Walking the Paths of the Past

by Kassandra Lamb and guest blogger, Jennifer Jensen

I love living history parks. Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia and Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts are among my favorites. I love to learn about history by walking their dusty streets and watching folks in era-appropriate garb go about the tasks of life in times past.

So when children’s author, Jennifer Jensen, asked if she could guest post on our blog and tell us about Connor Prairie, I was thrilled.  Jen’s new release, Through the Shimmer of Time, is a time-travel adventure. Granted it’s aimed at 9-12 year olds, not our usual readership, but the story is chock full of mysteries: how did Jim get zapped back in time, who is behind the random thefts in the village, and how can Jim and Hannah prove that a suicide was really murder?

And I’ll tell you all a secret – I read this book and loved it!

Jen Jensen headshotSo here’s Jen to tell us about the park that inspired her fictional setting of the book, and provided her with a fun place to do her research.

Take it away, Jen!

First, thank you to the misterio press authors for inviting me here.  As the first guest blogger, I feel very privileged!

Conner Prairie is a fabulous living history park in Central Indiana, and my kids and I were frequent visitors.   When we started going, the 1836 Prairietown was the only area, but the park has expanded to include a Lenape Indian camp, Morgan’s Raid during the Civil War and baseball in the 1880s.

Connor House

(photo by Derek Jensen, CC BY 2.5, Wikimedia)

woman in costume making pottery

Woman making pottery (Photo by Derek Jensen, CC BY 2.5, Wikimedia Commons)

With so much history being acted out in front of us, what better place to ask “what if?”  What if you could really travel back in time instead of just talking to actors in costume?  What if a boy went exploring where he shouldn’t? What if he got accused of a crime when he arrived?  What if there was a ghost who wanted her name cleared?

When you don’t actually have a time travel machine, a living history museum can be the next best thing for research. Conner Prairie’s “1836” cabins are all historic buildings, moved onto the site from around the Midwest.  When you step onto those hand-planed boards, you know what it felt like in olden days.  The doors really were short, the stairs to an upstairs room really were narrow, and the mud really does crumble out of the chinking.

costumed woman by fireplace

(photo by Paul J. Everett, CC license via flickr.com)


the storekeeper (photo by Paul J Everett, CC license via flickr.com)

At Conner Prairie, the staff aren’t just in costume – they stay in character.  They have background information about their character’s personal life, his/her business and chores, and even where they moved from.  It’s fiction, but it’s all historically accurate.  If Mr. Whitaker talks about receiving goods for his store from Cincinnati, you can bet that central Indiana shops in 1836 got their stock there.

I helped make biscuits at the inn, and watched the blacksmith work the forge.  I could ask questions about a housewife’s herb garden, what she grew and how she kept pests away, but she would look blank if I asked what the modern name of something was.  I got good tips on what plants were used for which ailments, but once I had that clue I went back to modern research for details.

blacksmith's anvil

(photo by Paul J. Everett, CC license via flickr.com)

There were a few places where staff members did not have to stay in character.  One particular area, where kids could do some activities and ask questions, kept me from making a fool of myself.

In my book, Jim sleeps in the loft with the other children.  I had pictured a Little House on the Prairie loft from the television show, without thinking that Little House was set 50 years later.  But here I was, standing in an authentic cabin from the right time period.  And it turns out that to get to the loft, the kids would climb a straight-up ladder and go through a square cut in the ceiling.  The only real light in the loft was from the fireplace downstairs.  No happy children looking down on parents here!

Another tidbit: in the summer, families would remove the chinking between the logs in the loft to let some air flow through, and then re-chink when the seasons turned cooler.  Bunches of herbs were often hung to dry in the loft, and both of these tidbits made Jim’s reactions a bit richer – those shadowy shapes can be spooky!

log cabin

(photo by Paul J. Everett, CC license via flickr.com)

I still relied on historical records and books to verify and expand on the details, from food and medicine to journalistic style, but it was the hands-on research at Conner Prairie that let me capture the atmosphere for my fictional Granger Village.

If you could travel back in time, to “when” would you go?  Have you found a living history park that brings that favorite time period to life, and what sorts of mysteries can you imagine happening there?

