Finalist Spotlight

Sheila Nielson

Sheila Nielson was terrified of the dark as a child. Her very overactive imagination made the monsters she imagined hiding under her bed seem all too real. Then one day her mother suggested that she use her imagination to think up stories rather than monsters every night. There was no turning back after that. Now Ms. Nielson creates stories to scare her readers rather than herself! She already has three stories published—Forbidden Sea, Shadow in the Sea and LIFELIKE. She graduated from college with a BFA in illustration and has worked as a children’s librarian for over twenty-four years.

Sheila Nielson on her Whitney Awards Finalist novel,


What was the inspiration for your Whitney Awards finalist novel?

I collect dolls and dollhouses, which means, I often get catalogs from doll companies in the mail. It was as I was looking through one of them many years ago, that I first saw a collection of dolls for sale. It was a full wedding party. (Bride, groom, bridesmaid, flower girl, ring bearer, etc.) Something about that group of dolls took hold of my imagination. I could not shake away the thought that a group of dolls that were made together–and sold together–would be a different kind of dolls. They would have shared history. And that’s when I began wondering all those questions that an author must ask themselves when beginning a new story. What if the dolls had been around a very long time? So long that they had actually come to life? But what would cause dolls to come to life after all this time? What if they had been made to look like real people? People who had been part of a real wedding that had never taken place. But why would a wedding not take place? Because of a murder. And a murder meant ghosts. Which would explain how the dolls had come to life. And thus a brand new story was born.

What was the tipping point that turned this novel from “just an idea” to a project you HAD to complete?

Once I got the idea for LIFELIKE, I could not stop thinking about it. The more I thought about these dolls and their tragic history, the deeper I was drawn into their tale. It was the first thing I thought about when I woke up in the morning, and the last thing I thought about as I fell asleep.

The only problem was, I was already in the middle of writing another book at the time. One that I had put a lot of time into already. But LIFELIKE kept taking over, demanding to be written—right now! But I resisted the temptation—over and over.

Then one day, my mother was talking to me about something and realized that I hadn’t heard a single word she said—mostly because I had just thought up another great new twist to the haunted doll story that I was determined NOT to write until I’d finished the other book. My mother asked me what had me so distracted. I laughed and told her. She made me tell her all about this new story. The WHOLE thing, from beginning to end. When I finished telling the tale, my mother had tears in her eyes.

“I think you need to write that story,” she said.

So I did. Beginning that very day.

How did this book evolve into the final story? Did it end up the way you thought it would, or did the plot or characters change along the way?

Two things happened to me as I was writing this book that unexpectedly effected the direction of the story. First, my grandmother–whom I loved very much–passed away while living in my home. And second–I got very sick. So sick that I believed it had to be leukemia. When I finally got up the courage to go to the doctor, I fully believed that I would get a cancer diagnosis. Luckily it did not turn out to be cancer. But that period of time, where I was so sick and dealing with the possibility that my life might actually be ending–it changed me and my main character, Wren, forever.

Who is your favorite secondary character, and why?

Aunt Victoria is my favorite character because she is the kind of person I wish I could be. She has lived through a great many tragedies in her life–but she finds a way to somehow bend that pain and grief into her greatest strength. She carries with her those who don’t have the strength to carry themselves. She stands in the face of tragedy, both feet planted firm, holding back the horrors that try to overpower those she loved. She knows love comes at a price, but she willingly pays it as many times as necessary. I know real people who are like Victoria. They are the ones in this life that keep the rest of us going.

If your book was made into a movie, which scene would you want to be a background extra in?

I’d want to be in the scene where Wren dreams she is dancing at a Victorian ball. Because fancy Victorian dresses and a stolen romantic moment with the devastatingly handsome Xavier Kensington are always a win!