Michelle Cox - Vivid Descriptive Prose and Historical Accuracy

Michelle Cox - Vivid Descriptive Prose and Historical Accuracy

Michelle Cox is the author of the Henrietta and Inspector Howard series as well as “Novel Notes of Local Lore,” a weekly blog dedicated to Chicago’s forgotten residents. Her books have won over 60 international awards and have been praised by Kirkus, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Foreword, Elle, Redbook, Brit&Co., POPSUGAR, Buzzfeed, and many others. 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. She lives in Chicago with her husband, three children, and one naughty Goldendoodle and is hard at work on her latest novel. As our Author of the Day, she tells us all about her book, A Child Lost.

Please give us a short introduction to what A Child Lost is about.

A Child Lost is Book Five in my seven-book series, though it can be read as a stand-alone. In this installment, Henrietta and Clive attempt to solve two separate cases: a spiritualist woman operating in an abandoned schoolhouse on the edge of town, and the search for a missing German immigrant woman. Their quest eventually leads them to Dunning, a notorious Chicago insane asylum, where Henrietta begins to suspect things are not what they seem. When Clive doesn’t believe her, she decides to take matters into her own hands, with horrifying results . . .


What inspired you to write this story? Was there anything in particular that made you want to tackle this?

The title of the book, A Child Lost, reflects many “lost” children. When the book opens, Henrietta has suffered a miscarriage. Likewise, Anna, a little epileptic girl, becomes “lost” when accidentally sent to an insane asylum. Besides these two main examples, there are many other “lost” children in the story, including the mentally challenged brother of one of the side characters, Clive’s baby that died in childbirth along with his first wife, the “lost” son of the kindly Mr. and Mrs. Hennessey who died on the Somme in WWI, and many others.

Once I had the main plot of the book worked out, these lost children just sort of weaved their way into the story and fleshed it out.

Why did you pick an insane asylum as the backdrop for your story?

When my oldest son did a high-school project on Dunning Asylum, I knew that I someday wanted to use this setting in a novel. There is a lot of history to this place, which I include in an author’s note at the end of the book. Not only did it fit with where the overarching character arcs of the series were going, but it’s the perfect setting for a string of murders. Combined with the other case that Clive and Henrietta are investigating, the apparently fraudulent spiritualist, it makes a perfect combination to explore what is real and what isn’t.

What, would you say, makes Clive and Henrietta such a great team?

They are a great team in that they are opposites in many ways, but they have commonality, too.

Clive is much older, almost from a different era, and very wealthy, while Henrietta is young and very poor. Clive’s grown up in luxury, while Henrietta has had to work from the age of thirteen when her father killed himself during the Great Depression.

Having served in WWI, however, Clive is now jaded against societal norms, and when he meets Henrietta, he is attracted to her spunk and independence and the fact that she is not of the gilded set, as he is. Once they marry, however, Clive becomes afraid that he will lose her and therefore isn’t so willing to let her be independent, something which Henrietta insists on, which creates lovely and interesting drama between them.

Henrietta is depressed at the beginning of this book - why did you take that approach?

I wanted to explore various aspects of mental health and how it was viewed during the 1930s—what was considered acceptable, what was not talked about, and how was it treated. Likewise, I wanted to explore how social status affected perception, diagnosis, and treatment. There are several characters with mental health issues in the series, ranging from mild depression to serious psychosis, plus a number of people who are wrongly diagnosed, such as the little girl, Anna, who is not mentally ill but who has epilepsy.

Epilepsy is a theme in this story. Why?

It fits in well with the mental health theme. At the time, very little was known about epilepsy, so those who suffered from it were considered either mentally ill or possessed by an evil spirit. Many were sent to special colonies in which to live, which was horribly cruel. Though only four years old, Anna is mistakenly sent to Dunning after suffering from an epileptic fit, which adds to the theme and to the drama because she is only a child in a very horrible place.

Do any of your characters ever take off on their own tangent, refusing to do what you had planned for them?

Elsie, Henrietta’s younger sister, is such a character. She was only ever meant to be a side character, but her storyline now equals Henrietta’s. In fact, she may get her own spin-off series someday. Likewise, Stan, the bumbling neighborhood boy who figures so much in Book One of the series is also a character who began simply as a comedic side character but whose story developed a pretty substantial subplot.

How much research did this book require from you?

I did a lot of internet surfing and found various articles, old photos, and even a short news documentary about Dunning. All of the facts that I uncovered, such as the “crazy train” that was built to run from downtown Chicago to basically the front doors of the asylum, as well as the mass graves that were eventually uncovered, are all included in the author’s note section of the book. What I had to be careful about, though, was not going too dark. After all, this is a Clive and Henrietta book, so I had stay in line with the tone of the series, which is a historical romantic mystery type of series, not a psychological thriller or horror.


Where do you go for inspiration?

I get a lot of my stories from my days working in a nursing home. I heard hundreds of stories there, and so many of them would make interesting novels. I can’t do that with all of them, though, so I started a blog: Novel Notes of Local Lore in which I share a different “forgotten Chicago resident’s” story each week.

In fact, this is where I got the inspiration for the character of Henrietta. She is based on a real woman whose heyday was the 1930s and ‘40s in Chicago. I met her in a nursing home, and she happily told me many tales from her life, including the fact that she once-upon-a-time had “a man-stopping body and a personality to go with it.” She was a real firecracker! I look a lot from her stories to create Henrietta, and much of what happens in Book One of the series really did happen.

Do you ever suffer from writer's block? If so, what do you do to combat it?

No! I have more stories in my head then I have time to write. If I am struggling with a plot, though, for example, I have found that taking long walks unblocks the problem.

What is an average writing day like for you? Any interesting writing habits?

I write first thing in the morning for about an hour to an hour and a half, then I switch to marketing and promotion for another six or seven hours.


What are you working on right now?

I’m getting ready for the launch of Book Six of the series, A Spying Eye, which pubs on October 25 of this year. I’m also editing Book Seven of the series, which I’m tentatively calling A Haunting at Linley. After that, I’ll probably start another series, though I’m not sure if it will be a spinoff or something completely new.

Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?

I’m an expert pie maker.

Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you? 

You can find me at: 

Make sure you sign up for my newsletter!  I give away HUGE prize packs to one lucky subscriber every couple of months!!  Sign up here: https://michellecoxauthor.com/newsletter-signup/ 

A Child Lost

Michelle Cox
A spiritualist, an insane asylum, a lost little girl... Henrietta and Clive's search for a missing immigrant woman leads them to Dunning Asylum, where they begin to suspect something nefarious is occurring after an epileptic child is mistakenly admitted.
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