Interview with Karleen Koen

Karleen_Koen_candid Susan here — today we are thrilled to welcome historical fiction author Karleen Koen to Word Wenches! Karleen is the highly praised author of Through A Glass Darkly, Now Face to Face and Dark Angels — and her latest release, Before Versailles, from Crown Publishing. A Texas native, Karleen once edited a magazine and now creates powerful historical fiction — her writing is elegant, bold and dynamic, her characters deep and real, her plots complex and compelling. I learn something about writing and about history every time I open the pages of one of her novels. 

Before_Versailles Before Versailles is the fascinating story of a few months in the life of Louis XIV as a young man – before Versailles, before the Sun King days, it details a scandalous love affair and the power plays that threatened the monarchy of 17th century France during a magnificent era.

Through_A_Glass_Darkly SK: Welcome, Karleen! You once worked as an editor for a home and garden magazine. Has a nonfiction background influenced your approach to writing fiction? 

KK:  Other than to give me an understanding of deadlines and the practice of writing, I don't know that it has influenced my approach to fiction. Fiction is such a different cat from other writing. The other writing referred to in your question has facts as its base, and one orders the facts into a feature of interest or into an argument to prove a point. Fiction doesn't have facts as a base–though they may be pieces of a story (as in historical fiction). Imagination is fiction's base, imagination you must nurture and be patient with. You must find the story in a way that is completely different from non-fiction. Fiction is the most difficult writing I've ever done.


Louis-xiv-lebrun SK:  Your novels capture depth of character as well as research and detail. When you research and write a novel, what helps give you insight into your historical characters?

(Portrait of Louis XIV, 1661, LeBrun)

KK:  For historical characters who actually lived–always a part of my books, and in Before Versailles, the entire book–I begin with research. Then I think about how the facts have shaped character. We're all shaped by what happens to us…..for the good and for the bad. We're all good and bad. We all have impulses. We all have needs. We have choices all through our lives to grow internally or to shrink. In moment of crisis, our choices are tremendously important. They set direction, sometimes for years. I use my own experiences in life, my observations of others, my imagination, and my knowledge of people to create character, but for the actual historical personages, I use the facts as base for who I think they are.

My research is on-going….there are certain periods of history which interest me, and I'm always reading about them. I am full of trivial historical facts. I'm an amateur historian and an amateur historical psychologist. I tell people that my books are emotional thrillers set in history. 

SK:  Mainstream historical fiction can often span years and even decades in the lives of actual historical people, and your earlier novels cover extended time periods. In BEFORE VERSAILLES, you chose to focus on a brief time frame, a few months in the life of Louis XIV as a young man and monarch. Why did that particular slice of time appeal to you as a storyteller?

Now_Face_to_Face KK:  The particular slice of time in Before Versailles–four months–contained everything I needed for a story: tremendous action, important decisions, politics that influenced the course of the reign, a love story….in other words, a beginning, middle, and end. And, may I add, all of which lay there in history.

I have been trying to write something from Louis XIV's reign since after Now Face to Face (my second novel). I tried to write a 10-year story because the facts of his life and his relationships with women during the years of his 20s and 30s are quite interesting to me. But I couldn't do it. I kept running into a wall. Annie Dilliard calls it a crack in the narrative and suggests that writers have another way to make a living. Ha! I actually even quit writing fiction for a time out of frustration with its innately messy process–or I should say, my innately messy process–and went back into the work world, writing, but facts, not fiction….arranging facts attractively for the University of Houston (I was in the publications department). But when I went back to fiction, again I attempted a Louis story. I couldn't do it. In my doodling and drafts, I realized Alice and Richard (in previous novels) would have been young. I thought I'd bring them in for walk-on parts, as a joke.

Dark_Angels A third novel took off, except it wasn't a Louis story. Alice had hijacked it. (I'm talking about Dark Angels.) In the hijack, she took part of this Louis story that had so intrigued me…..the Princess Henriette part. I used the Princess Henriette part as the plot motor. When I was finished and could step back and look at the work overall, I realized I had the key to writing this Louis XIV that had continued to best me. I had broken a piece of his big story off for a novel, and it worked. My conclusion: the overall story was too big. I needed to break it into pieces to write it. Once I realized that, I tackled Louis XIV again, and I did it. So Dark Angels is actually a part of this bigger Louis XIV story I wanted to write. I wrote the sequel first!

I also thought the story was the women in his life. But to my surprise, he took over Before Versailles. I like him very much at 22. I find him tender, shy, ardent, gallant, qualities that lessened with age. I had a true hero in Before Versailles, and once I realized that, I was happy to give the story to him, to show this part of him that I imagined. He's not a hero to me as he ages.

SK:  Authors take so many different routes to becoming writers. How did you come to write historical fiction? 

KK:  I cut my reading teeth sneaking my grandfather's historical fiction, Frank Slaughter, Frank Yerby, and Zane Grey, when I was a very young girl. I was a voracious reader and read historical fiction all the time. When I decided to write, historical fiction was the only thing I wanted to write, though if I'd done a marketing survey, I would have learned it wasn't selling. Luckily for me, I just wrote what I wanted to read. That's what I always do, write something I want to read. 

I've always made my living writing. The writing simply wasn't fiction. 

SK:  What do you know now that you wished you had known when you first began writing?  

KK:  When I first began writing fiction, I wrote with an innocence that I love. It shines through my first novel. I didn't think about being read by others or about being critiqued. I wish I'd known how not to be hurt by others' critiques, how to keep faith in myself. I knew that then, the first novel. I struggle with it now.

SK:  What do you love most about writing historical fiction, and what do you find the most challenging?

Karleen office 1 KK:  I love the periods I write about and the characters in them….Robert Walpole, Charles II, Prince Rupert, Louise de la Baume le Blanc…so many others….I love the dresses, the way I imagine the skirts sound as their hems skim across floors, the way I imagine a room must look by candlelight……I love the challenges I imagine women faced and overcame………….

SK:  Sometimes at Word Wenches, we reveal our work spaces — decor, paper piles, sticky notes, clutter and all — can you tell us something about your office? Is there a particular set up or a routine that seems to help your writing?  

KK:  My office is in a bedroom of my 2-bedroom house. It's an old house, and the bedroom is right off the living room. My office is terminally messy, piles everywhere, piles of things I'm always going to get to, and seldom do. Periodically, I go to a pile, and I usually end up throwing most of it away, but for some reason, I have to have piles. I have tokens and totems and good luck charms everywhere. I have a collage wall of notes and ribbons and photos I like. (Remember bulletin boards of long ago and how we girls put our homecoming mums and pictures of friends on them?) I have a huge bookcase of biographies and memoirs and scholarly commentary of the periods of history which interest me. I have too many folders and notecards and pens and pencils. I weave my way through the clutter, determined each time I enter that I will clean up, go to work, and forget about it.

When I'm working on a novel, I try to work on it in the mornings when I'm freshest and most energetic, and I try to work on it fairly continuously. How long I work very much depends upon where I am in the process. Shorter in draft stage, longer in revision. Draft stage is hardest for me personally. Its messiness frightens me. I can only handle the fear so long. Revision I love, love, love.

Karleen office 2 SK:  Do you plan to continue the story begun in BEFORE VERSAILLES? What can we look forward to next from you?  

KK:  I'm very tentative in this. I think I plan to write another Alice and Richard story, with a piece of the Louis XIV story I want to tell as part of the plot….but since I haven't really started, I don't know. I'm also excited about a young Alice story….her age being 12, a new maid of honor to Charles II's new queen, Alice with a big crush on Charles II…..I'm not certain which story will end up being written.

I've learned I have to be excited by the characters and where they are and what they face to endure all the drama that comes with writing fiction for me….internal drama, my insecurities. I think that excitement is why I didn't continue writing Barbara-based stories. While I love Barbara very much as a character, I was just flat tired of her.  I would love to be able to turn out a story every year or so, based on the same character. Readers seem to love that, and as a reader, when I find a serial character I like, I love it too! But I repeat what I said earlier: fiction is a cat I can't herd.

