Defying all odds is what #1 New York Times and international bestselling author Sherrilyn McQueen writing as Sherrilyn Kenyon does best. Rising from extreme poverty as a child that culminated in being a homeless mother with an infant, she has become one of the most popular and influential authors in the world (in both adult and YA fiction), with dedicated legions of fans known as Paladins–thousands of whom proudly sport tattoos from her numerous genre-defying series.
Since her first book debuted while she was still in college, she has placed more than 80 novels on the New York Times list in all formats and genres, including manga and graphic novels, and has more than 70 million books in print worldwide. Her current series include: Dark-Hunters®, Chronicles of Nick®, Deadman’s Cross™, Eve of Destruction™, Nevermore™, Lords of Avalon® and The League®.
Over the years, her Lords of Avalon® novels have been adapted by Marvel, and her Dark-Hunters® and Chronicles of Nick® are New York Times bestselling manga and comics and are #1 bestselling adult coloring books.
When she’s not writing, Shelley is usually quilting, sewing historical costumes, or enjoying the garden with her flock of rescued chickens.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Welcome to the World Shapers!
Thank you. Thanks for having me over.
Now, I wanted to tell you how I ended up reaching out to you. My wife is an engineer, and one of her former classmates, who is also an engineer, Carol Bachelu, is a fan of the podcast, and she said, “You know who you should get on there? There’s this steampunk author that I really enjoy, and you should reach out to her.” And so, I did, and so, here you are. So, you were recommended to me by a woman engineer, which makes perfect sense.
It does, actually. You’d be surprised how many engineers are in my readership.
I wouldn’t at all, having read the book. Doesn’t surprise me at all. And I’ve hung out with a lot–I’m not an engineer myself, but I’ve written a history book about engineering in Saskatchewan and hung out with a lot of engineers because…my wife is former president of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Saskatchewan. So I have a lot of engineers in my circle of acquaintances.
And I’m married to one, so there you go.
There you go. So, we’ll start by going back into into the past, which is where you write, so that kind of makes sense. But we won’t go quite that far back. We’ll go back to when you first became interested in writing in general, and in writing the kind of thing that you write in particular. So, how did that all begin for you?
It began in third grade, as a matter of fact. We were given a writing assignment and I wrote this little story about a ghost in a graveyard. And my teacher, Miss Gilstein, bless her heart, wrote across the top in red ink–after giving me, like, ten out of ten–she said, “Ooh, you have me scared!”, which is, you know, what a lovely teacher would write there–but the thing is, I had never realized before that what went down on paper could affect people’s emotions. And yes, it wasn’t real. But to my eight-year-old mind, it was very real. And I decided then and there that this is what I was going to do when I grew up, was be a writer.
So that’s interesting to me, because one thing I often ask writers on this podcast is if, when they started writing, if they showed what they wrote to people to see how they reacted. To you, it kind of all started with that. And I’ll get authors who’ll say, “Well, no, I never wanted to show it to anybody,” but I always think it’s was precisely that. It was sharing it with my classmates–a little older than five–and finding out that I was writing stories that they enjoyed that actually kind of made me think, you know…
“This could be a thing!”
Yeah, I can tell stories that other people like. And clearly it happened for you very early.
And this is why neither of us has any fear of reviews?
I guess that’s it. Yeah. My classmates were reviewers for sure. That’s for sure. So after you were five, how did it progress from there?
Well, that was eight years old. And then, right in our neighborhood, we used to…we never played house. That was for kids in the city. We played, like adventure. And so, we’d watch episodes of The Wild, Wild West, with James West and Artemus Gordon. And, as you know, that was like steampunk back in the ’60s.
I loved that show!
I know. Me, too. So, I always had to be James West because I was the oldest, but I really wanted to be Artemus Gordon, coming up with the cool tech. So, that’s kind of where it embedded itself in my mind. And time went on, and I got educated, and went through a couple of writing degrees, and finally I came up…I got the flash for Book 1 of this steampunk series, and it just took off from there. All that sort of desire and interest in Victorian technology just came to the fore.
Now, you grew up on Canada’s West Coast. I’m in Canada, but a long way from there.
You’re in the cold part.
Yeah, hat’s for sure. But did you, when you went into university, did you go straight in with the idea of going into creative writing or or did you start somewhere else?
