Multiple mysteries bring Olson success

Roanoke alumna is using her determination and experience to find literary success

She didn't know it then, but as a nine-year-old writing and illustrating her own stories, Karen E. Olson '82 was foreshadowing her future.

Olson, whose fourth mystery novel is due out this fall, has managed to break into the tough publishing world while juggling a journalism career and a family.

"When I arrived at Roanoke, I knew I wanted to be an English major to prepare myself as a writer. Professors like Matthew Wise, William Deegan and Denis Lape gave me an appreciation of language I'd never had," she says. "A creative writing class with Bobbye Au helped me hone my own skills."

Like all Roanoke English majors, she read classics like Moby Dick and The Faerie Queene. But her favorite was Crime and Punishment, something she sees as telling. She also joined The Brackety-Ack early on and was co-editor her senior year.

After graduation, her career progressed from reporting at a tiny weekly through increasingly larger dailies until she landed at the copy desk of the New Haven Register in Connecticut, where she met her husband, Chris Hoffman, a reporter. They have a daughter, Julia, whom they adopted from China in 1998.

Along the way, Olson observed real newsrooms and the real people who populate them, an education mirrored in her writing.

"My first book also had a journalist as protagonist," she says, "but she was so very idealistic" - unlike Annie Seymour, the gritty, jaded, sometimes foul-mouthed reporter in all four of her novels. That first book didn't encounter much interest, nor did a second. But the experience was invaluable.

When she started Sacred Cows, Olson felt she had found the right story. The publishing world didn't jump on it, but a New York literary agent was convinced that she had potential. After almost three discouraging years, she entered it in a Mysterious Press contest for first-time authors, winning the Sara Ann Freed Memorial Award, which included a publishing contract. The Warner Books subsidiary also bought her second novel, Secondhand Smoke.

"Perseverance pays off," she says, encouraging aspiring writers. "This is not something that happens overnight, but if you're a good writer and have a good book to market, someone will see that. And if it doesn't happen the first time, don't give up. Publishing is a very subjective business."

Olson had her third in the series written when she learned Warner was dropping the Mysterious Press imprint. Her editor moved to New American Library, a division of Penguin, and Olson soon followed. Dead of the Day was published in November 2007 and Shot Girl will come out this November.

She finally left newspapers for part-time work editing a medical journal at Yale. While the shorter hours have given her more writing time, the decision really was made to be more available for her daughter, now 11. Her husband also had left the newsroom for Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal's press office.

Olson's writing time has varied - more when she was working the nightside copy energetic toddler. But as always she has kept writing a priority.

Learn more at www.kareneolson.com. - Liz Douglas Medcalf '82

Olson and Medcalf met on their first day at Roanoke, and they have been friends ever since. Both majored in English and were co-editors of The Brackety-Ack. They also both became journalists and now work in higher education. Medcalf is director of News & Media Services at Frostburg State University in Maryland, where, among other duties, she writes for its alumni magazine.