Pull up a chair and set a spell - I've got western romance author Jennie Marsland at A Piece of My Mind today, whose second release McShannon's Heart hit bookstore shelves earlier this year.
1 - Does your second release feel different from your debut?
Good question. The first draft of McShannon’s Chance more or less wrote itself, I felt so comfortable with the characters and the Western setting. Then there were the bumps in the road – having two publishers fold after accepting the book. Its release, when it finally happened, was a dream come true. I found McShannon’s Heart a lot more difficult to write, I think because knowing I’d done it once, I expected more of myself. Now that it’s published I feel more of a solid sense of relief and accomplishment.
2 - Was the Wallace Flats series always planned as a series, or did supporting characters demand their own story?
The series wasn’t planned at all. While I wrote McShannon’s Chance, the whole family took root in my mind, so I found couldn’t stop there. I had Chelle McShannon married and settled in England, so the story of how that happened was waiting to be told. Then there’s Nathan Munroe, Trey McShannon’s childhood nemesis. Nate won’t give me any peace until I get him settled with Lorie, so there will be at least one more book in the series.
3 - You just celebrated McShannon's Heart with a musical evening and book reading at The Company House in Halifax. How does music figure in your story?
Music is an integral part of Heart.
The hero, Martin Rainnie, is the local fiddler in the small Yorkshire village of Mallonby.
His first wife, Eleanor, was a singer. When she died in childbirth, Martin gave up his music because it evoked too many painful memories. It isn’t until he brings his baby daughter home and starts playing his fiddle again that he begins to heal.
My other half is a professional-level guitarist. We met through music, and it’s an important part of our life as a couple. I found it easy to understand that part of Martin’s conflict.
Check out Jennie's lovely singing voice in her book trailer for McShannon's Heart:
4 - You also participated in a meet-and-greet evening with other romance writers and the Halifax business community at Argyle Fine Art last month. How does the art world tie in with your first book, McShannon's Chance?
Beth Underhill, Trey McShannon’s mail-order bride, is a watercolour artist.
She’s passionate about her work, and she and Trey have to come to an understanding about its place in her life. As a woman, Beth has to struggle to have her art taken seriously.
She also has to take some risks to get Trey to believe that, as important as painting is to her, he comes first. He’s lost so many important people in his life, trust doesn’t come easily. I dabble in watercolours myself, so I enjoyed writing that aspect of Beth’s character. Her attraction to the Colorado landscape feeds her attraction to Trey and his lifestyle.
Jennie stands third from left at the Argyle Fine Art BeConnected event.
5 - Horses really play key roles in the series. Are you an experienced horse rider?
I don’t know if I’d say ‘experienced’. I’ve always loved horses, and I owned one for a couple of years when I was in high school.
Calico was a sweetheart and I loved him dearly. I spent most of my spare time at the barn. I did a lot of trail riding and competed in a couple of very small local horse shows. There are times when I still miss it.
I’ve also been captivated by the mystique of racing Thoroughbreds for a long time. Trey’s stallion, Flying Cloud, and his mares were very real characters to me.
6 - How much time do you spend researching before you write? Do you have to give yourself a research limit?
I don’t give myself a research limit, but perhaps I should!
A good part of my research comes from reading contemporary novels or journals. For example, the scene in Chance where Beth almost blows up the stove is based on a real incident recorded in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s journal. To get a feel for affluent New York society in 1870, I reread Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence. Details of daily life – how people cooked, cleaned their houses, raised their children – are easily found in writings of the time, especially women’s writings.
I also spent hours on-line looking through Civil War photographs and reading about battles. I even found a census report from Morgan County, Georgia, the McShannons’ home, dated 1861. It listed five families as owning more than fifty slaves. In my series, those families became the Sinclairs, MacAfees, Munroes, Bascombs and Hugheses – the county’s large planters. Over half the households on the census were small or mid-sized farms like the McShannons’, with no slaves at all. A snapshot of history on a single page.
For Heart, I had to research the woollen industry in Victorian England, as Mallonby is a mill town. I loved looking through pictures of the Dales, and I reread my old James Herriot stories to get the flavour of the local dialect. Of course, I didn’t need much of an excuse to thumb through Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights again, either. As for music, the pieces Martin plays and sings are ones I’ve heard or sung myself.
Look at me rattling on. Do I need a research limit? I ask you!
7 - Tell us about Chelle McShannon.
While her brother resembles the Cajun side of the family, Chelle is more like her forthright English father.
She speaks her mind and sometimes lands in trouble as a result. She’s lively and flirtatious, knows she’s attractive and enjoys the fact, but she’s honest and sincere. She also has a lot of inner strength.
When she finds herself in the foreign and not particularly welcoming village of Mallonby, she doesn’t change to fit in. She finds her place on her own terms.
8 - And Martin Rainnie?
Martin is a gentle giant, a big man who’s content with his comfortable farm, his music and his wife. After losing Eleanor, he doesn’t know how to handle his anger.
