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How I Created My Fictional PhD Candidate

Today I have invited Sheila M. Cronin to talk about her most recent novel, in which the main character is a PhD candidate. Sheila obtained her master’s degree in mental health sciences from Hahnemann Medical Graduate School (now Drexel) of Philadelphia. Upon graduation, she was hired by Hahnemann as full-time art therapist on the child and adolescent psychiatric unit, and later on the adult inpatient unit. She also practiced family art therapy and taught a course in the graduate school called “Art Therapy with Children.” Her research was published in the American Journal of Art Therapy and she was the first art therapist at Hahnemann to co-present a case with a resident at psychiatric grand rounds. When she relocated to the west coast, she practiced art therapy with artists in treatment in Los Angeles. Most recently, she has applied art therapy techniques doing volunteer work with the unemployed. She now lives in Chicago and is working on the sequel, Best of All Gifts.

Do all gifts come with strings attached? Jonquil Bloom, the PhD candidate in my novel, believes the answer is “yes” and sets out to prove her hypothesis.

Her initial literature review revealed a shocking lack of psychological research on the dynamics of gift-giving. Aside from commentary on Freud’s views regarding altruism, the few articles she found concerned appropriate gifts for therapists! (Can I Give my Therapist a Gift?) This was happy news since she could now claim the territory for her own.

At thirty-four years of age, she’s more mature if less scholarly than her UCLA classmates. She’s ABD (all but dissertation) and has been gathering data for over a year. She lives in Venice Beach, California, and is raising her ten-year-old son alone since her husband died tragically in a fire before Billy’s birth.

The story begins with another sudden loss for Jonquil. As December begins, her psychologist position at Children’s Home is terminated because the short-sighted administrators need her stipend to paint some offices for a state inspection. Jonquil is dismayed. All that work and effort down the drain. All that time lost. Now what? The university can’t place her again until after the holidays. She needs rent money, so she takes a seasonal job at a local department store, where incidentally, people of all ages are buying gifts. And there she finds her life’s work. A new romance soon begins.

One of the amazing truths anyone undertaking a significant challenge such as the writing of a dissertation or novel discovers is that life marches on. One is not immune to life lessons just because he or she is already immersed in a stressful situation. Life keeps on coming.

To make my fictional character believable and worth caring about, I had to give her new stresses. I had to yank her out of the austerity of her training site and place her in the totally upbeat setting of a local department store. As she walks down the familiar aisles on her first day she asks herself, what am I doing here? I was helping needy children! How can I sell perfume to well-off matrons? But within hours, she creates a way to continue her research in the store. She sees comparing her old work to her new work faulty, for both have merit. Moreover, the store proves to be the better of the two settings because there she realizes that she’s not cut out to be a psychotherapist. Her true calling is to become a gift counselor … once she figures out what that is!

Yet, her son wants a dog which she won’t let him have. The new man in her life, Claude Chappel, recognizes the paradox of a gift counselor who withholds the very gift her own son wants most and he determines to find a resolution.

When I entered graduate school to study art therapy, I didn’t know what I was getting into. Literally! The first week of classes, we students also began our sessions with patients. I assumed I’d be working with the medically ill—I’d volunteered at a children’s hospital in high school—but instead found myself walking onto a women’s locked unit in a private psychiatric hospital in a Philadelphia suburb with just a pad of paper and some crayons. It had never been my intention to work with the mentally ill, but it turned out to be a most rewarding experience. I gave the profession ten years and then I decided to pursue my talents rather than burn out. My novel appears to have blended my creative and analytical sides in a positive and insightful way.

The building of a fictional, compelling character takes imagination, insight, humor, love, and willingness to adjust where necessary to make the character likable or at least intriguing enough to engage diverse readers. It also takes having lived many experiences. So, to be convincing, an author draws upon her own life experiences using her imagination as a filter to expunge the personal, autobiographical facts, and leave the fresh new impressions as seen through the eyes of her make believe character. The real process of earning a PhD adds tension to the story and adds credibility to the character. Stress is a relatable condition that almost any reader can identify with and stress leads to conflict, the bedrock of any good story.

Does my character prove her theory that all gifts come with strings attached? No. Instead, she learns what true gifts are. But to find out what that means, you’ll have to read the book. Does Billy get a dog? Find out in The Gift Counselor. Recommended for PhD students needing a break, faculty advisors, classmates, spouses, moms and dads, grandmothers, pastors, siblings, friends, veterinarians, x-game partners, coaches, librarians and book clubs. Available on,, and in kindle format.

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