This BookPage Icebreaker is sponsored by Thomas Nelson.
Indiana-based author Colleen Coble is the author of several bestselling Christian romantic suspense series, all set in unforgettable locations. But the Rock Harbor books, which began with her breakout novel, Without a Trace, might be her most beloved work.
In Beneath Copper Falls, Coble's long-awaited return to the small town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Dana Newell tries to start over after fleeing an abusive relationship. Here, she reunites with series heroine Bree Matthews as Dana tentatively explores a relationship with a new friend, Boone. But there's a murderer on the loose who preys on vulnerable women—romancing them, proposing marriage and then murdering them. When Dana's ex-boyfriend follows her to Rock Harbor and begins threatening to destroy her new life, she and Bree will have to sort through Dana's past and the dangers of the present to unmask the killer.
Bree has been the heroine in several of the Rock Harbor books—when did you make the decision to split the focus between her and Dana?
I made that flip before in a previous book, Abomination, that’s been re-released as Haven of Swans, and readers loved that. Because I write romantic mysteries, not that you can’t have romance with married characters, but you have to have a problem usually! So I decided to have Dana return to Rock Harbor, looking for help from Bree, and that worked out pretty well, I think. I think readers are going to enjoy Dana’s story, but they’re also going to get to see what’s going on with Bree, Kade and the kids.
Did you find yourself approaching chapters from Dana and Bree’s perspective differently? Was it useful to have two viewpoints?
One of the things I typically do when I’m writing is decide who has the most to lose, because that ups your stakes. I brought Bree in for the scenes where she’s really afraid for Dana, and I felt that really helped the reader realize just how much danger Dana is in. Sometimes it helps to have another perspective, and as Bree’s had some experience with dangerous people, she was able to carry that. And I was able to show their friendship and bring in the search dog angle that my readers love so well.
When did you first visit the Upper Peninsula and what was it that captured your attention and made you set a series there?
My husband and I love to vacation up there, so we knew about it before I wrote the series. When I read a magazine article about search and rescue in Yellowstone, I thought I wanted a wilderness area, but I wanted somewhere that isn’t as well known. Then all of a sudden I thought, “Oh, the UP!” I could have put it anywhere in the UP, but as I was researching I stumbled across the fact that the Keweenaw region was settled by Finns. My best friend in high school was a Finnish foreign exchange student, I’ve been to Finland, we hosted her daughter as a Finnish foreign exchange student—it was like it was meant to be. I was led to a perfect spot!
I always try to make sure that I go wherever I’m setting a series, because you never really know exactly what that culture is like and what it’s like in that area unless you are actually visiting there. So I hit small local cafes and coffee shops and just sit around, listen to people talk and try to immerse myself in that. And the UP is almost like stepping back in time. It’s a very low population and the people are lovely!
“I look around and there’s no justice in the world, but by golly, I can make sure it happens in my books!”
Have you done any of the ice-climbing and other outdoor activities the characters do in the series?
I have done some of that! Not the ice-climbing [laughs]. When I was writing the second book in the Rock Harbor series, Beyond a Doubt, I wanted to experience what a winter was like up there, so we went up in February. It was the coldest winter they had had in 10 or 15 years. It was unbelievably cold! My husband looked at me and said, “Maybe you ought to think about writing a series someplace warm next time” [laughs]. But it is really something up there. It is just an amazing wonderland during the winter.
Did you have to decompress after spending so much time writing from the perspective of a serial killer and a domestic abuser in Beneath Copper Falls? Does it get to you at all?
It doesn’t really get to me because I know they’re going to get their just desserts! People sometimes ask me, “Why do you write this stuff?” and I think it’s because I have a really strong sense of justice. I look around and there’s no justice in the world, but by golly, I can make sure it happens in my books!
Was the Groom Reaper, the serial murderer in Beneath Copper Falls, inspired by any real-life killers?
It really wasn’t. I got to thinking how to tie the hero to the heroine, by having his sister being previously killed. So then I got to thinking, “How would that play out?” I thought it was an intriguing premise, that these women never measure up [for the killer], and so he has to dispose of them and move on the next one. In fact, my critique partner, the romance writer Denise Hunter, came up with the name, which was just perfect!
