Gilded Hour

Why Anna and Sophie? On Creative Process.

I had an email from a reader not so long ago with an interesting question. Of all the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren descended from Nathaniel Bonner, why did I chose to focus on Anna and Sophie? The reader wasn’t upset about this, as I read it. Just curious. Curiosity is catching, in my experience and the question got me to thinking. Except there’s no easy answer: creative process is a complicated thing.

The result is that I am about tell the story of 2010-2013.  This is summarized and truncated to the extreme, but it is necessary to answering the actual question.

Back Backstory

The Mathematician’s job disappeared about a year after the 2008 crash — or at least, he was reduced to less than 50 percent, so all our benefits disappeared. And we have some chronic conditions in the family, so this was a big deal.  At the same time publishing was in free-fall, and two novel proposals were turned down flat by publishers who had been really happy with my work to that point.

The logical conclusion was that I should go on the job market and so for the next three years I focused on writing not fiction, but job applications (pretty much a full time occupation in itself). Now, I didn’t think it would be easy, and I knew that I had to be ready to do things I wouldn’t have considered ten years earlier, but health insurance was so important (we were paying a huge amount in monthly premiums for just average coverage at this point, on much reduced income), I went ahead and started applying for jobs. In the first year I applied only for jobs within driving distance of where we are now. I’ve got all of this recorded, but to be honest, I have no interest in revisiting that data, so I can say only approximately that I applied for about 200 jobs in that first year, had three phone interviews, and no offers.

It’s possible I could have found work if I was willing to accept something with no benefits, but the whole reason I was giving up writing had to do with health insurance. To take a job at $12 an hour — without benefits — made no sense. 

Umbridge outrate and the creative process.

Someday I will tell this story.

So in the second year I did two things: I started applying for jobs further away, in places where we could realistically live. I also took a whole series of courses at the local technical college in medical coding, which required courses in everything from anatomy and physiology to the actual coding process Here I digress:

Did you know that there is an official International Classification of Disease code for misanthropy?  ICD9 301.7. Really, you can see for yourself.

So the plain truth is, I loved the material — I really did — and it wasn’t a hardship to take these classes. If not for Dolores, I think it might have all worked out. Sometime I have to write about the experience, because the one person who taught all the coding classes was a Dolores Umbridge clone, minus about 3o IQ points. Let’s just say that we did not get along.

I was still applying for jobs while I took classes. Still not getting anywhere. Through some former colleagues I checked to make sure that my letters of rec weren’t the problem, and after consulting with lots of professional HR types and showing them my cover letters, etc., etc., I gave myself a pep talk and set out again.

I know you’re wondering about my many years in higher education, but there was no way to get back into academia. I had lots of encouragement from former colleagues, but encouragement is a long way from a job offer. University jobs were not within reach, because (1) there weren’t any within reasonable distance; (3) there weren’t any within any distance at all and (3) I had been away for ten years at that point. So even if (1) and (2) weren’t the case, the odds were not in my favor. Wait, I almost forgot (4):  Age is an issue. Not one I could prove, but it was definitely a strike against me. 

So the idea was the with retraining I could find a job in a local hospital, where the benefits were pretty good. My wildest dream (and this shows you how worried I was): I could find a 60 percent position, qualify for benefits, and be able to start writing again.

And of course none of that happened. There is more to this, of course, but I’ll spare you (and me) the details. It had little to with the creative process, and a lot to do with frustration.

In the third year I paid lots of money to a HR consultant, restyled everything, and started applying for jobs that would have meant moving far away. Some of the jobs really interested me, but nothing happened. For example: a job with the National Endowment for the Humanities, and another, in D.C. with the Peace Corp, for a writer/editor.

Have you ever looked at what goes into applying for a job with the federal government? Don’t, is my advice. It took me three days to get the application together (17 pages in all), which included a whole range of questionnaires and long essay questions. After you submit the application, if your score is high enough (they quantify everything) you’ll be notified that your application has been forwarded to the selecting official.  On this particular application I got a score of 98% — and I still did not get even a phone interview. This probably had to do with the fact that veterans (very deservedly) get a ten point boost when they apply for a job. I do not begrudge veterans those ten points, but to score a 98% and never hear a word from them, not even a letter of rejection — that was dispiriting. Shortly after that point I realized I was not going to get anywhere, and I turned back to writing. Which meant turning the creative process back on. And that’s a lot like priming a pump.

