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INTERVIEW: Karen Odden on Research, Intrigue, and Honing Her Craft

Updated: Jan 30


Welcome to the Tuesday Author Interview with Christina Boyd for the Who, What, When, Where, and Why.


Karen Odden first hit my reading radar when I was invited to review Under the Veiled Moon for an Austenprose blog tour in the autumn of 2022. What a fantastic Victorian intrigue! So of course, I started following Karen's social media and found we are kindred souls, at least as far as love of hiking and travel. I was thrilled when she agreed to take part in my Tuesday Author Interviews.




CHRISTINA: When did you first think you had a book to write and how did you start?

KAREN ODDEN: For me, a book often begins with a moment of surprise, which creates a burst of creative energy, curiosity, and enthusiasm in my brain. I’ve learned to pay attention to those moments – because if something lights that interest in me, it will probably light it in others.

For example, I was about halfway through writing Down a Dark River (Inspector Corravan #1), reading a rather dry article about maritime law in London (you can’t imagine that being dry, right?), when I came across a sentence that went something like this: “After the most deadly, horrifying disaster ever to happen on the Thames River, maritime navigation ceased to be a group of informal traditions and became codified into law.” I had one of those Wait, what?! moments. I mean, I’ve been studying and writing about the Victorian period for 25 years, since grad school at NYU – and I had no idea what “disaster” this was. I began googling and found the story.

In 1878, the Princess Alice, a small wooden pleasure steamer, carrying 650 passengers, was coming upriver by moonlight when it was hit by a 900-ton iron-hulled coal carrier. To give some perspective, it was like a railway engine hitting a baby carriage. The Princess Alice was smashed to pieces and sank within minutes. Most of the 650 passengers drowned–and because it was a hop-on-hop-off steamship, no one knew who was on the boat. It brought London to a standstill for days, with grief, confusion, and fear that people’s family members might be dead or missing. This disaster became the core of my second book in the Inspector Corravan series, Under a Veiled Moon.

My surprise at discovering this event, and all the possibilities the details created, was like a fire–and enough to fuel the bones of three chapters. That was enough to get me rolling.


CHRISTINA: I was just talking with my sprint writing partner how research books have given me such inspiration for scenes and even characters. What an experience for you traveling down that research rabbit hole!


Tell us about your main character.

KAREN ODDEN: Michael Corravan, age 31, is a former thief and bare-knuckles boxer from seedy Whitechapel. He’s also Irish, which in 1870s London presents problems; the Irish were the targets of terrible discrimination. When he’s 18 years old, Corravan refuses to “throw” a boxing match, and the bookies threaten to kill him over their loss in profits. Fleeing Whitechapel, Corravan lands in Lambeth, where his skills with his fists and his street smarts earn him a place as a uniformed constable in the police force.

Corravan has what I’d call a rescuing complex. He likes to rescue, and he’s good at it. But he eventually must acknowledge that he gets something out of being a rescuer: he never has to admit he’s vulnerable, or uncertain, feelings that are very uncomfortable for him. But, as his (wise and beautiful) love interest Belinda Gale points out, he’d be a better inspector if he could be vulnerable sometimes.

CHRISTINA: Oh yes, I loved Michael Corravan. Smart, sensible but a bit of an intrigue with a history of his own.


What do you think is your strength as a writer?

KAREN ODDEN: I’d say one of my strengths is my secondary characters (SCs). Like Corravan, each one has what I call a “Bio Page,” written in first-person and in his/her own voice. So, for example, Gordon Stiles (Corravan’s sidekick at the Yard) has one that begins:

“My name is Gordon Stiles, and I’m twenty-two years old, one of the youngest inspectors at the Yard. I was pulled, from Mayfair division, earlier than I should have been, because of the trial last autumn that convicted four inspectors of taking bribes, and the Yard needed to fill in the ranks. I was raised outside London, in Surrey, far from the madding crowd, with three younger sisters I love – Anna, Cathy, and Frances …”

Stiles is modest; well-spoken; a caring older brother; well educated, and he reads poetry. So he’s going to use the phrase “far from the madding crowd,” from a Thomas Gray elegy; Corravan certainly would not.

The SCs grow and change as I go, but I keep their Bio Pages updated as well as I can, so they feel “whole” and “real” to me. Spending a lot of time on my secondary characters means that I can put them in a given circumstance with my main character, and I just write down how they behave and what they say to each other. That’s a good zone for me to be in!


