Jennifer Lonoff Schiff says that her first novel, “A Shell of a Problem,” was written as “a love letter to Sanibel.”  Photo provided by Jennifer Lonoff Schiff
Jennifer Lonoff Schiff says that her first novel, “A Shell of a Problem,” was written as “a love letter to Sanibel.” Photo provided by Jennifer Lonoff Schiff

For most of her career, Islander Jennifer Lonoff Schiff has worked on other people’s books. As editor for a variety of publishing houses, magazines and web journals, she has been instrumental in bringing the efforts of numerous writers into successful publication.

I have always dreamed of writing my own book,” she said. “In my job, I have touched fiction, but I never actually had the opportunity to write it for myself.”

That opportunity came last year as a blessing in disguise, when the company for which she worked was sold. “Suddenly I had free time on my hands—and no excuses—so I sat down, and I wrote.”

Her labors came to fruition last November with the publication of “A Shell of a Problem,” a mystery novel set on Sanibel. “It’s been out for only a few months, but already hundreds of copies have been sold,” she said. “I am just delighted with the reception.”

Placing the novel on Sanibel and centering the story on shelling were no-brainers for Schiff. “I am a lifelong sheller. My beachcombing passion brought my husband and me to the island,” she said. “On our first visit, we gathered so many shells that we had to buy several containers just to get them home to Connecticut.”

That first Island visit occurred five years ago. The Schiffs have since become Sanibel residents. “For us, it was love at first sight,” she said. “Sanibel feeds my soul.”

A Shell of a Problem,” by Jennifer Lonoff Schiff, is the first novel in her Sanibel Island Mystery series.

Schiff describes “A Shell of a Problem” as a “cozy” mystery, and she counts among her inspirations both Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. “There is a formula to writing cozy mysteries. The main character—the sleuth—is usually a woman, and the plot evolves in a charming, small town, just like Sanibel,” she said with a smile.

In cozy stories, readers find romance and intrigue, but no sex or violence,” she added, “and cozy writers have fun with language. There’s lots of punning and other types of word play.”

The shell in “A Shell of a Problem” is a junonia, “for shellers, the holy grail of shells,” Schiff said. As the plot unfolds, a priceless, golden junonia, set for exhibit at Sanibel’s famed Shell Festival, is stolen, and the chief suspect is found dead.

Enter ace reporter and amateur sleuth Guinivere Jones, who joins forces with a retired crime reporter to solve the mystery. “The premise is not all that far-fetched,” Schiff said. “We shellers know that people can sometimes get pretty crazy over shells.”

Schiff noted that, after the idea popped into her head, “out of nowhere,” the story virtually wrote itself. “I found myself banging out 3,000 words at a sitting. I finished writing it in three months.”

Islanders will find many of their favorite haunts in the book—the Over Easy Café, Bailey’s General Store, The Community House, Sanibel Sprout, Grandma Dot’s Restaurant and, of course, the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum. “It’s great beach reading for anyone, but the familiar locales will have special meaning for Islanders and Island lovers,” Schiff said.

Schiff calls “A Shell of a Problem” her “love letter” to Sanibel. “Sanibel has changed my life,” she said. “It’s my happy place, because it is beautiful, and because Islanders are so welcoming. It’s warm and friendly—a really close-knit community—and then there are all those shells!”

Or, in the words of Guinivire Jones:

You know how people talk about finding their one true place, the place where you feel you belong or were meant to live? For some that’s Paris; for others it’s Tuscany, or New York City. For me, it was Sanibel. One week there, even with the mercury climbing to over 90 degrees most days, I knew this was my one true place, the place where I was meant to be.”

A Shell of a Problem” is the first book in Schiff’s newly launched Sanibel Island Mystery series. Her second novel in the series, “Something Fishy,” will soon be published. She is currently writing the third, “In the Market for Murder,” set, naturally, at Sanibel’s Farmer’s Market.

A Shell of a Problem” is available at MacIntosh Books & Paper, Bailey’s General Store, the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, ‘Tween Waters Inn Island Resort and