So I sat there in front of my computer and debated about where to start. I made lists and notes and argued with myself. I considered multiple approaches, all the time keeping in mind that whatever I wrote, I had to be able to sell it. And that it would be at least two years before I saw any money. I was still pretty outraged about Umbridge, and one day it occurred to me that I could put all those courses to use anyway, if I had a medical theme. 

Bottom Line

Umbridge was the first step toward Anna and Sophie. They ended up in Manhattan in 1883 because I have always been interested in New York city history of that period, and it was chock-full of potential storylines, medical and otherwise.  I did consider writing Birdie’s story, set in New Orleans, but in the end Anna and Sophie and Manhattan just worked better for me.  I may, someday, write Birdie’s story. But don’t hold your breath, please.



Mea Culpa, Mea Cliffhangers

I hear from readers who are confused or irritated by unresolved storylines in The Gilded Hour.  Specifically two storylines seem to raise the most questions.

  1. The Russo children (where was Tonino, and where is Vittorio?)
  2. The identity of the individuals who were responsible for the deaths of at least six women.

Here’s an email from Nancy. 

Dear Sara I just finished your new book the Gilded Hour. I have a question. On page 696,after looking for a killer through most of the other 695 pages Oscar says, no reasons to give up now, in reference to finding the killer. Then there is not another word in the remaining 36 pages about finding the killer. What???? Who was the killer??? It turned out to be a very disappointing read I must say.

I am hoping for a reply .

This next email is from Sandra, who is also curious, but in more general terms.

Hi Rosina/Sara

I have never written to an author before but I had to write you. I loved The Gilded Hour and was heartbroken to finish it. When I saw on your webpage that “a new series was launched” I assume that means you are going to write more. Whew! I just have to know what happens to all these people. I am in love with them and am imagining futures for each one of them. I want to read more about Anna & Jack, Sophie & Cap, Rosa & her siblings, Ned, Aunt Quinlan, Margaret, Elise. I feel like I know them now so want to follow their lives.

My first thought:  It’s really uplifting to hear from readers, even when they are irritated. It means the story got under that reader’s skin. My second thought: I hate disappointing readers.   Then back to the first thought: These are people who have read the book I wrote and felt strongly enough about it to write to me. That’s good. That’s what I focus on. 

There are only a few things I can say to this kind of letter from a reader: I’m sorry that the story didn’t work for you, and/or:   I’m writing as fast as I can, and I hope that the next novel will both answer your questions, and be worth the wait.

But there’s also one thing I need to say about the nature of storytelling.  As I see it, good storytelling never tells it all.  A well done novel  leaves questions open to be considered and answered by the reader.   So it is true that you haven’t heard in detail about what Tonino went through, and you don’t know where Vittorio is; his adoptive family is gone. You may never know some of those things; in the end they may be for you to decide.

The question about the murders is, of course, far more pressing. Some people raced through the last part of the book because they just had to know who was responsible … And then were disappointed.  Really disappointed. One star irritated.  [Edited to note that this question comes up in the comments, below.] An old friend pointed something out to me that I hadn’t considered: in the mystery genre, it’s pretty much expected that you’ll know who the guilty party is by the end.  I don’t read much mystery, or I would have realized that.  If I had been aware of that expectation, I’m not sure what I would have done differently.

Could I have written a better novel? Certainly.  I doubt there has ever been a novelist who is totally satisfied with a piece of work.  I know a writer with a t-shirt that reads IT’S ALL A DRAFT UNTIL YOU DIE.   It’s the nature of the beast, and still:  I don’t like disappointing readers, and I do hope that when the next book comes out, those I’ve irritated or frustrated will find that the answers they were expecting really were worth the wait. In the meantime, there are a lot of documents about the murders dragged from the archives of the police department, sitting over there at The Gilded Hour  site. You might well figure out the answer to this question on your own.