Karen Harper Thinks “The Discovery in the Research Is How You Figure Out Where the Story Will Go”

For some time, I’ve wanted to meet local author Karen Harper.  I had my opportunity last night, when I attended “An Evening with Crime Time: Karen Harper” at the Upper Arlington Public Library.

Working as an English teacher at Whetstone High School in Columbus and as chair of the English department at Westerville North High School, Mrs. Harper first wrote paperback romance novels like Island Ecstasy, Passion’s Reign and One Fervent Fire. She stopped teaching in 1984 and began to write prolifically, publishing dozens more historical romance novels both under her own name and the pseudonym Caryn Cameron.

Today, Mrs. Harper is known for her historical mystery novels that feature a young Elizabeth I as their central character. She dedicated her first Elizabethan mystery, The Poyson Garden, to her Whetstone students. Inspired by her love of history and the British Isles, she wrote nine Elizabethan mysteries, including The Thorne Maze and The Queene’s Christmas, all of which I’ve read. She also writes contemporary suspense novels, some of which are based in Ohio’s Amish country. The trilogy of Dark Road Home, Dark Harvest and The Dark Angel takes place in Holmes County, as do Down to the Bone and Shaker Run. Her latest releases are Fall from Pride (the beginning of a new Amish trilogy) and The Irish Princess.

During her presentation, Mrs. Harper discussed her fondness for using the amateur sleuth in mystery fiction.

“It’s not me to ride in cop cars or hang out at a police station for up-close-and-personal research,” she said. Rather, she prefers to explore how an unusual culture solves a crime that impacts it. Some of her ideas come from news headlines.

She also likes to give her characters fascinating careers that she can research. She visited lavender farms near Chillicothe and Cleveland for a book she’s writing now in which a lavender-grower is a character. She’s also shadowed a mushroom grower, an artist who paints quilt squares on barns, a television anchorwoman and a midwife.

“Some authors have professional researchers, but to me the discovery in the research is how you figure out where the story will go,” she said. What great news – and what a great career idea – for this librarian!

As Mrs. Harper developed her Elizabethan mystery series, she liked the idea of the characters working as a group to solve things, an inspiration that came from watching the “Mission: Impossible” television series. “Elizabeth I had everything an amateur sleuth would need, like brains and motives,” she remarked.

Mrs. Harper’s Anglophilia is influencing one of her current projects. Next summer, she will release Mistress of Mourning, a book about a medieval London chandler, or candlemaker, who also forms wax death masks for the wealthy. Henry VIII’s mother, Elizabeth of York, helps the main character solve the mystery of who killed the Princes in the Tower. She was inspired to write the book after seeing the same wax effigies in the Westminster Abbey Museum that I saw when I was six years old, during my first visit to the abbey on June 9, 1976.  Who could forget seeing the funeral effigies of Edward III, Henry VIII, Elizabeth of York, Mary Tudor, Elizabeth I, and other British sovereigns who preceded Charles II, with their wax heads and original costumes?  My favorite was Queen Mary, holding a rose.  (Other memorable parts of that day were putting felt slippers over my shoes so I didn’t scratch the tile floor of the Chapter House, an eight-sided room that was the refectory for the monks who lived there, and doing a brass rubbing of an image of Marguerite de Scornay, the Abbess of Nivelles, who lived from 1443 to 1462.)

After publishing 45 full-length books, Mrs. Harper is an experienced veteran of the publishing industry. From describing how she began her work with agents by consulting Literary Marketplace to how her biggest sales today are in Russia and Turkey, this part of the conversation was especially insightful.

You can tell from a book’s cover what its publisher thinks of its author, Mrs. Harper shared. As an author gets better known, her name gets bigger, it’s embossed, or it appears in foil. Book tours also used to be a popular, fun way for authors to meet readers, she continued. However, that changed after September 11. Fewer people like to go out at night, and Americans have become more of a stay-at-home culture, she suggested, so Skype is more popular now. Finally, an author used to be able to take three to five pages to set a scene. Now, sadly, Americans don’t have that kind of time to stick with a story. They want their stories fast-paced.

One more interesting discovery occurred before the evening was over: Mrs. Harper has donated her papers to The Ohio State University Rare Books and Manuscript Library. The Karen Harper Collection includes drafts and editorial materials for many of her novels, novellas, speeches and articles; business-related correspondence; photographs; audio tapes; scrapbooks; and other publicity materials. Wouldn’t that make an interesting homework assignment for the Society of American Archivists’ “Managing Literary Manuscripts: Identification, Arrangement, and Description” continuing education program that I’ve wanted to take!

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