Karen E. Hall, Author of Through Dark Spaces, A Hannah Morrison Mystery, Talks Writing

My guest today is Karen Hall. Karen, an environmental engineer and writer, lives in the Black Hills outside Rapid City, South Dakota, with her husband Jeff Nelsen and their cat Junior.

Though she earned a Bachelor’s Degree at the University of Minnesota, she confirmed Garrison Keillor’s notions about English majors who don’t want to teach: she spent time as an editor, lifeguard, graphics designer, marketing executive, bank teller, secretary and cherry picker. None of them suited her well, so she went back to school for degrees in chemistry and chemical engineering, and spent nearly nine years working in Minnesota’s oil industry as an environmental engineer.

She left to start her own environmental consulting business—and to devote more time to writing. Her first novel, Unreasonable Risk, published in 2006, is a thriller about sabotage in an oil refinery. She has recently finished the second in her environmental series, Through Dark Spaces, set in the hard rock gold mining industry of the Black Hills. Karen is currently finishing a novel about infertility and working on her third mystery. 

Anne – It’s a pleasure to talk writing with you, Karen, and if you don’t mind I’d prefer not to waste a precious moment of our time together. So, with that in mind, let’s jump in with both feet! When did you first realize you were destined to be a mystery/suspense writer?

Karen - As part of my job as environmental engineer, I was walking out to the wastewater treatment plant in the refinery one day. The speed limit in most refineries is 5 mph—nearly everything inside the fence is either flammable or explosive—so when a pickup blew past me going about 40 mph I knew immediately there was a problem. Turns out the driver was a young man who’d spent the morning in a bar and decided on his way home that he wanted to see what was inside the plant he’d passed every day. So, he didn’t bother to check in at the gate – he broke the gate down simply by charging through it. Long story short, refinery security didn’t catch him for 45 minutes, and only then because he ran out of gas and abandoned his truck in a tank farm. 

That incident made me consider how easy it would be to sabotage a refinery. If that kid had wanted to cause some serious damage, it would have taken a very small amount of specialized knowledge. How about the people driving past every day? Did they have any idea how serious a danger a saboteur could pose for their lives? Not a prayer. So I decided to write about those dangers, and my first novel, Unreasonable Risk, was born. It’s the story of an industry that touches each of us every day in more ways than most of us realize, and of a young, capable woman engineer hot on the trail of a saboteur. 

Anne – Fascinating premise. Tell us about your latest release.

Karen – It’s titled Through Dark Spaces, A Hannah Morrison Mystery

When Hannah Morrison, the protagonist of Unreasonable Risk, takes an environmental consulting job at a South Dakota gold mine, she doesn’t expect to have to confront her darkest, most personal fears. In the course of her work, as she discovers secret after secret, Hannah realizes that somebody is poisoning the water in the beautiful Black Hills. Who--and why? Driven to solve the problem and find the people responsible, Hannah finds herself deep underground, trapped in the darkest of spaces--with a murderer.

Clean water, especially in the west, is a commodity that’s becoming scarcer every day. The scenario I’ve posed in Through Dark Spaces may be unlikely, but it certainly could happen. We all need to be vigilant in protecting this most precious of commodities. Imagine a life with little or no drinkable water! It makes me shudder. 

Anne – Me, too. Without water, specifically clean water, we can’t survive. Would you share an excerpt of Through Dark Spaces with us?

Karen - Sure.  Here’s the opening of the first chapter.

Sunday, May 11, 1997

Isaac Solverson grunted as he pulled himself onto the limestone ledge and paused to catch his breath. Claim hunting had given him a purpose, something to do while his mother died, something besides hold her hand in the sick, stale smell of her bedroom as she wasted away, a breathing skeleton wrapped in blue-veined parchment skin. Better not to watch. Better to be here, in the sunlight and freshness of the living. The clean scent of pine, the flicking shadow of a gray jay, the soft sigh of a breeze through the Ponderosas in the warmth of a cloudless spring afternoon – it wouldn’t matter, Isaac thought, if he ever found the workings. It was enough just to be out here.

He hiked this area every Sunday, had done so since the day he had found the letter, brown, fragile, so well-folded it came apart in his hands. His mother had tucked it into the family Bible, saving it, he knew, because her great-grandfather had written it. Its words scrolled through his mind as he watched a whitetail doe cross a patch of mottled sunlight, crunching fragrant pine needles on the forest floor.

False Bottom Gulch near Deadwood, Dakota Territory
June 1878

My dearest wife,

The days are long now and I am short of provisions. I have found no gold. The rock here is different from the Whitewood Creek ore, short miles away, which has produced much wealth. I fear my claims are worthless. So I sit in the shade of a mighty pine, waiting for the day’s heat to fade before I leave this place for the last time and begin my journey home. I had hoped to bring you riches. Instead I can offer only myself, and the knowledge that I tried as hard as I was able.

I shall see you well before first snow. Please extend my regards to your family and my love to our children.

Your faithful servant,
Samuel Etling

Samuel, who had joined the Black Hills Gold Rush in 1875, had never made it home to Mankato, Minnesota—making the letter all the more precious. It had been his last. 