Karleen, thank you for such interesting answers! We wish you the best of luck with Before Versailles – and with all your writing. (To learn more about Karleen and her books, and to read her wonderful blog, please visit her website.)

Karleen's publicist will send a copy of Before Versailles to one of our readers — if you'd like a chance to win the book, please leave a comment below and help us welcome Karleen to Wenches!  

Susan  

45 thoughts on “Interview with Karleen Koen”

  1. I LOVE Through a Glass Darkly. My old hardcover edition is so worn from rereading it I bought a paperback copy to keep from stressing out my original. I will confess I haven’t read your other books. I have no idea why, but I will certainly remedy that!
    And I have to agree it was so much easier to write when I didn’t worry about what my fellow writers, an editor or an agent might think of it. That innocence is a hard thing to recover!

    Reply
  2. I LOVE Through a Glass Darkly. My old hardcover edition is so worn from rereading it I bought a paperback copy to keep from stressing out my original. I will confess I haven’t read your other books. I have no idea why, but I will certainly remedy that!
    And I have to agree it was so much easier to write when I didn’t worry about what my fellow writers, an editor or an agent might think of it. That innocence is a hard thing to recover!

    Reply
  3. I LOVE Through a Glass Darkly. My old hardcover edition is so worn from rereading it I bought a paperback copy to keep from stressing out my original. I will confess I haven’t read your other books. I have no idea why, but I will certainly remedy that!
    And I have to agree it was so much easier to write when I didn’t worry about what my fellow writers, an editor or an agent might think of it. That innocence is a hard thing to recover!

    Reply
  4. I LOVE Through a Glass Darkly. My old hardcover edition is so worn from rereading it I bought a paperback copy to keep from stressing out my original. I will confess I haven’t read your other books. I have no idea why, but I will certainly remedy that!
    And I have to agree it was so much easier to write when I didn’t worry about what my fellow writers, an editor or an agent might think of it. That innocence is a hard thing to recover!

    Reply
  5. I LOVE Through a Glass Darkly. My old hardcover edition is so worn from rereading it I bought a paperback copy to keep from stressing out my original. I will confess I haven’t read your other books. I have no idea why, but I will certainly remedy that!
    And I have to agree it was so much easier to write when I didn’t worry about what my fellow writers, an editor or an agent might think of it. That innocence is a hard thing to recover!

    Reply
  6. Through a Glass Darkly is wonderful novel. I love historical fiction that illuminates the time period and displays the past without judgement within a story;you do this incomparably.

    Reply
  7. Through a Glass Darkly is wonderful novel. I love historical fiction that illuminates the time period and displays the past without judgement within a story;you do this incomparably.

    Reply
  8. Through a Glass Darkly is wonderful novel. I love historical fiction that illuminates the time period and displays the past without judgement within a story;you do this incomparably.

    Reply
  9. Through a Glass Darkly is wonderful novel. I love historical fiction that illuminates the time period and displays the past without judgement within a story;you do this incomparably.

    Reply
  10. Through a Glass Darkly is wonderful novel. I love historical fiction that illuminates the time period and displays the past without judgement within a story;you do this incomparably.

    Reply
  11. emotional thrillers set in history…
    What a great way to describe your books! The writing process is always fascinating, but tackling history and research to the extent you do has always seemed overwhelming to me. Interesting to note that it can sometimes seem just as overwhelming to you to put it onto paper.
    Thanks so much for visiting the wenches today.

    Reply
  12. emotional thrillers set in history…
    What a great way to describe your books! The writing process is always fascinating, but tackling history and research to the extent you do has always seemed overwhelming to me. Interesting to note that it can sometimes seem just as overwhelming to you to put it onto paper.
    Thanks so much for visiting the wenches today.

    Reply
  13. emotional thrillers set in history…
    What a great way to describe your books! The writing process is always fascinating, but tackling history and research to the extent you do has always seemed overwhelming to me. Interesting to note that it can sometimes seem just as overwhelming to you to put it onto paper.
    Thanks so much for visiting the wenches today.