Through the Shimmer of Time book coverThrough the Shimmer of Time

A mysterious pottery shard . . .
A haunted cabin . . .
A shadowy stranger . . .
And no way home
Present Day: Jim has a talent for getting into trouble. Grounded from his model rockets, he goes exploring where he shouldn’t and gets zapped back in time. Can he find the way back home or is he marooned in the past?
1838: Hannah’s life in her frontier village is filled with a little play and a lot of hard work. A seemingly harmless trick lures a strange, dazed boy from the old haunted cabin. Now Hannah must make a choice – and face the dangers.
Together, Jim and Hannah struggle to unmask a thief and solve a murder while they search for the key to unlock time.  It will take all their courage and wits, plus the rocket motors in Jim’s pocket, just to stay alive.

Jennifer Jensen is an award-winning writer who wouldn’t be without her computer or smart phone, but still dreams of living in the olden days. Until someone invents a working time machine, she lives in Indiana and makes do with plenty of imagination, loads of books and as much Dr. Who as the BBC will produce.

Through the Shimmer of Time is her first novel. Connect with her at her blog, through Facebook or on Twitter (@jenjensen2).

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week,  usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun. Please follow us so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

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  • Reply
    K.B. Owen
    August 19, 2014 at 8:13 am

    Hi Jen, and welcome! Loved your post. As a historical mystery author myself, I know what a terrific resource you have, right nearby! Now if they would only put a living museum for a 19th century women’s college in a town nearby me…how cool would that be?

    I’ll have to take a look at your book! I have a couple of nephews, and Christmas is coming…

    Are you going to make this a series?

  • Reply
    Jen Jensen
    August 19, 2014 at 9:07 am

    Thanks, Kathy. So nice to be here, and in the company of Concordia, to boot! I know I’m lucky to have Conner Prairie so close, but I think if it weren’t, the book wouldn’t exist – it wasn’t just a resource, but a starting point. And yes, series. Three planned, and we’ll see where it goes from there. I may never get my other novels written!

  • Reply
    Kassandra Lamb
    August 19, 2014 at 11:31 am

    Oh, goodie, goodie! More Jim and Hannah!!

  • Reply
    shannon esposito
    August 19, 2014 at 12:41 pm

    Sounds like a fantastic adventure for little boys! I happen to have two of those 🙂 In North Carolina I lived by a place called Old Salem. The town was founded in 1766 by the Moravians and it was a similar set up. The costumed people would show you how they cooked, and baked back then and their was a little museum. It was my favorite place to hang out and practice photography. And lawd could they bake some bread! lol! OH, and great cover by the way. 🙂

    • Reply
      Jen Jensen
      August 19, 2014 at 2:28 pm

      Thanks, Shannon and Kass. The first living history park I visited was Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. It was harvest weekend and I still remember the strings of apple rings hung up to dry. I don’t think they had to stay in character (it was about 35 years ago!), but I loved it. I’m just discovering how many history parks there are around the country – I wonder how many of those I can manage to visit?

  • Reply
    Vinnie Hansen
    August 19, 2014 at 1:20 pm

    Welcome, Jen! I enjoyed your post.

    My grandparents (both sides) were Dakota homesteaders. My mom is still alive (and cogent) at 95, so I’m blessed with first-hand oral history dating back into the 1800’s. The remains of my grandparents’ house still exist out on the prairie.

    • Reply
      Jen Jensen
      August 19, 2014 at 2:31 pm

      How lucky you are, Vinnie, to have a mother to share memories at a time you’re old enough to appreciate it! I’m recording my mom’s stories (she’s 79), but all my grandparents are gone and most of their early life stories with them. I remember my grandfather talking about working on a hay farm in Ontario, Canada, and the half-ton round bales they made. Having horses and using 80-pound rectangular bales, we didn’t believe him! How I wish I could ask him about it all now.

  • Reply
    Kirsten Weiss
    August 19, 2014 at 11:38 pm

    Research can take us to interesting places, and Conner Prairie is certainly one of them. Thanks for sharing!

  • Reply
    Karen McFarland
    August 20, 2014 at 7:36 pm

    Although I love history, I have never toured a living park. Do we even have those on the west coast? We have a lot of missions. But living history parks? I’m not knowing. I can see how much help that would be when visualizing your story. Especially if the story takes place during a similar time period. Low and behold, it was right up your alley. That’s fabulous Jennifer. And so is your story. I wish you much success!

    And thanks to all of you Misterio Press authors! Loved the guest post! 🙂

  • Reply
    Kassandra Lamb
    August 21, 2014 at 10:12 am

    Hey Karen, thanks for stopping by! Glad you enjoyed Jen’s post. And come to think of it, I don’t know of any living history parks on the West Coast either. Although I’ve been to lots of small museums set up at old Spanish haciendas and missions. I’m surprised no one has thought to do that. Seeing the early Spanish settlements actually re-enacted would be fun!

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