An Interview with Karen Donohue: Cliff Hangers?

Feb 18, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Karen, you have published a series of mystery/thrillers. When did you first start writing?

For most of my life, I’ve thought about writing mystery/thrillers. About four years ago, during one of our trips to Europe for a law conference, my husband and I were walking through the back streets talking about how great a setting it would be for a mystery. That night, we discussed writing and then challenged ourselves to write one. That single effort brought to life a passion in both of us. One book turned into two, then three, then more. I’m currently a full professor in Southern California, so I’ve carved out early morning writing blocks every day of the week.

  1. You seem to have a theme to your work–The Cliffs of Monaco, the Cliffs of Capri, and the Cliffs of Portofino. Are all of your books, excuse the pun, “cliff-hangers?”

They are. However, “Cliffs” in the title comes from a different place than the genre expression. It evolved over the course of our writing. In each of the “Cliffs of” books, something unique and often unexpected happens. (I won’t spoil it here.) It will run its course when coming books turn from “Cliffs of–”, to “Bridges of–”, to “Ports of–”, or any number of titles that suggest a mystery connection.

  1. Have you actually traveled to the places that you write about?

We have spent significant time exploring all the principal locales in our novels to give them an authentic realism (the coastal towns of Italy, Monaco, France, and Spain, as well as England and Ireland for future stories. We have also traveled extensively in the United States and live in Orange County, California. Much of the writing was done aboard our boat in Newport Beach Harbor.

  1. How important in your mind is it to have believable characters?

It’s important, except that fictional characters have to lead more interesting lives than ordinary people and yet maintain that quality of believability. One of our protagonists, Marin Ryan, is a criminology professor at a Southern California University. While we share the same job title, she is bigger than life. She brings the academic strengths of crime theory and case studies to the intellectual side of the equation, and her past career as an FBI agent to the physical. She’s someone you’d want on your side in a gun fight.

Our second protagonist, John Hunter, seems to be in need of her combat skills to get him out of risky situations. He is not without his own skills, but they are in his genius at computer security. At six-three and two hundred pounds, the surfer turned computer geek prefers to solve crimes in front of his computer screen.

  1. As I understand, your day job involves crime, and criminals. Do you get ideas from your day job?

Some ideas come from cases we discuss in my Law and Society class. Other ideas come when I least expect them. The plot for Cliffs of Portofino came while I listened to the Chris Isaak song–Blue Spanish Sky. The haunting tune about a man whose lover had left him led to the most important question a writer can ask–what if?

  1. What are you currently working on?

Currently, my husband and I are editing the initial two books in the Ryan-Hunter series for publication in March and May 2012. After that, we have plotted our next two books–the first taking place in Venice, Italy, and then on to Paris, France. We’ll see how Marin and John survive their ordeals in the canals of Venice and on the bridges of Paris.

  1. For those who are interested, do you have a web site where sleuths can peruse your work?

Free sample chapters and writer biographies are on our website at

  1. What have I neglected to ask?

You didn’t ask about the risks of doing research for mystery/thrillers, something we didn’t know before we started. I’ll discuss two examples, but there are more.

I was doing research for the second book in the series, one that takes place in Newport Beach Harbor. In the early chapters, a woman’s body is found floating in the harbor. I needed to know who would have jurisdiction–the Newport Beach Police or the Orange County Sheriff’s Harbor Patrol? While out cruising the harbor in our boat, we stopped the Harbor Patrol to ask them who would do the homicide investigation in such a case. I mentioned the encounter to our boater friends. A few days later, I received a call from one of our friends saying that the Harbor Patrol had found a woman’s body floating in the water, something that probably never happened in the history of the harbor. Our friend suggested that I wear a disguise before coming to our boat that weekend. Lucky for us, they found the perpetrator (a close relative of the woman) before they widened their net to include writers with boats in the harbor.

The second incident happened when Tom was doing research in electronics stores. One day, he visited two stores located thirty miles apart. He spotted a man, the same man, watching him from behind the stacks in both stores. When their eyes met, the nondescript man glanced away and headed for a different part of the store. When Tom told me about the encounter, he suggested the writing was making him a little paranoid. I asked him what he had been researching online over the past few days for the Cliffs of Monaco book. The antagonist disables a nuclear power plant’s cooling system, leading to a partial melt down and radioactive spillage into the gulf. He researched the necessary melt down parameters online, while he was also doing research on incendiary devices for another scene. Frankly, it would have been a surprise if he hadn’t been followed.

Despite the risks, we both genuinely enjoy writing the novels and plan to write many more in the future. We especially love escaping to a yacht in the Mediterranean each morning when we write.

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