By Wendy Tyson
We met forensic psychologist Claire Britten in Chasing Shadows, Karen Harper’s South Shore Series debut. Claire returns in FALLING DARKNESS, Harper’s third novel in the series. Once again the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author takes readers on a thrilling ride. With a twisting plot, compelling characters, unrelenting suspense, and a rich setting, readers won’t be able to put FALLING DARKNESS down.
I recently spoke with Harper about FALLING DARKNESS, her fascinating writing career, and her tips for maximizing suspense in crime fiction.
Please tell us what FALLING DARKNESS is about.
Claire, her husband Nick and her daughter Lexi are fleeing by plane from a criminal mastermind out to stop them from exposing him to the FBI. But their plane is sabotaged and plunges into shark infested waters near Cuba—and that’s just the start of their attempt to hide out until their enemy can be caught. The WITSEC program plans to hide them in northern Michigan for the winter, but they have to find a way to get there first—and survive.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
Besides a great escape to tropical and island settings, the book is tense with cat-and-mouse suspense. Claire Britten’s motto is “The dead still talk if you know how to listen.” Her career is delving into the lives of people who died suspicious deaths. Questioning possible suspects puts not only Claire, but her family in danger. Her new husband, Nick Markwood, a criminal lawyer, is also on the run from a long-time enemy that the FBI is dying to expose. That puts Claire in the line of fire too.
How does this book make a contribution to the genre?
This book fits the domestic suspense thriller subgenre that is gaining popularity today. The family dynamics, and those of close friends, may help to solve the crime, but they can be the target of a crime too. Also, Claire’s narcolepsy, which she struggles with, puts her in the untrustworthy narrator category.
Was there anything new you discovered, or surprised you, as you wrote this book?
The characters are assigned a WITSEC hiding place on Mackinac Island in northern Michigan. Although I have visited there, like most tourists, it was in good weather, not during the bitter winter when the surrounding water ices over and everyone is isolated. The final scene has the family being chased across an ice bridge to the mainland. I had to learn a lot about the island in the winter months, when no tourists are there.
In a recent interview you mentioned that you start a novel with the setting in mind. How does a sense of place figure into your book?
Yes, I always start with a fascinating place which becomes part of ‘the hook for the book.’ P.D. James once told me at a writer’s conference that, “If the setting seems real, the characters and story will too.” I have a passionate attachment to some places where I have traveled or lived, and build the plot, characters and crime from there. I try to use setting as a character, a place so real it functions in the novel as much more than background.
You’ve been praised for your richly detailed, carefully research novels. How do you create a sense of authenticity in your books?
I do try to soak in the setting by being there. I love to talk to people from the area (I found the Amish fascinating) but I also bury myself in “book” research when possible. Of course, the internet is a real treasure trove. I also think I have a good ear for dialogue, which really helps with making the story realistic.
You have written more than thirty-five novels across several genres, including romantic suspense and historical fiction. What has drawn you to these genres?
I taught composition and literature at both the high school and university levels, so loving to read and write eventually made me a full-time writer. The genres more or less chose me. My historical fiction novels are all set in England, my favorite “foreign” place.
But I have always read and loved suspense so have concentrated on that genre also. If there is a common core among these two different genres, it is a look at a normal life interrupted by something earth-shaking or terrifying and then a study of how people cope with that circumstance.
How do you build suspense in your thrillers? What advice do you have for aspiring crime authors who are trying to increase the tension in their books?
I’ve taught whole workshops on that topic, but here are some key things. Twists and turns—surprises in the plot. It sounds obvious, but don’t do the expected. A terrible event on a clear, sunny day can be more shocking then one when you have “a dark and stormy night.”
Also, pacing is key—that is the speed at which you pull the reader through the story. And most important, before the main character gets in danger, be sure the reader likes and/or identifies with him or her. Then, don’t coddle your protagonist.
What authors or books have influenced your career as a writer, and why?
Too many to name, but I must admit as an English major with a BA and MA I have a fairly “classical” novelists training. The Brontes, Jane Eyre and Dickens—a great place to learn character details and how to use brooding settings as another character.
What does your writing routine look like? Do you have a favorite spot from which to write?
In the 1980s, I wrote with—yes, a typewriter!—on our kitchen table. Then I graduated to the spare bedroom, then we built a lovely office for me out the back of our home. However, if I have to, I could write anywhere. I’m an early morning person who gets a lot done before we have breakfast—and very few people interrupt me that early.
It is important to have tremendous self-discipline and drive—and to find what works for each author. One way or the other, protect your “muse.”
What’s next for you?
I am currently writing book #4, the next suspense/thriller in The South Shore Series. Meanwhile I’m planning another historical, reading background for it. I can research one genre while writing the other, but I could never write both at the same time. The voice, the vocabulary, the thrust of these diverse stories are too different.
Karen Harper is the New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of contemporary suspense and historical fiction. A former high school and university English instructor, she has been published since 1982. Harper is the winner of the Mary Higgin’s Clark Award. She and her husband have lived in both Ohio and South Florida the last 30 years. Her books have been translated into many languages. Her novels are available in hard cover, paperback and ebook.
To learn more about Karen, please visit her website.