Award-winning novelist Sheila Raye is a native Floridian who fell in love with the romance genre while still in elementary school. She also loves all things historical. The old buildings, cemeteries, and oak-lined drives of the Deep South awakened a desire to write, and, with her sister’s encouragement, her first historical romance was born. Sheila’s debut novel, Wayfarer’s Promise, a historical tale set in Savannah, was released by The Wild Rose Press on January 8.
Sheila is a 2007 Golden Heart® finalist who lives in rural central Florida with her sports enthusiast husband, two teenagers, and two highly independent cats.
A graduate of the University of South Florida with a Master’s degree in Special Education, Sheila is currently the administrator of the education department in a women’s prison. When she’s not working, writing, or spending time with her family and friends, she is an avid reader.
Join me as we learn about more about Sheila and her journey to publication.
When did your love of romance and history compel you to start your first story? Did you give in right away, or were you hesitant to put down those first words?
Actually, my sister is to blame for my writing career. She and I frequently talk over coffee on Saturday mornings. About twelve years ago, during one of these conversations, we caught up on our kids, work, and household chores for the weekend and then slid into comparing what we were reading. We discussed a book in depth—what we liked or didn’t like—and I made the statement that I thought I might like to try writing a novel. My sister answered, “Then do it.”
I hesitated a few weeks, long enough to figure out what I wanted to write. I had this vague image of two boys and a little girl near a river. She’d lost her doll and they rushed into the current to save her toy. As I mulled over the image, I realized one of the boys was a slave and the other was a younger white child. The idea of a friendship between these two boys in modern times isn’t compelling—they’re just two boys who are friends—but once I placed them in the historical South, the what if’s and why’s and how’s started. I had to write the story to find the answers.
When I actually sat down to write, the picture changed completely but the idea for the characters and how they were connected remained unchanged.
How long did it take you to complete your first manuscript? Did it fly from your fingertips, or did the story emerge slowly?
At the time I started writing, I was on summer break from teaching middle school language arts to students with disabilities. I finished before Christmas. The story flew from day one. That first manuscript ended up over 200,000 words (twice the size of a “normal” book). The first draft was the fastest and easiest of all my books. Then I started learning about the craft of writing.
I know, backwards.
Once I learned a little more about what I was doing, writing became more work than fun, but now my first drafts are actually readable.
You have a love of the Deep South, which is reflected in your stories? What inspired you to set your debut novel in Savannah?
There are many beautiful cities in the South where you can still see structures from before the Civil War. I wanted to set the story in a time before people started questioning the institution of slavery and long before the war so I could explore the attitudes and values of the characters without the political dispute. I learned of the many freeman and freewomen who lived in the cities away from the plantations and knew I wanted to include them in the story. I also wanted to show both the benevolent and horrific slave masters, but I didn’t want to compare two separate plantations. Given Clay’s early friendship with a slave and his hatred of slavery, I knew forcing him into becoming the master of a plantation would be the meanest thing I could do to him. As an author, I figure out what my characters need and take it away or decide the worst possible event to toss in front of them and watch them grow as they handle their fears.
At that point, the research became my total focus. Originally, I thought the plantation would grow cotton, but in the early stages of reading about the time period, I learned rice was the money crop. More research pointed me to the Savannah River. My sister and I traveled to Savannah and spent a week walking down the brick paved roads, sitting on park benches beneath sprawling oak trees in one of the many squares, touring antebellum houses, and soaking up the beauty of the city. After the first day, I knew I’d found Clay and Andrea’s home.
Sheila’s Creative Process
What is it about a character that comes to you first? Name? Appearance? Traits? Profession?
For me, I know the character’s values and fears before I know anything else. I KNOW them almost instinctively. I can tell you how they would react to any situation, what they love, hate, need, want…
Finding the rest takes work.
I normally find the character’s appearance from magazine pictures or television. When I was creating this book, my son was a fan of a wrestler by the name of Kevin Nash. On one of those nights when I was trying to scoot my kids to bed, I stopped long enough to watch a match with my son and realized I was looking at Clay. Andrea’s appearance came from a model for a mascara ad.
Names can be tough for me. I usually name my characters from a baby name list or list of popular names from the time period or a mixture of names from historical figures. In this case, the names stuck. My critique partners will tell you, I’m very willing to rename my characters..
