Meet Debut Novelist Sheila Raye

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.

Sheila’s Journey Begins

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.

Sheila’s Milestones

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.

Sheila’s Supporters

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?

Time Treasure, a paranormal romance based on the Legend of the Flying Dutchman, will be released by the Wild Rose Press in July, 2010.

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.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

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About Keli Gwyn

I'm an award-winning author of inspirational historical romance smitten with the Victorian Era. I'm currently writing for Harlequin's Love Inspired Historical line of wholesome, faith-filled romances. My debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California, was released July 1, 2012. I'm represented by Rachelle Gardner of Book & Such Literary. I live in a Gold Rush-era town at the foot of the majestic Sierras. My favorite places to visit are my fictional worlds, other Gold Country towns and historical museums. When I'm not writing I enjoy taking walks, working out at Curves™ and reading.
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13 Responses to Meet Debut Novelist Sheila Raye

  1. He Sheila and Keli!

    Congrats on both of your books. Being a Louisiana Southern Bell myself, I love the Magnolia and plantation house. BUT the Time Treasure cover is hot! I notice a theme of ships and sailing. Have you taken any of Cindy Vallar’s classes? If so, we were probably in at least one of those classes together.

    Also, since you love all things Scottish, are you a member of the Celtic Hearts Romance Writers? I’ve been with them since May ’08, and must say it is the most supportive and informational group.

    What wonderful family support you have and that is greta that your mom can read your draft. I’m not so sure I could show mine . . .

    TWRP is pretty awesome, aren’t they? Though I don’t know personally as a writer yet, I’ve heard nothing but good things about them. Not to mention, in March of last year, I was the ecstatic winning recipient of their Sony contest. And they were so very nice in our correspondence about it.

    Also, I think it’s really interesting about you being plot driven instead of character driven like so many authors are. I wonder if that’s typical, though, of historical writers. I know that I’d rather place characters in a time period that interests me, rather than have the characters tell me where they need to be. Then again, maybe that’s why I don’t hear them speaking to me!!! But History is fascinating.

    Congratulations again!
    Julie

  2. Hi Sheila and Keli,

    How I love seeing two of my favorite women on one blog. 🙂

    Congratulations, Sheila on your debut. I adore Wayfarer’s Promise and Time Treasurer. You are such a talented author and I’m thrilled your books are finally being released so others can read your brillance!

  3. Keli Gwyn says:

    Wow, Sheila! Your visitors found your interview before I could even stop by to say welcome. You’re one popular writer! I’m glad to have you here at Romance Writers on the Journey and hope you enjoy your time in the spotlight.

    What would I ask my character? Well, my heroine has a hard time accepting the fact that her new husband loves her. Sometimes I want to look her in the eye and say, “Are you blind, Ellie? The man is crazy about you.” Unfortunately, it takes her time to deal with issues stemming from her past, and she until she does, she’s unable to see things clearly, open her heart again, and accept the love he’s eager to shower on her. She does finally “get it,” though, which makes me quite happy. 🙂

  4. Sheila Raye says:

    Hi Julie,
    I have not taken any of Cindy Vallar’s classes, but you can be sure I’ll add her name to my list. I have many friends who are members of the Celtic Hearts chapter — it has to be wonderful. I would recommend The Wild Rose Press to any author. They are simply wonderful. Thank you for dropping by and saying hi!

  5. Sheila Raye says:

    Carla,

    I’ll just say, Aw shucks!

    And you know I love you, too!

  6. Sheila Raye says:

    Keli, thank you so much for inviting me to join you here! You know, only those who love us understand the running dialogue we have with our characters. My family has finally stopped telling me that I’m the author, I can make them do anything I want them to. It just doesn’t work that way.

  7. Jackie Smith says:

    Hi Sheila, nice to meet you and learn of your books. I am anxious to read them!!

  8. Sheila Raye says:

    Thanks for stopping by, Jackie. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I loved writing them.

  9. Hello Sheila, it was great to learn more about you. I am always fascinated to discover how other writers come up with their story ideas, particularly in the historical genre. Congratulations on your novel, it sounds wonderful!

  10. christicorbett says:

    Sheila,
    I really enjoyed your interview and had to chuckle when I saw that you listen to one song for hours as you edit a particular scene or page.

    You see, I do the exact same thing.

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to “Moonlight Sonota” during a scene involving death in my novel.

    Congrats on your interview!

    Thanks again,
    Christi
    http://christicorbett.wordpress.com

  11. Quilt Lady says:

    Great interview! Congrats on you book release! I would love to read it. I love books set in a Southern period! Thanks for sharing!

  12. Now that is upsetting, Christi!! I LOVE Moonlight Sonata and play it on the piano. It’s so dreamy and romantic; Did you know that Beethoven dedicated this son to the Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, an already married woman. I don’t think of it as a dirge— unless it’s expressing his feelings for a woman he can’t have.?

  13. Sheila Raye says:

    Hi Cindy! Thanks for your kind comments.

    Christi, I think my favorite thing about talking to other writers is when you learn that you’re not as strange as “non-writers” might think you are. Yes, we hear voices (if we’re lucky) and yes, we people watch in strange ways and, well, we do listen to the same songs over and over. For me, it’s all about the flow of the words and if you change the music, the flow changes.

    Quilt Lady, be sure to let me know when you read it — would love to hear what you think.

    Julie, thanks for the lesson — I didn’t know the history of the song.

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