By Karen Harper
The Big Thrill spoke with New York Times bestselling author Karen Harper from her home in Columbus, Ohio. The city is buried under an early snow, she said, but she still has power so she could stay warm and write. The third book in her Cold Creek Trilogy set in Appalachia is out this month, just two months after the second novel—a writing marathon but with the reward for readers of the three related books out close together. She was also happy to report that Shattered Secrets, the first book in this trilogy, was voted one of the Best of 2014 Books by readers of Suspense Magazine.
Can you tell us what BROKEN BONDS is about and how it fits into The Cold Creek Trilogy?
Each of these romantic suspense novels is related, yet they could stand alone. BROKEN BONDS focuses on the return of the third Lockwood sister, Charlene, called Char, to the small town of Cold Creek, and the deadly danger she is soon embroiled in there. Char is a social worker, dedicated to helping poor Appalachian children who live so high up in the mountains that they have trouble getting to school. But when she helps rescue Matt Rowan from being shoved off the cliff in his car, she’s the one who takes a fall. Not only does she fall for Matt, a man she’s not sure she can trust, but she’s soon threatened by the same killer who is after him.
Was it difficult to make the three sisters, each heroine of her own book, different—yet similar enough to be sisters?
That’s a great question, because I worked hard at that. Tess, the youngest was traumatized by being kidnapped as a child, so she’s wary and needs to come a long way to help the Cold Creek sheriff find her abductor in Book One, Shattered Secrets. Kate, the heroine of Book 2, Forbidden Ground, is just the opposite: well-educated, well-traveled, an archeologist whose self-confidence almost proves her undoing when she and Grant Mason, the owner of an ancient Adena Indian mound, are threatened. Char is the one her sister’s call “a bleeding heart,” out to save locals kids—the entire world if she could. So they are very different women, and the trick was to give them a support team through their family ties and beyond.
We tend not to realize that Appalachian children are still hungry or uneducated. How did you research this?
Partly through updated reading, but partly through personal experience. I did my undergrad work at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio very much on the edge of Appalachia. When I student taught, I had kids who were from professors’ families and those who were from tiny towns “in the hills.” (This was before a more modern consolidated school system was built.) So I have observed close up (and listened to, which really helped) people reared in Appalachia. Sadly, not enough has changed there, especially with the phasing out of some coal mines.
Is there a message in BROKEN BONDS about the situation of Appalachian children?
I’m aware of the old advice, “If you want to send a message, send a telegram.” But yes, there was no avoiding two problems in southern Ohio where I set these books which impact the characters. The economic hardships of the people is one, especially because Cold Creek also has an upscale area with condos, tennis courts and big homes—city people who love the area for vacations or retreats. Great instant tension between characters in BROKEN BONDS because of the Lake Azure folks.
But the second problem that figures in the story is the result of fracking—good and bad. Good, it provides employment where it’s badly needed and, of course, the extra oil and gas keeps the U.S. from depending on foreign imports—and keeps the price of gas down. However, contamination and other ecology, green earth problems are the result of fracking too. The pristine areas of Appalachia can be even more devastated by fracking sites than they have been by strip mining—and this all figures in the dangers and villains of the novel.
So background conflict abounds. That’s always good to emphasize conflict between the characters.
You’re exactly right. I love to write novels with instant tension. I am always on the lookout for settings that provide trouble. Not only a deserted coal mine, which figures prominently in the plot, but the loud, busy, brutal fracking sites make good places for action. And, of course, Appalachia also provides cliffs, ravines, deserted barns—and when it’s dark at night, it is really dark. Law enforcement is usually distant and overworked.
Unlike many authors who start with plot or characters, I look for a setting so strong it serves as a character, then go from there: What people and plot would do justice to this dramatic, dynamic place?
You have written other suspense trilogies, most recently two of them set in Amish country. Do you particularly like that format?
I think of trilogies as a sort of TV miniseries, whereas a stand alone, of which I’ve written quite a few, are more like movie length. In a trilogy, I can develop the themes and characters but don’t have to draw them out for series length. The longest related books I’ve written are The Queen Elizabeth I Mysteries, nine books. I like a combination of fresh main characters. I must admit, though, what I’m working on next is a trilogy, but one with the same main characters throughout, something I haven’t done before in trilogy length.
What’s the hardest part of the writing for you?
The middle (muddle) of the book. Of course, a grabber beginning is a challenge as is working up to a blockbuster end. In short, it’s all a challenge!
Also, I like to balance about seventy-five percent thriller/suspense with twenty-five percent romance. I was pleased that the December Publishers Weekly review for BROKEN BONDS picked up on that: “The thrilling finish takes a twist that most readers won’t see coming. While intrigue is the main driver of the story, the able, well researched plotting and sympathetic characters will keep romance readers along for the ride.”
You have been published since 1982 with almost 70 novels in print, so is there something new in your career, besides this next trilogy?
Thanks to my publisher, Mira Books, and how well the series is doing so far, I finally have a fan Facebook page. Of course, I’ve had a website for years, but combining a writing life with “real life” kept me from jumping into Facebook for a long time, although I’ve done a lot of guest blogging on line.
Finding time to write and protect my “muse” has been a real drain on my time, but I do love reaching out to my readers through library visits and book signings. Now Facebook is another way to do this and I’m having great fun with it. As my agents has always said over the years, “Onward and upward!”
Karen Harper is the New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of contemporary suspense and historical fiction. Winner of the Mary Higgins Clark Award for her novel, Dark Angel, she left a career teaching English at the high school and university levels to write full time. She divides her time between Ohio and Florida.