(I met Jennifer Dwight recently in my capacity as archivist at Colorado College, her alma mater. I invited her to participate in the Dead Guy blog, and I'm happy to say she took me up on it.)
A Conversation Between Two Award-winning Mystery Writers: Michelle Cox, Author of A Girl Like You (2016) and the forthcoming A Ring of Truth, and Jennifer Dwight, Author of The Tolling of Mercedes Bell (2016)
Michelle, I was so glad to meet you at Book Expo America in May this year and to run into you again in July on the book tours for our new books. It’s delightful to meet a kindred spirit and fellow mystery/suspense writer! I loved reading your novel, A Girl Like You, and was charmed by the set and setting (post-WWI Chicago). What inspired you to write a murder mystery set in that time and place?
Thanks, Jennifer! It was fun meeting you as well. And thanks for the compliments about A Girl Like You. As for what drew me to that period, I’d have to say I was inspired by my time working in a nursing home in my early twenties. I had heard so many great stories from that era, and I guess I just fell in love with it. One of those stories, actually, was the basis for A Girl Like You.
But what about The Tolling of Mercedes Bell?—which was excellent, by the way! It really kept me on the edge of my seat—such an intriguing story. Where did you get the idea for it?
When I started working as a litigation paralegal in the San Francisco area, it was the early 1980s. AIDS, the crack cocaine epidemic, and homelessness were exploding. In contrast, rampant materialism infused the new Yuppie culture. It was a dark, dramatic time. I had just moved from Colorado and underwent culture shock in a fairly major way. The cases I worked on were peopled with con-artists, and many of the friends I made here later died of AIDS or had friends who did. Deception seemed to permeate my work and many of my friends’ experiences, so the seeds of my novel were planted.
Michelle, tell us about your background. How long have you been writing? What insights can you share with aspiring writers?
Although I have a degree in English literature, I hadn’t thought seriously about taking up writing—nothing beyond a clever birthday card or perhaps a witty email, anyway—until very recently. Writing is something I always thought about but never had time for or was too afraid to try. But with all three of my kids in school now and relatively self-sufficient, I decided it was time to test the waters. No more excuses!
My first attempt was a sprawling, epic novel that I wrote in 2013 that subsequently went nowhere. I started over in 2014 and happily produced A Girl Like You. And that was it; I was off!
I don’t have a lot of insights for writers, except to say you should try to write every day, not just when you feel like it or feel inspired. It’s a lot like exercise. If you wait until you “feel like it,” chances are you’ll be pretty rotund. The same applies to writing. You have to do it every day to see results.
Also, read a lot!
What about you, Jennifer? What advice do you have for inspiring writers? What does your writing process look like?
I think it’s important for fiction writers to have good liberal arts educations. We need that foundation in order to understand our primary subject: people and the messes they make. It’s essential for writers to read as much and as broadly as possible: the classics of literature, well-researched nonfiction, current events. More important than getting an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, one must have a broad frame of reference for understanding life. We must continually cultivate the skills for expressing that understanding in words. The paramount thing is to be able to think. There is a lot of drivel being published these days because people want to take shortcuts. My writing mentor used to harangue me with this: “Jennifer, it is important to move the brains at least once daily!”
My writing process is very methodical. I develop a plot slowly and outline it in detail. I work on it daily, creating themes and characters and subplots. I spent two years creating the outline for The Tolling of Mercedes Bell. The action for each chapter and the entire cast of characters were developed before I started writing the manuscript. I was well acquainted with the personal history and idiosyncrasies of each character before I wrote the first draft (3 years). The story took possession of my life. I was kidnapped by a muse!
So, Michelle, what are you working on now?
Too much! Currently, I'm working on the edits for Book 2 of the series, A Ring of Truth, which will be coming out in April, so that's keeping me busy. I'm also still doing some promotion for A Girl Like You, still writing my weekly blog, "Novel Notes of Local Lore"—true stories about Chicago's forgotten residents, and, oh yeah! — I just started writing Book 4 of the series. So, it's basically chaos!
How about you, Jennifer? What's your current project?
