THE BIG THRILL caught up with New York Times bestselling author Karen Harper while she was reading the edited copy of the third book in her new suspense trilogy, The Cold Creek Novels. She was kind enough to answer some questions about the trilogy launch book, SHATTERED SECRETS, (Sept.) to be followed closely by FORBIDDEN GROUND (Nov.) and BROKEN BONDS (Jan.). She admits that she’s familiar with this interview format because she’s usually on the other end, asking ITW authors about their new books for THE BIG THRILL.
What is your novel about? It obviously sets up the next two books in the trilogy.
SHATTERED SECRETS focuses on the youngest of three sisters, but it is Tess’s life which shattered the entire family. She was abducted from the cornfield behind their house when she was young, and later, somehow, escaped her captor. Traumatized, drugged, she recalled nothing of her ordeal. Now as an adult, she’s back in Cold Creek to sell the old family home. But when another child is taken in much the same way, Tess is forced to face her buried memories to help the sheriff try to save a life—because two other abducted girls have never come back.
This is the third trilogy you have written. Does that three-book format suit your style?
I have written a nine-book series The Queen Elizabeth I Mysteries, but I prefer the three-book format, which I think of as a mini-series. It lets the reader spend time with the characters and the setting and gives me time to develop plot and people. However, my trilogies always have a new hero/heroine in each book, because I think that keeps things fresh. In The Cold Creek Novels, the main characters are three very different sisters. Each is impacted by and helps to solve a terrible crime with the help of a man she hopes she can trust. The same small town/ Appalachian setting helps to tie the stories together.
Speaking of settings, you tend to use that small town/rural places as background for your novels. Have you lived in a small town, or is there some other allure?
I’ve always lived in large cities—except the four years I was away at college on the edge of Appalachia. One advantage, I find, of small town/rural crime novels is that the enemy is often “us.” In other words, the villain may well be someone known and trusted, which brings personal betrayal into play. I also like books in which the “average” woman has a big part in solving the trauma which has impacted her life, something that might not happen in an urban area with a large police force. The hero of SHATTERED SECRETS is a small town sheriff, but he has one deputy and is really stretched thin.
Also, I never consider my settings as ‘background.’ I actually think of my setting as another character. The place impacts the human characters, and may have a ‘character arc.’ These three novels could not have been set in suburban or an urban setting and be the same—or as scary. But despite the rural ambience, the books move at a thriller pace, during a short time span.
An endorsement on your website and on the back cover of SHATTERED SECRETS reads, “Harper, a master of suspense, keeps readers guessing about crime and love until the very end.” (Booklist, starred review on FALL FROM PRIDE) How do you try to work all that out?
I love to hold the “aha” moment for readers to unmask the criminal until the last possible place in the book, though I always write an uplifting ending after the crime is solved. Another thing about small town settings is that they are often full of eccentrics and loners. Everybody seems to have a secret. I usually juggle 3 to 4 possible perps and make sure that each has motive and opportunity. I think the villain in SHATTERED SECRETS is one of the most surprising and unique I’ve created yet.
So why Appalachia for the Cold Creek Novels?
I know Appalachia well, especially the rolling foothills and northern ridge which begin in southern Ohio. I did my undergrad work at Ohio University in Athens which is located in those foothills. When I student taught high school, I had both the children of professors and some small town/ backwoods mountain students. I have seen the chasm between the social classes there. That plays a big part in this novel, for Cold Creek has a lot of tension between “old town” and “new town.” People not liking or trusting each other provides great ambiance for a suspense/crime story.
The other thing about Appalachia is that it provides some unique, scary venues: an abandoned coal mine, an old insane asylum, a hidden hunting cabin, isolated farms and some places where cell phones don’t work.
What are the pros and cons of having books that took quite a while to write coming out so close together? Your earlier trilogies have pub dates more widely spaced than two months apart.
Actually, I’m hoping there is more upside than downside to that, and I’m glad my editor at Mira Books suggested it. Yet, because these three novels come out every other month, I just know someone will say to me, “Wow! You write a book every two months?”
The good news for an author: Many readers like to read related books close together; some won’t touch the early ones until they have the entire “series” in their hands, and that will be easy with this trilogy. Also, I’m hoping my author events, speaking appearances and guest blogs will serve the entire trilogy. The downside, of course, is that I had to write all three books without having one come out, so I’ve been literally off the charts for a while.
Will Tess Lockwood and Sheriff Gabe McCabe be in the next two books? If you have a fresh hero/heroine for each novel, is there spillover?
Yes, Tess and Gabe do figure in later books, although in support, rather than starring roles. As different as the three sisters and the men they fall in love with are, they learn to overcome their problems and pull together. I love family reunions, even in lives that are “shattered” and “broken” as two of The Cold Creek titles suggest. I have brothers, but no sisters, so I think I pour myself into my related female characters. And, family ties or not, as author Mario Puzo once said, “Nothing is interesting but trouble!”
New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author Karen Harper is a former high school teacher and university (The Ohio State University) English instructor. The winner of The Mary Higgins Clark Award, Harper is the author of 60books, including contemporary suspense and historical novels. Her books are published in many foreign languages, and she is a bestseller in the UK and Russia.
To learn more about Karen, please visit her website.