Welcome, Sheila Athens, 2013 Golden Heart finalist!

Athens cropped 8200Today’s interview is with Sheila Athens, author of Climb to Freedom, which is a finalist in the Contemporary Single Title category of Romance Writers of America’s® 2013 Golden Heart® contest for unpublished manuscripts. This is the premier contest (worldwide) for writers of the romance genre. Welcome, Sheila!

Tell us a little about yourself.

I grew up in the Ozarks of Missouri and got my undergrad degree from Missouri State University.  Because we do crazy things when we are in our twenties, I moved (sight unseen) to the deep coastal south with a man I’d fallen in love with.  Like any good romance novel, it has an HEA:  We celebrated our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary earlier this year.  We have two sons, currently known in my tweets as College Boy and Surly Teen.

Now tell us about your manuscript, Climb to Freedom, that just finaled in RWA’s Golden Heart contest!

The heroine is a law school student who is spending the summer doing an internship for an organization that helps wrongly convicted people get out of prison.  She falls for the hero, a former football star who now works for the state senator who is toughest on crime.  They agree to overlook this difference . . . until they find out that one of the men she’s working to get out of prison is the man convicted of killing the hero’s mother.

How you feel about the Golden Heart experience?

I was so thrilled to be a finalist.  My two critique partners, Lena Diaz and Valerie Bowman, had each finaled in recent years and are both now published (Lena with Avon and Harlequin; Valerie with St. Martin’s Press). I felt like I needed to final to make it a complete validation of the success of our little group.  It is such an honor and a privilege to be a finalist.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories? And/or for this story, in particular?

Ha!  This question makes me laugh because there is an ongoing fake battle with one of my critique partners about why I need to stop getting my ideas for romance novels from National Public Radio. I love NPR because they delve below the headlines to focus on the people behind the stories.  Yes, much of the news is too grim to ever turn into a romance novel, but my brain automatically thinks, “Wow, how would someone feel if they were in that scenario?”   The idea for Climb to Freedom came when I heard a story about the Innocence Project, which gets wrongly convicted people out of prison using DNA evidence.

What has your writing journey been like?

I know now that I was always meant to be a writer—I just wish I’d realized that years ago.  When I was eight or nine, I wrote scripts for plays and recruited neighborhood kids for the cast.  In high school, I loved book reports and research papers.  For years as a teen and an adult, I had recurring dreams of standing before audiences as if I had something important to tell the world.  Then finally, when I was well into adulthood, I heard (on NPR, of course!) about a weekend writer’s conference near my home.  I went to it and felt immediately like I had “come home.”  A special shout-out to NYT bestseller and international thriller writer Steve Berry, whose presentation there gave me the road map for starting my writing journey.

What’s your ideal writing environment?

We just built a small log cabin on a mountaintop in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  It is our get-away now and will eventually become our retirement home.  It has beautiful views, a Geek Desk that raises and lowers for standing or sitting, and an interior stained glass that looks down over the living room below.  The initials of our two sons are hidden in the stained glass, which I designed.  That room is my ideal writing environment because it represents everything that is important to me—the beauty of nature, solitude, family, reading, and writing.

How can fans (and agents and editors!) reach you?

Luckily, the GH final helped me get an offer of representation from Jill Marsal of the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency.  I am so stoked to have such a great agent and agency representing my work.

Others may reach me via my webpage:  http://www.sheilaathens.com/

Or via Twitter (where I have been doing my #GratitudeForTheDay tweets ever since I joined):  @SheilaAthens

Is there anything you’d like to add?

I get my energy from solitude and quiet introspection—the signs of an introvert—but I will never underestimate the importance of the writing community.  There are so many writers to thank for helping me on this journey, including killer romantic suspense author Lena Diaz, Regency romp author Valerie Bowman, NYT Bestselling author and recent RT Paranormal-of-the-Year winner Alyssa Day, inspy author Renee Ryan, romantic suspense author Ava Milone, Regency author Madeline Martin, Regency and Contemporary author Vanessa Kelly, the ladies of the First Coast Romance Writers and the Lucky 13s (this year’s GH finalists).  I mentioned Steve Berry earlier.  Steve led me to Frank Green, a local writing coach who for years (maybe decades?) has hosted writers of all genres in his living room every Wednesday night.  His writing workshop is where I learned so much of my craft.  The support of the writing community has been one of the best, most unexpected gifts of this journey.  Thank you all.