I am loving the indie author life, but there aren’t enough hours in the day. I start the day with an hour of yoga, to keep my sanity, then divide my time among marketing The Tolling of Mercedes Bell, making public appearances to do readings and meet with book clubs, interacting on social media, reading and reviewing books, attending other authors’ events in the San Francisco area and writing about them, and planning my next novel (which will be related to The Tolling). I write a blog, as well as for various on-line book reviews and paralegal publications, and will soon be writing as a guest blogger on the sites of some attorneys I know. All my publications are also posted on my website, www.authorjenniferdwight.com, which has links to my FB, Twitter, and LinkedIn pages.
What is your Book 3? You mentioned 1 and 2, then 4. Have there been any surprises in your writing ventures that you wish you had known about before you started?
Book 3 of the series has a working title of “The Sound of Wedding Bells,” but that title hasn’t been sanctioned by the publisher, so it could possibly change. It’s all finished, waiting for its chance to come out into the world, so meanwhile I’ve started the 4th, as I mentioned above. No working title yet besides “Secrets.” I keep writing, I think, because I have this fear that if I stop, I’ll never get started again!
I think my biggest surprise so far in this writing/publishing journey is how much time you need to spend promoting. It’s a whole job in and of itself, never mind the writing! Speaking of, you can find me at: http://michellecoxauthor.com/; FB: https://www.facebook.com/michellecoxwrites/; Twitter: https://twitter.com/michellecox33.
What about you, Jennifer? Any surprises? Regrets?
Many surprises, and few regrets. I had very little understanding of the nature of the book publishing industry while I was writing The Tolling of Mercedes Bell. So I had a woefully inadequate grasp of the work that lay before me when I finished the manuscript. This made for blissful ignorance during the creation process, and unpleasant surprises afterwards. I had no idea how hard it would be to research and pitch to literary agents, as a debut novelist, or that there were only five traditional publishing houses which control 85% of the book publishing market, all five of which rely only on agents to screen out undesirable manuscripts. (Nor did I know that fewer than one-third of the authors published by “the Big Five” are female.) I didn’t know that successful agents receive hundreds of submissions per week. It seems to be arranged to thwart the writer and to pay us as little as possible, while the publishers maintain complete artistic control.
Fortunately, I found another way, a nontraditional way with a fine independent press which publishes carefully curated work with great skill. And I was also fortunate to have the resources to allocate to educate myself about publishing (go to writers’ conferences), have a website created, establish an author’s platform, hire a publicity firm, and finance the book tour.
In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t know how hard it would be to become well published before I started writing, and I’m glad I found She Writes Press and met you! Then for us to have been finalists at this year’s Indie Next Generation Book Awards was pure icing on the cake! What joy!
So to new writers I say, if you’re writing because you want fortune or fame, you may be in for many disappointments. The odds are against you. But if you write because it is your passion, then carry on and don’t give up. If the muse has come for you, you must oblige her, and be tenacious.
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. A Girl Like You has received two starred reviews from Library Journal and Booklist and placed as a Finalist in Romance in the 2016 Next Gen Awards. It has also been listed as a top read by Your Tango, Popsugar, Culturalist, The Reading Room, and Buzzfeed and is currently enjoying its second print run. Book two of the series, A Ring Of Truth, will be released April 2017.
Jennifer Dwight is a San Francisco Area author. She writes a blog, a series for the Portland Book Review, and regularly contributes to the several on-line and print publications. Her books include nonfiction legal works and a suspense novel, The Tolling of Mercedes Bell, which was a finalist in the 2016 Indie Next Generation Awards for Thriller and Suspense. The San Francisco Book Review called it “an unforgettable page-turner – a must-read by all!” It has also received excellent reviews from Suspense Magazine, Sunset Magazine, the Portland Book Review, Coastal Living Magazine, Kirkus Reviews, Working Mother Magazine, Brit + Co, BuzzFeed, The Reading Room, and many on-line review blogs. Jennifer welcomes visitors to her website, where there are links to her writings, reviews, and social media, and information about her upcoming events.