Isaac allowed himself to spend Sunday afternoons this way, searching the slopes of False Bottom Gulch for his great-great-grandfather’s mine workings. He postponed the boredom of combing through musty historical records in the stale, dry basement of the county museum to the occasional rainy Saturday in spring and fall. He hoped for results—anything—before his mother’s disease took her mind as well as her body, figuring any success would outweigh the risk of leaving her alone for three short hours each week.

He looked at his watch and took a deep breath of crisp mountain air. Nearly time to go back. He rose to his feet, looked around the rock shelf and, to his right, noticed a faint deer trail winding around a tall thicket of sumac. Curious, he followed it. A few minutes wouldn’t matter.

The tunnel’s entrance surprised him and he felt a quickening in his chest. Could it be?….

Anne - What do you enjoy most about writing a series? What part do you dislike?

Karen - I love writing a series because with each addition to the collection I get to know my own characters better—and so do you, of course. I love Hannah, my protagonist. She’s practical, smart, and, for the most part, up to the task of dealing with the men who run almost all industry in this country. In second in the series Through Dark Spaces, her sister Maddie first appears, along with a subplot about sibling rivalry that will continue into the third book. It’s a whole new side of Hannah, one that makes her flaws more evident. 

I also get to create new and intriguing bad guys with each entry in the series. And since my books focus on environmental issues, I also get to explore industries that not many people think about on a day to day basis. The third in the series will deal with natural gas extraction (“fracking”) in the wild west of North Dakota’s oil fields, and, tentatively, the fourth will switch gears entirely and move into the world of cosmetics production. Do you know what goes into the makeup you smooth onto your face every day? Think about it.

The one problem I’ve found with series writing, though, is that while I’d like to keep some characters, they simply won’t go where the story needs them to go. For instance, Noel Keller, Hannah’s love interest in Unreasonable Risk, is a highly ambitious photojournalist. I rewrote scene after scene, but couldn’t get him to follow Hannah to Lead/Deadwood, South Dakota. He simply considered it a total yawner and instead headed for CNN in Atlanta. I’m still not sure if he’ll be back—though certainly not in the fracking book. North Dakota is way too much of a backwater for his taste.

Anne – Super answer, and as to what goings into the makeup I once heard a wise woman say if you can’t eat it, DON’T smear it on your face or body. How many rejections have you received? Was one more memorable than others?

Karen - OMG, lots! Postcards, tiny slips of paper, my own query sent back with a scrawled, “No thanks,” the occasional gracious letter. I got one that asked me to rewrite the first book completely and resubmit in a year or two—though there was no promise of representation. I finally got one from a top New York agent, though, that really cheered me up. It talked about how busy she was and, though my work interested her, she just didn’t have time for another client. “Wow!” I thought.  “I’m nearly there!” Then I found the identical letter, written to another struggling writer, on the writersrelief.com website. Turns out it was the agent’s standard reply.  Bah.

Anne – LOL! Any words of advice for struggling, unpublished writers?

Karen - If you love writing, keep at it!  And try to thicken up that skin.  Everybody—well, almost everybody—gets rejections, lots of them.  It’s a brutal industry, but here’s the hope: it is changing as the internet forces people to think differently about the written word. 

And if you choose to self-publish instead of running the traditional publishing gauntlet, here are a few things you must remember:

1. Your work must be as perfect as you can make it before you put it out there.  That might mean hiring an editor, will certainly mean finding friends to read your stuff and point out the simple errors.  Be very, very careful about quality.

2. Hire a professional to do your covers; homemade ones are easy to spot.

3. You’ll have to drive all your own publicity.  Start now.

Anne - Have you experienced writer's block? If so, how did you work through it?

Karen - Oh, sure. We all stare at the blank screen now and then and find we have no idea where to go next. But I have a couple of sure-fire remedies for that.

1) Always have more than one piece in the works. If you can’t seem to get anywhere working on your novel, switch gears and work on a short story or an essay instead. Sometimes that simple act will allow you to get back to the novel the next day.

2) I’m a great believer in the unconscious mind. If you’re stuck, think about your characters’ situation right before you go to sleep. Pose questions of yourself and, amazingly enough, the answer to at least one will frequently pop into your head the next morning!

3) When in doubt, try an outline. I’m an engineer, after all. We like things that are tidy, organized and predictable. J

Anne - Where can readers find you online?

Karen - At my website, and my blogThrough Dark Spaces is also available in paperback, Unreasonable Risk in hardcover, with paperback coming soon.

Anne – Thanks so much for dropping by, Karen. I wish you every success with the Hannah Morrison Mystery series.

Readers, your comments are always welcome and appreciated. To ensure you do not miss a single Muriel Reeves Mysteries blog post, interview or giveaway, become a follower on either GFC (Google Friend Connection) or NetworkedBlogs, or subscribe by email. It’s as easy as a click of the mouse, and I will be eternally grateful. Until next time, happy reading!

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Jake said...

Another great interview on your site. Have put books on my to read list. Familiar with Dakota's so happy to support author from area.

marja said...

Your excerpt really grabbed me. This is now a must read book. Thanks for sharing!

Karen said...

You're welcome! Thanks for commenting. I hope you like the book. Interestingly enough, the mine that served as model for the one in THROUGH DARK SPACES is now an underground science and physics laboratory! I'm hoping they offer tours later this summer to members of the public so I can go underground again.

Patty said...

I love Karen's work -- and I'm lucky enough to have her as a friend so have had a chance to tell her that in person. Great interview!