Highlights of a Life
Karen Harper was born in Toledo, Ohio on April 6, 1945. She attended The Ohio State University, graduating with a Bachelor’s degree (summa cum laude) in 1967 and an M.A. in 1969. She taught English at Ohio State as a graduate student, and then continued to teach at Whetstone High School in Columbus after graduation.
At Whetstone, Harper taught senior-level English, focusing on British and American literature. Since she loved Elizabethan history, she always found herself teaching that period more heavily. “The goal with high school is to get them interested, to make them realize, ‘Sure they talked funny back then, but they were still people just like us. They didn’t use the electric chair; they beheaded people!’ You can even get high school boys interested when you start talking about it that way.” At Whetstone, Harper organized an Elizabethan Festival, where kids dressed up as Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth, danced, and had mock jousting and beheadings. “That was back in the days before you could get sued!”
In 1975 Harper left Whetstone High School to become Chair of the Department of English at Westerville North High School, where she remained for 10 years. During this time, she began writing and publishing historical romance novels. Her first book, Island Ecstasy, came out in 1982. Two more romances, Passion’s Reign and Sweet Passion’s Pain, quickly followed. They’re set in accurately researched and factual historical time periods. Harper wrote these kinds of novels because she loved history so much. “There are two definitions for ‘Romance,’” says Karen. “The traditional definition is a story that takes you to an unusual or exotic place. I always like to try to take the reader to a new and interesting place with my writing.”
Karen Harper continued to teach while writing her first three books. She says, “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.” 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.
Many of Harper’s first books take place in England. She and her husband are avid travelers, and the British Isles are her favorite place to visit. “My best settings are not those which I choose, but those which choose me,” she says, “places I love so much I am compelled to write about them. For me, this is England (especially historically).” Harper also says, “When I was first published in 1982, publishers had a kind of ‘East of the Hudson’ mentality. They didn’t want stories based in the Midwest. They wanted glitzier settings like Miami, New York, LA. One of my first stories was set in my hometown of Toledo and my publisher said, ‘Great story idea—but why don’t you set it somewhere more exotic?’”
As time went on, however, Harper began to set more of her stories not only in the present day, but also in her own backyard— in “the modern American Midwest which I know and love. I love to set my books in rural, small-town locations. I truly think rural America is much more romantic than big cities.”
Harper attributes this shift in setting to age and maturity: “The older I got, the more I realized that there was so much in Ohio that was fascinating—the lives of the people here are just as interesting to write about as the lives of people in far-off places. With my latest work, I’m really becoming a Midwest author. I’ve just found out that my favorite place is Ohio, and my second favorite place is England. The more mature I get, the more I realize that Ohio is just a really great place to write about.”
Harper credits age and maturity for the shift of themes in her novels as well, from “the modern definition of the Romance, which is the love story,” to contemporary suspense and mystery. “I think that the older you get, the more fascinated you get by reading mysteries. A lot of younger readers are reading ‘chick lit’ now, but as people age they love mysteries, because they like to use their brains to solve puzzles. They like worlds where right and wrong matters—and at the end, the person who did something wrong gets what’s coming to them. I think people’s tastes change as they get older.”
“I’ve been writing mysteries for 10-12 years, and I find them more interesting to write because they’re more challenging. You have to worry about everything you need to know in history, making that accurate, but you also have the mystery going on and you have to keep placing clues and developing suspects, and all of that.”
Several of Harper’s more recent contemporary suspense novels have been based in Amish Ohio. “I’ve been enjoying studying and looking into Amish culture,” she says, and she has also written two books set amongst Shakers. The three books which make up the trilogy of Dark Road Home (1998), Dark Harvest (2004), and The Dark Angel (forthcoming) are set in the same Amish community in Holmes County, Ohio. Down to the Bone and Shaker Run also have Ohio settings.
In addition to these contemporary, local novels, Karen Harper still indulges her love for England and Elizabethan history with her well-loved series of Elizabeth I Mysteries. She dedicated the first of these books, The Poyson Garden, to her students at Whetstone High School. She continues to write one Elizabethan mystery a year. “She was the Virgin Queen, so there’s not a lot of romance I can put in that. But she was in love with her country, in love with being Queen. She knew back then if she got married the king would take over, and she wanted to rule alone.”
Harper’s Queen Elizabeth is a young and plucky amateur sleuth. Perhaps this is the constant which has remained in Harper’s writing throughout all her shifts in genre—her main characters are women with intelligence and gumption. “The main characters in all of my mysteries are amateur sleuths. There are no police procedures with a woman PI or woman cop. They are women with ordinary lives—although sometimes with unusual professions—and something terrible happens to them, and they solve the crime themselves. I think it might be easier for readers to identify with these characters than it would be with a female cop.”
Karen Harper has demonstrated, however, that she is no “ordinary woman.” Though many might consider romance novels to be perpetuators of traditional gender identities, Harper’s novels bring important, often overlooked female characters from history back to life for modern readers. By telling women of today about the strength and intelligence of women who came before them, Harper does work that some might call Feminist. “I feel I owe these heroines who lived in earlier eras, where the status of women often ranged from chattel at worst to pampered pets at best, the right to have their stories told honestly but entrancingly.”