Are you primarily a character-driven writer, or do you focus more on plot?
Plot driven. 100% plot driven. I start with a place and time that intrigues me. I’m drawn to notable historical events, but normally pick a time just before or after to set the story. I research until my curiosity and insatiable need to learn are quenched. Once I know where and when, the plot forms and I work out the twists. Then I discover the characters—the man and woman who would struggle hardest against the obstacles my plot will throw at them..
You’ve written both paranormals and historicals. What is it you like about each sub-genre?
For me, these two genres are very similar. They require intensive world building and offer the writer the chance to place characters in situations which are very different from our day-to-day lives. I love the research and the escapism provided by writing both genres.
Finding out how people lived or the myths they believed satisfies the student in me. Once I have the facts, slipping into another place and time where phones don’t ring allows me to escape from the pressures of today and have a mini-vacation.
My paranormal stories lean heavily on history, but by definition, I can change the rules, give the characters special powers and difficult limitations..
Your bio at The Wild Rose Press bills you as historical writer. What led you to brand yourself as such?
Although I have written both historical and paranormal stories, there is a historical element in all my books. My voice, my writing style and the basis of my stories are intertwined with history.
You finaled in several Romance Writers of America® chapter-sponsored contests before selling, including your triple final in the Golden Pen in 2006. Wow! Which of your placements meant the most to you? And why?
That’s kind of like asking which of my children I prefer—not an easy question. Each contest final was important to me for different reasons.
In the same way I love my children for their uniqueness, each of my books is important on its own merits. The triple final in the Golden Pen was for a historical I had revised a thousand times, a historical I had just written and for Time Treasure, which later finaled in the Golden Heart. Having these three very different stories final in the same contest affirmed I was doing something right..
On March 25, 2007, your phone rang. An RWA® board member was on the line with the news that your story, Time Treasure, had finaled in the paranormal category of the Golden Heart. How did you react? With tears, cheers, or a happy dance?
My entire family was home that morning. Every time the phone rang, we all jumped. I kept telling myself how many wonderful manuscripts had been entered and how unlikely it was that I would final. I had totally convinced myself that I wouldn’t receive a phone call and was happily celebrating with many of my friends who were receiving phone calls and reporting it by email.
The phone rang and my office filled as I answered. The nicest voice congratulated me. I politely said thank you and hung up the phone. Then I stared at my computer.
My family started to leave my office, thinking it hadn’t been the call I’d been waiting for. I knew I couldn’t let them leave. I stood up and said, “I finaled.” I was totally and completely calm, hugged everyone and sent them on their way. I called Stacey Kayne and, as we talked, the shock wore off. Then I giggled. Those giggles lasted for several months..
And then came another call that changed your life forever: The Call. OK, these days it may have been The Email. Whichever it was, I know you must have been thrilled. Please tell us about the experience, what thoughts ran through your mind, and if you screamed so loudly the neighbors wondered if they should come to your rescue.
Every call story is different, but mine is hugely sentimental. My mother and her cousin, Ila Mae, loved Wayfarer’s Promise when it was a grossly overwritten 200,000 word first draft. When I learned the time period made the book a hard sell, I moved on and wrote five other books. With each new book, I learned more about my style and the craft of writing. My mother asked me several times if I’d ever pull Wayfarer’s Promise out of the drawer to try again to sell it. And, as much as I loved the story and the characters, I had moved on.
We lost Ila Mae and shortly after my mother suffered a serious illness. The idea of never handing her the book she loved so much pushed me to open the file again. It had been almost 10 years since I’d read it and I instantly fell in love with the leading characters again. I put my new found skills to work, cut away what I could and polished the rest.
I’d heard the Wild Rose Press was accepting stories set in a variety of time periods and places, so I submitted my manuscript to them with reluctant hope for publication. When I received the email, I squealed with my family, called my sister and giggled with her. And then, when I was calm enough to form a complete sentence, I called my mom. The rest of the day was spent on happy phone calls.
No author survives without support. It was a really great feeling to prove to those who believed in me that they were right.
You credit your sister with encouraging you to begin writing. What part has she played in your quest to become a published novelist?
My sister Debi has been there through every stage of my writing career. She told me to do it, listened as I described the research I found, read all twenty versions of each book, held my hand through the first rejections, celebrated the contest finals and wins, attended RWA Nationals with me and held my hand as the finalists were announced, danced with the sale of the first book and laughed over the sale of the second.
