I used to be a research scientist on the faculty at UCLA, and studied the healthcare system. I developed complex statistical models, wrote policy reports, and spoke at symposiums. Governors and members of congress read my work.
But, I quit to write romantic mystery novels. My sensible friends told me not to do it. Once you step out of academia, it’s nearly impossible to find your way back. It’s like throwing a PhD out the window.
I started by writing a screenplay about young lovers who traveled the world catching bad guys. It was terrible. Even so, I loved disappearing into their world, and writing characters I wanted to spend time with. I started writing all of the time. I took a leap of faith and left my job at UCLA. I tried to sign a big consulting contract and just couldn’t make my hand do it, even though it promised good money. By contrast, writing promises nothing at all. Many successful authors have day jobs. Most writers never get published.
Police Matron Alice Stebbins Wells, the first woman police officer in Los Angeles, inspired my debut novel, The Secret Life of Anna Blanc. She took her oath in 1910 and amazed the world with her strength, courage, and political savvy. I tried to pen a tribute to her, but a very different character came tumbling out—Anna Blanc, a wealthy, sheltered socialite, who longs to be a detective. She pays off her chaperone and secretly gets a job as a matron with the LAPD. Alice was middle aged and virtuous. Anna is young, beautiful, slightly narcissistic, and despite her innocence, she loves men. Although you’ll find the novel on the mystery shelves, it’s Anna’s steamy love affair with the wrong man that makes the book tick. Anna’s leading man is delicious. Why did I write it as a romance and not a straight mystery? Because writing passionate love scenes is even more fun than reading them. If I’m going to live vicariously through my heroine, she’s got to be smitten.
Just like Stebbins, I faced ridiculous odds, but persevered to do something I adore. Unlike Anna’s Life, my choice to be a writer is not romantic, though it has been filled with adventure. I say that I threw away my Ph.D. to become a writer, but really developing complex statistical models has a lot to do with writing romance, because it prepared me to create intricate plots. Just like in research, when writing, you have to get the data right—historical facts, that is. Writing requires tenacity, like getting a Ph.D. Many fine writers never finish their novels.
Writing is harder than research science. Reviews are terrifying. The money is worse. The muse can stay hidden for months. But academic accolades can’t rival the thrills I felt when I first won a contest, landed an agent, got a book deal, and received a Booklist starred review. It’s a delight to travel through time and be immersed in an imaginary world, to fall in love with characters that you know so well because you created them.
Why did I leave public health research to write romantic mysteries? For the joy of it. Like Anna Blanc and Alice Stebbins Wells, I threw caution to the wind and followed my heart.
Jennifer Kincheloe is a research scientist turned writer of historical fiction. She grew up in Southern California, but has traveled to such places as Nicaragua, Ethiopia, and Papua New Guinea. Jennifer earned a Masters degree in Public Health from Loma Linda University and a PhD in Health Services from UCLA. She adores kickboxing, yoga, and developing complex statistical models. The Secret Life of Anna Blanc is her first novel. Visit her online at JenniferKincheloe.com, on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest.