Grayslake author finds inspiration for book series in nursing home

  • Grayslake author Michelle Cox

    Grayslake author Michelle Cox

Ernest J. Schweit

Michelle Cox was working at a nursing home on Chicago's northwest side when she met Emily.

"She was this elderly, crumbly lady who would follow me around," says Cox, at the time a recent graduate of Mundelein College, "and she would tell me, 'Once upon a time I had a man-stopping body and a personality to go with it.' I thought, 'Wow, that's fantastic.' "

As they spent more time together, Cox learned more about the 80-year-old woman.

"She had all these great stories; she had all these interesting jobs. She worked as a taxi dancer, ;she worked at the World's Fair. She was larger than life, and I thought she was perfect."

That's when the English literature major in Cox took over and she began to write. First there were short bios, part of her job in the admissions department at the nursing home. Later came longer pieces on Emily and other nursing home residents that Cox would tuck away into a notebook.

"My job was really to interview people, but I only had to write a paragraph on them," she recalls, "but then I would write my own story about them. They loved to be interviewed; I would take a week sometimes. I'd get to know all about them."

Demands of a growing family and other writing projects came next, but Cox, now a Grayslake author, eventually listened to her mom and pulled Emily's story out of that notebook.

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"My mom said 'You know, you should write them into a book,' " Cox said."And I said 'Maybe someday.' "

Someday came in 2014 when Cox used Emily (not her real name) as the inspiration forHenrietta Von Harmon, the spunky heroine in Cox's best sellingbooks:"A Girl Like You," and the recently released "A Ring of Truth," both published by She Writes Press.

"A Girl Like You,"is set in 1930s Chicago and centers on the spunky Von Harmon, who is working as a dancer at a corner bar when a floor matron turns up dead. Enter the aloof inspector Clive Howard, with whom Henrietta goes undercover to investigate the crime, plunging her into the city's gritty underworld while being drawn into a budding romance with the inspector and caring for her younger siblings and a pesky neighbor/would-be lover named Stanley.

As the "A Ring of Truth"opens,Henrietta and Clive are recently engaged and are tackling the difficult task of meeting each others' family while learning about their own dark secrets that threaten to pull apart their newly minted relationship.


The series, published by SheWritesPress, has drawn critical acclaim from reviewers and readers alike, including Redbook Magazine, BuzzFeed and the Beverly Hills Book Awards.

Cox says that although a third and fourth book are in the works, the path to Henrietta and Clive was not easy, winding first through an unpublished novel.

" I didn't know anything about writing a novel, even though I was an English lit major," she says. "I didn't realize that contemporary fiction had a word count. So I wrote this big thing that was 240,000 words long because that's the kind of books I like to read. It was a coming-of-age novel."

She couldn't sell that book, so Cox decided to take a new approach.

"I decided to try to write something that could be published," she says. "I was going to make it more marketable. I was going to make it shorter. I was going to make it sexier, all that kind of stuff."


Of course, she had no idea that the first work would become a series.

"I wrote it to prove a point. But then about half way through it, I really started to like the characters a lot, and I thought 'You know what? I can make this into a series.' "

She decided to set the series in Chicago of the 1930s, when the city was emerging from Prohibition, because she's fascinated with the era and that's the time of many of Emily's stories.

"My favorite era is the 40s, and, to be honest, the 30s," Cox says with a smile. "All the stories I write are based on real stories that I write in my blog. It resonates with me. I like big band music."

Although that first novel remains unpublished, it did serve a purpose, she says.

"It was good that I wrote this other book first, because secretly the character had a lot of me in her. So I thought 'Ok, I got it out of my system, and now I can create someone who is less me and is more fictional.' "

Henrietta, on the other hand, is different.

" I'd say she's spunkier; she has a go get 'em attitude and is up for a challenge. It's interesting as we go along."

With more books in the works, plus her two blogs, finding time to write, while keeping up with the demands of her three children, husband and house, can be a challenge, one Cox meets with a structured schedule.

"The kids are on the bus at 6:50," she says. "As soon as they are on the bus, I am upstairs writing. I'd love to write all day til they come home from school, but I can only work an hour on a creative manuscript."

Therest of the time there's marketing and writing the blogs; "Novel Notes of Local Lore," dedicated to lost stories of early Chicagoans, and "How to Get Your Book Published in 7,000 Easy Steps." Both are available through her website,

"Then when they (her children) come home, it's really hard to stop. I turn it all off and start cleaning, cooking, taking kids to the dentist, that stuff. I'm really disciplined. I'm really a Type A. It really helps.

"I really have to turn it on and turn it off. There's no such thing as 'Oh, I don't feel like writing today.' "

As for her spunky historical heroine, Henrietta, and Inspector Howard, Cox is planning a few surprises in the second book and the books ahead.

"In the next books, the detective is actually from the North Shore," she reveals, "and he's very wealthy ." That's a big surprise for working girl, Henrietta.

"I thought it would be a fun twist to the story. Now they have to work it out."

But do they?