But if she were to answer this question, she’d tell you about the rice field and claim that experience as her greatest contribution to my writing. If you’ve never experienced July in Georgia, you have something to add to your list of things to avoid.
We had stumbled upon a museum in Darien, Georgia with an exhibit from a rice plantation. When I needed more information than I could learn from books, Debi and I headed back to Darien. We were pointed toward a copse of cypress trees at the edge of the river and off we went. I am terrified of snakes, so as soon as I saw the oyster shell path running across the water through the trees, I told Debi to go first. She joked that she wasn’t carrying me if I saw a snake, but she did lead the way. At the end of the path, we climbed onto a platform that overlooks the area that had once been rice fields. We stood there, breathing thick, humid air under the bright sun and sweated as we imagined what it would have been like to have worked those fields.
I might have written this story without Debi, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun..
Who are some of the others who’ve been behind you with that much-needed support we writers so appreciate, and what blessings have they bestowed on you?
My good friend Lisa, who was my very first critique partner, taught me to add flavor and pushed me to dig into the details.
And then I found RWA and a group of women who support each other in every way. The Writers at Play are my friends, critique partners, supporters and cheering section. Although writing is a solitary task, being a writer requires interaction. I’m lucky to share my thoughts with Stacey Kayne, Carla Capshaw, Tawny Weber and Beth Andrews. I’ve been blessed by learning from all the women who make up our close knit group and bolstered by their encouragement.
I also have a supportive family and close circle of friends who have never complained about my disappearances when the words demand my attention..
You’re now part of The Wild Rose Press family. What have been the greatest benefits from this group so far?
The Wild Rose Press is unique in their handling of prospective authors. I was amazed when I first submitted and was given a date when they would respond. When I actually heard from my editor before that date, I couldn’t believe it. The staff and editors are friendly, professional and treat their authors with respect. And then there is the cover art. Isn’t it beautiful?
Sheila’s Debut Novel
Please tell us about Wayfarer’s Promise.
The Scoundrel…Clay Hayward is no gentleman. The riverboat captain has vowed never to return to the snake-infested rice fields of his evil father’s Savannah Plantation. But with the old man’s death looming, and his beloved sister in need of help, Clay finds himself back in Savannah and facing a noose. Accused of murder, he must trust his freedom to a southern belle whose whiskey-brown eyes and honeyed lips promise to heal his blackened soul.
The reluctant southern belle…Andrea Lansing adores her family and friends. She can’t imagine living without them until one frosty Savannah night a dance with a scoundrel turns her world upside down. Now, forced to choose between all she holds dear and the accused murderer who was once her childhood hero, she’ll wager her heart on a dream that may have never been and fight for a future filled with a Wayfarer’s Promise.
Sheila’s Journey Continues
Your debut novel, Wayfarer’s Promise, is available in both digital and print versions. What can your readers look forward to next?
.Five Fun Facts About Sheila, The Writer
~ I’ve been known to repeat the same song for hours while I write and edit a single scene.
~ I often take mental breaks from writing to play computer games. My favorite is Cake Mania II. There is nothing like baking and serving cakes to a line of cyber customers to stir my words.
~ I create three-dimensional collages before I start a new book.
~ I can’t write a detailed plan of a book in advance. If I figure out exactly how everything is going to happen, the story is complete and there’s no fun writing it. I love when a character takes over and surprises me.
~ I have a list of overused words I search and replace before I let anyone read my first draft. My favorite overused word is turn. If I didn’t delete all the turns before someone else had to read my manuscript, they’d be dizzy by the end of the first chapter.
Five Fun Facts About Sheila, the Person
~ I throw a mean game of darts.
~ I saw snow for the first time last year.
~ Although I live in Florida, I don’t have an alligator or a palm tree in my back yard.
~ I am absolutely enchanted with the history of Scotland.
~ I work inside a maximum security women’s prison.
Sheila’s Question for You
I’ve enjoyed having you as my guest, Sheila. You gave some great answers to my questions. Now it’s time to see what your guests have to say, so go for it.
If you could ask one question of a character in your favorite book, what would you ask?
Learn More About Sheila
Visit her website ~ www.SheilaRaye.com
Friend her on Facebook ~ Sheila Raye