Well, I sort of had a circuitous way of getting there. My family was very blue-collar, so my mom always wanted me to go to university, but I wanted to travel. So, I moved to Alberta and saved up my money as much as I could, and I went to Europe, and multiple times–you know, the backpacking trip to Europe that you do in your twenties–and that kind of opened my mind a little more to other cultures, other languages. I love languages, and they come fairly easily. So, you’ll notice that there’s a lot of German and French as you progress through the series because it’s a very multinational sort of series. And so, once I had the traveling done, I went to school. I emigrated to the States, and I started college when I was, oh, I don’t know, thirty or something. And I always said I was going to get a license plate that said BA BY 2K, because I was on the, you know, one class a quarter plan. But I got it in ’95 and then I went into a Master’s program after that. Got two Master’s degrees in writing, and now I’ve told my mom I was taking this education train to the end of line, so we’re getting a Ph.D. now.
Well, your undergraduate degree was in literature.
What did that entail?
Well, I had a creative-writing minor. So, my undergrad thesis was a novel that will never see the light of day, but it gave me the confidence that I could finish a book.
So that would be the very first one that you wrote to completion? First novel that you wrote to completion?
No, the first novel I wrote to completion was when I was thirteen. A Nancy Drew rip-off. Very adventurous.
Did you write other longer things while you were still growing up? Other novel attempts?
Well, it took it took me five years to write the Nancy Drew rip-off, just ’cause that’s what you turn to when you’re a really introverted kid and you grow up in a religious group that’s closed and you don’t have any friends that are outside the church, and yet you want a larger life than the one you have. So you make it on paper. That’s what I did.
I think at that age…well, my very first short story was called “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot,” because I had hit the science fiction thing really early.
But I also wrote…you know, I was reading, like, there was a fellow named William Gault, I think his name was, and he wrote auto-racing books in the ’50s. And so I went through a…that was my rip-off. I tried to write auto-racing books, never having driven a car or even been to an auto race. But I did my best, so…
Well, I know, and I was doing, like, massive adventures, taking cruises and going to foreign countries, and my characters are fourteen.
My favorite bit of juvenilia was the one I wrote called Ship from the Unknown, in which this strange ship shows up in my seaside town…of course I’d never lived in, either, where my characters were…and they end up…there’s the whole hidden high-tech civilization in the middle of the Amazon jungle, which nobody knew about until they got there. And even now, I think,”You know, we had satellites then, you couldn’t hide something like that. What was I thinking?” But it was a lot of fun to write, ao that was the main thing for me then.
Right. When you’re young, that’s the main thing, and it’s exercising your brain and giving it those muscles that it’s going to need later on.
Now I always like to ask the people…and there are a few authors who went the formal creative writing course. Now, they sometimes run into teachers who are not amenable to the kind of fiction that they want to write, especially if they’re tending toward the fantastic or the science fiction. Now, I noticed your Master’s was actually in writing popular fiction, which is different from some of the more literary focused Master’s programs. Did you ever run into that, with any of your teachers, or were they all really good?
In high school, I got told flatly to knock off this space-opera nonsense and stick to what I knew, which was not good advice. I just basically ignored it. And the Ph.D. program that I’m in right now is very literary, so that was…even though I multi-published and I came into that program as a, you know, sort of a professional, that’s not holding any water. But the MFA in writing popular fiction at Seton Hill…I think there’s only two popular-fiction and Master’s programs in the country, and they were the first ones. And they were…they’re just fantastic. I was a romance major, but you can be a mystery major or, you know, a science fiction or a fantasy or a horror major. It’s great.
Oh, if I’d known that existed.
It’s been around since 1999.
Yeah, well, I graduated from university in ’79, so…yeah, I guess I could have done it, but I was busy doing other things by then. Well, that’s interesting. I’m actually mentoring an MFA student from the University of Saskatchewan right now, and he’s writing a young-adult fantasy novel, which they seem to have no problem with, which makes me feel good. At least they’re not saying you can’t write that kind of stuff.
So, you mentioned briefly how Lady of Devices–the whole series is called Magnificent Devices, is that right?
Uh-huh. Book eighteen just came out a couple of weeks ago.
You mentioned sort of getting the initial initial “flash” for that. But maybe before we talk about it in more detail, give us a synopsis.
