Like her fictional character Claudia Rose, Sheila Lowe is a real-life forensic handwriting expert who testifies in court cases. The mother of a tattoo artist and a former rock star, she lives in Ventura with Lexie the Very Bad Cat, where she writes the award-winning Forensic Handwriting mystery series. Despite sharing living space with a cat, Sheila’s books are decidedly non-cozy. She became a permanent resident of the US at the end of 1963 when her mother decided to emigrate here from England.

Book description:

About Written OffIn the dead of winter, handwriting expert Claudia Rose journeys to Maine to retrieve a manuscript about convicted female serial killer, Roxanne Becker. The manuscript, written by Professor Madeleine Maynard, who was, herself, brutally murdered, exposes a shocking secret: explosive research about a group of mentally unstable grad students, selected for a special project, and dubbed “Maynard’s Maniacs.”  Was the professor conducting research that was at best, unprofessional—and at worst, downright harmful, and potentially dangerous? Could that unorthodox research have turned deadly?

Claudia finds herself swept up in the mystery of Madeleine’s life—and death, but soon realizes that Madeleine left behind more questions than answers, and no shortage of suspects.  Seems the professor’s personal life yields a number of persons who might have wanted her dead—her academic success and personal fortune clearly made her the envy of fellow faculty members. The University anticipates being the beneficiary of Madeline’s estate—but when a charming stranger, claiming to be Madeleine’s nephew, turns up brandishing a new will, all bets are off.

After the local police chief prevails upon Claudia to examine the newly produced, handwritten will, she rushes back to Madeleine’s isolated house to escape an impending storm. But Claudia finds herself trapped in a blizzard. With a killer.

Why don’t you begin by telling us a little about your writing background?

I started by writing poetry very early on, progressing to a couple of novellas, including several that featured the Beatles—it was England, 1964, and I was a Beatlemaniac (crazy for Ringo). We moved to the US and next I wrote a historical romance. My friends in junior high could hardly wait for me to bring a new chapter to school. I still have the list of names of who had the “book” checked out.

Nonfiction came next, with articles and technical papers in my field of interest, handwriting. Colleagues kept insisting, “you should write a book.” But I didn’t want to write the same book that others had written on the subject. When I got the opportunity to write The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Handwriting Analysis (1999), I wasn’t sure I wanted to write a book with that title. But nobody else was offering me a nice advance and 350 pages to fill with whatever I wanted, so I decided I could live with it. Good thing, too, as it’s still doing well in its second edition after all these years. The year after the Idiot’s Guide was published, I was asked by another publisher to write Handwriting of the Famous and Infamous. It was a great thrill to finally be a published writer, but my goal was still to write a mystery novel. “They” say you should write what you know, so I finally started writing Poison Pen. At the time, I had no idea that it would become the Forensic Handwriting Mysteries series.

Tell us about your other job besides writing?

By day, I am a forensic handwriting expert, testifying in court and writing personality profiles. By night, I write mysteries.

Were you an avid reader as a child? What type of books did you enjoy reading?

I learned to read when I was three, got my first mystery at eight. In high school, being an unenthusiastic student, I read a book a day, always mystery (Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney were my favorites), trading with a like-minded friend. I also read spiritual books—not religious—books about life after death and life between lives.

Tell us a bit about your latest book, and what inspired you to write such a story.

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.

How would you describe your creative process while writing this book? Was it stream-of-consciousness writing, or did you first write an outline?

If I don’t outline, I tend to meander. I know from sad experience when I tried to be a “pantser” in Dead Write. I suddenly realized I was nearing from my deadline and only five chapters in. I need to know where I’m going, so I’ve learned to write a detailed scene-by-scene outline. But that doesn’t mean I stick to it. It simply allows me to know the bones of the story in advance. Scenes and characters develop and change as I move into it.

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. I lucked out when Amanda Woolford, director of the Women’s Center there, was extremely generous with her time. She answered all my questions and even sent photos of the facility’s interior and inmates in uniform. Afterwards, she read the book to make sure I got everything right.

Who is your target audience?

