Author Gifford MacShane

7 Questions With Author Gifford MacShane | Esther Rabbit

Gifford MacShane is the author of historical fiction that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit. Her novels feature a family of Irish immigrants who settle in the Arizona Territory in the late 1800s. With an accessible literary style, MacShane draws out her characters’ hidden flaws and strengths as they grapple with both physical and emotional conflicts. Her debut novel, “WHISPERS IN THE CANYON ” is book 1 of the Donovan Family Saga.


Singing almost before she could talk, MacShane has always loved folk music, whether it be Irish, Appalachian, spirituals, 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, having realized 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 including romance, traditional song lyrics, and a dash of Celtic mysticism.


MacShane is a member of the Historical Novel Society and Western Writers of America, 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.


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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 do 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 one I’m finalizing now), and it drastically changed the plan I had created for it. Hopefully, it will be a change for the better.


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.




What’s your definition of the first draft?


My first draft process is somewhat different from most people’s. Since I use a third-person-multiple point of view, I rarely complete a chapter in one sitting, as I find it difficult to get into more than one character’s head simultaneously. So I’ll write from Character X’s viewpoint and then stop.


Before I begin to write from Character Y’s viewpoint, I always look back to get acclimated in the scene. As I do that, I’ll clean up any grammar errors and typos, and highlight anything that didn’t come out the way it was in my mind. I’ll continue like that until the chapter’s done.


Before moving on, I’ll print out the entire chapter and read it for continuity and rhythm, and I’ll clean up those highlighted problems. With every third chapter, I print out the last three together and repeat the editing process. Then, every 50-75 pages, I print the manuscript from the beginning, and edit it to make any other changes that seem to be needed.


I’ll continue that way until I’ve written the final chapter. Then I print the manuscript from the beginning to take these steps again. That’s when I consider my first draft to be done. The pro of this method? The manuscript is fairly clean when I first reach the end. The con? Sometimes I find the first half of the book is much more smooth reading than the second.


I’m not going to recommend this process to everyone, as I’m sure it would drive some people stark raving mad. But I’ve tried to change—to keep writing and do all the editing at the end. No matter how many experts recommend it, I just can’t do it.




How long do you self-edit your manuscript before sending it to a proofreader/beta reader/editor?


If at the conclusion of the previous section, you asked, “How is that a first draft when the editing’s all done?” Well, it isn’t. Just the simple stuff’s been cleaned up. Being a grammar nerd, I trust my construction skills, but I haven’t yet looked for plot holes, consistent characterization and voice, or emotional impact. And I usually have to revamp the chapter breaks—when I write, I tend to wrap things up in a chapter completely, which is not the optimal way to keep readers engaged.


I also do a review based solely on descriptions, another for the five senses, and one more to make sure I included my research properly. Then there’s the word cloud creator that helps me identify overused words, and I’ll usually have a need to trim by anything up to 8,000 words. Depending on the outcome of all these steps and the nature of the work, I might add a review for local color or history.


Finally, I read the entire manuscript aloud to see where the rhythm might be off, this includes misplaced emphasis and confusing sentence structure as well as the actual flow of words. Only then am I ready to send it to my critique partners. When the CPs are satisfied, it goes to the beta readers who look at the big picture; usually I’ll send them a questionnaire based on the comments provided by my CPs. At that point, I just cross my fingers and hope their feedback is good.




What are some common stereotypes related to the genre(s) you’re writing in?


Well, it’s definitely “genres”. I write novels that feature a family of Irish immigrants who settle in the Old West, each with a central romance and a dash of Irish mysticism.


Historical novels are defined as stories set in an identifiable past era. While some expect that to be more than 100 years ago, others will accept a more recent setting, for instance WWII, or the hippie era of the 60s and 70s. My family saga takes place in the 1880s Arizona Territory and/or 1840s Ireland. So the historical label fits them well.


