Interview with Gifford MacShane
Author of WHISPERS IN THE CANYON
I'm the author of historical fiction that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit. My novels feature a family of Irish immigrants who settle in the Arizona Territory. My characters always have hidden flaws and strengths that I draw on as they grapple with physical and emotional conflicts.
Singing almost before I could talk, I've always loved folk music, whether Irish, Appalachian, or the songs of cowboys. My love of the Old West goes back to childhood, when my father introduced me to Zane Grey. Later, I became interested in Irish history after realizing his ancestors (who emigrated to the US in the late 1800s) had lived through the Great Potato Famine. I've combined these three interests into a series of romances, each with traditional song lyrics and a dash of Celtic mysticism.
The DONOVAN FAMILY SAGA includes WHISPERS IN THE CANYON (Book 1), THE WOODSMAN’S ROSE (Book 2), RAINBOW MAN (Book 3), and THE WINDS OF MORNING, a prequel novella requested by my fans.
I'm a member of the Historical Novel Society and an #OwnVoices writer. An avid gardener, I cultivate pollinator plants and grow tomatoes (not enough) and zucchini (too much). I love to sing, though my cats don’t always appreciate it. A grammar nerd who still gets a kick out of diagramming sentences, I currently live in Pennsylvania with my husband Richard, the Pied Piper of stray cats.
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How would you describe WHISPERS IN THE CANYON to a new reader?
- WHISPERS IN THE CANYON is historical fiction featuring a family of Irish immigrants who settled in the Arizona Territory, with some flashbacks to 1850s Ireland. It includes romance and a dash of Celtic mysticism. It's the first novel of the Donovan Family Saga, highlighting the romance between the eldest Donovan son, Adam, and Jesse Travers, a young woman who’s been abused and has inherited a bankrupt ranch. It deals with healing and abuse in sensitive way, relying on character emotions rather than graphic sex or violence.
What was the inspiration behind WHISPERS IN THE CANYON ?
- several years ago, I saw an article about a memorial sculpture being installed in County Cork that celebrated the aid the Choctaw Tribe in America gave to the Irish during An Gorta Mor, the Great Irish Famine (An Gorta Mor). My mother has a smidgen of native blood, so the article caught my eye.
As I read it, I realized that my Irish ancestors had to have lived through that famine. I did some research and learned that it was a totally avoidable disaster, which cut Ireland’s population by at least a third while food was being exported to England at astronomical rates.
I felt compelled to tell the stories of the survivors—the ones who somehow held body and soul together and found a way to prosper.
Where there other influences at work when you were writing WHISPERS IN THE CANYON?
- My big Irish-American family was definitely one. And I grew up back when station wagons ruled the roads. There were no DVDs playing on the two-hour trips to see my grandparents, so we had to make our own fun. My father encouraged singing as it was the least physical activity—with 7 siblings crammed together, “Punch Bug” could soon become a fist-fight!
He taught us songs that were easy to remember and as a result, I’m addicted to traditional folk music, including Irish, American, Appalachian, cowboy songs, and African-American spirituals. I’m often singing or humming… anywhere, really, or any time… but if you were to ask me what the song is, I might not know. I might not even realize I was singing. There are many snippets of traditional music contained in my works: life without music would be just too hard to bear.
How would you describe your writing style?
- My style is on the literary side—some say lyrical (**blushes**). I write in the third person multiple POV.
I am definitely a grammar nerd. I have a love affair with the Oxford Comma (my husband understands there’s nothing he can do about that); I’m quite fond of the em-dash, the colon and the semi-colon, though I hate to see any of them used to do the comma’s job. I’ve also coached a couple of ESL novelists in English grammar and sentence construction.
I enjoy the judicious use of adverbs, adjectives and dialogue tags. I have a vast vocabulary, but know how to make my meaning clear. I believe that any word can be used as long as it fulfills the sentence’s needs; as a reader I’m always looking to expand my vocabulary, and I think most readers want that as well. But having said that, I like to use words in a way that enhances rather than disguises their meaning.
Are you a plotter or a pantser?
- I call myself a “plantser”, which I think is the best combination of the two.
Pantser-me doesn’t create a detailed, chapter-by-chapter outline. But unlike authors who work without any formal plan at all, I begin each manuscript with a theme, a concrete idea of who the characters are, and what their conflict will be. This planning stage, which is mostly a matter of the “little gray cells” (to borrow from Dame Christie), can take weeks or even months of effort before I write a single word of the manuscript.
