Sunday, December 23, 2012

Meet Mystery Author Karen Hall

 Karen Hall
Mystery & Women's Fiction

     Single again, I went back to school in Rapid City at the School of Mines. I lived alone for a long time, and when I started talking back to Tom Brokaw when he said, “Goodnight” at the end of the TV news (“See you, Tom. Have a good weekend”), I realized it was time to get back out there again. The next fall I met Jeff in beginning physics class, and he eventually became my third husband. This one took. He is the third, but he’s also my final husband. In 1991, Jeff graduated in mechanical engineering and I graduated in chemical engineering and chemistry, and we moved to Minneapolis/St. Paul. I worked as an environmental engineer in the state’s largest oil refinery for eight years, then started a consulting company with another woman engineer. I wrote the first draft of my novel, Unreasonable Risk, during that time by getting up at 5:30 every morning and writing foran hour before work.
     We moved back to Rapid City in 2002, and in addition to writing, since then I’ve been involved in lots of community organizations: politics, community chorus, the photographic society, the Black Hills Writers Group, church choir, and several others. This past year I worked with many others to pass a groundwater protection ordinance governing septic system installation and inspection, and have since been appointed to the county Planning Commission. Life is never dull.
     Best of all, we are now grandparents. Our son and daughter-in-law have two girls, Annabelle and Ophelia, and our daughter and her husband have a girl, Hailee, and a boy, Dylan (named after the legendary Bob; the kids have taste). We see them as often as we can and there are, of course, pictures of them on my home page.
     Since there are no kids in the house, we’ve adopted cats. Rocky, who has toxoplasmosis (which blinded him), and Junior, cute but dumb as a post, have given us much joy and many laughs, despite the small carcasses of their prey lined up at the back door.
     Well, that’s about it. I’m about to turn 63 but still feel like 25. (You all know what I mean.) I’m president of the Black Hills Writers’ Group for a second and final year, and am enjoying that tenure, learning a lot in the process. My big news this year, though, is that the second thriller in the Hannah Morrison environmental mystery series, THROUGH DARK SPACES, is now available both in trade paperback as well as e-book format, and my first novel, UNREASONABLE RISK, will come out soon in trade paperback, too. My third novel, THE STILL HEART OF STONES, women's fiction this time, is about four women who meet as a result of their infertility and become close friends. The first draft is nearly complete, so you may see that one in print or e-book one of these days, too. I’ll keep you posted! 

Reader’s Haven: Tell us a bit about yourself  that our readers might not know. And Readers, there's a giveaway. Details below!

Karen:  I grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, where you can watch thunderstorms advance across the wide plains for hours.  It was a wonderful place – safe, flat, windy.  I remember the black winter ice that built up at intersections, lasting from November to March, as frozen exhaust added its thin layer to those laid down before.  We were hardy, wore slacks under our skirts to school and shed them when we arrived to show our bare legs, even at 20 below zero.  In summer, we swatted mosquitoes and sweltered in the humid heat, but we also swam for hours in the lakes in Minnesota’s east central region, fished, water skied and sailed with friends.  We cleaned fish and learned how to best prepare them.  I loved my local library, could hardly wait for school to start in the fall.  I guess it was a pretty idyllic childhood.

Reader’s Haven: What made you want to become a writer?

Karen: I was always a writer.  I wrote my first 8-page book, formatted and illustrated, when I was about 8.  My mom told me it was titled Old Mister Sun, but it’s been lost for decades and I have no idea what it was actually about – except the sun (duh).  I tried to write a novel when I was in my late teens, but hadn’t had enough life experience to write anything of value to readers (heck, it was barely valuable to me), so I went on with other life endeavors: marriages (3), careers (nearly too many to count), and a massive but failed effort to conceive a child.  It wasn’t until after the pain of two failed marriages and failure at conception that I came back to writing.   

Reader’s Haven: Please share a bit about your new release (enter book title) without giving away any spoilers.

Karen:  You’d think after that heartfelt confession that my novels would be full of angst and depth, but they’re really not.  Instead, they’re mysteries, thrillers based on environmental issues I’m concerned with, environmental issues that grew out of my most recent career, environmental engineering.  I’ve learned a LOT about industry in this country, and while on the whole it’s very responsible, there are things that have made my eyebrows rise.  So I’m writing about those. 

My latest title, Through Dark Spaces, deals with the hard rock gold mining industry and what can go wrong when people don’t consider how their actions can affect the environment.  Remember the coal mining disasters in West Virginia?  The one in South America that left 28 men trapped underground?  A mine is a perfect place for a thriller.  Add that my protagonist, Hannah Morrison, has trouble with claustrophobia (don’t we all?), that her high fashion model sister complicates everything in Hannah’s life (don’t they always?), and that she’s fighting not just to save her business but her life, and you’ve got the ingredients of a very personal environmental mystery.  

Reader’s Haven: Do you write under a pen name?

Karen:  Nope.  If I ever publish the book I’m working on now, though, which is not a mystery, I may consider it.  For now, I write under “Karen E. Hall.” 

