lucky you may experience one of those unexpected “bubble” moments, when—just for a split second—you forget that you live in modern times.
Many reenactors are passionate historians. They know a lot, and they love to share what they know. Some are also collectors. If you have questions about material culture during your era, you can likely find the answers.
One word of caution: attending a reenactment to do research is like searching the world wide web for information. You’ll find a lot, but you will need to use some filters. Don’t assume that everything you see and hear is accurate.
I don’t do much reenacting these days, but my experiences and memories will always help inform my work. In my new book, Old World Murder, protagonist Chloe Ellefson is a curator at the historic site where I was first introduced to the hobby of reenacting. I plan to get Chloe to other historic sites as the mystery series continues. Sooner or later she’ll experience a reenactment. She’ll encounter a mystery to solve. I’ll get to revisit some great memories.
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.