A while ago I reviewed a cosy mystery set in the 1930. You might remember that, Ring of Truth. It’s a romance with mystery nuances set in Chicago, a strong story with strong characters that I really appreciated.
Author Michelle Cox was kind enough to answer a few questions about her series, writing historical novels and women in the 1930s. It’s a fun interview. come along!
- Hi Michelle. It’s such a pleasure to have you here. Why don’t you tell us a little about your 1930s series?
Thanks for having me, Sarah! I’d be happy to tell you about the series. I like to refer to it as “Downton Abbey meets Upstairs, Downstairs with a little mystery thrown in!”
The first book, A Girl Like You, is probably the most gritty of the series so far, the most traditional type of mystery. In it we meet our heroine, Henrietta Von Harmon, whose father has killed himself because of the Great Depression. So as the oldest of eight children, it’s up to her to fend for the family. Needing more money, she follows a friend’s advice to take a job as a taxi-dancer, despite her hesitations to step into what she sees as a very risqué world. Not long after she starts, the dance floor matron turns up dead, and the aloof Inspector Howard shows up on the scene to investigate. He convinces the now unemployed Henrietta to go undercover for him to try to track down the killers, a job she agrees to not only because she needs the money, but because, well, she might just be a little bit attracted to him . . . Meanwhile, there’s a sort of comic subplot going on underneath that involves a love-struck neighborhood boy, Stanley, who follows Henrietta around, determined to keep her out of danger, though he does everything but.
I know I’m biased, but it’s a fun series to read. Many people have written to me to say that it was very fast-paced and that they really felt transported back to the 1930’s. Likewise, I have people very often tell me how visual it was, that reading it was like watching a movie unfold in their mind.
- One thing I noticed about your story and that I really appreciated is that you didn’t try to make Henrietta a ‘modern’ woman. She has certain expectations about what her marriage will be, she has limits that are less important nowaday (I refer in particular to her contrasting feeling about staying a vergin to the wedding). And even if she does take up ‘strange’ jobs, she does so for a very good reason and she handles the matter with a lot of caution and discretion.
Honestly, I really really appreciate your effort to make her a woman of her time and still make her relatable to women and readers today.
Thanks for this observation, Sarah. I was very conscious of trying to make Henrietta a woman of her time and yet relatable, as well. I think this is probably the biggest challenge in writing historical fiction. For example, you can’t write about a medieval peasant woman dreaming and talking about gender equality, and yet you can’t write her as a limited stereotype, either. If all that’s in her mind is cooking the stew or serving her master, the modern reader isn’t going to be too invested!
As you mentioned, I attempted to write Henrietta as a woman who tries to maintain her virtue, despite her beauty and her very risqué jobs. She knows what will happen if she gives in to men’s advances—she has only to look at her mother, having to care for seven children alone in a shabby apartment, or to the other end of the spectrum, which consists of several women at her place of employment who have become little more than prostitutes. So while a modern reader might not struggle with Henrietta’s exact moral dilemma (remaining chaste), she can perhaps relate to Henrietta’s struggles to “make it” in a harsh economic climate and the sacrifices she has to make as a woman. We’ve all had to make sacrifices in life, right?
The other part that was tricky to write from a modern perspective was Henrietta’s mindset regarding the inspector, Clive Howard, especially as the series moves along. In many cases, she bows to Clive’s authority, not only as an inspector, but as a man, which might be difficult for modern readers, but this would be accurate for the time. I tried to give Henrietta some independence of thought, however, in that she goes beyond just wanting to “help” Clive to wanting to be his “equal and his partner.” This is an easily accessible concept to a modern reader, but for the time, it was quite extraordinary. And while this is difficult to write convincingly, it really adds to the sexual tension between the two of them, which, of course, is also a power and a trust issue.
- I write the 1920s woman, and I’ve discovered that she is partly what readers expect her to be and partly a very different person.
How was the 1930s woman?
Well, in some ways, I think it depends on what economic class she was in.
If she was from a wealthy family, she would be expected to entertain guests and attend charity events and perhaps have useful hobbies, such as watercolors, music or flower arranging. She would be expected to keep up lengthy correspondences and have a full social calendar, whether of her parents’ choosing or her husband’s.
If she was from a poor family, she would be expected to get some sort of unskilled job to bring in money, such as working in a factory, or as a housecleaner or a waitress until she married—and often times even after that if they were particularly destitute or didn’t have children right away. If she were in a rural setting, she would be expected to help in the fields, have as many children as possible, and prepare endless meals for the family or hired hands, plus do the laundry, chop wood, sew clothes, and many other tasks as well.
The thing they would have in common, though, was that neither of them, rich or poor, urban or rural, had many choices. A woman of the 1930’s was not expected to have an education or a career at all. She was expected to marry and keep house—unless she was maybe the youngest in the family, then she would be expected to give up marriage and stay home as a sort of “designated” spinster to care for her parents as they aged.
- I would have want to see a lot more investigation, but what I did see, I liked.
It’s true that there isn’t a ton of investigation in this series, but that’s because it’s really not supposed to be a police procedural or a hard-boiled crime novel. It’s billed as a mystery, or historical mystery series, but it’s really more romantic suspense or historical fiction with a mystery element. Confusing, I know! But to be honest, I was less focused on the mystery and more concerned with the various character and plot arcs going on in the book. The mystery just more or less gives the characters something interesting to do and moves the plot along quickly.
- An aspect that I liked (which I always like about historical novels) is the different management of time.
For example, I noticed that the use of the telephone creates plot possibilities and suspense. The same goes for letters.
This is very different from what we are accustomed to experience today, how did you go about it? How was time different in an era so far away from the digital one?
