When we caught up with Shayne Parkinson recently, she was just about to go outside her countryside home and tend to her sheep.
Shayne writes historical fiction set in her native New Zealand, a genre traditional publishers in her country considered too niche to take seriously. So she started to self-published with Smashwords starting in March 2009. Ever since, people all over the world have been discovering her books -- one reader at a time.
And once they do, they became fans, often quite insistently (as she explains below) awaiting the next book in her series. These days, her books attract a truly significant global audience, and she sells more in a day now than she did in her first full year back at the start.
Smashwords distributes Shayne's work to Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Sony, Diesel and Amazon. And Shayne's husband, Roger, also publishes on Smashwords.
[David Weir] We know your first year on Smashwords was one of slow growth as people began to discover your work. Can you describe what it was like "meeting" your first readers and fans?
[Shayne Parkinson] Delightful and astonishing and wonderful. To hear from someone halfway around the world telling me that my stories have touched the reader in some way, perhaps by a reminder of something in his or her own experience, even though they're set in such a different time and place, is hugely rewarding. I now get quite a bit of mail from readers, and answering it is one of my pleasantest daily tasks. A while ago I got a lovely letter from a group of co-workers who've read my books. They attached a photograph showing them all in their office, holding up a mix of paperback versions and e-reader displays of the books' covers. That had me smiling for days. More recently a lady informed me that she has most of the people in her little town reading the books, and if I don't hurry up with the next one they'll all move to New Zealand and camp outside my gate. And I should be worried, she tells me, "because we're Texans". I wouldn't dare stop writing with readers like these!
[DW] How did interest in your work grow after that slow beginning? Was there a "tipping point?"
[SP] I think there was a tipping point around the middle of 2011, about two and a half years after I joined Smashwords. I've never done much marketing, instead relying on word-of-mouth. A reader enjoys the books and recommends them to a friend or two. Sometimes one of those friends likes them enough to recommend them in turn. It might take a while, as it did for me, but reader recommendations are like gold.
[DW] Are you surprised that you've emerged as a successful author, or did you expect this would happen?
[SP] I'm genuinely and utterly astonished. I hoped I'd get some readers, and perhaps make my hobby self-sustaining by earning enough to pay my research expenses, but I wouldn't have dared dream I'd be hearing from hundreds of readers and earning a living (meaning I now have much more time to devote to writing) from something I love doing. I sometimes wonder when I'm going to wake up!
[DW] What do you like most about indie self-publishing?
[SP] Having the freedom to work at my own pace, and being responsible only to my readers and to myself.
[DW] You've told us that about 20 years ago, you had "all of these stories running around in my head" so you started writing them down. How long had those stories been taking form for you and where do you suppose they came from?
[SP] The original inspiration was a place: a farming valley a few miles from my childhood home. My husband grew up in this valley, on a farm that had been in his family for generations. Much of the land had been cleared for pasture, but the steeper hills were still covered in forest—bush, as we call it in New Zealand. I was captivated by this lovely place (and by the farm boy who eventually became my husband); later, after the farm had passed out of family ownership and there was somehow more time to talk, I was captivated by the memories of those who had lived there, particularly my late father-in-law, who was almost 90 when he died, and who had his own father's and grandfather's recollections to share. Tales were told of the days before electricity or engines had reached the valley; when milking was done by hand, and machinery was drawn by horses. A weekly buggy trip to town was an adventure in its own right, dependent on the state of the track and on tides. The valley was isolated, and family all-important. I never quite forgot the valley, even when we'd moved far away. I didn't think of myself as a writer back then, beyond the few short stories and articles that I'd produced, but that place and those times somehow called to me. Over the years characters took shape in my imagination, set in my imagined vision of the valley long before my time; my own inventions but surprisingly real to me. And as I thought about these people, how they might have lived and what they might have been like, stories took shape and grew, to the point where I conceived the outrageous idea of writing a novel.
[DW] How long were you writing down your stories before you showed them to others, and who did you show them to?
[SP] I showed them to my husband from early on, when they were still very much works in progress. Once the first book was complete, a few friends and workmates asked to borrow it, then word spread among friends and acquaintances who wanted to borrow the books (or rather folders of print-outs, as they were back then).
[DW] When did you approach traditional publishers and what happened?
[SP] It was a fairly casual approach. I've never had any real interest in trying out traditional publishing, but several readers encouraged me to make an attempt. I wrote a brief query to three (I think) publishers; two said they wouldn't consider fiction from an unknown author, and the third said there would be no interest at all in long books of New Zealand historical fiction.
[DW] How did you discover Smashwords and what drove you to try it out?
[SP] After leaving my manuscripts gathering dust on a shelf for some time (my fund of interested friends and acquaintances had dried up by now), I began to wonder if there was a way of making them available to more readers. I saw Smashwords mentioned on a site called Authonomy, and when I visited the site I liked what I saw there in terms of what was being offered and the vibe I got from the people running it.
[DW] Your love of history and of New Zealand's history, particularly in the late 1800s, is evident in your work. When and how did you first develop this specific passion?
