Sandra Hutchison interviews Michelle Cox, author of historical mysteries including the about-to-be-released A RING OF TRUTH. She started writing seriously later in life and here shares useful and entertaining insights gleaned along her path to publication.
What inspired your first book?
Well, I was an English major, and always kind of wanted to write a book, but never had the courage or the time, really. I worked in social service for a while after college, and then I got married and had kids and was generally distracted for about 25 years!
It’s too long of a story to go into here, but let’s just say that in the last four years or so, several forces of the universe seemed to finally align, and I decided it was time to try my hand at writing a novel. I didn’t really have an agenda when I began it; it was more of a personal challenge than anything else. I just wanted to see if I could do it.
So I spent about a year writing and then six-months editing what I thought was my masterpiece—a gargantuan, coming-of-age type saga that clocked in at 240,000 words. I spent another year trying to shop this thing, which I lovingly now call the “big baby,” to an agent, querying over 200 of them. Not surprisingly, no one was interested. My only defense is that having spent from age ten until approximately age forty reading only the “classics,” that size manuscript seemed normal to me.
Eventually I accepted that this was going nowhere, and decided to start something new. I was determined to write something publishable, something an agent or an acquiring editor would be interested in—something short, snappy and marketable! Mystery seemed like a genre most people liked, so I decided to try my hand at that.
Needing at least a kernel of an idea, however, I turned to the many journals and notes I had kept from my working days at a nursing home, where I was privileged to hear story after story from the residents I cared for. I settled on one particular woman’s story, whom for now I’ll call “Adeline.” She used to follow me around the nursing home, telling me—quite frequently, actually—that once upon a time, she’d had “a man-stopping body and a personality to go with it!” Even now that makes me smile.
So I crafted my main character, Henrietta, after the real-life Adeline, giving her the beauty, the family history and the long-string of depression-era jobs Adeline had really had. I also based the character of Stanley on a real-life group of neighborhood boys that apparently used to tag after Adeline to watch out for her when she got home late from all of her seedy jobs. I didn’t think having a gang following Henrietta throughout the novel would work, though, so I amalgamated them into the one character of Stanley. And the last borrowed detail of Adeline’s life is perhaps the strangest one of all: the group of lesbians Henrietta encounters while working at the burlesque club. In fact, a lot of what happens at the burlesque club really did happen in real life! It was thrilling (and a bit surreal, to be honest) to hear a crumbling, eighty-year old woman tell me what it was like to go to lesbian parties after the shows at a burlesque club in the 1930’s Chicago. Adeline was quite funny in her retelling of the stories, and I tried very hard to capture them into the novel.
And so that’s how Henrietta Von Harmon came to be. The real-life “Adeline” was quite a character —spunky and beautiful and resourceful—the perfect heroine! And I strove to model Henrietta after her as best I could.
But that’s about as much similarity as the two stories have. From there they naturally begin to diverge. Obviously, I had to invent a murder in order to make the novel into a mystery, and, of course, the novel wouldn’t be the same without the invention of the aloof Inspector Howard who arrives on the scene to investigate.
How did you come to publish it?
Being naturally deflated when I couldn’t get the “big baby” published, and suspecting that I was doing something horribly wrong, I decided that a writing conference of some sort was in order and dutifully headed off to New York to attend a Writers’ Digest conference.
It was at said conference that my eyes began to be opened. I learned a lot—one of the most shocking things being that there are really only five major publishing houses in the world. As the weekend went on, this and many other truths becoming clear to me, I began to feel slightly sick and not a little daunted by the prospect ahead. Getting the “big baby,” or any other novel for that matter, published was all beginning to sound, well, hopeless.
In a fog, I wandered into a workshop led by literary agent April Eberhardt, who was explaining the virtues and pitfalls of the three different publishing models: traditional, self, and hybrid. Hybrid? This caught my attention, as the traditional route was sounding nearly impossible and self-publishing seemed like more work and skill than I knew I possessed. As April spoke about the joys of publishing with a hybrid, I began furiously scribbling down notes and felt hopeful about this book-publishing ordeal perhaps for the very first time since I had typed “the end” on my manuscript.
Coincidentally (or was it?), I wandered into the next workshop, which was headed by a hybrid-press author, Kristin Harnish, who had published the same exact same book—The Vintner’s Daughter— using two different methods. For reasons too long to go into in this article, she published The Vintner’s Daughter with Harper Collins Canada and then published it with a hybrid—She Writes Press—in the US. Obviously, she was a great person to listen to regarding publishing in general, and she had wonderful things to say about She Writes, which further fueled my curiosity.
As soon as I got home, I did a little research on hybrids (okay, an hour) and chose She Writes as my hybrid of choice. I submitted the “big baby” to them—excited!—only to be crushed, again, when they rejected it! Yes, they do vet! They liked the story and the writing itself, but it was just too long to be accepted by them. The publisher, Brooke Warner, actually got on the phone with me and explained that a novel of that size by an unknown was not a publishable work and was merely a vanity project. Vanity. That stung. But it was what I needed to hear.
Meanwhile, as I stated above, I’d been working on a different novel, A Girl Like You, which I had specifically started writing to prove to the industry (as if anyone cared!) that I could write something short and marketable—something that would get picked up by an agent! I’d show them! The problem, though, was that after the conference in New York, I was so soured on the Big 5 that I wasn’t sure I really wanted a deal from them anymore, almost as if it would be making a deal with the devil.
So, while I still had Brooke Warner on the phone, I offered her my fledgling mystery, never having shown it to a single agent or acquiring editor at the Big 5 for whom it had been written. Brooke laughed and said send it over. They read it, liked it, and took it, and I haven’t looked back since.