Readers from 18-98 or beyond who love mystery suspense and don’t object to some profanity, a bit of violence, and a smattering of sex. Cozy readers might not like it. I consider my books “medium-boiled.”

From the moment you conceived the idea for the story, to the published book, how long did it take?

My books usually take about a year to complete. I’m working on them all the time, as I have my handwriting work, which pays the bills. There are weeks that go by without me touching my manuscript, and others when I work on it for days on end.

Describe your working environment.

My office space is one half of my kitchen, which is fairly large. I have a big semi-circular desk that friends refer to as “the command center,” with three large monitors. Behind me is a long counter filled with stuff I need to put away. Above that are shelves with more stuff I need to put away. And above the shelves are cabinets containing office supplies, forensic equipment, and other miscellaneous stuff jammed in that should be sorted out. A standing cabinet on my left next to the window holds more forensic equipment and more office supplies. I could open my own Staples.

Do you write non-stop until you have a first draft, or do you edit as you move along?

I edit as I go, making each scene as good as I possibly can. Then, every time I sit down to write, I go back over the previous scene and work on it some more, not moving forward until I’m satisfied (of course, the next day I’m completely dissatisfied). When I reach the end, I go back through and do it again, only the process is faster because by then, the story is all down on paper (more accurately, in a WordPerfect file) and I’ve been editing as I go. Then I do it over again from the beginning.

When I send it to my publisher, it’s with the caveat that I am going to keep tweaking until I get her editorial comments. And when I do get the comments, I go through it all over again, and then send to beta readers who also comment. I address their comments and return the finished product to the publisher. Hopefully, by this time it’s done. But if given the chance, I would no doubt continue editing until it went to press. As Dashiell Hammett said, he could edit a book down to one line if given the chance.

They say authors have immensely fragile egos… How would you handle negative criticism or a negative review?

And just who is “they?” (see how defensive I got?!) No doubt some authors do have fragile egos, but they’d better toughen up because they will get negative reviews—even the biggest name authors do. When I get a really nasty review, which is thankfully rare, I ignore conventional wisdom and write a comment: “I’m sorry you didn’t like the book, but thank you for reading it.” That way, the person will know that there’s a human being who read what they said. Maybe it will prompt them to be a little kinder with their next review. It’s fine to express what you don’t like, but you don’t have to be mean about it.

As a writer, what scares you the most?

Not having readers. Not telling a good story. Not being able to find a compelling plot every time I start writing a new book.

When writing, what themes do you feel passionate about?

It was pointed out to me by an interviewer that my books tend to have mother/daughter themes. This makes sense, as my mother does not speak to me due to religious differences (her choice, not mine), and my daughter, with whom I had a rather turbulent relationship for many years, was the victim in a murder-suicide. Apparently, my subconscious feelings about these situations bubble up into my books. My character, Claudia Rose, has a very soft spot for abused children, which often gets her into trouble.

Are you a disciplined writer?

Excuse me, I just spit my water at the monitor. No.

 

When it comes to writing, are you an early bird, or a night owl?

It’s 10:30 PM and I just got started on this. Does that answer, LOL?

Do you have an agent?  How was your experience in searching for one?

I have had seven agents, none of whom sold my books, though two had excellent reputations. It’s as tough a process to find a good agent as it is to find a publisher. It was easier to sign with an agency once I had a couple of books already published, so it’s kind of a catch-22. Initially I got in on the ground floor with a new small press, Capital Crime, who did not require an agent. They published my first mystery, Poison Pen, and sent it out for review. I was thrilled to get a wonderful starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, which led to an editor at Penguin buying the first two books from CC. Then I got an agent, thinking she would be able to negotiate more money when they offered to extended my contract to the next two. What I learned was, as a major house, Penguin was in a position to say, “here’s what we’re offering, take it or leave it.” Of course, I took it.

Conventions in your genre are a good place to find an agent. Attend the agents’ panels and see which ones appeals to you, then approach them. Agents go to these events expecting to be pitched. Just keep your pitch short and to the point—I’ve heard that you’ve got 14 seconds to grab their attention, so have your elevator speech ready. I do not currently have an agent, and while I’m with a small publishing house, don’t need one.

