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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Author Interview: Karen Harper

The Long and the Short of It is pleased to welcome Karen Harper, author of the recently released Mistress Shakespeare. The subject of this book is one Karen is very familiar with, as she taught English and literature at the college and high school levels before becoming a full-time author.

Due to this, she has a lot of opinions on what makes good writing. "For fiction, the most important, I think, is being able to pull your readers into the story," she said. "Of course, that means characterization, dialogue, even setting must be detailed and real."

These elements go hand in glove with Karen as she develops her plots and characters by first getting the setting right. "If the setting speak to me, my plot and characters grow out of that," she said. "This is 'the minority' way to write: most authors start with plot or character."

This is true for Karen whether she's writing contemporary suspense or historical novels. "Once I fall in love with the setting," she told me, "as in my latest contemporary The Hiding Place-- the Rocky Mountains of Colorado—then ideas for the plot and characters come to me. When I write historical novels, they are usually set in Elizabethan England, which I know well from on-site visits and research. Hampton Court Palace, the Tower of London—just being in these places inspires me to create my characters. However, in novels based on real people, the plot and characters are also dictated by the period of history I choose."

Karen's just completed a contemporary romantic suspense novel, Deep Down, set in Appalachia, another setting that really talks to her. "Most Americans don't realize that ginseng, a mountain herb now used in teas and power drinks, is highly valued by the Chinese," she explained. "So here we have an endangered plant which grows in hidden places in the forests and mountains of Appalachia which various groups—the Chinese, power drink companies, and the big US medical pharms want to get their hands on. The heroine’s mother, a ginseng counter (if the count goes too low, the US govt. stops the harvesting of the endangered ‘sang’) goes missing. Her daughter and the small town sheriff, with whom the heroine has quite a past, go looking for the missing woman and find they are soon endangered too."

Deep Down is due to be released in June 2009.

Karen told me that titles are very important to her and she likes to come up with a title that works well before she writes so she can subtly work the title in during the creation of the story. She's written forty-four books and, knowing how her agents and editors like to work, usually runs several possible titles past them before she starts her book.

"My current historical novel, Mistress Shakespeare, started out as Will's Other Wife but went through a real committee talking over possibilities," she said. "The word mistress here can have two meanings: the word had the meaning to the Elizabethans that Mrs. does for us today, but, of course, it has a modern meaning which implies a kept woman. Both concepts work for this book about William Shakespeare really in love."

Karen has seen a lot of changes since she started writing almost twenty-eight years ago. She was first published in April 1982 and wrote on an electric typewriter. "There were no PCs or internet for research or publicity," she remembered. "Also, I knew no published authors and belonged to no writers groups. Things are a lot easier now—though it's still hard to sell that first book."

Her working space has also changed over the years as she's become more established. "It 'only' took me about twenty books to finally make the USA TODAY and New York Times bestseller lists," she shared, "not exactly an overnight success!"

She started out on the kitchen table, then moved to an extra bedroom. "About fifteen years ago, my husband designed and we had built an office for me out the back out our house," she said. "It's great—lots of windows, lovely view of flowers and veggie garden. Plenty of shelf space, a huge desk, and framed covers of my bestsellers on the walls."

Karen shared with me that the hardest part of writing her books is the middle—"which I call 'the muddle of the book,'" she said. "I seem to control my beginnings well, hopefully with a grabber hook for the book to really get things going. I usually have a good idea of how the book will end. But when I am juggling multiple characters and subplots in the middle, I have to work hard to be sure things do not fall apart or bog down. This can mean adding a big event—a marriage? a murder?—or putting in some sort of plot twist to propel the book forward."

When Karen's not writing, she loves to travel both at home and abroad. Her heritage is English, Scottish, and German; and she's done the most looking into and reveling in her Scottish heritage. She did Scottish Highland dancing for years until it got a bit hard on her knees and her husband plays the bagpipes.

"In writing, I guess I’ve done the most with my English heritage," she said, "since I’ve written many books set in ‘merrie olde England’ and taken at least a dozen trips there for both research and pleasure."

She's also lately gotten really involved with Labrador retrievers. She's written about them in quite a few books, including The Hiding Place and The Stories of Change Anthology, because she was very impressed with the working labs she met from the Puppies Behind Bars program. In Deep Down, she used another kind of tracker dog, Plott Hounds. Her favorite animal is the cat, though, from felix domesticus to the many wild breeds. "I guess I can say a cat lover has now gone to the dogs," she said. "It's such a tragedy that so many of the tigers, leopards, etc., have been hunted for their beautiful coats. When we take our grandson to the zoo, we let him decide what he wants to see, but if I chose, we'd head straight to the big cats."

On a personal note, she admits to crying in movies...and even at some commercials. "I guess my two all-time favorite commercials for that were the old ads for film or for cameras about how quickly time goes by and kids and families change: 'Turn around and she’s four—turn around and she’s twenty' or whatever," she told me. "My other faves are the Budweiser ads they show near Christmas with those beautiful Clydesdales pulling the wagon up to a lighted farmhouse in the snow. Something about that really gets to me, reminds me of the old days, of passing small town America, I guess."

Karen and her husband live in Florida part of the year, and Karen told me she loves thunderstorms—any dramatic weather, whether it's actually happening or something she writes about. "Our area has been through several hurricanes," she explained. "So I couldn’t resist writing a book called Hurricane, which has a romantic and family drama playing out against the background of an approaching storm. I have to watch I don’t overdo the Gothic overtones when I write a frightening scene for a novel."

Finally, Karen shared with me she does multitask, but she needs a lot of patience to do so. "Researching one project, writing another, publicizing another—everything will eventually get done, but not right away," she said. "I tend to think of making progress in time spans of weeks or months rather than days, or I can get frustrated. I have some author friends who have offices outside their homes or they get distracted, but I seem to be able to work at home and juggle other things."

You can keep up with Karen on her website, http://karenharperauthor.com .

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