Reader’s Haven: What types of hero or heroine do you like best?

Karen: I always prefer female protagonists.  I think they’re more empathetic, more emotional, that they struggle harder than men do simply because they don’t have the physical strength to get them out of jams.  They must use their wits.  Estrogen, I believe, makes for a much more real heroine than testosterone ever has. 

My heroine, Hannah, was a little too perfect in her first mystery outing, titled Unreasonable Risk. In the second in the series, I’ve given her more depth, I think, more flaws.  She’s still likeable enough, still capable, but to me she seems a lot more human. 

Reader’s Haven: Tell us about a typical day in your life as a writer.

Karen:  Ha!  Lots of spider solitaire!  No, seriously, I’m a slow writer.  I’m very involved in my community, so find it very difficult to hole up in front of my computer for more than a couple hours at a time.  I try to write every day for at least that long, but there are days when I just can’t do it.  And I always have more than one thing going – if I’m stuck on one and start up the spider solitaire, I limit myself to a game or two and then move on to a short story or a haiku or a review of something I’ve just read.  If I find myself unable to proceed with any of my current projects, I pick up my camera and go for a long walk in the hills.

Reader’s Haven: Do your books have a common theme or are they all different?

Karen:  Right now my books are linked by my protagonist’s profession.  She’s a consulting environmental engineer, and her first two outings have been in oil refining and in gold mining.  Her next adventure will be in the oil and gas extraction industry, and the book will be set in the crazy wild west of the Bakken Oil Fields in western North Dakota. 

I am also working on a different type of novel, though, women’s fiction this time, about four women who meet as a result of their common infertility.  It’s truly the book of my heart, though right now it has some daunting structural problems.  I may have to lose one of my characters, and the prospect of choosing which one to axe has left me desolate.  It’s either that or face a manuscript that’s over 200,000 words long.

Reader’s Haven: How long does it take you to write and then edit a story?

Karen:  It takes me a good year to finish a book, and that’s if the first draft is good.  I usually go through three or four drafts, though I procrastinate because I much prefer writing to editing, and the last drafts are mostly editing.  I think editing uses different parts of the brain and requires much more discipline.  The engineer side of me loves it, but the creative side – not so much. 

Reader’s Haven: Do you have to be alone to write?

Karen:  Yes.  And I prefer quiet, too.  No music, no NPR, much as I love to keep up with Science Friday and All Things Considered.   I do carry a notebook with me always, though, and jot down ideas whenever they come to me.  I’ve actually received dirty looks in grocery store lines because I’m making notes instead of placing my items on the conveyor belt.  Sometimes it’s a note about how somebody looks or acts, sometimes it’s about the weather, and sometimes it’s a plot point that’s chosen that inopportune moment to surface in my busy head.    

Reader’s Haven: How do you go about naming characters?

Karen:  It’s always a struggle to find the perfect name.  I do cheat once in a while by using lists.  One of my favorites is a list of people who lived in a huge nursing home in Moorhead, Minnesota, when my parents were both there.  Those names remind me of my childhood, and though they’re mostly Scandinavian, they’re perfect for the generation slightly older than I am. 

As an experiment, I did “sell” a couple of character names in Through Dark Spaces in a charitable auction.  The bidding was spirited and made quite a bit of money for the organization.  It was hard to change the names of characters I’d grown to know, though, and I’m not sure I’ll do that again.  Amazingly enough, the people who “bought” those character names all signed a copy of the book for me.  It’s truly a collector’s copy!

Reader’s Haven: Is it easier to write about the characters if you find pictures of them before you write or do you write then find character pictures?

Karen:  Boy, I never know what my characters look like.  I’m a strong believer in letting them grow in the reader’s mind with very little description.  When people ask me which actors and actresses should play my characters in “the movie,” I’m always at a loss for an answer.  Though I do love Claire Danes.

The one exception in Through Dark Spaces is Hannah’s model sister, Maddie.  I described her more thoroughly than I usually do, principally because her beauty provokes those pangs of sibling rivalry in Hannah. 

Reader’s Haven: How do you pick locations for your stories?

Karen:  Great question. In many mystery series, I find that two things are true:
1) If the sleuth is an amateur, the series risks the “Cabot Cove” syndrome, where people die entirely too often and in too many different ways.
2)  If the sleuth is a private investigator or a law enforcement officer, the characters new to the series are usually either the victim or the killer.

In order to avoid both of those, I’ve made my protagonist a consultant who travels from industry to industry.  I think the next one, after oil and gas extraction, will be either the dairy or cosmetics industry.  How’s that for variety? 

Moving from location to location and industry to industry causes its own set of problems, of course.  Not only does the reader have to learn the terminology specific to that industry, but she has to absorb a whole new set of characters, too.  It’s one of the reasons why I play so much spider solitaire.      

Contest giveaway:  I’ll give away a print copy of Through Dark Spaces, signed with a personalized note if that’s preferred, to the most interesting comment.   

Web links:

Amazon buy link (e-book)
Amazon buy link (trade paperback)
Publisher buy link (trade paperback)

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