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.



23 Replies to “Why Anna and Sophie? On Creative Process.”

  1. I am blown away by how difficult your job search has been – I would have thought that someone so experienced and qualified would have been snapped up. Your experience is a bit of a contrast to the current advice of take a risk and do what you love, given that there’s a good chance that “what you love” can’t pay the bills.

    1. I went to Catholic school, where ego is not encouraged and that’s a lesson I took to heart. I was always truly surprised when something came my way — admission to graduate school, for example. My first faculty position. Tenure. Of course I was happy, but there was always an element of … Really? Me? So let me say that I believed that my ego was not oversized, but boy … Whatever ego I did have was permanently deflated by the three year job search.

      1. Thank you a million times for sharing your story. I am sorry for your hardship but it is comforting to know I am not the only one going through hardships. I LOL when you mentioned medical coding because I thought about going to school for it & I also tried earning extra money with transcribing. I have a BA in business but like you said, we all know age does play a factor we just can’t prove it.
        I can’t believe they turned down 2 of your books. I would have never ever thought you would get turned down for any thing.

        1. I’m sorry you had similar problems, Kirstenc930. And we certainly weren’t alone. I read some really disturbing articles about how the economic downturn was effecting people over 50 who lost jobs. Things could have been worse for me, I’m very aware.

  2. I bought my husband the book, “Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow!” when he was out of work. Being in such a position is extremely difficult, and it did end up spelling the end of our marriage. I’m sorry for your ordeal, but happy we received this wonderful book as a result! I am on the last chapter of my second reading! Enjoyed it just as much the second time, with the first reading being for basic plot, and the second for all the added richness of detail. So, many thank yous!

    1. Margo — thanks for this. It does help put things in perspective. And I’m sorry to hear about your own struggles in the economic crash.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this with your readers. I understand the creative process as my daughter has a degree in creative writing. So glad you took the time to research all the medical so well as you always do. I find it fascinating to see what led you to the start of this wonderful book. As a nurse I just loved all the medical back ground. We all appreciate your dedication! Wish there were more books like your Wilderness series! I am now going to enjoy The Gilded Hour on audio as I have already read it. Sorry to hear all the rough times before you got to it.!

    1. HedyLynn — I’m always pleased as punch to hear from medical people who have read my fiction, because as you probably figured out, OCD/perfectionism is an issue for me, and I just can’t leave well enough alone when I have the idea that I might be able to find MORE information somewhere. So it’s really good to hear that you appreciate all that. It’s also a great compliment that you’re going to listen to the novel after reading it. Many thanks.

  4. Just the thought of having to deal with an “Umbridge” is giving me the willies.

    And yes, finding a job these days is incredibly difficult for so many people. My own sister finally gave up after years of trying to go back to the workforce after a short break.

    But I am pleased that all that difficulty led to Anna and Sophie who I am currently re-reading and looking forward to the continuation of their life stories.

  5. I have to admit to a small chuckle about Umbridge with a -30IQ.

    The rest…. Writing is so much harder than most people think. It’s draining, exhausting and takes a piece of your soul; and more research than people can imagine.

    As to the rest… You are a strong, amazing woman.

      1. I gave The Gilded Hour to my nurse sister in law. I’m passing on a copy to my Sister-Wife who is doing OB near Seattle right now. She’s also done OB and worked with kids overseas. I think she’d enjoy the books a lot.

  6. Honestly I am shocked that an author like you has had a hard time with money! I loved your Wilderness series, I  bought them all on Audible. I see them recommended all the time.  I recommend your books on all my Outlander Facebook groups as the next books to read. I stumbled over Gilded Hour and was so very happy to find it. Bought it and listened twice. As a Biracial Nurse, Atheist, and Feminist I loved the Gilded Hour especially. I love all of your characters. I plan to buy your other books when I have more credits. Please keep up the amazing work and I will keep recommending your books! Dani Champlain    

    1. Hi Dani — It’s one of the secrets of publishing — unless you’re consistently in the top ten, it’s really hard to make a living from writing alone. I have to thank you for your supportive words about The Gilded Hour, because I always worry about readers who really know the material I’m writing about, and you certainly do.

