Meet the Author
Michelle Cox is the author of the multiple award-winning Henrietta and Inspector Howard series as well as “Novel Notes of Local Lore,” a weekly blog dedicated to Chicago’s forgotten residents. She suspects she may have once lived in the 1930s and, having yet to discover a handy time machine lying around, has resorted to writing about the era as a way of getting herself back there. Coincidentally, her books have been praised by Kirkus, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Booklist and many others, so she might be on to something. Unbeknownst to most, Michelle hoards board games she doesn’t have time to play and is, not surprisingly, addicted to period dramas and big band music. Also marmalade.
Just a few questions…
When did you know that you wanted to become a writer? Is there a specific memory where you remembering learning the power of language and stories?
As a kid, I never really thought of myself as a writer. I was more of a reader. I loved reading and always, always, always had a book in my hand . . . or under the desk . . . or in my sleeping bag on a camping trip . . . or . . . you get the picture.
My greatest Christmas present ever was a set of Louisa May Alcott books, which I absolutely cherished. I read them over and over, and then one day decided to try my hand at fan fiction, before that was even a thing. Unfortunately, these little attempts were terrible. They mostly just rambled along until they eventually petered out and died, I think mostly because I was obsessed with working time-travel into it somehow.
In high school and college, I sort of toyed with the idea of becoming a writer, as I was a pretty good essayist, but I was too afraid. Instead I sashayed out into the world with a lit degree and promptly got a good in customer service at a graphic arts company and then in social service at a nursing home.
From there, I got married, started having kids and decided to be a stay-at-home mom, so all of my creativity was poured into decorating the house, gardening, baking and clever homemade birthday cards.
It wasn’t until my oldest child was diagnosed with ADHD at age sixteen, that I suddenly had a sort of epiphany and quit all of the volunteer groups and committees I had somehow become a part of as the years went on. The purpose was to help my child, but when it turned out he didn’t need all that much help after all, I was left with a big glut of time. I was tempted to simply return to all of my old groups, join new ones, or perhaps attempt to write the novel I always wondered if I could write. The novel won.
From the birth of an idea to a finished story, what does your writing process look like?
I have to admit that I need a little kernel to begin. Fortunately, my days working in the nursing home after I graduated from college have supplied me with literally hundreds of story ideas. I often tell writing groups that if they’re ever stuck, simply go sit in a nursing home for a couple of weeks and they will have more stories than they could ever use.
So I take a story and pull out the parts I think will work in a novel and then create a story around that kernel, inventing characters and motivations and plots and subplots. From there, I write a broad outline, and then break that down further into chapter summaries. It might just be a phrase or one line – basically setting up what each chapter is supposed to achieve.
Then I start writing. Usually between an hour or two each day, first thing in the morning, until I have a first draft. The story doesn’t always follow the original outline; in fact, it almost always slightly morphs into something else, which is fine, as long as it makes sense. It usually takes about three to four, maybe five, months to get a first draft done. From there, I go back to the beginning and start all over, editing and tweaking, editing and tweaking. I probably go through a novel about three times before I ever let anyone read it. It’s a long, long process.
If you could meet any other author, alive or dead, who would it be and why?
Charles Dickens for his amazing ability to weave so many different plot lines together and his realistic, unforgettable characters. A close second would be Jane Austen.
What is the best piece of advice that you could give to aspiring writers?
You have to have discipline. You have to write every single day or nothing is going to be accomplished. It’s like exercising. You have to make yourself do it every day, whether you “feel” like it or not. It’s the same with writing.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel and why?
The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope. Actually, almost any novel by Trollope. I think he’s the most underrated novelist in English Literature. His command of the language, particularly in describing the manners of the English aristocracy, is astounding. I don’t know why we don’t read more of his vast body of work.
Just for Fun…
Favorite Ice Cream Flavor – Salted caramel
Favorite Pizza Topping – Canadian bacon and green olive
Favorite Movie – Pride and Prejudice (Matthew Macfadyen version)
Favorite Dessert – Any! Probably carrot cake
Favorite snack to eat while you are writing – Coffee, though I get up for frequent fruit breaks
Favorite Drink (alcohol or something else) – Craft beer
What would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal? A housecat
If you didn’t write, what would your occupation be? Gardener
What do you enjoying doing when you aren’t writing or reading? Board games
Would you rather have an endless summer or an endless winter? Endless summer
Thank you to Michelle Cox!