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Interview with Sheila Lowe, Author of ‘Written Off’

The mother of a tattoo artist and a former rock star, Sheila Lowe started studying handwriting in 1967 while in high school. Her boyfriend’s mother had analyzed her handwriting and the results left her stunned, wanting to know “how’d she know that?!” So for the next ten years, Sheila read everything she could about handwriting analysis before eventually becoming certified.

Eventually, her practice branched out into forensic document examination and she was court-qualified as a handwriting expert. Her first two books, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Handwriting Analysis and Handwriting of the Famous & Infamous, were published in 2000 and 2001. Poison Pen, her first mystery fiction, came out in 2007, followed by five more books in the series and a standalone about a young woman with amnesia. The latest in the Forensic Handwriting Mysteries, Book #7, is Written Off.

Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Written Off. When did you start writing and what got you into psychological suspense?

I’ve been writing since childhood, first in poetry, then as a young teen, a novella about the Beatles (this was in 1960s and I was mad about Ringo). I had just moved to the US from England and all my junior high friends wanted to read that one. Next, I wrote a florid historical romance about a dashing fellow thought lost at sea, but who turns out to have had amnesia. Naturally, he shows up at the end to claim his lady love.

After that, technical papers and books about handwriting psychology. But mystery was my first love. Ever since I’d read The Rockingdown Mystery when I was eight, I wanted to write one. I was in my late forties when I finally got around to it, but it was another ten years before Poison Pen was published, first by Capital Crime, then by Penguin, and now by Suspense Publishing (the folks who produce Suspense Magazine). There are now seven books in the series, plus a standalone about a young woman with amnesia (a topic that fascinates me). As a handwriting analyst I dig deeply into personality and what makes people tick, so psychological suspense makes sense for me.

What is Written Off about?

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 some troubled university students. Add a surprise relative who shows up to challenge the professor’s will, her rivals at the small private university where she taught, and a winter blizzard, and hopefully, what you end up with is a story worth reading.

What type of challenges did you face while writing this book?

First, I decided that an important scene would be set in a blizzard. Southern California, where I live, not being known for its blizzards, I needed to set the story elsewhere. Maine in winter had the kind of atmosphere I was looking for, but I’ve never been there. Lucky for me, I know people who had, and were willing to answer my questions. Plus, youtube had videos of blizzards in the various places where my character, Claudia Rose, needed to be.

As a visual person, it’s easier for me to write when I have pictures of the people and places I’m writing about. Google helped me find the perfect house (a sea captain’s mansion) and all the characters who appear in the book. There’s a link at the back of the book that tours the house.

Did your book require a lot of research?

Besides what I said above about Maine, since the book is about a female serial killer in prison, I needed my character, Claudia Rose, to visit her there. My work as a handwriting examiner has taken me to a couple of prisons, including Central California Women’s Facility at Chowchilla—the only women’s prison in the state with a death row.

But each facility has its own sets of rules and regulations, so I needed to research the women’s facility in Maine. Again, I lucked out. Amanda Woolford, director of the Women’s Center there, was extremely generous with her time, answering all my questions, even sending photos of the facility’s interior and inmates in uniform. Afterwards, she read the book to make sure I got everything right.

What do you do when your muse refuses to collaborate?

You mean, every time I sit down to write? Maybe it’s not that bad, but it can feel like it. If I’m not under a tight deadline and the writing won’t come, I’ll stop trying and do something else. On the other hand, if I must write, then I do, even if it’s useless and has to be rewritten the next day. Or, I will do some graphotherapy—handwriting exercises done to music, which can help remove blocks (Claudia teaches graphotherapy to a troubled young teen in Written in Blood).

Do you have a writing schedule? Are you disciplined?

Only when under deadline. Otherwise, I don’t have regular writing days. Because I currently make my living as a forensic handwriting examiner, writing has to be scheduled around those assignments. If I have to testify in a trial for example, it takes many hours to prepare my testimony and exhibits.

Or if I’m going to present a lecture (I do 30-45/year) or a class, creating a PowerPoint presentation takes a significant amount of time. So, usually, it’s late in the evening by the time I start writing, and that’s only after I’ve spent hours on the internet (procrastinating) going through Facebook (procrastinating), and writing dozens of emails (procrastinating).

What was your publishing process like?

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. I’ll always remember the thrill of excitement 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 and was replaced by another, who declined to renew my contract. My agent at the time said publishers would not pick up a series in the middle, so I went out on my own and self-published a standalone in which my series characters were present in 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, there were downsides. I would get 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. Working with a smaller press means I have input into my covers and title, the final say in the text, and I get paid far better. With a big publishing house, you might get 8-10% of the cover price if the book is a mass market paperback, which means about .65-.80 cents per book. With a smaller house, you might get better than 50%. Certainly, you have more room to negotiate.

How do you celebrate the completion of a book?

After writing The End on the first book, I hoisted a glass of champagne. Now, I just experience a tremendous sense of relief that I’ve gotten through it. I announce on my social media that I’m done. Then, after sending it off to my publisher, I put it aside for a few days and luxuriate in reading someone else’s work or watch a bit of TV (which I rarely do, except for the political shows and Grey’s Anatomy). Then, I start editing. There really is no completion until the thing goes to press.

How do you define success?

Some authors write for fun. Some are independently wealthy. Others have a spouse willing to support them while they write. None of those is true for me, so money is an important component of my success as an author. But success is tied just as much to the enjoyment I hope to bring to my readers. If people aren’t liking what I write, there’s no point in publishing it. The money I make from writing allows me to continue producing the Forensic Handwriting Mysteries and building my reader base. Happily, that continues to expand.

Do you have a website or blog where readers can find out more about your work?

Thanks for asking. Claudia Rose Series is the dedicated site for my fiction work. For anyone interested in my handwriting analysis practice, Sheila Lowe is the place to go.

What is your advice for aspiring authors?

Writing is hard. Finding a publisher is harder. But the hardest of all is the marketing. Any aspiring writer needs to understand this and unless they are writing as a hobby, approach it as what it is—a business. There’s no reason why you can’t enjoy that business, but it’s pretty rare for a new author to make a huge splash.

The writing field is a very big pond in which there are a great many little fish. When you get discouraged by rejection letters or the difficulty of getting your work seen, remember that most of the big, successful authors probably went through the same thing, too. Neil Gaiman gives the best advice on this, so I’ll just quote him: “If you’re going to be a writer, you have to write…and having written it and finished it, you should send it off to somewhere that might publish it, and not get discouraged if it comes back.”

Anything else you’d like to tell my readers?

Please keep reading. Teach your kids to love books, too. When you write a review, make sure you put spoiler alerts where they belong; be honest, but remember that there’s a real human being behind the book, so be kind.

About Mayra Calvani

Mayra Calvani writes fiction and nonfiction for children and adults and has authored over a dozen books, some of which have won awards. Her stories, reviews, interviews and articles have appeared on numerous publications such as The Writer, Writer’s Journal, Multicultural Review, and Bloomsbury Review, among many others. Represented by Serendipity Literary.

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