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Karen Marie Moning Follows Her Characters Down the Road Less Traveled -- and Takes Readers Along for the Ride

By Elissa Petruzzi

We've all had nightmares that are hard to shake the next day. Karen Marie Moning's bad dream shook her up so much that she quit her day job in insurance litigation and started writing novels.

"Right after I turned 30 ... I had a dream that I died. And in my dream, when I was dying, this huge voice said, 'Who lived the last 10 years of your life? Because you sure as hell didn't,'" she remembers. "I had all these things I wanted to do, and all these dreams I used to have, and here I was at 30 and I hadn't chased any of them. Within a matter of weeks I quit my job and wrote every day."

After four failed drafts -- which she burned after deciding, "I never wanted them to see the light of day" -- Moning wrote Beyond the Highland Mist, creating her much-beloved Highlanders and hitting upon a series franchise that has catapulted her onto the New York Times bestseller list.

Still following that road less traveled, Moning branches out in yet another direction this month with her Darkfever (Delacorte), which begins the Chronicles of Mac O'Connor, a series, told in the first person, that follows the adventures of heroine MacKayla O'Connor.

As the genre-shifting series begins, modern-day, 22-year-old bartender Mac spends her days at the pool, pondering her next career move while awaiting her sister Alina's return from a semester abroad. Suddenly, Mac must travel from her Georgia home to Dublin to search for answers to Alina's brutal murder. While in Ireland, Mac teams up with a mysterious stranger, Jericho Barrons, and discovers a dangerous fantasy otherworld in which she -- and possibly Jericho -- plays an integral part. Darkfever is not a traditional romance: There are no true love scenes, nor is there a happy ending for Mac in sight anytime soon.

"As a stand-alone book Darkfever is not a romance," Moning says. "As part of a series, it absolutely is. I love romance ... . I want more story, though."

A lot more story, as it turns out. Mac's total story is 2,000 pages long, and as Moning envisions things, the series will be broken into five separate books, with some steamy off- shoot novellas planned as well. By breaking free of the traditional romance novel confines, particularly the 400-page limit, Moning feels she can better develop emotionally and sexually satisfying relationships for her characters and her readers.

Mac will find love along the way and, Moning promises, "It is some of the hottest stuff I have ever written," -- though readers will have to wait until later books in the series for romance to blossom.

"I looked for romance to happen in this book. I had my eyes and ears open," Moning explains. "I was like, 'Hmm, could there be romance here?' and Mac said, 'Nope. Don't think so.' ... It doesn't belong in the first two weeks after her sister's been murdered."

Hearing Mac's voice was what convinced Moning to take this latest leap of faith.

"Mac had a voice that was keeping me awake at night. And she was saying, 'I want to tell my story, and I know it's not a romance, and are you too chicken to take a chance on me?'" Moning remembers.

Acknowledging the difficulty of moving away from her well-known and bestselling Highlander series, she says, "It's a risk, to do something like this. My Highlander stories, they work, they sell. I know they do. So I took a chance on Mac, even though she's said, 'You're not going to get to have sex in the first book, you're not going to get to do the things that you know are selling in the market.' Her voice was so insistent that I said, 'OK, I'm game. I'm going to try this.' "

Fans of the Highlanders need not despair, however, because not only is Moning open to the possibility of returning to those time-traveling Scots at some point, but Mac and company will provide their own view into this world.

"What you'll see as the series unfolds is that it's a separate series, but at the same time it's a side, and a very different perspective, into the world that I've already created," Moning says. "I've established this romance-hero world, and now I'm establishing this kind of parallel world that runs alongside it from a much more nitty-gritty perspective."

In fact, Moning hints, "Mac will meet a young MacKeltar in the next book. The worlds are going to collide."

Real worlds collided as nature descended upon Moning's rural Georgian home one day when she and her husband, Neil, discovered a large bear on their deck, drinking out of a hummingbird feeder.

"How do you get a bear off the deck?" laughs the author, who now carries bear mace with her, just in case. "If it had wanted to, it could have just come right through the screens to us. Fortunately, we scared it, and it took off -- hitched its fat bear butt over the side and left." Perhaps the incident inspired the sense of danger stalking Mac in Darkfever.

Despite the occasional run-in with wildlife, Moning enjoys the country setting."It's just heaven to me," she says of her home at the foot of the Blue Ridge mountains, to which she relocated after years of living in Cincinnati.

"It's wonderful, it's warm, the landscape is beautiful. It's much more peaceful [than Cincinnati]. I get more writing done," she says.

And write she has, with pieces of Mac's 2,000-page story already committed to paper and other novellas planned, Moning has been busy working, something which must please her publisher, Delacorte.

In fact, Delacorte supported Moning's new literary adventure from the beginning.

"It translates well from the Highlanders into this great new series," says Shauna Summers, a senior editor at Bantam Dell who works with Moning. "I'm a fan of the Highlander books and I love Darkfever. I think this is her best book."

Summers, who worked with Laurell K. Hamilton, sees similarities between the two first-person series, which follow a heroine through a sometimes supernatural landscape.

Aware that some of Moning's fans won't be pleased with the transition, Summers reasons, "You can't please everyone."

For Moning, her gamble to enter the writing world worked out, and the author plans to continue following her heart, even if it takes her in surprising directions. She says, "You absolutely have to write the story that you have to tell."

Excerpt from Darkfever

"Jericho Barrons," a rich, cultured male voice said behind me. "And you are?" Not an Irish accent. No idea what kind of accent it was, though.

I turned, with my name perched on the tip of my tongue, but it didn't make it out. No wonder Fiona had said his name like that. I gave myself a brisk inward shake and stuck out my hand. "MacKayla, but most people call me Mac."

"Have you a surname, MacKayla?" He pressed my knuckles briefly to his lips and released my hand. My skin tingled where his mouth had been.

Was it my imagination or was his gaze predatory?

I was afraid I was getting a little paranoid. It had been a long, odd day after an odder night. Ashford Journal headlines were beginning to form in my mind: Second Lane sister meets with foul play in Dublin bookshop. "Just Mac is fine," I evaded.

"And what do you know of this shi-sadu, just Mac?"

"Nothing. That's why I was asking. What is it?"

"I have no idea," he said. "Where did you hear of it?"

"Can't remember. Why do you care?"

He crossed his arms.

I crossed mine, too. Why were these people lying to me? What in the world was this thing I was talking about?

He studied me with his predator's gaze, assessing me from head to toe. I studied him back. He didn't just occupy space; he saturated it. The room had been full of books before, now it was full of him. About thirty, six foot two or three, he had dark hair, golden skin, and dark eyes. His features were strong, chiseled. I couldn't pinpoint his nationality any more than I could his accent; some kind of European crossed with Old World Mediterranean or maybe an ancestor with dark Gypsy blood. He wore an elegant dark gray Italian suit, a crisp white shirt, and a muted patterned tie. He wasn't handsome. That was too calm a word. He was intensely masculine. He was sexual. He attracted. There was an omnipresent carnality about him, in his dark eyes, in his full mouth, in the way he stood. He was the kind of man I wouldn't flirt with in a million years.

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