Many people might consider my novels Westerns from the setting alone, and therefore expect the stories to be plot-driven, flowing this way: hero-cowboy/lawman/rancher fights the bad-guy/rich-guy/land-grabber and saves the girl/ranch/town.


The romance genre also suffers from a perception that the theme is always the same: the main character, whether male or female, meets someone they can’t stand, but then somehow the two MCs end up together forever. Or two people who have lost touch overcome various obstacles to wind up together again.


Though there is nothing wrong with any of these tropes, I think both stereotypes are outdated. They’re held over from a time when writers were expected to follow a formula, and deviation from the established norm would mean no publishing contract. With all the options authors have today, novels are often filled with the totally unexpected.


For instance, in “Whispers in the Canyon”, the bad guy’s death is the opening catalyst for the novel, not the thrilling denouement. The hero wins the girl very early on. However, the repercussions of the dead outlaw’s deeds figure prominently in the story until the very end. And to top it all off, the protagonist manages to create a situation that threatens both his happiness and that of his lady love.


It’s also character-driven, not plot-driven. And even though the couple get together, there are reasons to doubt the outcome will be happily-ever-after. So is it a Western? Is it a romance? Or is it one of the new breed of novels that blazes its own path? I hope it’s the latter, and that the reader finds it unusual and refreshing.




Just how much research is there behind a novel?


In a way, 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.


When I decided to write the Donovan stories, the first thing I did was reacquaint myself with the characters that struck me most deeply: 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. I knew I needed to write about the land and the characters as Grey did if I wanted my stories to be remembered.


More immediately, some years ago, I was reading an article about a sculpture that was being installed in Ireland, commemorating the Chocktaw tribe and the gift they sent to the Irish who were suffering through An Gorta Mor, or the Great Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1849. I began to research the famine and suddenly realized that my father’s grandparents must have lived through it.


The more I read, the more incredulous I became: England ruled Ireland at the time and did so little to mitigate the suffering of the starving that today, they would be accused of genocide. It was then that I knew who my characters would be: a family who survived the famine and became part of the million or more who arrived in the Americas. (BTW, the Irish have since reciprocated for this gift by sending tens of thousands of dollars to Native American tribes to help out with Covid-19 treatment.)


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. Oh, there’s one thing I haven’t had to research and that’s how a large Irish-American family interacts—I’ve got my own. But if any of you are reading this, don’t worry. No names will be named.




How do you deal with negative feedback or negative reviews?


I think that all feedback is valid. There are very few people who write a critique or review to deliberately hurt the creator or the work. I don’t deny that I sometimes react badly to a negative review at first. But just like paintings and sculpture, not every novel will appeal to every person, and realizing that helps me keep it all in perspective.


I have several critique partners and beta readers, and it’s easy to name passages or even chapters that one praises, while another finds fault. Sometimes it’s a matter of presentation, or how a character acts, or even something as simple as punctuation. As long as they provide an explanation for what they like or don’t like, I find their comments helpful. I might not agree and I might not change anything, or I might rewrite based on their feedback. I’m always willing to consider a well-thought-out critique.




We all know this industry is full of surprises. Can you share an unexpected experience?


Oh, yeah. I call it “Nothing, Nothing, Three”. I began querying “Whispers in the Canyon” in 2016, but I 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. Nothing.


In the meantime, I participated in every Twitter pitch event I found, and applied to Pitch Wars, Query Kombat, Pitchfest, and all the other agent-oriented contests. Nothing. 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 ultimately resulted in two offers of publication. I decided to go with Soul Mate Publishing, and Whispers in the Canyon was published in September 2019, with the paperback available as of January 2020.


Had I known about the direct-to-publisher route, I can guarantee I wouldn’t have spent two whole years querying agents. And I urge every author out there to consider all their options: getting an agent is still the best way to get a Big-5 publishing contract, but there are other avenues available, even if you don’t want to self-publish.


Find Gifford MacShane here: Amazon




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