About Leslie Lynch

Leslie gives voice to characters who struggle to find healing for their brokenness – and discover unconventional solutions to life’s unexpected twists. Her manuscript, Hijacked, was a finalist in the Romance Writers of America® 2013 Golden Heart® contest, and attained Amazon Best Seller status in its category when published. Other books by Leslie include Unholy Bonds, Opal's Jubilee, and novellas Christmas Hope and Christmas Grace. A graduate of Spalding University's low-residency MFA program, she is an occasional contributor to the Archdiocese of Indianapolis’s weekly paper, The Criterion, and can be found on facebook at Leslie Lynch Writes, as well as Twitter @Leslie_Lynch_
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36 Responses to Welcome, Sheila Athens, 2013 Golden Heart finalist!

  1. gailhart says:

    Your writing retreat/retirement home sounds great, Sheila, especially the stained glass window! I’ll be you’ll write many wonderful manuscripts there.

    • Sheila Athens says:

      Thanks, Gail. Since we were building what we hoped would be our last house ever, I wanted to put everything in it that I’d always wanted . . . and I’d always wanted a stained glass window.

  2. Leslie Lynch says:

    Good morning, Sheila! Glad to have you here today! I will admit to NPR being a large part of my inspiration, as well. My second manuscript, Unholy Bonds, is based on the idea of Restorative Justice (there’s a link to their website in my Links section), and I learned about RJ through an interview I heard on NPR. My current WIP is based not on NPR, but on a quilt made by women convicted of murdering their abusive husbands some years ago in Kentucky. It was a powerful statement of acceptance of the women’s accountability against the counterpoint of the abuse they suffered – and society’s blind eye toward their situations. Clearly, since such subjects fascinate me, I am waiting with bated breath to read Climb to Freedom!

    Thank you for being my guest today.


    • Sheila Athens says:

      Wow, Leslie. Your manuscripts sound very interesting. Sounds like you weave modern day issues into your stories, just like I do.

  3. Hi Sheila! I related so much to your early signs of “writer destiny”. Our playing as children consisted mostly of my assigning roles to my younger brother and sister, giving them dialogue, and directing as we acted out stories I’d create along the way (an early pantser!) Enjoyed hearing about your beautiful getaway home and journey so far. Congrats on your GH final, signing with Jill, and completing your critique group trifecta!

    • Sheila Athens says:

      Thanks, Amy. Your directorial debut with your brother and sister sounds a lot like my play as a child. We were creating stories even back then!

  4. piperhuguley says:

    Hi Sheila,

    I enjoyed hearing your story. You’ve come up with an awesome conflict. Congrats on landing an agent, too. I look forward to seeing your work on the shelves and meeting you in Atlanta!

  5. Kay Hudson says:

    Hi from a fellow NPR addict. I can’t say I’ve gotten many ideas for my light paranormal stories from NPR, the their interviews are directly responsible for a lot of the books on my TBR shelf. Sounds like you’ve plucked some great ideas from their news stories. See you in Atlanta!

    • Sheila Athens says:

      Thanks, Kay. Have you tried the new NPR news app? If you miss a show, it allows you to listen to all of it or just certain segments, such as those things that are of interest to you, based on their title. I love meeting fellow NPR addicts. Looking forward to meeting you in Atlanta!

  6. Great post, Sheila! Your manuscript sounds amazing — what a challenging conflict you’ve put between that couple. Ooh! Your cabin sounds like a marvelous place to create. Congrats on being a finalist and celebrating 25 years with your hero!

    Can’s wait to meet you in Atlanta!

    • Sheila Athens says:

      Thanks, Bonnie. Did you realize that today is 6/20 and that the GH ceremony is 7/20? Just a month to go! Can’t wait to meet you!

  7. Your manuscript, Climb to Freedom, sounds amazing, Shelia! I can only imagine the amount of conflict a story like yours will hold. Thanks for the tip on NPR and the reminder of the amazing things we can learn via the radio.

    Looking forward to seeing you soon in Atlanta!

    • Sheila Athens says:

      Thanks, Jacqui. And thanks for the tweet promoting this blog. Can’t wait to meet you in Hot-Lanta!

  8. Lena Diaz says:

    Sheila, thank you so much for your kind shout-out in this awesome interview. Seeing such a talented writer achieving her dreams is such a thrill and an honor. Congratulations again on your Golden Heart final. You rock!

    • Sheila Athens says:

      Thanks, Lena! As my post says, you’ve been an instrumental part of my writing journey. Thank you!

  9. Beth Treadway says:

    I can’t wait for Sheila’s book to be published! About time this awesome woman got noticed. I am excited that the GH judges saw what the rest of us have known for ages.

    • Sheila Athens says:

      Thanks, Beth. I can’t wait for my book to be published, either. Positive thinking here! Ha! Thanks for stopping by the blog!

