The mother of a tattoo artist and a former rock star, Sheila Lowe lives in Ventura with Lexie the Very Bad Cat, where she writes the award-winning Forensic Handwriting mystery series. Like her fictional character Claudia Rose, Sheila is a real-life forensic handwriting expert who testifies in court cases. Despite sharing living space with a cat—a Very Bad one at that—Sheila’s books are decidedly non-cozy.
Find out more abut her latest thriller WRITTEN OFF on Amazon!
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Tell us about your book! What is it about and what inspired you to write it?
Written Off is the story of a female serial killer in prison in Maine and the murdered professor who was writing a book about her. While on assignment to find the manuscript in the professor’s two-hundred-year-old mansion, forensic handwriting expert Claudia Rose uncovers explosive research about a group of troubled university students dubbed “Maynard’s Maniacs.” The professor’s personal wealth and academic success made her the target of jealousy at the small private university where she taught. The University expects to benefit from her will, but when a surprise visitor arrives brandishing a new will, all bets are off. After discussing the new will with the local police chief, Claudia rushes back to the isolated mansion where she’s staying, hoping to avoid an impending storm. She ends up trapped in a blizzard. With a killer.
As for what inspired me to write it, I always start with a title and build a story around it. In this case, the title changed halfway through, when I realized that the original title, Unholy Writ, was not going to work after all. I’ve wanted to use Unholy Writ for a long time, but it will have to wait for another story. Honestly, I don’t remember what got me started on the story of Roxanne Becker, a convicted serial killer, but around the time I changed the title, I realized that the theme of the book was what can happen to children who get cheated out of the good start in life they deserve.
Tell us about your publishing process. What was it like? Did you go indie or the traditional way?
I’ve gone every which way. For seven years, I tried to get my first mystery, Poison Pen, published by a major publishing house, finally giving up and making a deal with a small press, Capital Crime, in 2007. What a thrill it was when Publisher’s Weekly gave the book a starred review and it was immediately picked up, along with the next three in the series, by an editor at Penguin’s Obsidian. While I was writing book 4, that wonderful editor left the company and was replaced by another, who declined to renew my contract. My then-agent told me that other publishers would not want to pick up a series in the middle. Long story short, I decided to self-publish a standalone where my series characters played a smaller role. Eventually, I got my rights back from Penguin and switched all my titles over to Suspense, another smaller press (they publish Suspense Magazine).
Although I am grateful for having had the big house experience, with Penguin, it wasn’t all sweetness and light. They would send an email with the book cover graphic and a boilerplate note: “here’s your new cover, we hope you love it as much as we do.” And if I didn’t love it—oh well, “it’s too late to make changes.” I like working with a smaller press because I have input into my covers and titles; I get the final say in the text, and I get paid far better. With a big publishing house, you’ll get 8-10% of the cover price if the book is a mass market paperback, which means about .65-.80 cents a book. With a smaller house, you might get better than 50%. Certainly, you have more room to negotiate.
How did you choose the title for your book? Did it come to you right away, before you started writing the story, or did it come later?
Oops, I answered that above.
Tell us about the cover design process. Did you have a basic idea of what your book cover would be like?
My publisher is ultimately responsible for the cover, but as I mentioned earlier, with a smaller house I get input into the design. Since it’s my story, I know the elements that are best brought out. In the case of Written Off, I thought that since a creepy old hut in the snowy woods figures into the prologue, a picture of a creepy old hut would offer the kind of atmosphere I wanted. So I googled some photos and sent them to my publisher to see what she thought. The first design they sent looked too Christmassy to me with the red text against the snowy white and green trees. I want my books to look like the psychological suspense stories they are, not cozies. So the cover designer darkened the edges and, voila! Suspense!
Who is your cover designer and how did you find him/her?
Shannon Raab, my publisher, is a terrific graphic designer. The covers Penguin did for the first editions of my book were great covers, but they made my books look cozy, which they are not. When I got my rights back from Penguin and Shannon redid the covers, they finally had the look I wanted—psychological suspense.
How was your experience working with the designer?
Shannon is great. We have an excellent working relationship. She listens to me, I listen to her, and somehow it comes out right.
What has been the readers’ response to your cover?
I posted the cover on my social media and got an overwhelming positive response. Of course, everyone had their own comment on how to tweak it, but once I told them “this is it,” they loved it.
What tips would you give to authors who are looking for a cover designer?
Look at covers you like and see who is credited with the design, it should be noted in the front cover. When I did my standalone I found an extremely reasonable designer named Lynn Stanzione. Ask around, too, on the various lists you of which you are a member. People love to share good names.
Anything else you’d like to say about your book?
Aside from “please give the book a try,” just keep reading. Teach your kids to love books, too. And when you write a review, please don’t reveal important plot points. Or if you must, include spoiler alerts. Be honest, and remember there’s a real human being behind the book, so be kind, too.