Many, many years ago, I had a wonderful critique partner by the name of Karen Dean. We would meet at her house, read our works-in-progress, critique, talk and laugh. Over time, we lost track of each other. Then, like so many people in today’s world of the internet and social media, we found one another again through Facebook.
I was pleased to learn that Karen’s two wonderful historical novels that I had read portions of during our old critique sessions had been published, along with a third novel that was just released this year in her Ladies of Mischief series. So I want to introduce Karen and her novels to my readers through this interview. I’m so glad Karen and I have reconnected. She is a wonderful person, full of life, and that quality shines through in her writing.
When did you first start writing? Were you an avid reader as a child?
During my troubled childhood, I buried myself in reading. I would ride my bike to the library every Saturday, sit on the window ledge, and read a book (fit for an eight-year-old or whatever my age was), put the book back, and take out the next one until the librarian told me it was time to go home. My reading eventually morphed into, “Hey, I could do this.”
I put out a newspaper in our neighborhood, and though I can’t remember what I wrote, I apparently revealed a lot of the strife in our home. When my mother became aware of what I was doing, that ended that.
As a mom, I wrote to do something with my brain, exercised it with all kinds of short essays on the behavior of my children. Five sons wrestling on the living room floor as my one daughter played with her Barbies. I typed like a mad woman in the closet.
Eventually, as my children went off to school, I came out of the closet and set up a desk in our bedroom. By the way, at that stage of my writing, I used a Royal Portable, and had to weight the top down with books so it wouldn’t bounce across the desk.
By the time I finished my first novel-length manuscript, it had morphed into 160,000 words. Roughly six hundred pages.
What drew you to historical fiction in particular? Do you read other genres besides historical fiction?
In 1972, a neighbor gave me a book–The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen Woodiwiss. Well, I stooped low enough to hide behind a willow tree as the kids screamed for me. And I confess [to] locking myself in the bathroom, pleading sickness to my husband, because I could not put that book down. It transported me to another time and place.
I have always loved history. For me, it’s the beauty of the dress, the subtle innuendo with behavior. I am drawn to the elegance of a prior time. And I knew I could mold the people into the drama I created. Not only do I enjoy reading about history, I equally enjoy biographies.
I am a fanatical researcher. And I purchase old used books from all the English-speaking world. They give me the nuance and flavor of the times I want to embed in my tales.
When I use the research I need, and mix it with my imagination, I get to dance in a ballroom, ride a wild horse, sneak around a mansion and eavesdrop, discover old bones. It’s a lot of fun when you think one hundred years or more ago…
Tell us a bit about your series and what drew you to writing about these three women.
It was a lark to begin with. I wrote about Renn Arelia Sheridan at a time when I was overburdened with five teenagers and a tot; this was my escape. I love her for giving me a place to go in 1788 northern England, a sail on a Spanish galleon, then a castle in northern Spain. Her antics were a real escape for me. I wasn’t thinking publishing; I was trying to stay sane.
After the loss of my children’s father, my widowed mother moved in with me, and really encouraged me to write something else. Thus arrived Chenoa Sandoval in 1830, at Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel/Monterey, known then as Mexican territory. The time of the dons, if you will. I finished at about 115,000 words, and put it in a box for safekeeping.
I joined a group of writers who wanted to put an anthology together and asked me to write something short. Ha! I couldn’t think of anything short. But then I had the idea to write about Chenoa as an old woman in her late 60s, sitting on her veranda overlooking the Pacific and thinking about her remarkable life.
The publisher loved the story so much, she asked if I had written any lengthy fiction. I told her about the two boxes I had, sent them to her (digitally, of course). A month later she sent me a three-book contract, which I signed, and she asked me to come up with a title for the series.
It seemed these two young women shared an infinity for murder, mayhem, mystery and romance, so out of that came Ladies of Mischief. Now all I had to do was write a third book–Aisling O’Quinn, who is born on a ‘coffin ship’ out of Ireland, is raised in the slum tenement Five Points in Manhattan, and forced to board an orphan train.
Do you personally identify with your heroines? Did your own daughter influence your characters’ personalities?
It is said, “Write what you know.” And that is as close to answering this question as I’m going to get.
You mentioned an Irish series of books in an early conversation. Tell us a bit about them and what your vision is.
When I finished the research for Aisling’s family background in [the Midlands of] Ireland, I knew I had to write a series about the grand ol’ sod. But first we had to visit Ireland. I’ve traveled a lot of our world and gone back to a few places a couple of times, [and] I have to say I could live in Ireland.
It was beautiful, serene, inviting…simply grand. We traveled the entire [circumference]; I visited every single used bookstore and a lot of regular ones. The month after we got home, about fifty books were delivered. I spent this past winter reading most of these books, gathering my research for this new series: The Village of Hawthorn Lough, set in County Waterford, Ireland, 1799-1800s. This series will have characters that continue into the next book.
Please tell my readers a bit about yourself–what do you like to do outside of writing?
I graduated from Northwood [University], married, and lived along the banks of the Au Sable in Grayling, Michigan, for years.
Between diapering my first child and kissing the sixth off to college, [being] widowed twice, and caring for an ill mother, I wrote and read. It clearly was/is my passion. I have many dear friends, and all these adult children and their spouses, and grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren, so we have football games, wrestling matches, dance recitals, soccer, high school/college graduations, birthdays, guitar recitals. I am sure I am forgetting something here.
I like to say we divide our time between golf courses in Florida and Michigan. My husband, Charlie, likes to golf. Yes, dear Charlie is my third and last husband. I made him sign a 30-year contract that he would stick around for a long time. He croaked out, “My gosh, woman, I’ll be 90.” I just smiled and said, “Sign on the dotted line.”
You can connect with Karen online at her website, karendeanbenson.com and on Facebook.