    Reply
  14. emotional thrillers set in history…
    What a great way to describe your books! The writing process is always fascinating, but tackling history and research to the extent you do has always seemed overwhelming to me. Interesting to note that it can sometimes seem just as overwhelming to you to put it onto paper.
    Thanks so much for visiting the wenches today.

    Reply
  15. emotional thrillers set in history…
    What a great way to describe your books! The writing process is always fascinating, but tackling history and research to the extent you do has always seemed overwhelming to me. Interesting to note that it can sometimes seem just as overwhelming to you to put it onto paper.
    Thanks so much for visiting the wenches today.

    Reply
  16. Karleen, thanks so much for visiting WOrd Wenches! I love your insights about writing, and in particular, the picture of your office. I find it comforting to realize that a rather untidy office is a true Writer Thing. *g*
    THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY was a rich, memorable thunderclap of a book. Best of luck with the new book, and all the future books that will grow to life in your mind.

    Reply
  17. Karleen, thanks so much for visiting WOrd Wenches! I love your insights about writing, and in particular, the picture of your office. I find it comforting to realize that a rather untidy office is a true Writer Thing. *g*
    THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY was a rich, memorable thunderclap of a book. Best of luck with the new book, and all the future books that will grow to life in your mind.

    Reply
  18. Karleen, thanks so much for visiting WOrd Wenches! I love your insights about writing, and in particular, the picture of your office. I find it comforting to realize that a rather untidy office is a true Writer Thing. *g*
    THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY was a rich, memorable thunderclap of a book. Best of luck with the new book, and all the future books that will grow to life in your mind.

    Reply
  19. Karleen, thanks so much for visiting WOrd Wenches! I love your insights about writing, and in particular, the picture of your office. I find it comforting to realize that a rather untidy office is a true Writer Thing. *g*
    THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY was a rich, memorable thunderclap of a book. Best of luck with the new book, and all the future books that will grow to life in your mind.

    Reply
  20. Karleen, thanks so much for visiting WOrd Wenches! I love your insights about writing, and in particular, the picture of your office. I find it comforting to realize that a rather untidy office is a true Writer Thing. *g*
    THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY was a rich, memorable thunderclap of a book. Best of luck with the new book, and all the future books that will grow to life in your mind.

    Reply
  21. “Thunderclap of a book” – what a great way to describe the strength of Through A Glass Darkly, Mary Jo! I concur. I loved that book, and at the time I wasn’t writing fiction, just academic stuff – and the novel blew me away both as a reader AND as a wannabe writer.
    I’ve read your others since then, and I always marvel at the power, grace and freedom of your writing.
    And like Pat, I applaud the notion of an “emotional thriller” – there should be such a category in the book world. 😉
    Thank you for hanging out at Wenches this weekend!
    Susan

    Reply
  22. “Thunderclap of a book” – what a great way to describe the strength of Through A Glass Darkly, Mary Jo! I concur. I loved that book, and at the time I wasn’t writing fiction, just academic stuff – and the novel blew me away both as a reader AND as a wannabe writer.
    I’ve read your others since then, and I always marvel at the power, grace and freedom of your writing.
    And like Pat, I applaud the notion of an “emotional thriller” – there should be such a category in the book world. 😉
    Thank you for hanging out at Wenches this weekend!
    Susan

    Reply
  23. “Thunderclap of a book” – what a great way to describe the strength of Through A Glass Darkly, Mary Jo! I concur. I loved that book, and at the time I wasn’t writing fiction, just academic stuff – and the novel blew me away both as a reader AND as a wannabe writer.
    I’ve read your others since then, and I always marvel at the power, grace and freedom of your writing.
    And like Pat, I applaud the notion of an “emotional thriller” – there should be such a category in the book world. 😉
    Thank you for hanging out at Wenches this weekend!
    Susan

