On the Cover: Karen Harper
Setting, Weather, and Butterflies
Play Key Roles in New Thriller
By Wendy Tyson
In Karen Harper’s latest South Shores Series installment, DARK STORM, forensic psychologist Claire Markwood and her husband, criminal lawyer Nick, are on a harrowing, very personal adventure. This time, Claire’s younger sister Darcy goes missing, but when Claire heads to the butterfly sanctuary in southern Florida where Darcy works, she finds no trace of Darcy—it’s as though the woman simply vanished. What dark, hidden family secrets are at work here? And can Claire and Nick find Darcy before it’s too late?
Darcy’s disappearance is especially hard for Claire. Claire’s father deserted the family when the girls were young, so the sisters had to rely on one another, and, as a result, they grew particularly close. But the family misfortune affected more than Claire’s relationship with Darcy. It also impacted the person Claire is today, including the strength and resourcefulness she demonstrates when solving crimes.
“The shock [of her father’s desertion] was so great that their mother retreated into a world where she read all the time—and read adult-level books to her girls,” Harper says. “As Claire faces difficulties and dangers, she often thinks of or relates to the tough times of great literature’s heroines.”
But even with a heroine’s mindset, a sharp intellect, and her investigative experience, Claire’s search for Darcy is fraught with unexpected hurdles and plot turns that drive the suspense.
In one unique twist, Claire and Nick’s search for Darcy leads them to discover that one of the butterfly breeds Darcy was handling has the power to suspend life for a period and then become animated again—a clue that impacts their hunt for Darcy.
When asked how she came up with this idea—and whether it has some basis in reality, Harper admits that it does.
“True about the butterfly breed!” Harper says. “Since 1998, I’ve had information on the falcate orangetip butterfly in my ideas file, because that breed can reanimate itself after a voluntary ‘coma.’”
From there, Harper asked herself questions, using them to create her inventive plot. “What if that got into the wrong human hands and was used for expensive life extension, rogue space travel, etc?” And, “Surely, criminals would be in on that as well as our ‘moral’ governments and industries.”
To make sure she had the butterfly science right, Harper did her research.
“I corresponded with Gary Noel Ross, butterfly consultant in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and visited Butterfly World in Coconut Creek, Florida, which is worth a visit for anyone,” she says.
Harper, a USA Today and New York Times bestselling author, is known for her richly drawn, authentically researched novels—and DARK STORM is just one example.
The novel takes place in South Florida, a region used to extreme weather. As with all of the South Shores stories, the setting becomes another character in the book, and as the title implies, weather plays an important role. Harper uses a hurricane—a very real and frightening event—to foster tension and suspense, and her own experience in Florida was the basis for what her characters go through.
“We lived in Naples, Florida, for 30 winters—yes, ‘tough times,’ I know,” Harper jokes. “However, we were there occasionally off-season, twice when hurricanes rampaged through the area. One of them ripped the lanai roof off our condo, blew in my office window, and turned our golf course lake view into an inland sea.”
Harper feels the fear and devastation worked well in DARK STORM in order to increase the suspense and terror. “Not only are Claire and her sister in danger from someone evil testing the butterfly syndrome on people,” Harper explains. “But everyone in the area, including her beloved husband and children, are at risk.”
This kind of compelling suspense is a hallmark of Harper’s work, and DARK STORM grabs the reader from the very first chapter. But Harper admits that keeping the tension going isn’t as easy as she makes it look.
“The biggest challenge for me in writing suspense is to maintain the tension throughout,” she says. “I have to be careful that the middle of the book is as page-turning as the opening and ending. (I call the middle the ‘muddle’ of the book.) So many balls are being juggled at this point: plot, character, settings. I work hard on the middles (no sagging middles!) of my novels.”
When asked if she had any advice for new novelists struggling to write and publish their first book, Harper is thoughtful in her response.
“Take advantage of local (or of course, national) workshops on writing and getting published. Our suburban library offers one such event every year,” she says. “The internet is full of great blogs, agent websites with advice, Facebook pages of authors you admire. Some great publications (like the one you are reading!) are free and very helpful. Network as best you can.”
Harper cautions, though, that learning craft is critical. “The only way to get published is to write something good—either unique or which fits a popular genre or trend. Publishing is a business, but you can break in, or be bold enough to self-publish. As Winston Churchill said when asked how he and London survived the tough times of the Blitz, ‘Never give up. Never give up. Never give up!’”
This is important advice from someone who understands the value of teaching others. Before starting her career as an author, Harper taught high school and college for 17 years. Now she writes not only suspense, but also historical novels featuring real British women. She never forgets her roots, though.
“I try to teach something new each time in each novel—in a palatable, delightful way of course…Believe it or not, I actually miss teaching teenagers literature and composition. Being an English major helped when I began to write book-length fiction,” Harper says. “I was first published in 1982 when I knew no other authors, didn’t have the internet, and wrote on an electric typewriter! I did find an agent who sold my early work. I studied the industry, made author friends, and pursued ‘onward and upward.’ It has been a fantastic journey, one I am still enjoying and learning from.”
With more than three dozen books to her name, Harper’s journey will continue.
She has just finished the first book in a new suspense trilogy set in Alaska, and now she’s researching Churchill’s wife Clementine for a possible future historical heroine. Never one to rest, Harper says, “Even for long-published authors, hopefully, ‘onward and upward!’”
Words to live and write by.
- Up Close: Tosca Lee and Marcus Brotherton - May 2, 2023
- Up Close: J. T. Ellison - February 28, 2023
- Up Close: J. J. Hensley - September 30, 2020