You are so right! Time in historical novels passes much slower, which is sometimes difficult to manage because, as the author, you want the plot to continue moving in a speedy way. But this can also work to your advantage, as you mentioned, because it builds suspense. So in the time it takes for a letter to get from Chicago to England, for example (which happens in Book 3 of my series), much can happen to add to various twists in the plot. Also, without being able to have instant access to each other any time of the day or night, the characters can potentially find themselves in much more danger. Likewise, it takes them longer to get from point A to point B. There’s no easy access to information, either, so it takes the characters longer to uncover information and clues. It’s a challenge, but when I think it’s done well, it really adds to the suspense of the novel.
- Maybe because the novel is presented as a mystery, I went into it expecting just that, when I then discovered the romance side is a lot stronger. Personally, I think the story would have been absolutely enjoyable even if it hadn’t been treated as a romance, so why did you go that way?
Thanks, Sarah. When I started this book, it wasn’t meant to be a series, actually. It was supposed to be something that would perhaps catch the eye of an agent. But as I went along in the writing, it occurred to me that I could make this into a series. I started to really love my characters, and I didn’t want to let them go. I wanted to keep telling their story.
They say you should write what you like to read, right? So here’s a little secret about me—I’m actually not a huge mystery fan these days! Personally, I want there to be something more in the books I read, like a romance or even some comedy. To me, just reading about a character tracking down clues and piecing the mystery together isn’t all that interesting. I want some character development, some depth. And what better way to do that than through romance? After all, isn’t that a form of mystery as well? Will they, won’t they? You mentioned that the characters arcs are very strong and realistic, which I really appreciate. But part of what makes their story believable, I think, is the part of them that desires love and how they handle that. Isn’t that what we all want—love?
- I’m also very interested in your researching process. I know from your blog that you had the possibility to gather some information firsthand, which is absolutely fantastic! But for the rest, how did it go?
Yes, I was fortunate in that, years ago, I used to work in a nursing home on Chicago’s northwest side, and many of the residents were young people during the 1930’s and ‘40’s. Their stories really resonated with me for some reason. I couldn’t get enough of them. That period in history would have been a difficult and yet a wonderful time to be alive. I think I’ve always been soaking up details from that era, either through the stories from the nursing home, my own family history, books, movies, fashion, antiques, and especially the music. I adore big band music!
I didn’t have to do a ton of research because a lot of details from that time in history already sort of live in my head. I think that’s what gives the series its authentic feel. Of course I had to rely on Google for some things, but a lot of it I just pulled from some deep reservoir. It feels good, to be honest, and extremely gratifying that in the writing of this series some of these little details found a way to live again.
- I like to say that being historically accurate always pays off. It gives originality and unpredictability to the story, because it forces us to think outside our box.
How was your experience in this regard.
Yes, I think it’s important to be historically accurate, but there are some things that are just impossible to find out for sure, which is where the author’s imagination has to come into play. There are several places in my novels that are real places from the past, such as The Aragon Ballroom or Marshall Fields, in Chicago, but some of the places are made up, too, like The Lodge, where Henrietta meets Clive for a drink, or Poor Pete’s, where she works as a 26-girl. As long as you paint the interiors with some real details, then it doesn’t really matter to the story if there really was a place called The Lodge or not. Sometimes it’s important, and sometimes you just need the flavor of the real thing.
Also, it’s important to realize that just because something is historically accurate, doesn’t mean your readers are going to believe it. I try very hard to keep my dialogue historically accurate, but if it “sounds” too modern to the reader, I take it out. For example, the phrase “hang out”—as in to just sit around and chill with someone—actually dates from the 1800’s. A reader is going to perceive this as a modern phrase, however, so I would never use that in my novels, even though it’s historically accurate.
- So what about the future? What you plan to do with this series?
Well, Book 3 of the series, A Promise Given, comes out in April 2018. I’m finishing up the first drafts of Book 4, as of yet untitled, and I have ideas for a fifth! Who knows after that? I’ve also just begun work on the audible version of A Girl Like You. From there, who knows? It’s been an exciting journey so far with Henrietta and Clive; I’m anxious to see where we go next!
About Michelle Cox
Michelle Cox holds a B.A. in English literature from Mundelein College, Chicago, and is the author of the award-winning Henrietta and Inspector Howard series. Book two of the series, A Ring of Truth, was released April 2017 with She Writes Press. Cox is also known for her charmingly popular “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.
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This was a great interview! I can relate to the challenge of creating historically accurate characters who still feel sympathetic and relevant to modern readers. I’ve read historical characters who are TOO historically accurate (e.g., Annie of Joy in the Morning), and that turned me off just as much as anachronistic characters.
Really? It hasn’t happened to me to encountered characters who were too historically accurate, but I suppose that’s a risk too. I had never considered it.
Hey there! Loved your interview. You asked a lot of great questions! Happy to hear Michelle Cox has a new book out, too. I really liked A Girl Like You, and now I’ll have to read this one too—even if it’s not much of a mystery per se.
I’m so happy to ‘see’ you!!!! Where have you been?
Michelle is a great writer. I’m sure this series will continue to give great stories 🙂
Nice to see you again too! 😀 Sorry but I’ve been super busy these past couple months with crazy stuff happening (job hunting, major workplace changes, a friend dying, running a critique group at a local coffee shop), so haven’t been on here as much as I probably should be, but I’d like to rectify that! How about you? How’ve you been? How’s the writing going?
I’m sorry to hear about your friend. That’s awful. And I know that facing changes when you’re mourning someone is even worse. I hope now you’re fairing better.
The reading club sounds awesome. I’d love to do something similar too, but it doesn’t seem there’s much ‘raw matter’ where I live 😉 I’m trying to do something online, though.
The writing has been nonexistant this year. It’s been a couple of rough years for me, but I hope things will look up soon… and so my writing 😉 I’m starting taking part to NaNo next month.