It would be hard to find two more ballsy female characters in contemporary fiction than Julie Collins or Mercy Gunderson, both creations of Lori Armstrong, an author who's building an impressive career that balances murder mysteries with erotic romance novels.

Armstrong, an award-winning author who lives in Rapid City, S.D., has written four novels about private investigator Julie Collins, two about displaced soldier Mercy Gunderson, plus a string of contemporary erotic Western romances under the pen name Lorelei James.

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Julie Collins, the central figure in "Blood Ties," "Hallowed Ground" and two other paperback-released novels, is a tough P.I. in Rapid City who grew up on a ranch with no mother to protect her from her abusive father. Unlike many of literature's female cop/detective/investigators, Collins is angry and stubborn with enough vices to fill a Joe Francis video.

Mercy Gunderson is a hard-edged soldier on medical leave who has returned to her family ranch near Rapid City. One-quarter Indian and all coiled resentment, she's the star of "No Mercy," (released in hardcover in January, set to debut in paperback Tuesday), as well as Armstrong's next book, "Mercy Kills," which will be released Jan. 11 as a trade paperback. Armstrong already has begun work on the third "Mercy" book.

Unsure origins

The Julie Collins books were written first, published beginning in 2005, but Armstrong said she's still not sure about the origins of her Julie character. Because authors are advised to write about what they know, plenty of readers seem to think she wrote Julie in her own image, Armstrong said. Not so, she said. She and Julie may both be blondes and live in western South Dakota, but otherwise, they have little in common, she said.

"I had this new character yammering in the back of my head, giving me little pieces of her life story," Armstrong said in an interview. "I thought I should take a break to listen to her. And that was Julie Collins."

She may not be much like Julie Collins, Armstrong said, but she's definitely known women like her, women whose lives and personalities have been shaped by their environment and circumstances, women who are survivors.

"She's a really tough woman, really tougher than me," Armstrong said. "But I know women like her. They have been wrung out by life, but they are still on their feet and they're still swinging."

Growing up, Julie was abused by her father and, as an adult, still struggles with his prejudices and rages. Her mother died when she was young. Her beloved brother, who her racist father sired with an American Indian woman, was murdered. Julie is street smart and often kind-hearted, but she also likes drinking, smoking, cussing and sex. Her boyfriend is the hot bad boy head of a local motorcycle club.

Compelling story

It makes for a compelling, page-turning story, but not so much with the happy endings.

"I'm writing about this dark stuff," she said. "And I do think about 'what are my kids going to think, what is my family going to think,' that kind of thing. So, I stopped writing for a while. But ultimately, I went back to writing on the advice of a couple of people and finished a book."

Armstrong was born in eastern South Dakota and at 12 moved with her family to Rapid City, the largest city in western South Dakota. Rapid City is the hub of the Black Hills, a favorite destination for tourists and a place that's home to cowboys, Indians, ranchers and lots of blue-collar workers, plus merchants, a large medical community, engineers from South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, servicemen from nearby Ellsworth Air Force Base, artists, bikers, rednecks and aging hippies.

She attended SDSMT for a few years, then she and her husband moved to Minneapolis to work. They lasted six months, and then returned to work in his family's firearms business, A&A Engraving Inc. They have three daughters.

Armstrong's "how I became an author story" is a familiar one. She always wanted to write and did some writing in college. None of it ever panned out, probably because she wasn't writing about anything she wanted to write, she said.

Then, she read a book that made her want to write her own, but not for the reasons you might expect.

"I read a book that made me so mad," she said. "It was terrible. I honestly thought, I can do better than this." Armstrong declined to name the book but said it was by a well-known author and an Oprah's Book Club selection.

In getting started, it helped that she already had some ideas for the story she wanted to tell.

"I had this character that was kind of poking me and little snippets of dialogue that were in my head," Armstrong said. "So, I tried to figure out what I wanted to do. I wrote quite a few words and realized that I had a pretty big mess on my hands."

Armstrong said she'd always pooh-poohed writing romance novels. Still, when it came to looking for her own writer's voice, she went to a bookstore and bought all the romance novels she could afford by authors such as Nora Roberts and Rachel Gibson. There she found a lot that she admired and much that inspired her, she said.