Okay…the Cliff Notes version is that a young lady is the daughter of a viscount and Daddy bets the estate on the combustion engine, which, as everyone knows, is a failure, and he commits suicide and she is thrown out onto the street, because it’s kind of based on the idea of the South Sea Bubble in the 1700s, where everyone invested in this thing that turned out to not even exist. So, that’s kind of what I was thinking about. All the investors…there was a riot in London and they came and trashed the townhouse in Belgravia and my heroine had to run for her life. She winds up with a street gang of children and becomes the queen of the London underworld.
Yeah, I really enjoyed it. I finished it, as I said before we started, about ten minutes before we started the interview. So it’s very fresh in my mind. The first book. Not a terribly long book. I read it in Kindle. So, how long would it have been?
It’s kind of an introductory book. It’s about 55,000 words. All the other books range between sixty-five and seventy-five. This was the one that I have for free, so it’s a launch pad.
Yeah. That’s how they get you, is that first one’s free…
So maybe in more detail, how did that idea come to you and then how did you go about developing it? Are you a detailed outliner or do you kind of make it up on the fly? How does it work for you?
Well, every book starts with what I call the flash. It’s an image that I don’t know what comes before or after, but I know that that’s kind of like the inciting incident. So, the flash for Lady of Devices was a girl in a steam landau outside an underground station in London. And she’s attacked by this gang of children and is lying in the street. And I’m like, “Whoa, who is this girl? Where her family? What is she even doing in White Chapel at this time of night? And the story just kind of iterates and builds as you try and go backwards and forwards from the flash. So, I’m an outliner, but I’m not like the spreadsheet kind of outliner. I really, really like Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat fifteen-point beat sheet. So, that’s kind of how I have been structuring the books.
But now lately, I’ve been doing something that my mastermind group and I call the placemat plot. So, we get large paper placemats from restaurants, and you can lay out your story in sections you can draw, like setting diagrams, mountains and rivers and, you know, how am I going to manage this battle? And it’s all in one spot and you can fold it up and put it in your purse. So that’s how I do things now with the place pad.
What is your your mastermind group?
My mastermind group is a group of friends. We’ve been friends for twenty years, probably, since before we were all published. And we get together a couple of times a year to retreat, to brainstorm plots together, to, you know, we run covers past each other, back cover blurbs. “How does this sound?” “Well, I’d fix it and it would make it more exciting if you did this, this and this.” And all of us have our strengths. I’m really visual, so I like helping people with covers and others of the group are really good at back-cover blurb, so they’re always making mine better, and it’s just a real wonderful give and take between professionals.
Well, that does some terrific, and something else I would have asked you, if you hadn’t mentioned it, was if you had a group of either beta readers or, you know, anyone that you bounce things off of, and it sounds like you do. And again, you get all good all over the map with authors. Some, like me, the first person who sees it as my editor. And that’s kind of it.
Well, I don’t have one of those except myself these days. But, you know, I was always a complete failure at critique groups. I produce much more quickly than they can read. And so having a meeting once a month was just the maximum in frustration and unhappiness for me. So I’ve never…I haven’t had a critique group probably in thirty years, but I really enjoy the mastermind group, ’cause we’re all sort of at the same level. Some of us are higher on the ladder, some of us are a bit behind because of time, but we we really mesh well together and are really helpful. I don’t know what I’d do without them.
I often think that that’s what’s important in those kinds of groups, is that, people are either at the same level or there are some that are a little bit above. If you have people at wildly different levels you may find yourself not getting very useful advice because some people are just inexperienced and don’t really know how to give good advice.
Exactly. And you’re not really in the group to be a mentor. You’re in the group to be like a sharing partner. So there’s a big difference in that kind of disparity,
I just want to back up for a minute, ’cause I was looking at your information here and I noticed that you actually taught or are still teaching, I guess some?
Yeah, well, I taught at Seton Hill for nineteen years from 2002 to just this past winter in 2019. And then, you know, with the Ph.D. I have to step away from it because I can’t do it all at once, plus release four books a year.
Yeah, it’s tough when you’re the only person.
Yeah, I know.
You know, there’s the…what is it…it’s from The King and I, actually, there’s a line, “If you teach, by your students you are taught,” or something like that is one of the lines that’s in there. Did you find that? Did you find that teaching others has helped you with your own writing?
