"The Hardest Part" is a tale that could have been ripped straight from Superior's history.
Set in the fictional town of Port Nicollet on the south shore of Lake Superior, the short story by Jeff Esterholm carries the flavor of the Twin Ports. References are peppered through the piece — the brownstone City Hall building, the Elbo Room, Lake Nebagamon, the Duluth International Airport, Thursday night shopping downtown.
It even echoes a real cold case, the death of Michael Fisher, although the author claims that's happenstance.
"I was a child back then," said the Superior native.
"The Hardest Part" revolves around a fictional 1960s crime and its aftermath. The piece nabbed Esterholm a second-place award and $250 prize in the 2017 "Wisconsin People & Ideas" fiction contest.
"This story really stuck with me after I first read it," wrote the judge. "It's filled with details, and in a way, it's even about a specific detail, one that's heartbreaking in its normality and commonness, and in the weight it takes on at the end."
This is the third time Esterholm has placed second in the contest. His past wins came in 2002 and 2005 for unrelated stories. "The Hardest Part," however, is one of a series he's writing around a single murder in Superior. Or, as it has become, Port Nicollet.
Each short story looks at the case from a different angle.
"The impact on the victim's family, the police involved, that kind of thing," Esterholm said.
The flavor of the Twin Ports permeates these pieces.
"I use a lot of what I remember as a child," said Esterholm, who returned to Superior in 2015.
Writing has been a constant for the Superior native, who graduated from Superior Senior High School and the University of Wisconsin-Superior.
"As a child I wanted to write the sequel to 'Huckleberry Finn,'" Esterholm said, but two pages in he set it aside.
He's turned his focus to short stories and flash fiction — 700 word or less — a number of which have been published.
Esterholm's pieces lean toward noir-type mysteries that he often tailors for online publications such as "Crime Factory" and Akashic Books' "Mondays are Murder."
"There's more opportunity to get published online and it gets to a larger audience than hard copy," Esterholm said. "You don't get paid for doing this type of work often."
The Superior native lived in the Madison area for 15 years and worked for a time as a stringer for west central Wisconsin newspapers. He's back in Superior now, working as a curriculum developer and devoting at least an hour a day to breathing life into the fictional town of Port Nicollet.
Esterholm encouraged other writers to submit their work to contests and take the step to seek publication.
"Don't expect a lot of rewards for it; you're doing it for yourself first," the Superior author said. "It's nice validation for your work."
Making writing, and reading, a habit has paid off for the Superior man.
"If you want to write, you have to read a lot and write a lot," Esterholm said. "Reading, being observant and being really persistent."
In addition to the "The Hardest Part," which will appear in the fall issue of "Wisconsin People & Ideas," Esterholm recently received an honorable mention from the Council for Wisconsin Writers for his short story "Flaming Chevy Lodestar." As part of that prize, he earned a one-week writing residency in Valton, Wis.
The wins are nice, he said, because it validates the effort he's poured into them.
"But you can't let it get to your head," the author said, so it's "back to work."
The fall issue of "Wisconsin People & Ideas" magazine comes out in October. It can be accessed online at www.wisconsinacademy.org under the publications tab. More of Esterholm's work can be found through an online search for "Jeff Esterholm" and "short story." The Akashic Books story, "Blomfeldt's Paperboy," is a partner piece to "The Hardest Part."