Her novels feature a family of Irish immigrants who settle in the Arizona Territory. With an accessible literary style, MacShane draws out her characters' hidden flaws and strengths as they grapple with both physical and emotional conflicts.
Singing almost before she could talk, MacShane has always loved folk music, whether it be Irish, Appalachian, or the songs of the cowboys. Her love of the Old West goes back to childhood, when her father introduced her to the works of Zane Grey. Later she became interested in the Irish diaspora, realizing her ancestors must have lived through An Gorta Mor, the Great Irish Potato Famine of the mid-1800s. Writing allows her to combine her three great interests into a series of family stories, each with a central romance, traditional song lyrics, and a dash of Celtic mysticism.
MacShane is a member of the Historical Novel Society and is an #OwnVoices writer. A self-professed grammar nerd who still loves diagramming sentences, Giff currently lives in Pennsylvania with her husband Richard, the Pied Piper of stray cats.
What inspires you to write?
My father’s family were Irish immigrants. Family legend has it that his Uncle Sean was chased out of Ireland by the Black & Tans, escaping by the skin of his teeth. Then 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. 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.
What authors do you read when you aren’t writing?
Zane Grey is still my first love. I don't think there's anyone better at creating characters that think and act as real people: Lassiter and Jane from RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE; Bent Wade from THE MYSTERIOUS RIDER; Nophaie from THE VANISHING AMERICAN; and of course, the eponymous Arizona Ames.
And though I write historical fiction, you can usually find me reading mysteries. Those plots require a more stringent style than I have, but I can usually pick up a pointer or two from them. It's also a way to refresh my mind, seeing if I can pick out the clues that lead to the bad guy.
I especially enjoy vintage noir; J. D. Robb's IN DEATH series; and the late Dick Francis's work. Then for a style break, I'll pick up William Faulkner or Thomas Wolfe.
Tell us about your writing process.
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 sometimes that means great changes taking place and affecting the conclusion.
For instance, in order to complete my protagonist’s journey in WHISPERS IN THE CANYON, I realized about two-thirds of the way through that one of the other characters would have to die. I didn’t plan that from the start, and it still breaks my heart. In fact, that death had an impact on the second book in the series, THE WOODSMAN’S ROSE, and it drastically changed the plan I’d created for it. But it also made it more important for me to write the pre-quel to the series, THE WINDS OF MORNING, which dives into the earlier lives of the characters.
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.
For Fiction Writers: Do you listen (or talk to) 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 my attempts to make them conform to any 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 advice would you give other writers?
The first thing every author needs to understand is that, unless you manage to get a contract with a Big Six publisher, you’re probably going to have to learn marketing. It will be up to you to ensure your book doesn’t fail in the marketplace, so start thinking about that before you send your manuscript out.
As far as the writing process itself, I really have only one piece of advice: 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 wonderful to see how many different styles there are to tell a story. So make your choices deliberately.
How did you decide how to publish your books?
I began querying WHISPERS IN THE CANYON in 2016, but never managed to get more than a 50-page request from any agent. Though I did get some awesome advise on revamping the manuscript, none of those “revise and resubmit” requests worked out. But querying, I’d read everywhere, was the way to get an agent, and getting an agent was the way to get a publishing contract. So I stuck with it for two years.
Then, as I was wondering just how much more I had to do to find an agent, I discovered two online events where authors could pitch directly to publishers. Without great expectations, I threw my name into both hats and got three requests for the full manuscript, which resulted in two offers of publication.
I accepted one, but subsequently found that the standard royalties for an e-book amount to next to nothing. And while I published the book to share it with readers, it wouldn't have hurt my feelings if I made a little money out of it as well.
My second book was a 90-page pre-quel novella and publishers just aren’t interested in a work that short.
So I looked into self-publishing and read tons of articles on it. Though it seemed a little arduous, I figured I could manage it. Just before I made my final decision about which company to take the leap with, I read an article from the Alliance for Independent Authors recommending one of their curated partners.
I checked them out: it seemed much simpler, plus there were no up-front fees and no onerous formatting chores. I could choose my retailers from a long list, and the book would be formatted by them to each set of requirements. I was cautious (I’m a skeptic at heart) and I moved slowly, but before two weeks were over, my novella had been published.
The royalties I get for selling one e-book now are what I would have earned for six under the publishing contract, in spite of the fact that the novella is priced lower than the first book.
The upshot is: if I’d known about the direct-to-publisher route, I never would have queried for 2 years; and if I’d known it could be so quick and easy to self-publish, I never would have gone to a publisher. I do think it’s an advantage that the original story was issued by a recognized publisher—I think it speaks to a certain basic quality some readers wonder about in self-published work (at least until it garners a number of positive reviews). But unless you believe your manuscript is so good it will find a home with a Big-Six publisher right off the bat, there’s no reason to wait years to have someone else recognize the value of your work.
What do you think about the future of book publishing?
I don’t think things will ever go back to the way they were before self-publishing was an option, but I think the overall quality of self-published books will improve. One of the influences that I see leading the way in fiction is the option readers have to write reviews.
While right now reviews seem to be stuck in a “loved it/hated it” dichotomy, I think readers are realizing that the quality of books in the marketplace is in their hands. The more readers submit honest opinions, the more writers will strive to live up to their standards.
That’s why I feel even negative reviews have value. Sure, I may huff and puff over it privately for a little bit, but as long as a reader provides an explanation for what they like, I find their comments helpful. I’m always willing to consider a well-thought-out critique—maybe that review is the one that will make my next book better.
What genres do you write?: Historical Fiction, Romance, Western, Family Saga
What formats are your books in?: eBook
All information in this post is presented “as is” supplied by the author. We don’t edit to allow you the reader to hear the author in their own voice.