I do. Because having to take your process apart and reconstruct it on a PowerPoint deck is really, really hard. So I found my, you know, “How do I do this? How do I build a world? How do I build a series?” In fact, I’m giving a talk next weekend on planning and plotting your series. But I had to figure out what my own process was in in doing that so that I could transmit it to students. And that has actually been really good for me because I have a very literal brain and it makes it happy to not have the woo woo stuff, but just kind of laid out that this is how I do it. It’s, I don’t know, it’s comforting somehow. But, you know, some people hate that. It’s like, “Don’t touch the magic or it will all shatter and I’ll never be able to write another word.”
Yeah. And again, one of the great things about doing this podcast is the wildly different ways that people people approach all these things. This flash that you speak of that gives you the image. Is that true for all of your books? I mean, you write in other genres, you write romance. Do you get the same kind of start to those stories as for your steampunk stuff?
Yeah, it’s just pretty much how my brain works. There’s some kind of inciting reason for the story to be there, and that’s usually what the flash is like. For instance, there’s a book I wrote called Grounds to Believe, and I got a flash of a guy on a motorcycle trying to find his kid in a religious cult. And that was the start of a four book series.
You mentioned that you’re going to give a talk on writing a series, and I did want to explore that, too. So, you’ve talked about how you build out from that initial flash for the book, but then you’ve got a whole series. So, how did you develop it into a series from that initial thing?
Well, Lady of Devices was only supposed to be, like, one or two books. And I’m on number eighteen now. But there’s a lot of things that brain does in the background that you’re not really aware of. It’s cooking the soup while you’re putting in ingredients on the front end. So one book grew to a four-book sort of little mini series, and then two more books came after that, and two more books came after that, and then four books after that. They’re all, like, in segments, but they’re all connected. It’s one huge story. I had the big bad in book one, but I didn’t know who that person was until book seven. So it…brains…I tell my writing students, “Trust the brain, because it knows what it’s doing.” And I see in J.K. Rowling’s books, like the Harry Potter series, stuff she’s seeded in book one…you know, knowing her, she’s a genius, she probably put them there intentionally. But my brain does that without me knowing about it. So, I can be like six books along and go, “Oh, that’s what that’s for!” and then write and develop it.
Well, that brings up another thing. I’ve been on panels at conventions talking about writing series. The longest thing I’ve written was a five-book young-adult series called Shards of Excalibur. But even in that…and I wrote a trilogy, which I guess technically probably had more words, as many words in it, as the five-book young adult series. Do you ever find that you…something that you did not intentionally seed, you know, you’ve said something you didn’t intentionally seed can develop later into something you use, but is there ever something that you put in on the spur of the moment that then later on causes you a problem, and you think, “Oh, drat, I’d really like to do that, but I closed that door back in book three or whatever?
Yeah, that happens sometimes. In the mystery, The Mysterious Devices spin-off series, I think I’m so smart and I’m planting red herrings up front, and what they turned into is loose threads just waving in the wind. So I have to go back and remove them because what I thought was such a good idea at the time turns out not to be. And then those odd little accidental things like a brooch showing up on somebody’s dress collar turns into a major deal. So who knew? You know, brain. I trust the brain. I just let it do its thing.
For me, at least, even when you make those kind of problems for yourself, that’s actually part of the fun of writing is then finding out a way to solve those problems or work around them or make them work for you.
Or just delete the wretched things.
Yeah, well, you know, that can work too, but not if it’s already published.
Yeah, that’s kind of a problem.
Do you ever run into continuity issues where, you know, the bulk of stuff piles up the longer the series goes on? And do you finding yourself having to constantly refer back to what you’ve written to make sure that you don’t contradict yourself?
I do, actually. My mom has been creating a series bible for me. I think she’s up to like book seven now. So that’s been really helpful in keeping everything straight. And I also have a continuity reader, who lives in Ontario, who is an English expat. And so, he has been incredibly helpful with, you know, “You said this in book three, but now you’re saying this in book six. Did you mean to do that?” And I’m like, “Ah, I forgot.” So between the two of them, they’re keeping me on the straight and narrow, keeping the steam train on the track.
Well, I’ve just started the new series that this podcast takes its name from, it’s called Worldshapers. And I don’t know how long it will run–its with my, DAW Books, in New York. But book two is coming out this this fall, and I’m already wishing I had a continuity reader.
Yes. Well, technically your editor is going to be keeping track of that.