You’re already balancing mystery and romance in your books. As a Christian writer, how do you mix in your faith while making sure all three elements are balanced?
You know, I have always said that it doesn’t matter who the writer is, you will always pick up their worldview. I could no more write a story that didn’t have a faith element than I could breathe, because that’s who I am. And so it comes out in the story in a very natural way. The thing is, it’s usually not planned. And early on in my career I would think, “OK, I’m going to have this spiritual element.” Well, my characters never obeyed or followed through with what I had planned! They always had their own issues that they were dealing with.
In my books, it’s not a salvation message usually. It’s more people like me, dealing with things I deal with. If I’m dealing with an issue with forgiveness, for example. Maybe there’s somebody I’ve had to come to grips with who doesn’t like me, and I’ve got to go through that. Or loss, or figuring out how I fit in the world. I never want to write a character who comes across as having it all together, because I sure don’t have it all together! In the first book, Without a Trace, Bree is searching for a plane that went down while carrying her husband and her little boy. She’s dealing with a lot of guilt about what she could have done better, and whether it was her fault because [she and her husband had] had an argument. I deal with guilt sometimes, too, that I didn’t do enough or I don’t do enough. I think we as women deal with that in particular—we feel like we should be able to do it all, and the reality is, no one can.
And yes the romance has to balance in there too, along with the mystery. We did a survey about one or two years ago to see why readers pick up my books. It came out that they really loved the mystery and they loved the emotional relationship stuff going on. So I try to keep that balance. A lot of people who write romance have the hero and heroine hating one another. I’m not that way. My romance is more where they’re having to work together and they have some conflicts because of personalities and who they are, but they’re attracted to one another. I don’t write your traditional romance where you have a black moment and they’re going to break up. That’s just not my thing. I write more of a women’s fiction—relationships and how they can be broken and how they can be fixed.
Are there any books in the Rock Harbor series that you look back on now and see something that was going on your life that made it into the book without you realizing it?
Oh, yes. And that’s another thing that a lot of people have asked, whether I plot my books. And I don’t. I start off with an interesting premise, and I usually do not know who the villain is. I lay down rabbit trails and see where it and the characters take me. The character decides, and I know that sounds crazy [laughs]! “You’re the writer, don’t you know what your characters are going to do?” and by golly, I don’t! I’ll be writing along and those characters will go off in a direction I didn’t even know they knew how to do.
And so those themes that come out in the novel, I usually don’t know what direction they are going in. I start off with an interesting premise, and I see how it plays out in the character’s life. And they tell me the theme and the theme develops. When I reach the end of the novel, I see it, and then I can go back and strengthen that in the editing process.
So how does that work, not knowing who the villain is in the first draft? You must have to go back and fix or omit a lot of things in the subsequent drafts!
Exactly. And I’ve written a couple of books where I plotted it out. I tell you what, it was so not fun! Because I knew what was going to happen. If I knew what was going to happen, then why write the book? I might as well just forget it, because I want to be on a journey too!
There are so many plot elements to put together while writing a mystery. Does not knowing who the killer is in your first draft make the process easier for you? By not having that pressure to make it all fit together?
It does for me. But what I always tell aspiring writers, is that there’s no one right way to write. Everybody comes at a story differently. There are some people who must have it plotted out. They’re paralyzed and they can’t write it otherwise. My process is not like that. Anyone who says, “You must write this way,” turn around and walk away, because they don’t understand writing! We are not all wired the same, we just aren’t.
I found the character of Lori, who is younger and less settled in her life than the other characters, very interesting and sympathetic. You nailed how some people develop in fits and starts. Will we see her take center stage in a Rock Harbor novel eventually?
I do want to have her center stage. I’ve waited a while, because she’s still pretty young and my characters tend to be more in their late 20s. I almost did [write a book about] her this time, but I thought, “No, I’m going to wait one more book.” She’s always been a very interesting character to me. I’ve always loved her even when she was really a brat at the beginning of the series! But she’s progressed further than I even thought she was going to. She’s getting there! I think we all see ourselves in her a lot, because we all mess up.
Do you know what the premise of Lori’s story is going to be yet, or are you going to let it surprise you?
I don’t know yet, but it will definitely involve murder [laughs].
Author photo credit Amber Zimmerman, Clik Chick Photography.