CHRISTINA: That process is a lot like what I learned from Save the Cat workbooks. So helpful.


What do you think makes a good story?

KAREN ODDEN: I believe that in the best stories, the events call forth strong emotions from the characters. I think you can have the most exciting events in your plot … spies, WWII battles, art heists, kidnappings, whatever … but if your characters are not deeply affected by them, the book lacks heart. It just isn’t as compelling as it could be.


CHRISTINA: That makes total sense, whether it's film or a novel.


Best advice for new writers:

KAREN ODDEN: Read your work out loud. Really. Get a drink nearby, to keep your throat from becoming dry, and read the pages out loud. Your ear will catch what your eye misses, including missing words, awkward repetitions (“perhaps” four times in two paragraphs, for example). You’ll catch repetitions of “tics”; in one of my manuscripts, all my characters were “shrugging” or “grinning.” And it helps identify dialog or description that is going on too long.

And pay attention to surprises you discover!


CHRISTINA: I totally agree with reading it out loud, whether for editing and needing to slow down your eyes or trying to find the rhythm in dialogue. Such good advice.


So far, what is your greatest accomplishment as a writer?

KAREN ODDEN: I’d say it’s not giving up. I had dozens of rejections before I found an agent. Then, once I had an agent, we had two publishing houses interested in my first book, A Lady in Smoke; and then both backed out. I’ve been “orphaned” twice by editors, at two different publishing houses. Even now, my current publisher hasn’t yet offered a contract to keep the Corravan series going. But I keep writing, and I’m in love with my next book, about a young woman in 1872 London, whose best friend went to Africa with Henry Morton Stanley and has come back with a story of slaves and ivory that no one in London wants to hear.

CHRISTINA: I can't wait to read your next!


Do you hide any secrets in your novels only a select few might know?

KAREN ODDEN: My straight-talking, shrewd newspaperman Tom Flynn, who appears in all my novels, is based on my English teacher, senior year of high school. He was the first person who told me I could write. It’s my small homage to him.

CHRISTINA: Love that. I can't wait for my family and friends to read my novel, too, and come across little Easter eggs or their names.


Have you gone on an author pilgrimage or research trip? Where and what was the most memorable moment?

KAREN ODDEN: I’m lucky that London is a city that holds and cherishes its past, that puts its history, literally, in print on the walls. I’ve traveled to London numerous times over the years, and I constantly stop and take photographs of plaques (“So-and-so, a noted newspaperman and critic of Gladstone lived here …”) and monuments. Last year, I went to the Museum of the Docklands, which was certainly memorable. It’s in a Victorian warehouse by the Thames, and it has nineteenth-century lighter boats, maps, wooden carts, scales and weights, even a lighterman license from 1872, exactly like what Michael Corravanwould have had to buy and carry in order to work the boats. Sometimes I feel like historical objects are like the “portkeys” in Harry Potter; just the idea that Victorian hands held them makes me feel more connected to the time.


CHRISTINA: What a fascinating research trip. Indeed, seeing or holding historical items is like a portkey to the past.


Thank you so much for taking time to share your writing and research tips. Your characters have heart amidst gorgeous world building. I'm a great fan of your work. Thanks again!


white woman with long light auburn hair, smiling. Wearing floral scarf and sage green jacket.
Karen Odden USA TODAY bestselling author of Victorian mysteries (Pronounced OH-den) she/her

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

USA Today bestselling author Karen Odden received her PhD in English from NYU, writing her dissertation on Victorian literature, and taught at UW-Milwaukee before writing fiction. She sets all her mysteries in 1870s London. Her fourth, Down a Dark River, an Oprah Daily pick, introduces readers to Michael Corravan, a former thief turned Scotland Yard Inspector. The sequel, Under a Veiled Moon (2022), was nominated for the Agatha, Lefty, and Anthony Awards. Karen serves on the board of Sisters in Crime, teaches writing workshops, and lives in Arizona where she loves to hike the desert while plotting murder. Sign up for her newsletter and connect with her at www.karenodden.com.

2 Comments


Christina Morland
Christina Morland
Aug 28, 2023

Thanks so much for this interview, as I've been reading more historical mysteries of late and am always excited to find new authors and series! Also, I love Odden's thoughts on secondary characters. My best to you both!

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Christina Boyd
Christina Boyd
Aug 28, 2023
Replying to

Oh good! I’m so glad that this interview has spurred you to seek out her books. She is an amazing storyteller.

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