I was born in Pennsylvania but grew up in Maryland, surrounded by books! My mother was a librarian and my father an avid reader. Before going on vacation, my mom would bring home historical fiction about whatever area or historic site we planned to visit. (Obviously that really made an impression on me.) I have two sisters, and we all love to read. When I was a kid, I'd read with a flashlight under the covers when I was supposed to be asleep.
Later, I spent several summers working in Western Maryland. I went hiking on the Appalachian Trail, canoeing on the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, and biking along the C & O Canal near Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. Frequent tramps over Antietam National Battlefield inspired a deep fascination with Civil War history.
I went to college at West Virginia University and majored in Forestry. (That’s me in the orange shirt in the photo, the year my friend Rob and I won the blue ribbon in the Jack and Jill Crosscut Saw competition.) At that time, I planned to be a park ranger.
I was interested in Environmental Education, and took courses about trees, birds, plants, geology, weather, wildlife...etc., etc. It was a wonderful program, and it helped shape my wish to instill a strong sense of place in my novels. While at WVU I also took a lot of creative writing and history classes.
I had several seasonal jobs in the environmental education world, including stints at the Big Cypress Nature Center in Florida, Green County Parks Department in Ohio, Rocky Gap State Park in Maryland, and Glacier National Park in Montana.
My first permanent job was at an outdoor living history museum in the Midwest called Old World Wisconsin. I started working there in 1982, and stayed for twelve years.
Old World has over fifty restored buildings, beautifully situated on 576 acres within a state forest. It was the best training ground imaginable for an historical fiction writer!
At the top of the page are photos of me working as an interpreter at Old World. Over the years, I worked in just about every exhibit. The photo at left shows me spinning flax at Schultz, a German farm restored to 1860. I loved working in the old buildings, thinking about the people who first lived there, and sharing their stories with visitors.
For most of my time at Old World Wisconsin I served as Curator of Interpretation and Collections. At the same time, I wrote historical fiction as a hobby. I wrote my first novel when I was about fifteen, and I didn't get a book contract until I was thirty-five! Along the way I did publish some magazine articles and essays.
Moving to Wisconsin didn't mean I forgot the places that helped instill my interest in Civil War history. I spent over a decade working on my only nonfiction book, Too Afraid To Cry: Maryland Civilians in the Antietam Campaign. That project also provided inspiration for several novels, including my first published books: The Night Riders of Harpers Ferry and The Bravest Girl in Sharpsburg.
My next "day" job took me in a new direction: helping develop and produce instructional video programs for public television. Writing for TV is very different than writing novels or nonfiction books. I had to learn what parts of a story were best told in words, and what parts best told with visual images. I wrote most of the scripts as well, for series such as Exploring Wisconsin Our Home, Investigating Wisconsin History, and New Dawn of Tradition: A Native American Powwow.
My final project was a series called Cultural Horizons. That's me on the night it won an Emmy. I got to work with some great kids! Click on the image to the left to watch the winning episode.
In 2001, while working with public television, I also started writing novels for American Girl in my free time. The first three of these books were for their History Mystery series. When the series ended I wrote mysteries for Kit (Danger at the Zoo and Midnight In Lonesome Hollow), Josefina (Secrets in the Hills), Kirsten (The Runaway Friend), and Molly (Clues in the Shadows).
During this period I was working on independent novels as well, such as Hearts of Stone (one of my personal favorites), which was published by Dutton and won multiple awards.
I was traveling a lot, and trying to spend time with my family. It got too difficult to juggle all those things, so in 2004, I became a full time writer. Now I'm busier than ever! I spent three years working in secret with a wonderful team at American Girl to create Caroline Abbott, one of their historical characters (now retired) and write six books about her. The first, Meet Caroline, spent three weeks on the Publishers Weekly Top 25 Best Selling Children's Books list—officially making me a best selling author!
The seventh book, Traitor In The Shipyard: A Caroline Mystery, was nominated for an Agatha Award for Best Traditional Children's Mystery. The ninth and final, The Smuggler's Secrets: A Caroline Mystery, came out in 2015.
During those same years I was also creating my Chloe Ellefson series for adults and mature teens. These are traditional mysteries (no explicit sex, violence, or gore). Chloe is a curator at Old World Wisconsin. The award-winning series is published by Midnight Ink, and begins in 1982—the year I started working there.
Old World Murder (published 2010), The Heirloom Murders (2011), The Light Keeper’s Legacy (2012), and Heritage of Darkness (2013) have each spent one hundred or more days ranked in the Top 1% of US printed book sales according to Nielsen BookScan.
These books helps me stay connected to the world of historic sites, which I love.
My husband Scott (aka "Mr. Ernst") and I live in the wonderful state of Wisconsin. Gardening is a big interest of ours. We’re gradually turning our suburban yard into a wildlife oasis of native plants, shrubs and trees—and adding heirloom plants to our vegetable garden.
Scott is also my business partner. He handles our accounting, sales, and marketing (including this website). We enjoy traveling together, most often to visit new locales for future books, and to present programs at libraries and schools.
And in recent summers we've served as docents at the beautifully restored 1858 Pottawatomie Lighthouse, in Wisconsin’s Rock Island State Park (the setting for The Light Keeper's Legacy). It’s one of our favorite weeks of the year!
I love being able to work at home. I have a great office space where I can watch birds from my desk. (No, it doesn't distract me!) Sophie, my silver tabby, is usually curled up on my lap. My hobbies include cooking and handwork of all kinds. I love to spotlight different folk arts in my novels, and I enjoy trying my hand at new skills. And of course I love to read.
My favorite thing about being a writer? Connecting with people who enjoy my stories, and who love disappearing into the pages of a good book as much as I do.
I invite you to join me online using the links below. Happy reading!