Anyone who provokes him is asking for a fight.
As Chelle tells him, he doesn’t know his own strength. She annoys him at first with her concern for his daughter, but the baby forms a link between them that he soon realizes he doesn’t want to break.
He’s a quiet man who expresses his feelings a lot more easily with his fiddle than he does with words.
9 - Are there any more stories lurking in Wallace Flats?
Yes, as I mentioned, there’s Nathan Munroe’s story. A lot of readers have told me they like Nate, and I enjoy his ambivalent relationship with Trey.
Nate’s book opens with him locking Trey, his father and Martin in the Wallace Flats jail for the night, after Dad gets into trouble over a poker game and Nate feeds them all some confiscated moonshine. I think his book is going to be a lot of fun to write.
10 - What are you working on now?
I’m almost finished the first draft of Shattered, which is set here in Halifax at the time of the 1917 explosion. Another bottomless pit of research.
My hero, Liam Cochrane, is a returned WWI veteran who lost his brother and nearly lost a leg overseas. His heroine, Alice O’Neill, is a girl from Liam’s North End neighbourhood who’s loved him from afar for years, but never let him know. Alice is – can you guess? – a singer and pianist who is also dyslexic. When she finds that she can learn to read music, though not words, it changes her whole outlook on life and on herself.
This one grew out of a story a friend told me. She lives in the part of town devastated by the Explosion, One day she came home from work, glanced at her kitchen window and saw a man dressed in old-fashioned clothes, sitting at her table. Then he disappeared. That got my imagination spinning.
11 - You also write children's fiction. How does your writing process differ when writing for children and adults?
It really doesn’t differ at all. The elements of storytelling are the same for any age – character, setting, conflict. The conflict and vocabulary have to be age-appropriate, that’s all. I still love reading childrens’ books myself.
The one I’m working on is set in the small village by the Minas Basin where my father grew up, and where I spent my childhood summer vacations. And one of the young characters is, surprise, surprise, a musician. That book is up next after I finish Shattered.
12 - What do you think the younger version of you, who read those Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour westerns, would think if she'd known she would one day be a western author?
I think on some level, she always knew that, though she wasn’t conscious of it. I’m a firm believer that things happen for a reason.
13 - Do you have any upcoming public events?
Yes. I’m very excited to be taking part in a book signing event on March 19th, with three other members of Romance Writers of Atlantic Canada. Julianne MacLean, Donna Alward and Deborah Hale will be signing copies of their new releases.
Julianne’s Captured by the Highlander, the first of a trilogy, is a departure from her much-loved Regency stories. I haven’t read it yet, but if the reviews are any indication, it’s a complete winner. Can Julianne write anything but?
Donna’s Proud Rancher, Precious Bundle is the newest of her heart-warming, beautifully-characterized contemporary Westerns.
Deborah’s Bought: The Penniless Lady – which I have to read and review post-haste! – hooked me with the cover alone. I want that lovely blue dress! And it goes without saying that the story between the covers will be just as delicious. The event is taking place from 2 to 4 pm at Chapters, near MicMac Mall in Dartmouth. I can’t wait!
I'll be there, Jennie - and thanks for dropping by.
Here's a sneak peek at McShannon's Heart - enjoy!
“Dad, we were through this again last night.” Trey shrugged out of his suit jacket and ran his fingers through his unruly hair.
“I don’t want Chelle here any more than you do, not with what’s coming. You have to go, but you know there’ll be no real future for me in England. There won’t be one for me here, either—not if I don’t go with the rest of the boys.”
The anger Chelle had seen in the churchyard flashed in her brother’s eyes again. “And I can’t. It’s suicide and I won’t be a part of it. Win or lose, I won’t be able to stay here. If I’m going to have to go West, I might as well start sooner as later. I’ll have Cloud, and I’ll get a couple of mares when I can.”
Anger dulled to sadness as Trey looked around the room. “We can sell this place when the war’s over. The land will still be here, whatever happens.”
Chelle knew he was right. Uncle Jack in Yorkshire could make room for her and her father, but he had a son of his own, with a wife and baby. There would be no room for Trey, but still, she hadn’t been able to help hoping he’d come with them in the end. Now she’d be losing him, too.
Unless I marry Rory. Then Dad and I would stay here until the war ended and Rory came home, and...Chelle silenced the selfish thought.
If she married Rory now, her father would give up his plans to return to his old home to heal, and Trey would feel that he had no choice but to join the troop and fight for a cause he didn’t believe in. She couldn’t be responsible for that. If Rory proposed, as she was sure he meant to, they would have to wait until the war was over.
Her father broke into her thoughts. “I’ll see to the legal arrangements tomorrow. I’ll sign the place over to you, lad. Whatever you get for it later will be yours to help you along. It would have been yours one day, anyway.”
He looked at his children with tired eyes. “I never thought this day would come so soon…not so soon. But we’ll keep putting one foot in front of the other. It’s all we can do.”
- Jennie Marsland, 2011