  10. Renee Ryan says:

    Sheila, what a great post! I loved getting to know you better. Since I’m heading up to my own writer’s have in the North Carolina mountains tomorrow (YAY!) I won’t say I’m jealous of your retreat. I will, however, say I completely get why it’s your favorite place to hole up and put words to the page. I’m so happy you’re receiving national attention for your writing. I think I read your GH manuscript in an earlier form and can’t wait to see what you’ve done with it (AKA when the book hits the shelves because some savvy editor knows good fiction when she sees it). WOOT!

    • Renee Ryan says:

      I meant writer’s haven in North Carolina. Have a cat in my lap who keeps batting at my mouse hand…

      • Sheila Athens says:

        Thanks, Renee. Have fun on your writer’s retreat in North Carolina. I’m jealous. Wish I was up in the mountains right now. See you in Hot-Lanta!

  11. Nan Dixon says:

    Oh Sheila this is wonderful!
    I’m working on revisions on a book that the idea came from a BBC news report! (It is a hot mess0 Your retreat sounds divine and I’m intrigued by the desk. Now you just need to add the treadmill and you can do everything. (Does it boil water for tea?)
    Great to get to know you more!

    • Sheila Athens says:

      Thanks, Nan. I needed a desk for the study at my new cabin and had been reading a lot about how sitting is “the new smoking”–the habit we have that is killing us. Desks that raise and lower are more expensive, but since I needed to purchase a desk, I sprung for the extra bucks. There are several brands. I bought mine from geekdesk.com and I love it. Can’t wait to meet you in Atlanta!

  12. Sheila, loved your blog post. So much interesting information about your writing journey. I’ll be cheering for you in Atlanta.

    • Sheila Athens says:

      Thanks, Merrillee. We were just talking about you last night–about whether or not I should touch your Golden Heart winner necklace for good luck before the GH ceremony. I’m not sure we ever decided on the answer. Ha! Thanks for cheering me on. See you in Atlanta!

  13. Mary says:


    Congratulations on the Golden Heart nomination and the representation by Jill Marsal. This is your year!

    I can’t wait to cheer you on in Atlanta!

    • Sheila Athens says:

      Thanks, Mary. Can’t wait to see you in Atlanta! One of my favorite things about the National convention each year is getting to see our long-distance members, such as you and Melanie!

  14. Sheila, isn’t inspiration a funny thing? Who knows when it’s going to pop out at you and make you write an amazing novel.


    • Sheila Athens says:

      I agree, Abby. That’s why I always carry a notebook or journal. One never knows when inspiriation will strike. Thanks for visiting the blog!

  15. Leslie Lynch says:

    Popping in to say a huge THANK YOU, Sheila, for your wonderful post and conversation here today! It’s been a treat to get to know you a little better – and I’m looking forward to meeting you in person in Atlanta.

    You can keep the conversation going, but I’m headed for an early bedtime. 🙂

    Best wishes for your publishing career!


    • Sheila Athens says:

      Thanks, Leslie. It’s ten minutes until midnight, so I guess the day of my first ever blog post is coming to an end. Thanks for hosting me!

  16. Leslie Lynch says:

    A blog virgin??? I’m so glad I was your first, and that it was a good experience for you! 😉 You did a great job, both with your post and in keeping a great conversation going all day.

    This was also a toe dipped in the water for Katie and Jacqueline (at least) – maybe not their first, but their second. I’m truly glad I could host all of my fellow finalists on my site. This has been fun, and Atlanta will be even more so because we’ve gotten to know each other better ahead of time.

    Thanks again for participating in the grand experiment, which I will now characterize as a grand adventure and grand success!


  17. Sonali Dev says:

    Hi Sheila,
    So sorry to be late to the party, but this was a great interview. I actually did a little fingers-to-face, OMG thing when I heard you got the idea for your story (which I just LOVE) from the Innocence Project piece on NPR, because, seriously, I’m not making this up, but I remember hearing that piece and thinking the exact same thing!!
    Your cabin in the woods sounds so very perfect.
    Congratulations on your final, on signing with your agent and on completing 25 years of marriage. Right there is a lifetime of blessings. Here’s to many more!


  18. Not one bit surprised you’re a GH finalist, Sheila! Next step, publication! So happy to be on the journey with you.

  19. I’ll be rooting for you in Atlanta, Sheila, and cheering you on when you score your first contract! Mwah!!

  20. I’m late to the party as usual, but I couldn’t miss saying hello. Sheila is definitely an up and coming author. She’s a hard worker and a great writer. I love the secret of your story inspirations and what a lovely writing retreat you described. I hope you write many wonderful stories there. Congratulations on your Golden Heart final and wishing you all the best.

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