    Reply
  24. “Thunderclap of a book” – what a great way to describe the strength of Through A Glass Darkly, Mary Jo! I concur. I loved that book, and at the time I wasn’t writing fiction, just academic stuff – and the novel blew me away both as a reader AND as a wannabe writer.
    I’ve read your others since then, and I always marvel at the power, grace and freedom of your writing.
    And like Pat, I applaud the notion of an “emotional thriller” – there should be such a category in the book world. 😉
    Thank you for hanging out at Wenches this weekend!
    Susan

    Reply
  25. “Thunderclap of a book” – what a great way to describe the strength of Through A Glass Darkly, Mary Jo! I concur. I loved that book, and at the time I wasn’t writing fiction, just academic stuff – and the novel blew me away both as a reader AND as a wannabe writer.
    I’ve read your others since then, and I always marvel at the power, grace and freedom of your writing.
    And like Pat, I applaud the notion of an “emotional thriller” – there should be such a category in the book world. 😉
    Thank you for hanging out at Wenches this weekend!
    Susan

    Reply
  26. Dear wenches and lovers of words….thanks for the kind words about my old war horse, Through A Glass Darkly. It was a pleasure to share a bit of my process and to talk about my latest book. I’m come a long way since TAGD; I’m not certain what that means, except that I’ve come a long way…..Karleen Koen

    Reply
  27. Dear wenches and lovers of words….thanks for the kind words about my old war horse, Through A Glass Darkly. It was a pleasure to share a bit of my process and to talk about my latest book. I’m come a long way since TAGD; I’m not certain what that means, except that I’ve come a long way…..Karleen Koen

    Reply
  28. Dear wenches and lovers of words….thanks for the kind words about my old war horse, Through A Glass Darkly. It was a pleasure to share a bit of my process and to talk about my latest book. I’m come a long way since TAGD; I’m not certain what that means, except that I’ve come a long way…..Karleen Koen

    Reply
  29. Dear wenches and lovers of words….thanks for the kind words about my old war horse, Through A Glass Darkly. It was a pleasure to share a bit of my process and to talk about my latest book. I’m come a long way since TAGD; I’m not certain what that means, except that I’ve come a long way…..Karleen Koen

    Reply
  30. Dear wenches and lovers of words….thanks for the kind words about my old war horse, Through A Glass Darkly. It was a pleasure to share a bit of my process and to talk about my latest book. I’m come a long way since TAGD; I’m not certain what that means, except that I’ve come a long way…..Karleen Koen

    Reply
  31. I was wondering what kind of relationship you have with fiction set roughly in the period — The Three Musketeers, The Man in the Iron Mask come to mind at once. But there’s also Louise de La Valliere, and Francoise Chandernagor’s L’allee du Roi and so on.
    Do you read and enjoy fiction set where you’re writing, or do you try to avoid it?

    Reply
  32. I was wondering what kind of relationship you have with fiction set roughly in the period — The Three Musketeers, The Man in the Iron Mask come to mind at once. But there’s also Louise de La Valliere, and Francoise Chandernagor’s L’allee du Roi and so on.
    Do you read and enjoy fiction set where you’re writing, or do you try to avoid it?

    Reply
  33. I was wondering what kind of relationship you have with fiction set roughly in the period — The Three Musketeers, The Man in the Iron Mask come to mind at once. But there’s also Louise de La Valliere, and Francoise Chandernagor’s L’allee du Roi and so on.
    Do you read and enjoy fiction set where you’re writing, or do you try to avoid it?

    Reply
  34. I was wondering what kind of relationship you have with fiction set roughly in the period — The Three Musketeers, The Man in the Iron Mask come to mind at once. But there’s also Louise de La Valliere, and Francoise Chandernagor’s L’allee du Roi and so on.
    Do you read and enjoy fiction set where you’re writing, or do you try to avoid it?

    Reply
  35. I was wondering what kind of relationship you have with fiction set roughly in the period — The Three Musketeers, The Man in the Iron Mask come to mind at once. But there’s also Louise de La Valliere, and Francoise Chandernagor’s L’allee du Roi and so on.
    Do you read and enjoy fiction set where you’re writing, or do you try to avoid it?

    Reply

Leave a Comment