Do you have any unusual writing quirks?

Not so unusual, I think. With the exception of making notes for an outline or maybe character backgrounds, I can’t write anywhere but my desk. I’ve tried taking my laptop on planes or in hotels, but I can’t seem to get the words to come out unless I’m right here at the Command Center. I listen to various Pandora Radio channels when I’m writing, rarely vocals. My tastes run from classical to jazz to reggae, to new age and several genres in between. At this moment, it’s new age.

What is your opinion about critique groups? What words of advice would you offer a novice writer who is joining one? Do you think the wrong critique group can ‘crush’ a fledgling writer?

Until life happened and scattered us, I was a member of The Best Critique Group Ever! I helped found it after meeting some like-minded authors in my area at a Sisters in Crime convention. We came up with some basic rules, the first of which was, no personal attacks allowed; always be kind. It’s important to select the right group for you. That means not only the right people (you get along with them and respect their opinions), but the right genre. If you’re looking for mystery critique, don’t join a poetry or romance group. Your aim should be to get constructive criticism, so listen to the members’ comments with an open mind. If you just want to hear how wonderful your timeless prose is, you may be disappointed. Of course, you don’t have to take the advice you’re given, but if two or three or four people are saying the same thing, they are probably saying something worth listening to.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? What seems to work for unleashing your creativity?

Not writer’s block so much as sometime I just don’t feel like writing. When that happens, I move away from the desk. Take a little break. Do some graphotherapy exercises to music to calm the mind and shift into right brain mode (Claudia works with a trouble teen in Written in Blood using graphotherapy). The thing is, unless you are writing for fun, it’s important to view writing as a business. How often would your boss accept you not doing your work because you have teacher’s block, salesman’s block, engineer’s block, plumber’s block or…substitute your job name?

How was your experience in looking for a publisher? What words of advice would you offer those novice authors who are in search of one?

My first book won a writing competition—came in 3rd out of 97 mystery entries and I knew I was home free. Not! It took another seven years to get that book into print, and rightly so. I had not taken the steps I advise novice authors to take: Even if you are self-publishing, you must make sure your book is as good as it can be, and that means hiring an independent editor who can work with you on substance (not a copyeditor). You’ll probably need a good agent, so go to writer’s conventions and meet some (see above). Be prepared for a lot of disappointments and don’t let them get you down. At least, not for long. It’s okay to wallow for a day or two.

What type of book promotion seems to work the best for you?

My greatest success in sales has come from BookBub ads. They now claim around 3 million subscribers. When I advertised my (originally) self-pubbed book, What She Saw, as a free download, there were 117,000 responses!!! That led to lots of sales of all my backlist titles over the next two months, plus over 450 reviews, most 4 and 5-star. I made more in royalties for that $500 investment than I had received from Penguin’s advances. It’s hard to get accepted by BookBub, as they only take around 20% of submissions. There are other subscription sites with smaller lists, such as BookGorilla, BargainBooksy, and RobinReads, which can be quite effective. If you are going to do any of these ads, wait until you have a backlist, even one other published book.

Who are your favorite authors and why?

John Sandford-love his characters and dialogue, they’re all so real. Tess Gerritsen-her style reminds me of my own, so I guess it’s a bit narcissistic. Tami Hoag is hugely talented at writing “beats,” and her wise-cracking characters feel like old friends. Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Deborah Crombie. They all write compelling stories that make me want to turn the page.

What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Cut out all the adverbs you can, as they weaken the writing.

Readers want a strong (though vulnerable) protagonist.

Do you have another book on the works? Would you like to tell readers about your current or future projects?

I intend to write a supernatural book next (outside the series), and am currently developing a story. I think it’s good to take a break from the series once in a while to keep it fresh.

As an author, what is your greatest reward?

Receiving an email from a reader, telling me they stayed up all night, reading one of my books. There’s no greater compliment. Except maybe when they ask when the next book is coming out.

Anything else you’d like to say about yourself or your work?

I think I’ve said more than enough, don’t you? 😊

 

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