As far as plot is concerned, I’m a “semi-plotter”. I always know the inciting incident before I start, as well as the end and perhaps half a dozen scenes that will help me get there. But I let the characters speak to me as I write, and that sometimes creates a change in where the story goes. Then plotter-me takes over at the end of my first draft. I always create a detailed, chapter-by-chapter outline to discover any plot holes or threads that might be dangling. The plot holes need to be filled, and the danglers have to be fleshed out or eliminated.
So being a “plantser” means I get the best of both worlds.
How much research did it take to create WHISPERS IN THE CANYON?
- In addition to the research into my family's ancestors and the Irish famine (which took about 2 years all told), I’ve been researching these novels since I was a kid and my father introduced me to Zane Grey. I read his stories over and over again, relishing every detail of the scenery and cowboy life. Later I realized that what made his novels so enchanting was more than the descriptions—it was his ability to delve deeply into the characters he presented, to make them not only look real, but feel that way. I knew I needed to write about the land and the characters as Grey did if I wanted my stories to be remembered.
So the research on those two fronts was years in the making. It’s mitigated by the use of all that material in several consecutive books. But then there are all the small details to look at: what was the longest rifle available in the 1880s? What herbs or tisanes would be used as cures for which conditions? Could a person in a coma be kept alive over several weeks and, if so, what method would be used? Can a white horse sire a black colt?
Seriously, every time I think I’ve answered all the questions that could possibly crop up, there’s one more bit of research to be done. And as long as I continue to write, that’s how long the research will take.
Do you listen to or talk to your characters?
- Absolutely. While I don’t usually talk aloud to them (apart from an occasional “Now why did you do that?”), I hold conversations with my characters in my head quite often, sometimes talking to two or more at a time. I find that the characters readers like best are the ones who take on a life of their own, and defy any attempt to make them conform to my preconceived notions.
For one thing, it led to what I can only describe as the “double helix” of character arcs in my first book. And it’s what pushed me onward through the series: if a character has something more to say, I want to be the vehicle that allows them to say it.
What other genres do you read? What authors influence your writing style?
- In addition to historical fiction, I read a lot mysteries. Those plots require a more stringent style than I have, but I can usually pick up a pointer or two from them.
There are authors I go back to time after time, whenever I feel the need to "brush up". For style, I'd read Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe and, amazingly, J. D. Robb’s “In Death” series; for characterization, Zane Grey or Dick Francis; and for setting & atmosphere, William Faulkner.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
- There’s really only one piece of advice I'd give other writers: aside from simple grammatical constructions that will make your prose understandable, most of "the rules" you hear about are style choices (e.g.: no adverbs, or said/ask only as dialogue tags). Each writer needs to make a conscious decision about their own style—one that fits the story they're telling—regardless of who or how many are championing a particular rule.
From William Faulkner to Ernest Hemingway, from Donna Tartt to Cormac McCarthy, it's amazing to see how many different ways there are to tell a story.
Where next? What are you working on now?
- I've completed Book 3 in the Donovan Family Saga, RAINBOW MAN. It's centered on the romance between Irene Donovan (the younger Donovan daughter) and Alec Twelve Trees, a young Spanish/Navajo man who's been her best friend since childhood. So now, with WHISPERS IN THE CANYON, THE WOODSMAN'S ROSE, AND THE WINDS OF MORNING (the prequel), there are 4 books in the series.
I've just started on the next installment, which will feature Brian Donovan (Irene's older brother), Tommy Twelve Trees (Alec's father), and a young woman who comes to White's Station from Philadelphia. It is as yet untitled.
Shunned by the village for her outlaw brother's deeds, Jesse Travers is not sorry to hear he's been killed while robbing a bank. Strangely enough it’s Adam Donovan, the man who shot him, who brings her the news.
Traumatized by years of abuse, Jesse doubts she can trust any man—especially this Irish immigrant with his volatile temper and gunfighter’s reputation. But now she’s alone, and he’s offered to help put her bankrupt ranch back on solid footing. A profound love for her canyon home is stronger than her trepidation, and she accepts his assistance.
As they work together to improve her ranch, Jesse begins to see that Adam’s true nature is far removed from his notoriety. She feels the first stirrings of love―an emotion she's never known before. Then, as if to tell her she is unworthy of happiness, her past rises up with a vengeance and she is left with a terrible choice: retreat to a life of solitude and shame, or trust her heart and reveal her tragic secret, in the hope that Adam is the man she believes him to be.
Deceptively simple and poetic, this heartfelt western historical romance will tug at your emotions, make you laugh, cry, and even get a little angry, as it handles difficult topics with a sensitive touch.