Karen E. Olson – author of the Annie Seymour and Tattoo Shop mysteries, Shamus nominee and winner of the Sara Ann Freed Award for best debut mystery novel – is trying something new. With her latest novel, HIDDEN, Olson has moved away from the cozy mysteries that made her name and instead written a gripping thriller which examines identity and the consequences of our actions.
I normally start with a dead body.
I’ve written about a dead drag queen, Dean Martin impersonator, rock star, ex-husband, Yale student. The dead bodies pile up in murder mysteries, and my sleuths — reporter Annie Seymour and tattoo shop owner Brett Kavanaugh, in their respective series — are always on the case. As a longtime journalist myself, I find inspiration in headlines and news stories and glean my ideas from them. And their stories always begin with a dead body.
Which is why I was confused when I heard a new voice in my head:
“I’ve been missing for fifteen years.”
Who has been missing? And why?
There was no dead body. There was only someone who has been missing. Someone who knows she’s missing and is missing on purpose.
I began to add to that first sentence, and as I did, I realized that this story wasn’t like the others that I’ve written. There is no sleuth with a sense of humor and an edge surrounded by sidekicks faced with a murderer. Her name is Nicole Jones. Or is it?
I’m not surprised I moved away from the traditional and cozy mystery. While I do love traditional mysteries, I am not a big reader of cozies. I don’t like books with recipes or any other type of helpful tips about anything. I prefer darker stories, not necessarily with a lot of graphic violence, but a darker tone, perhaps foreboding is a better word. Traditional mysteries can straddle the line between suspense thriller and cozy, but they still have a different format. There is always that murder or crime at the center.
I do have a crime in HIDDEN. Nicole has committed a crime, and she has been hiding for fifteen years. This time, however, there is no dead body at the center, no whodunit. There is only Nicole and what she’s done and the consequences of that and whether she’ll survive.
Needless to say, I was out of my element.
I’d written about “what I know” when I wrote about reporter Annie Seymour. I was in newspapers for a long time. I challenged myself with writing about tattoo artist Brett Kavanaugh, since I have no tattoos and know nothing of that world. But in both cases, I was writing the familiar format. With Nicole’s story, I had to figure out a different pace, how to build suspense while having the reader already know her story. I did decide to parse out that information, to let her leak little bits of her past a little bit at a time. Her voice is different, too, lacking the humor in my previous books. She’s not the Sleuth on the White Horse solving a crime. She’s a criminal on the run and she’s always looking over her shoulder. Despite that, I needed to make her likeable enough for readers to want to spend a whole book with her — and the second book, since there is a sequel in the works. I’ve read enough thrillers with unreliable, unlikeable characters to know what I didn’t want to do with her. So she has friends, a job, a little house on a lovely little island off the coast of Rhode Island. I wanted to balance her past with her present.
Writing the book wasn’t easy. I began to call it my Manuscript from Hell when referring to it on Facebook and Twitter. I longed for the easy flow I experienced when writing my other books. I’d said at one point that writing a cozy wasn’t as easy as I’d thought, since there has to be a reason for the amateur sleuth to be solving a crime. But the puzzle solving came more naturally to me than this. There was a beginning, a middle, and an end before. Now the lines were muddled. My first draft needed better pacing, more suspense, so I went back and rewrote huge sections to try to reach that goal.
There were times when I thought about giving up completely, going back to what I was more comfortable with. But Nicole had a hold on me; I needed to finish her story and in the way that she wanted it done. She wasn’t going to let me off the hook.
But somewhere within the book, I had to do it.
I added a dead body.
To find out more, visit the Severn House website.
HIDDEN is now available in hardback and eBook.