Attending Mayhem in the Midlands, a crime fiction conference in Omaha, also was a major influence in her transition from working in the firearms industry to becoming a writer.

"At that time, I was probably 15 or 20 chapters into 'Blood Ties,' and I had kind of stalled a bit," she said. "I got a lot of encouragement from authors to finish my book."

Her first mystery novel, "Blood Ties," was nominated in 2006 for a Shamus Award for Best First Novel by the Private Eye Writers of America, and "Hallowed Ground," her second Julie Collins book released in November 2006, was nominated for a 2007 Shamus Award for Best Paperback Original, a Daphne du Maurier Award and won the 2007 WILLA Cather Literary Award for Best Original Softcover Fiction.

"Shallow Grave," released in November 2007, was nominated for a 2008 High Plains Book Award, a Daphne du Maurier Award and was a finalist for the 2008 WILLA Cather Literary Award. Her fourth Julie Collins book, "Snow Blind," released in October 2008, won the 2009 Shamus Award, from the Private Eye Writers of America, for Best Paperback Original.

Shelved series?

For now, Armstrong said, her Julie Collins book series is on the shelf. She had a three-book deal with Simon & Schuster to write for the Mercy Gunderson series.

"Former Black Ops army sniper Mercy Gunderson isn't adjusting well to the laid-back rhythm of civilian life on her family's ranch in South Dakota," begins a description of "Mercy Kill," to be released in January.

In it, Marcy accepts a temporary bartending job, but her attempts to settle in at home are tested when a Canadian oil company proposing to run an underground pipeline through her neighborhood sends Jason Hawley, Mercy's former army buddy, to convince ranchers to support the project.

Rising tension

After ugly threats and escalating tensions, Hawley is found dead and Mercy vows to find his killer. But she soon discovers that her fellow soldier had plenty of secrets.

Like Julie Collins, Mercy is not one to walk away from a challenge, or a fight. But the two women are different, she said.

"I think Julie is very hot headed," Armstrong said. "She will jump into a situation without thinking bout it. When the situation goes bad, she has no one to blame but herself. Mercy is much cooler. She's used to doing what people tell her to because she's been in the Army. She's used to taking orders."

Armstrong said she realized from the beginning that if she softened the Julie Collins character, she probably would sell more books. But a softer Julie didn't ring true.

Recently, a lot of Armstrong's writing career and promotional traveling has been for her Lorelei James books, described at her website as erotic, sexy stories set in the modern Wild West. Amstrong/James is up front about warning readers that the books -- with titles like "Cowgirls Don't Cry," "Slow Ride," "All Jacked Up" and "Tied Up, Tied Down" -- are blush-inducingly graphic.

Her erotic romances may be steamy, but their stories portray the real lives of today's men and women who live the western life.

"The stuff I had been reading, it was just wrong about what it's like to live on the modern-day ranch and the toll this life takes on people," she said.

Another nice thing about writing about love, lust and romance?

"It's good to jump between murder mysteries and romance because I know that my romance characters are literally going to ride off in to the sunset together, and that's a nice break for me," she said.

Armstrong, a member of the board of directors of Mystery Writers of America," said she's not embarrassed about writing about women who revel in their sexuality, or for writing graphic sex scenes. There are some authors who write erotic books who don't tell anyone their pen names. She's open about hers, she said.

And although she's writing sexy books for women, Armstrong said, there's an irony in that, too.

"The biggest critics (of erotic romance) are other women," she said. "I don't know if they think all stories should have that happy vibe, or they don't want to read about a woman who is unapologetic about her sexuality, or about using guns."

In a 2007 interview on the website, there had been nothing intentional or gratuitous about writing Julie Collins as an angry rebel and a bad girl with a heart of gold.

"She just sort of blew onto the page in all her angry, chain-smoking, tequila swilling, cussing, sexual glory," Armstrong said. She'd always been drawn to strong female characters, she told -- the mythic warrior goddesses, the iconic female PI's, the pretty girls who hid their brains behind smart-ass quips and foul language.

"She's ballsy, and that makes some folks uncomfortable," Armstrong said.