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Local author brings 1930s Chicago to life

GRAYSLAKE – The crowd at Grayslake’s This Old Book was a combination of fans, friends and fellow authors April 21, but regardless of how they identified themselves, they all had gathered at the used bookstore in support and celebration of local author Michelle Cox and the launch of her second book, “A Ring of Truth.”

Her novel is the second installation of her historical fiction/mystery series following the tenacious, independent Henrietta and her now-fiancé Inspector Clive Howard as they execute the fancy footwork of meeting each other’s parents and grapple with a new mystery that has found its way to their doorstep. 

Set in 1930s Chicago, Cox’s novels have hometown appeal for local readers despite the leap back in time.

For Cox, historical fiction always has been the obvious choice for her writing genre. 

“I think I’ve always loved the past,” she said. “I love big band music. I love stories of the past. I watch all the period dramas. I feel like I am already almost kind of enmeshed in that world so it’s really easy for me to write it.”

Besides the obvious features of a successful historical fiction novel – attention to and respect for historical details for the novel’s time and location being chief among them – Cox said character development presents its own unique challenges. In Henrietta, she strived to create a modern, independent woman (for the time) with whom the reader could connect without making her a bad fit in the era of the novel. 

“The character can’t be so modern in her thinking that she’s not realistic,” she said. “But she can’t just be this sort of medieval drone [and] never have any thoughts of her own because then the reader doesn’t connect. So it’s really tricky.”

Her novels may be works of fiction, but Cox said there are several grains of truth embedded within her stories and her characters. Henrietta, for example, is based on Adeline, a woman Cox met while she worked as a social worker for a nursing home. All of the jobs Henrietta works are also true and also based on the stories Adeline shared with Cox. 

“She was really a character and I think that when I was looking for a story for the book, she just came back to me,” Cox said. 

Cox said she’s sure the real Henrietta would be “flabbergasted” to know a series of books had been created based on stories from her life. 

Cox’s first novel, published last year, quickly received high praise, including several awards and multiple appearances in online publications, from amateur bloggers to well-known entities such as BuzzFeed. The second novel appears to be following a similar trajectory, having already been named a springtime “must-read” by Redbook magazine and Culturalist.com. 

While her first novel presented the challenge of building a world and dynamic, relatable characters to inhabit it, the second novel required slightly different, slightly trickier footwork on Cox’s part as she now has to juggle multiple plot lines and characters. 

“There’s two main storylines that are always running, so I’m always working on those,” Cox said. “[But] you need to introduce a new plot or a new mystery every time so that makes it a little bit tricky because I’ve realized that I’m not writing a straight-up mystery series. This is really more of a historical fiction series, but now that it’s being billed as a mystery, I have to have a mystery in there every time and that’s really hard because that’s not really my first love. It’s historical fiction.”

Within Grayslake and the surrounding towns, Cox said she has found an abundance of support, both from the tight-knit community of local authors and fans.

“It’s been really, really nice to see how much support is really out there,” she said.

This Old Book owner Janet Elliott is one such supporter. This Old Book may be a used bookstore, but Elliott has dedicated a corner of her store for new books written by local authors and has hosted several book signings and launch parties. She also invites a local author to come sit out by her storefront each week during the Grayslake farmer’s market to sign and sell their books.

“I didn’t realize how many [local authors] there were,” she said.

Once she discovered this niche community, she decided to support them any way she could since “they don’t have a lot of venues.”

When it was time for Cox to set the location for her second launch party, she decided to return to This Old Book – the same place she launched her first novel, and Elliott said she’s delighted Cox chose to come back. 

“It’s funny when we have a launch or a signing, how many other authors show up,” Elliott said. “There’s probably about four authors that I know of just in this mix. They support one another too, which I like to see.”

Cox already has signed the publishing contract for her third novel, which she expects will be published next spring, and has just completed the first draft of her fourth, promising fans at least two more adventures for Henrietta and Clive. 

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