Jennifer Schiff had always wanted to write a book — over the course of 20 years she had started many — and she always thought it would be non-fiction.
A magazine writer who specializes in business and technology, she wanted to write a “fabulous business book.”
During a hiring freeze last year for a publisher she had been working with, Schiff found herself with the perfect opportunity. After some strenuous coaxing from a friend, she turned herself to the task and on June 5 she began to write. She challenged herself to finish a rough draft in three months.
The book was not non-fiction, it was a cozy mystery that popped into her head. “The book wrote itself,” she said during a recent interview. “I felt I was a vessel for some spirit.”
By late September that vessel turned out to be A Shell of a Problem, A Sanibel Island Mystery. Schiff wrote the story on Sanibel, where she and her husband have a condo, and centered it on the popular pastime of collecting shells, for which the island is famous. No one had ever written anything like what she came up with, she said.
“I felt like there was a niche there, because there are so many women who go there who are crazy about shelling on the beach,” Schiff said. “And I’m a member of that crazy shelling community. I go down there and I get up at dawn and I go out on the beach just about every morning and start my day, and by 9 o’clock I’m at my desk working.”
The book is about a divorced newspaper reporter named Guinivere Jones, a Sanibel Island transplant from Connecticut. While in the midst of reporting on a most special shell, the golden junonia, that is the talk of the island’s shell show, there is a theft and a murder and Jones races her media competition to find the answers.
Helping her along is a cast of characters who frequent real places and real events on the island that is just off the coast of Fort Myers, Fla.
Except for one restaurant on the mainland, “all the places are real and accurately described,” she said. The people are all fictional, although a number of readers believe they know her characters.
That’s a plus, she said. “A book should make you feel part of it. You should be able to imagine you are there, to imagine the people, for it to feel, if not real, possible. Certainly people on Sanibel feel that way.”
Five years ago she and her husband, Kenny, visited the island for the first time and she fell in love with it. She saw shells all over the beach and said, “This is it, I’m in heaven.” She returned many times.
Her husband, who used to watch the TV mystery series Murder, She Wrote, jokingly calls Sanibel Cabot Cove. “It really is that kind of feel. It’s this small, charming coastal community where everybody knows each other, with quirky characters — it really is like that.” A perfect place to set a mystery, she said.
The junonia shell, Schiff said, is considered the “apex” of shelling on Sanibel or in southwest Florida. A deep-water shell, it’s the one everyone wants to find. And if they do, “they get their picture in the paper,” Schiff said. “It’s a big deal.”
A fan of cozy mysteries who grew up reading Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, Schiff said she “wrote a book I’d want to read. Very selfishly, I wanted a book that would make me smile and laugh and I would try to work out the plot and be stymied until the end but I could have figured it out. I hate books that introduce a twist at the end that there’s no way you could have thought of.
“The great fun of reading Agatha Christie was trying to figure out ‘who dunnit,’ and patting yourself on the back when you got it.”
In addition to being an author, Schiff became a publisher with this book. She hired professionals to copyedit the book, format it, and design the cover. She created her own imprint — Shovel and Pail Press — and registered with the Library of Congress to get her own ISBN number.
It was released in paperback and on Kindle in November and may be purchased through Amazon. It’s available in local bookstores on Sanibel, and Schiff is hoping to get it in bookstores here as well.
Planning a limited Sanibel Island Mystery series, Schiff is two-thirds of the way through her second book, Something Fishy. Guinivere Jones will return along with several of the characters from A Shell of a Problem. With possibly a third to follow, each will focus on a different aspect of Sanibel Island.