  7. Takes courage and grace to come through a hard time. Thanks so much for sharing your story and for telling us the reasons for the choice.

  8. It seems like anyone who has left the traditional job market and ventured on their own winds up taking a hit, as if all the years and success outside of a “job” don’t account for anything. Ageism, sexism and the fact so many places want more from you but want to pay less; it is a tough world out there just to survive.

    And survive you have- I see the same flame in you that your characters have. The ups and downs life throws at you affect you for the short term. In the long run you survive and are successful- maybe not in the way others have decided for you, but in your own way. I admire that greatly.

    (And thank you for your help.)

    1. Hey Soup. That’s a good point, that any deviation from the usual or traditional works like a red flag. Which means that employers aren’t interested in anything but the predictable, and in that way miss out on some people who might make a real contribution.

  9. Rosina,Thank you so much for responding to my question. You have helped me understand how an author begins the writing process. I have always wondered how a writer determined and researched the location of a story, the characters’ backgrounds and lives. On top of that, an interesting story is required! How could you know all the details of all these things in an historical piece? I collect antiques from the 1800’s and this brings up a lots of questions about authenticity in a story.  I’m glad that you were able to find a use for your Umbridge classes in Sophie and Anna’s medical degrees. I would think that after developing your characters, setting, and background, it’s advantageous to write a series. I personally think that’s a great thing for the reader, at least for me! I loved your Wilderness Series and have re-read it several times. I can’t wait for the next book, but I’m trying to be patient.
    Thank you for your dedication, perseverance, and hard work! Your books are fabulous.
    Christine  Christine Schneider christineslp@prodigy.net

    1. Christine — if you collect 19th century antiques you know how incredibly interesting it is to learn how people lived. It’s the part of writing historical fiction I like the best, really having to dig down and dig in, to get a sense of what my characters really experienced day by day. And thank you for your kind words of support. Very much appreciated.

  10. Glad to understand why the gap of five years between The Endless Forest and The Gilded Hour. I am doing my best for your royalties, one copy for me and two more for friends, plus recommending it to more people – (do you get royalties on Kindle sales? I hope so because several said they would download it, rather than buy buy a paper version).

    I really enjoyed The Gilded Hour very much indeed. Such deep layers of story and interesting history (I had rather switched off American history after a failed relationship a long time ago with an American historian). My curious question is: what drew you to write about Scotland? Why do you and Diana Gabaldon feel it necessary or interesting to go and set stories in Scotland past, (and Elizabeth George in England present) when the US is so rich and varied in geography, culture and history? As a Scot born and bred, I liked Dawn on a Distant Shore least of all your books because the Scottish section did not “feel’ right to me, as all your other settings have done. (Not so much an upset reader as a mildly disappointed one.) I haven’t lived in Scotland since I graduated and have gradually lost my ear for Scots vernacular during years living in England and now for the last 19 years in Australia, until I go home to Edinburgh to visit family and friends, when it all comes back instantly to ear and tongue.

    1. Hi Liz. First, thanks for taking the time to comment. The reason I sent the Bonners to Scotland in Dawn on a Distant Shore is really quite simple. I had this crazy idea that it would be funny if it turned out that Hawkeye was of high birth. At the time I was in contact with a former editor of Burke’s Peerage — a very nice person, incredibly well versed on all matters historical and genealogical in England and Scotland — and I asked his opinion on how I could pull this off. He went to huge amounts of trouble to set up the backstory for me. He came up with the family motto and all the bits and pieces, and gave me options on how to build the family tree. I used to have that up on this weblog, and I’ll go look to see if I can find it. It was so interesting to work through all the details that I had a really good time pulling it all together. Now, if when I raised the subject to him he had told me there was no realistic way to structure the backstory, I would have let it go. But his enthusiasm and extraordinary support made it all possible.

      So I’m sorry to hear that you, as a Scot, didn’t enjoy the novel but I’m not completely surprised. It’s always hardest to win over readers who know your source material better than you do. In any case, I appreciate your support and feedback.

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