By Liz Cutler Gates
A vacation to Europe more than 20 years ago cut short a successful teaching career while inspiring an up-and-coming author.
“I didn’t start out to be a writer,” says Karen Harper, the teacher-turned-novelist who now has more than 40 mystery, suspense, and historical books to her credit. “I was an English teacher and a great reader,” she recalls. “But I came back from that trip with an idea for a novel and thought, ‘I’ll try it.'”
Her first book has languished in her basement. “That first effort was a learning experience,” she remembers, adding that she used to tell her students that the only way to learn to write was by writing.
Harper, a member of the Grace Brethren Church of Columbus, Ohio, had taught English at Whetstone High School in Columbus for five years before transferring to Westerville (Ohio) North High School in 1975 to chair the English Department. After she published her first novel in 1982, she began to think about writing full-time. By 1985, she had resigned her position to devote her time to writing.
Since then, she’s consistently published one or two novels a year, focusing on a variety of topics and locations. Among her best known is a series of historical mysteries that feature Queen Elizabeth I as an amateur sleuth. Her personal favorite is a trilogy of stories set in Ohio’s Amish country – Dark Road Home, Dark Harvest, and Dark Angel. Earlier this year, she won the Simon and Schuster-Mary Higgins Clark Award presented by the Mystery Writers of America for Dark Angel.
“She writes about sympathetic, romantic characters,” says Annelise Robey, one of two agents at the Jane Rotrosen Agency in New York who represent Harper. “She makes them so relatable,” Robey adds. “She takes ordinary characters, puts them in extreme situations, and they rise to the occasion.”
Robey calls Harper’s use of historical detail “remarkable.”
“She makes history come across as organic and natural,” she says. “It never feels deliberate; it never imposes on a story.” She references Harper’s Elizabethan series where the details provide a seamless backdrop to the story.
“She knows the period so well,” notes Robey. “It comes across really natural and the reader learns so much.”
It was something that Triceine Custer, also a member of the Grace Brethren Church of Columbus, noticed when she picked up Harper’s series that is set among the Amish. “I appreciate the detail in her books,” says Custer. “It was not just a novel to read, but it was factual, too.”
That is what Harper strives for. “I like reading a book where I learn something,” she stresses. She often begins with a setting and takes up to two years to research the book. In her historical novels, she uses recorded facts as the framework for her story.
“I work very hard to balance accurate Elizabethan history with a ripping good mystery and extended character arcs of the queen and other characters,” she once told a reporter. “I always start with the history and never change what I find. If I say the queen was in Whitehall Palace in London the week after her coronation, she really was.”
Raised in a Christian home in northwest Ohio, Harper felt she knew the Bible. She even taught it as literature in her high school English classes. But on Good Friday in 1975, she made the decision to follow Jesus. A few years later, she and her husband, Don, began to attend Grace Brethren. Nearly 30 years later, they are still active members, although they spend three months of the year in Naples, Florida.
Harper’s religious convictions are apparent in her work and her readers often recognize that she is a woman of faith. “Christian novels were not being written when I started,” she notes. “But the fact that I am a Christian, that I have that worldview, is evident in my books. It keeps me from stepping into a book I would not want to read.”
Not that a reader won’t find some of the typical elements of a romance novel – a strong female character, a problem to solve, and a love interest. But some details best left to the imagination are just that – left to the imagination.
At first, she combined teaching with writing, but found it difficult to do both. “Teaching is all-consuming,” she told a reporter at the Toledo Blade in 2005. By 1983, she had taken a leave of absence to focus on her writing, and two years later had put the teaching profession behind her.
Well, not totally. “I still look for ways to get out [from behind my computer],” she admits, noting that writing is a solitary profession. “I give talks about writing and still feel a bit like a teacher.”
Liz Cutler Gates, who directs communications for the law school at The Ohio State University, is a member of the Columbus, Ohio, Grace Brethren Church and a member of the board of Brethren Missionary Herald Company.