Paper Chase

Paper Chase

K aren Olson isn’t a computer hacker, and she doesn’t have a single tattoo. As a reporter, she covered less-than-thrilling topics like zoning. But a computer hacker, a tattoo artist and a crime reporter are the heroines of Olson’s 12 books and counting. It just takes a little bit of research and a whole lot of imagination to bring them to life.

Olson wanted to be a writer from childhood. She cut her teeth as a reporter and then copy editor for six different Connecticut newspapers, ending up at the New Haven Register. Then she discovered mystery novels, and she was hooked. It wasn’t much of a leap from reading them to writing them, but her first attempt, featuring a plot about groundwater pollution, didn’t quite hit the mark. “I [had] spent a lot of time at planning and zoning meetings and decided that people would kill over groundwater pollution,” she says with a laugh. “But it wasn’t sexy enough.” So she tried again. The result was Sacred Cows (2005), starring crime reporter Annie Seymour and set—where else?—in Olson’s native New Haven.

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Cows reads like a traditional gumshoe detective story, with an opening that features a dark and stormy night, a gory death (did the victim jump, or was she pushed?) and the hard-edged Seymour, who’s hungover but can still sling snappy dialogue salted with off-color language. The book won the award for Best First Mystery Novel from Mysterious Press, and Olson’s career was off and running.

Like so many writers, Olson has a day job: executive assistant at Yale University Press. She’s taken one of her precious lunch hours, normally devoted to writing, to sit down for our interview. It’s not easy to balance full-time work with a career as an author, especially when your publisher gives you an eight-month deadline to complete a full-length novel. Olson shoots for 1,000 words a day.

Annie Seymour sustained Olson through a series of four books, after which both she and her publisher were ready for something new. She was asked to write a “cozy mystery” series starring a tattoo artist. Cozy mysteries keep the violence offstage and the language clean. They also star “amateur sleuths,” people who stumble into solving a crime, which makes them challenging to write, Olson says. All too often, the scenario just isn’t believable.

She wasn’t crazy about the tattoo idea, either. “My research kept me from getting a tattoo,” she quips. Then she read the book Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo (1997) and realized “it was art.” What followed were four “Tattoo Shop Mysteries” starring artistic, observant Las Vegas tattoo shop owner Brett Kavanaugh, who enters into her sleuthing more reluctantly than Seymour. They’re titled The Missing Ink (2009), Pretty in Ink (2010), Driven to Ink (2010) and Ink Flamingos (2011). “They were fun to write, but I don’t know if I could have come up with another pun for another title,” Olson jokes.

Vanished (2018), the fourth book in Olson’s most recent series—featuring computer hacker Tina Adler, who’s always on the run—came out in February. Olson classifies this series of “Black Hat Thrillers” as suspense rather than mystery because there’s no central puzzle to solve. Instead, Tina, a.k.a. Nicole, is constantly in danger.

To write about Tina convincingly, Olson spent a lot of time online, watching documentaries and reading WIRED magazine for ideas. Striking a balance between conjuring realistic tech and over-explaining the details, Olson says she just goes for the illusion of realism. “I don’t think computer hackers are my audience,” she says. “I don’t want to get too technical… You don’t want to make your readers work that hard.”

Like her protagonists, Olson has a touch of the renegade. She’s a writer who learned to write by writing. “I have no MFA. I just wanted to write,” she says. “I actually think sometimes classes impede your process.” Her process is to work by the seat of her pants, never knowing quite where she might end up. “Halfway through Sacred Cows I said, ‘Oh my gosh. My murderer is the wrong person!’”

You might think that after writing 12 books and reading countless others—she recommends Alex Marwood, Patricia Smiley, Alafair Burke, Alison Gaylin and Wallace Stroby—Olson would have blueprints to work from. But that’s just not how she writes. Her newest project, a domestic suspense novel, is “almost to 300 pages, and I just figured out what’s going on.”

Olson’s start in journalism, it seems, has left a lasting impact. Back in the newsroom, she had to file two stories a day. “It taught me: Yeah, you can sit down and write,” she says. “You don’t just wait for the muse to come.”

Karen E. Olson
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Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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