New York Times bestselling author Karen Harper walks us through the twist and turns of her romantic suspense novels that take place in small towns where eccentric characters abound and the enemy is too often “us.” It’s someone the heroine knows and trusts, someone who is keeping deadly secrets. What a great contrast: a charming Americana ambience vs. fear and terror. And often, with a small police force, average citizens must help solve crimes which seem worse in a rural than an urban setting.
In my new Appalachian suspense novels, small town, rural settings really up the ante for an average woman facing fear and crime. When a murder or kidnapping occurs in such a charming place, the shock is magnified over that of urban crime, where we almost expect something to go wrong. A long-deserted, picturesque barn can provide a setting more scary than an empty urban apartment building. Many Americans long to escape to the country, but danger lurks there too, the kind that seems more dreadful set amidst fields and forests, quaint stores and down home restaurants.
In Shattered Secrets, the first book in The Cold Creek trilogy, (with Forbidden Ground and Broken Bonds to follow at two-month intervals) danger hides in the tall cornfield surrounding a charming, old farmhouse. Appalachian foothills loom over the rural area and small town of Cold Creek where young girls have been disappearing for decades.
I love setting terrifying events in lovely settings because being pushed into a grain silo can be as deadly as a bullet in my suspense novels. Fear is much more primitive and unsettling. In a way, this is Stephen King territory, but in my books, there is a dangerous love story also woven throughout and an uplifting ending.
Although strange people and unique criminals can certainly abound in the big, bad city, I have found small town and rural characters to be more eccentric, unique and therefore, fascinating. Often the villain is someone known to the main characters, which means betrayal and treachery on an intimate, personal level. Sadly—tragically—the enemy is too often “us,” someone trusted and perhaps loved.
I’m always thrilled when readers tell me they had no clue who the murderer or kidnapper was until the last chapter. One of my favorite reviews said it best: “Harper, a master of suspense, keeps readers guessing about crime and love until the very end.” (Booklist, starred review, on Fall From Pride.)
The isolation of people in small towns and the surrounding rural fields and forests means help is not just a quick phone call away as in the city. In some rural areas with rolling hills, especially in the Appalachians, cell phones don’t work. Even with moonlight and starlight, it can be intensely dark in the country at night, and, of course, really dark scenes work well too. I’ve also written two trilogies set among the Ohio Amish, who only use lanterns and don’t want to call the police, even if they have a public phone nearby. And getting help in a horse and buggy can mean a long ride on a dark road.
Police in rural areas can be a great distance away, even if someone in danger can get through to them. In my Maple Creek trilogy, my Dark Road Home trilogy, and now in the new Cold Creek trilogy, the small police force tries its best, but danger seems much more terrifying in what should be a safe setting, especially if the heroine, with the hero’s help, must save her own life.
An old, abandoned insane asylum, a defunct coal mine, an Indian burial mound—you may never look at small town and rural life the same way again if you read a Karen Harper romantic suspense novel! Keep the lights on at night and your window locked. Enjoy!