She Writes is a fabulous publishing house and a very viable alternative in the publishing landscape. Brooke Warner, having spent thirteen years as an acquiring editor with the Big 5, is a force to be reckoned with and is blazing a new trail. Yes, as with most hybrids, the authors pay an upfront fee, but it generously covers proofing, interior design, the cover, light editing, managing the meta data and traditional distribution through Ingram Publisher Services (the key component). Also, the authors retain complete creative control and all rights (foreign, film and audio), as well as make a higher percentage of the royalties off the back end than their traditionally published counterparts.
She Writes is increasingly being recognized by the industry as a legitimate small press that is knocking down the doors of the old regime. They are represented by the Ingram’s sales teams and sold into book stores and libraries around the country and the world. In 2016 its authors swept the indie author scene, scooping up over 150 awards for their titles!
Besides all of that, however, the press consists of a wonderfully creative, nurturing team of professionals and authors. Actually, that is one of the hidden perks about She Writes—the hugely supportive community that you become a part of and the vast education in publishing each author receives not only from peers, but through the extensive “author handbook” and webinars you’re given, and from Brooke herself, who holds monthly conference calls with the authors and sets aside one afternoon a week, as well, to field individual calls. It is her intent, she has said many times, to educate her authors so that even if She Writes is only a stepping stone to something else, at least they will go into their next venture with eyes wide open. To that end, she also published a book last year entitled, Green Light Your Book, which discusses the current publishing landscape and is an excellent read no matter which way one decides to publish.
As for me, I’m sticking with She Writes for as long as possible. I have no desire, at this point, to publish with the Big 5. To give up all rights, creative control and most of the profits just so I can have a penguin on the spine of my book? That old badge of legitimacy is losing ground every day, not just in my mind, I suspect, but in the greater world. I’m proud to say that my next book, A Ring of Truth, is book two in the Henrietta and Inspector Howard series and is being published by She Writes in April of 2017.
What most surprised you in the writing and/or publishing of your book?
What surprised me the most about writing the book was how much I fell in love with writing itself. It sounds strange, but I find that if I don’t spend time there every day, I become very crabby.
What has surprised me the most about the publishing of it is how much this is a business like any other. My publisher constantly tells us not to think of our books as our babies. And she’s right. They are a product, and writing is a business.
What’s been your best experience so far as a published author?
The best experience so far has been receiving reviews or emails from complete strangers telling me how much they enjoyed the book and look forward to the next one! It’s a wonderful feeling.
What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
As a small press-published author, my advice would be to educate yourself on the many publishing paths out there. There are so many options, so much going on in the industry right now, and it would pay to go into the arena with your eyes wide open. I also can’t stress enough the importance of hiring a publicist. There are hundreds of thousands of books traditionally and self-published each year, and to stand out in that crowd, you need someone who can make the connections that you can’t. It’s essential if you are attempting to be a career writer.
The key to writing in general, though, is discipline. Make yourself write every day, whether you feel like it or not. It’s like exercise. You can’t wait until you “feel” like doing it; we all know how that ends up. Writing is creative, true, but it’s also a business. And read as much as you can; it will help your writing immeasurably!
Learn more about Michelle and her books
Michelle Cox holds a B.A. in English literature from Mundelein College, Chicago, and is the author of the award-winning, A Girl Like You, the first in the Henrietta and Inspector Howard series. She is known for her wildly popular blog, “How to Get Your Book Published in 7,000 Easy Steps—A Practical Guide” as well as her charming “Novel Notes of Local Lore,” a blog dedicated to Chicago’s forgotten residents. Michelle lives with her husband and three children in the Chicago suburbs. Her new novel, A Ring of Truth, will be released April 2017.
Learn more at her web site: http://michellecoxauthor.com/
Her Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/michellecoxwrites/
On Twitter: @michellecox33
A Girl Like You:
Henrietta Von Harmon works as a 26 girl at a corner bar on Chicago’s northwest side. It’s 1935, but things still aren’t looking up since the big crash and her father’s subsequent suicide, leaving Henrietta to care for her antagonistic mother and younger siblings. Henrietta is eventually persuaded to take a job as a taxi dancer at a local dance hall―and just when she’s beginning to enjoy herself, the floor matron turns up dead.
When aloof Inspector Clive Howard appears on the scene, Henrietta agrees to go undercover for him―and is plunged into Chicago’s grittier underworld. Meanwhile, she’s still busy playing mother hen to her younger siblings, as well as to pesky neighborhood boy Stanley, who believes himself in love with her and keeps popping up in the most unlikely places, determined to keep Henrietta safe―even from the Inspector, if need be. Despite his his penchant for messing up the Inspector’s investigation, the lovely Henrietta and the impenetrable Inspector find themselves drawn to each other in most unsuitable ways.
A Ring of Truth
In this second book of the series, Henrietta and Clive delightfully rewrite Pride and Prejudice―with a hint of mystery!
Newly engaged, Clive and Henrietta now begin the difficult task of meeting each other’s family. “Difficult” because Clive has neglected to tell Henrietta that he is in fact the heir to the Howard estate and fortune, and Henrietta has just discovered that her mother has been hiding secrets about her past as well. When Clive brings Henrietta to the family estate to meet his parents, they are less than enthused about his impoverished intended. Left alone in this extravagant new world when Clive returns to the city, Henrietta finds herself more at home with the servants than his family, much to the disapproval of Mrs. Howard―and soon gets caught up in the disappearance of an elderly servant’s ring, not realizing that in doing so she has become part of a bigger, darker plot.
As Clive and Henrietta attempt to discover the truth in the two very different worlds unraveling around them, they both begin to wonder: Are they meant for each other after all?