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Friday, April 15, 2011


hardcover edition

Our Book Club Friday guest author today is Karen Hall, an environmental engineer and author of the environmental thrillers, Unreasonable Risk. After obtaining an English Literature degree, Karen attempted to answer the age-old question:  What do you do with one of those?  She spent time as an editor, lifeguard, graphics designer, marketing executive, bank teller, secretary and cherry picker (really—Yakima Valley, Washington).  None of them fit her well, so she went back to school for degrees in chemistry and chemical engineering and spent nearly nine years working in Minnesota’s oil industry.  She left to start her own environmental consulting business and to devote more time to writing.  Her first novel, Unreasonable Risk, published in 2006, is a thriller about sabotage in an oil refinery; it will be released for e-reader in April 2011. 

Karen has recently finished the second in her environmental thriller series, Through Dark Spaces, set in the hard rock gold mining industry of the Black Hills.  It will also be released for e-reader in the spring of 2011. To learn more about Karen, visit her website.

One of our readers will win a copy of the hardback edition of Unreasonable Risk. To enter, simply post a comment to the blog, and be sure to check back on Sunday to see if you’re the lucky winner. -- AP

e-book edition
An Answer to an Often-Asked Question: Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Every time I do a book signing or go to a book club, I’m asked the question:  where do you get your ideas?  How do you decide what to write about?   My answer:  I write about things that have touched my life.  I think most writers at least begin that way.  I’d always wanted to write a novel, but it wasn’t until one sunny November afternoon in 1999 that the idea for my first book crystallized – as a result of an event that happened that day.

At that time, I was working in Koch Petroleum Group’s oil refinery just south of St. Paul, Minnesota, as an environmental engineer.  Refineries are structured a little like small towns – they have a grid of streets and avenues – and I was walking along A Street toward the wastewater treatment plant.  The brisk Minnesota wind made me hunch into my heavy blue parka, so I didn’t hear the pickup until it was nearly on me.  It was cherry red; all the refinery vehicles were sky blue.  And it blew past at about 30 miles per hour.    Since the speed limit in the plant was 5 mph, my adrenaline picked up and I ran, thinking there must be an emergency somewhere.

Though I never got to the emergency myself, I found out later that day what had happened.  The kid in the pickup had driven past the refinery every day, twice a day, going to and from work, for over a year.  On this particular day, he was coming home from the bar in the middle of the afternoon, having lost his job the day before.  He’d apparently been in that bar for quite some time, had imbibed a significant amount of the brew of the day, and was seriously angry.  As he drove past the refinery, he decided it was high time he had a look at what was in there, so he turned in at the gate. 

Now think for a moment about what’s in a refinery.  Pretty close to everything inside the fence is either flammable or, worse, explosive.   At that time, the only “protection” the refinery had was an arm gate, like those at railroad crossings, which the guards inside the building could raise or lower.  Not much of a barrier, as it turned out.  The kid in the truck simply plowed on through, snapping the gate like a twig. 

Here’s the kicker:  security didn’t catch him for nearly 45 minutes. 

And they only caught him then because it was November.  As refinery vehicles cornered him in one of the tank farms (where several of those enormous white cylindrical tanks sit), he abandoned the truck and sprinted up the metal staircase that spiraled around one of the tanks.  Fortunately for the refinery, he chose an asphalt tank.  Now if you think about asphalt and Minnesota Novembers, you realize that if the stuff isn’t kept hot, it would turn into a hockey puck well worth mention in the Guinness Book of World Records.  And to keep asphalt liquid, it has to stay REALLY hot.  The kid from the pickup stepped out onto the roof of the tank…and pulled his foot back.  He was afraid he’d burn his feet right through his shoes if he tried to walk across.  So they finally caught him and hauled him off, either to detox or to jail, I’m not sure which. 

The whole incident, though, made me realize how lax security is at many of our large industrial facilities.  And what would happen if, instead of some angry unemployed drunk, the person who broke in wanted to sabotage the place?  What could happen? 

The answer is:  nothing good.  My first thriller/mystery, Unreasonable Risk, takes a close look at that answer.  It opens up the world of the oil business for the reader, too, and provides a glimpse of an industry that touches every one of us every day, but about which most of us know next to nothing.  And without any mind-numbing descriptions of how refineries work.  Just lots of action, lots of explosions, and a likeable heroine with a strong sense of justice.

I hope you’ll all enter the contest to win a free copy, and that you’ll let me know what you think once you’ve read it.  And perhaps Anastasia will invite me back to explain how I got the idea for my second book, soon to be released for e-reader, Through Dark Spaces, another environmental thriller, this one set in a gold mine!

Thanks so much, Karen! We’d love to have you back at some point. Readers, let’s hear from you. Post a comment for a chance to win a copy of Unreasonable Risk. And remember to check back on Sunday to see if you’ve won. -- AP


Kari Wainwright said...

I always love learning about the events that inspire writers, especially when we never learn what really transpired fully, thus "forced" to use our imaginations.

Your book sounds like a wonderfully scary read.

gkw9000 at gmail.com

petite said...

This book sounds compelling and your story incredible. What a fascinating book which peaked my interest. Thanks for this interesting post today. rojosho(at)hotmail(dot)com

Kathy said...

Unreasonable Risk is definitely a must read for me and probably my husband too since he is retired from working at an oil refinery and chemical plant.

Karen Hall said...

Kathy, I modeled one of the characters on a coworker from the refinery. When I told him I'd borrowed some of his characteristics for Donnelly, the BCA agent, he actually blushed. People who work in refineries are wonderful folk. I'd love to hear from your husband after he reads the book!

Karen Hall said...

Wow, Kari, thanks. One of my neighbors read the book last year and called me five minutes after she'd finished it to see when the next one was coming out. I so appreciate it when people compliment my work, even before they've read it. :-)

Anonymous said...

This book really has a timely theme. We all worry about what the next disaster might be. I will add this to my TBR list.

Thanks for a fascinating interview.

Helen Kiker

Karen Hall said...

You're right, Helen. And it's not only oil refineries, but chemical plants and other industrial facilities that pose a risk to the public. The horrific disaster in Japan reminds us daily of the cost both to human life and the natural world that can result from accidental incidents, much less sabotage, and when you consider how many facilities dot our landscape and populate our industrial cities, it certainly should give us pause. But I'll get off my soapbox now and just say that I hope you enjoy the book. :-)

Malena said...

Loved the story that inspired your book. I'm sure the novel is just as entertaining. I love getting inside looks into places and professions I know nothing about. Best of luck with this series.


Karen, thanks so much for being our guest this week and for such an informative post.

For those of you interested in winning a copy of UNREASONABLE RISK, there's still time to post a comment to enter. Be sure to check back tomorrow to see if you're the winner.

Diane Finney said...

Your mystery sounds interesting. How much does Minnesota weather factor into the plot?