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Karen Harper (Photo courtesy of Mira Books)

When most people think of Queen Elizabeth I, they envision a red-wigged, heavily bejeweled, imperious woman ruling England with an iron hand in a velvet (delicately embroidered, of course) glove. When author Karen Harper thinks of Queen Elizabeth I, she sees needle-witted heroine, bravely (and with a great deal of intelligence and erudition) solving impossible mysteries while ruling England with an iron hand in a velvet (delicately embroidered, of course) glove.

But before she decided to write about her sleuthing queen, Harper explored the regions of the heart and its attendant emotions in a wide variety of settings. With over ten years writing experience and more than thirty books under her belt -- including romances, romantic suspense novels and mysteries -- Harper talks to Crescent Blues readers about Indiana stone country, tree houses, and her dream vacation.

Book: Karen Harper, stone forestCrescent Blues: Your most recent book, The Stone Forest, features mystery, murder and mayhem in Stone County, Ind. Is there a real Stone County, and what prompted you to use it as a backdrop for your novel?

Karen Harper: Like all my contemporary suspense novels, The Stone Forest is based on a real place, although I fictionalize the name of the town or county so that I can create towns, stores, houses, etc. Indiana stone country really exists and is beautiful. My books are always set in what I think of as enclaves -- unique areas with unique cultures. Other settings I've used include Appalachia (The Baby Farm) and Ohio Amish country (Dark Road Home and Down to the Bone). I love introducing my readers to unusual people and ways of life -- America is not all homogenized quite yet!

Crescent Blues: Jenna Kirk, the heroine of The Stone Forest, builds tree houses for a living. This is an interesting occupation for a heroine -- do you have a tree house or have you ever considered getting one?

I guess I'd say that history is the skeleton of my story and character and plot are the flesh.

Karen Harper: It is a real challenge to find unique careers for my main characters, but I like to explore such occupations. Jenna Kirk's designing of tree houses is a dream career; however, one which is catching on. Time magazine recently did an article on this. I got the idea from a feature on the Home and Garden TV channel. I do not own a tree house, but would love to.

Crescent Blues: Moving from the present to the past -- your Queen Elizabeth I mysteries have enthralled historical mystery buffs. What made you decide to write about such a fascinating personage?

Karen Harper: I have long been fascinated by Queen Elizabeth I and knew she'd make a great amateur sleuth for a historical mystery series. Whenever I visit England, I am most drawn to buildings from her era. She was an amazing woman of her times and yet a modern woman in a way. During the millennial celebrations, I note that she was the top woman on everyone's lists for the most important rulers/leaders of the centuries. The fact that she survived and thrived after growing up in her dysfunctional family makes her fascinating too.

Crescent Blues: Sometimes getting the history right can overwhelm a novel. How do you balance accurate historical depiction with character and plot details?

Book: Karen Harper, the Queenes CureKaren Harper: I work very hard to balance accurate Elizabethan history with a ripping good mystery and extended character arcs of the queen and other characters. I always start with the history and never change what I can find. If I say the queen was in Whitehall Palace in London the week after her coronation, she really was. However, I then work in a murder and a mystery she could have solved during that time. I guess I'd say that history is the skeleton of my story and character and plot are the flesh.

Crescent Blues: Will there be more Elizabeth I mysteries?

Karen Harper: There will be more in the Elizabeth I mystery series. Book Five, The Thorne Maze, will be out in hardcover in February 2003. (All the books come out in paper a year later.) Then in November of 2003, The Queen's Christmas will be released. I certainly hope to continue her stories for a long time -- after all she ruled for 45 years, and I'm only on the sixth year of her reign!

Crescent Blues: You've written over thirty books -- encompassing romance, romantic suspense and historical mystery. Which genre do you prefer to write in?

Karen Harper: I have written in several genres, but I do love the mysteries and romantic contemporary suspenses I'm writing now. They are, however, the most challenging writing I've ever done. The clues must be layered in with everything else -- character development, themes, plot structure, description. They are very rewarding to do but devilish to plot.

Crescent Blues: Is there another genre that you'd like to try writing?

Karen Harper: The only other genre I might like to try is women's inspirational novels, ala Jan Karon.

Crescent Blues: You taught English at both high school and college levels before quitting to write full time. What was your impetus to quit teaching and take the plunge into writing?

Book: Karen Harper, Shaker RunKaren Harper: I was very happy teaching English both at The Ohio State University and then in two large high schools, but writing beckoned and I took the plunge. I still am able to "teach" by giving talks and workshops about writing. My actual impetus to try a novel was a particular trip to England and an idea for a novel -- and the belief, "I think I can do this."

Crescent Blues: Who are your favorite authors?

Karen Harper: My favorite authors are too numerous to mention. I read in many genres when I'm not swamped with reading my own research. The authors I first fell in love with were women who wrote historical fiction: Anya Seton, Jan Cox Speas, Jan Westcott. I'm currently reading The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, but who isn't?

Crescent Blues: You write about strong women who overcome almost overwhelming odds to succeed. Who are your personal heroines and why?

Karen Harper: (In real life as opposed to the main characters of novels) I do think the word hero/heroine is getting overused in our society. Especially after the real heroics of 9/11 compared to something like "a sports hero," the concept takes some rethinking. Personal heroines are those who risk themselves for the welfare of others, people whose names few of us would know. I know an American woman who has lived among the Pygmy tribes of the Central African Republic and taught them that their small stature does not mean they should be looked down on or even called un-human as other tribes and people had done. That's an extreme example but it takes a lot to impress me these days when we've seen fellow Americans die to help others.

Crescent Blues: Although you no longer teach for a living, you now occasionally conduct writing workshops. What's the most important thing you think a new author should know?

Karen Harper: It is essential for beginning writers/authors to believe in themselves. Trust your unique voice. If you want to be published, much rejection lurks; there will be tough times. Hang in there. As Winston Churchill said when London was under attack, "Never give up. Never give up. Never give up!"

Crescent Blues: What are some of the most common mistakes that a new author makes?

Karen Harper: Common mistakes new authors make include not revising enough. Also, it's best to go on to write a second [and] third book. Unfortunately, we only learn to write by writing. It is the rare first timer who produces great writing.

Book: Karen Harper, poyson garden

Crescent Blues: You've traveled to some exotic locales -- is there someplace that you haven't been to that you'd like to visit?

Karen Harper: I have traveled a lot but have never visited the Hebrides and other islands off Scotland. However, I am hoping to remedy that next summer.

Crescent Blues: If you had to live somewhere other than the U.S., where would it be?

Karen Harper: If I lived somewhere other than the U.S. it would be in London or the Cotswolds.

Crescent Blues: What are your current projects?

Karen Harper: I have just finished my fifth contemporary romantic suspense novel for Mira Books. Called The Falls, it takes place in the scenic area northwest of Seattle. It is one of my scariest novels to date. These books have been making the extended USA Today list, so I know readers are enjoying them. For my next Mira, it's back to Ohio Amish country. Meanwhile I'm planning my next Elizabethan mystery, so I'm thrilled to be writing scary stuff for both the past and present worlds.

Crescent Blues: Is there anything else you'd like to talk about? White space and soapbox provided free of charge.

Karen Harper: That's it. I don't have a personal website, but there is a lot more on me and my books at www.mirabooks.com

Teri Smith