[SP] While I've had an interest in history for as far back as I can remember, this particular passion grew with the process of discovering my characters and the world they inhabit. I wanted to find out more about how they lived, and the more I learned the more fascinated I became. The late Victorian era saw some significant changes in New Zealand, particularly relating to women. The Married Women's Property Act of 1884 allowed married women to own property in their own right. Changes to divorce law meant that women could file for divorce on the same grounds as men. In 1893 New Zealand women gained the vote, the first in the world to do so. The attitude where a woman was seen as the property of first her father, later her husband, with only the most minimal of rights to her own person, was being undermined. I hadn't originally intended to write a sequel, let alone a series, but when I finished "Settling the Account" I found that I missed the characters too much to leave them behind. That meant taking them further into the early 20th century. The book I'm currently editing covers the years of the Great War, 1914-1918. Finding out what it might have been like for those left at home during the war to try and cope when sons, husbands and brothers were taken from them is proving just as fascinating to me as the earlier periods were. While the historic period has shaped the attitudes of my characters and the events of their lives, and the period details are as accurate as I can make them, the books aren't about those details. I believe that in some ways people are the same across the ages. We all have dreams and disappointments, loves and losses, joy and sorrow. For me, historical fiction can show us something of how our forbears lived—such different lives from ours—and can help us feel a kinship with them. I find it easier to identify with ordinary people than the great and powerful, and although mine are imaginary they're as real as I can make them. I'd like to think that my characters give something of a voice to those who lived obscure lives of quiet struggle and small triumphs, wanting the best for their children, even though their idea of "the best" might be very different from ours.
[DW] Did anyone ever encourage you to become a writer?
[SP] Not really, although once I *did* start writing my husband was and continues to be my most supportive and encouraging reader. I was lucky enough to have some very good English teachers who gave me a good grounding in the basics of using language. My late father was a great reader, and he was the person who first taught me to love books. That love of reading contributed to a desire to write.
[DW] You've said that you enjoy getting to know your characters. Can you explain how they come to you and how they develop once they arrive?
[SP] Yes, getting to know my characters is for me one of the great delights of writing. When I'm going to introduce new characters, I spend some time just letting them take shape in my imagination: putting them in different settings, "listening" to them talking, finding out their likes and dislikes. It's like sitting quietly in a room listening to the conversations of others, occasionally nudging conversation in a certain direction, and then recording what I’ve learned about these people. I think about their back-stories, their childhoods, the sorts of families they came from. I find out more about them when writing, especially as they interact with other characters. It's sometimes a matter of writing my way into a character, maybe devoting pages to the process, knowing that much of what I've written will be discarded. Characters and story each grow with the telling—for events shape character, and characters shape events. While I like to think I'm in charge, sometimes a character will surprise me by insisting on acting in a certain way when I'd planned something different, or perhaps saying something I really didn't expect. I've learned that it's best to let them have their own way when this happens.
[DW] Do you create detailed back-stories for each character, like screenwriters do, perhaps including material that doesn't make it into the book?
[SP] Yes, I do, and the back-stories grow ever more detailed as I get to know the characters better and better. I put several chapters worth of extra material from the first book on my web site, rather as DVDs sometimes include deleted scenes, as that extra material gives further insight into the main character but would slow the narrative too much if I included it in the published book.
[DW] When you've finished a book, do you miss the daily interactions with your characters? Or, perhaps a better question would be, do those interactions end?
[SP] No, those interactions never do end. Even when I'm not actively writing about them, I'm thinking about what they might be up to in "book time", and how particular historical events might affect them. Sometimes I imagine what-if scenarios: what would have happened if a particular event had gone in a different direction. I have files of notes for future books that I'm constantly updating, and that's part of keeping in touch with the characters. Another way those interactions stay fresh is through correspondence with readers. My characters do feel very real to me, and discussing them with readers who've had a strong response to a character adds extra layers to my own experience of them. I find I'm now writing about the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of some of my original characters. Because the readers and I have known these people for so much of their lives, there's a sort of shared history. When something happens in a character's present, we're aware of the past experiences that are shaping that character's reaction.
[DW] How do you work? Do you write according to a regular schedule every day and how much rewriting, and editing do you do?
[SP] It would be fair to say I'm not the most organized person in the world when it comes to working at set times. I do devote time to writing almost every day, and I don't allow myself the possibility of writer's block. On days when the words simply refuse to flow, I work out plot details or write up character descriptions. I also research more or less constantly. I do several editing passes, some involving fairly substantial amounts of rewriting, moving things around, or removing sections, then further passes to polish the work.
[DW] Where do you think you will be as a writer, five years from now?
[SP] I expect to have more books out, still using historical New Zealand as my main setting, but exploring new aspects of that setting. I hope to grow as a writer, learning from every book and from the response of readers. I've a head full of plots, and a bulging file of research notes and ideas for the future. My next book will be released some time in the next few months, and I have at least half a dozen more in various stages of plotting, including some that will feature characters who have secondary roles in the main series.
[DW] Finally, do you have any advice for others who may be hesitating before taking the plunge to self-publish their first book?
[SP] Self-publishing can provide a wonderful opportunity to reach readers, and with luck it may also mean commercial success. I'm very grateful for the success I've had, but I think it's important not to lose sight of why I write: for the joy of the writing itself, and for interacting with readers. Those are the most important things of all. Every writer's experience will be different, but here are some things that have helped me:
- Making the books as good as I possibly can, from the broader issues of story and characterization through to careful proof-reading.
- Writing what I'm inspired to write, without worrying if it will be commercially successful.
- Being accessible: the books are in a variety of outlets; I’ve a web site and a blog, and an easy-to-find email address.
- A healthy dose of luck.
[DW] Thanks Shayne!
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David Weir is a veteran journalist who has published three books and hundreds of articles in various publications, including The Economist, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times. He currently covers technology for 7x7.com.