She is, she catches stuff. But even so, going through the page proofs, every once in a while. I’ll find things. You know?
And take it for me, create your series vible now.
Yeah, that’s what I should do. Though I should do…Master of the World is the name of the next one. It’s actually steampunk, so this is another reason this is interesting to talk to you right now.
It’s set in a Jules Verne-inspired world.
So, going back to the actual writing, what does your writing process look like? Do you, you know, sit in a garret and write longhand by candlelight or do you have a home office or do you go out to coffee shops? What’s your process?
Well, when the power goes out, sweetie hooks up the generator and gets everything booted back up so that I can work. No candles for me. I’m actually ,very disciplined because I used to be an executive assistant arranging executives’ time for a living. So, organizing my own time is a piece of cake in comparison. I work from nine till noon on left brain stuff, so, the accounting, the blankety-blank Facebook ads manager, things like that, creating ad creative, you know, all that stuff that you have to do for promo. So, that’s in the morning, nine to noon, noon to one I’m outside with the chickens, just to let my brain expand again back to its normal shape. From one to four is my writing hours. A thousand words a day is my daily output, seven days a week. If it takes me forty-five minutes, great. If it takes me all those agonizing hours, then great, too, but it has to go on the page. So, that’s the shape of my day. People say, “Oh, how are you so productive?” And I look at them and I say, “Discipline.” Then again, I don’t have kids, so I can be disciplined.
Yeah. Discipline is something I’m aware of. People tell me I’m productive, too. But in my back of my mind is always, I could be so much more productive if I were more disciplined.
Well, when you’re kind of floating the boat and this is what’s paying for the power bill, you get pretty disciplined in a hurry.
Well, I’ve been doing this full-time for twenty-five years, so I guess I’m managing, but I’m a bit scattered on the things that I work on from day to day. Just depends on what kind of deadlines I have on what kind of projects since I write all sorts of stuff.
Well, that’s the thing. T deadlines pretty much dictate what you’re going to do from day to day. It’s triage. You just have to do it.
Exactly. So, once you have a first draft, which, let’s see, 7,000 words a week and then say it’s 70,000 words, that’s 10 weeks.
Or more, I allow myself three months per book. And so the final month is the beta readers, editing, layout, that kind of stuff.
And that was my next question. Once you have a first draft, if it works for you that way, do you sort of do a rolling draftwhere it’s done when you get to the end, do you. sstart back at the beginning and do a whole revision? How does that work?
I do a rolling draft. At the beginning of each day’s work I read the previous day’s work and do an edit and that just kind of launches me into the current day’s work. Then once the book is finished and I type those two beautiful words, then I go back and I do, like, a it’s kind of like the flesh and makeup draft, you know, you put in if the scene is missing a certain emotional beat, that goes in, if the description of some device or a landscape is missing, that goes in, just kind of fleshing it out and making it more real, that sensation of of dropping into a story and being able to see it and experience it? I’m really focused on that for my readers. So they they get what they pay for.
That’s kind of what I focus on in my rewrite. Like, it’s pretty good. I would say it’s about eighty percent done when I get to the end. And then that pass through the next time is all about beefing up the language and specific details and things like that. You say you don’t have a critique group, but you do have beta readers.
How many of those do you have and what do they do for you?
I have my English gentleman in Ontario, my lifesaver. I have…one of the people in the mastermind group likes to beta read my mysteries in particular, ’cause she’s writing cozy mysteries. Nancy Warren, she’s doing the Vampire Knitting Club cozy mystery series. So she’s been extremely helpful in, “Oop! That red herring is now a waving piece of yarn in the wind. You need to tie that one up!” Victoria Thompson, the mystery writer, was very helpful. She’s on the faculty at Seton Hill, and as we would drive to school from the airport, I would get private master classes in how to do a mystery really well from her. So she’s she’s been wonderful.
And then once you have the comments from them, do you do another pass through?
Yes. I layer in everything they’ve said, which sometimes has the ripple effect and things down the line then change because of what they suggested. So I have to catch the ripples and fix them. And then the book is done and it goes into layout and up for preorder.
‘Cause you’re your own editor.
I am. I can’t afford me. I mean, I couldn’t afford someone like me.
But you have in the past written for traditional publishers.
How was that change from having an editor to being your own editor?
Well, to be honest, for the Regency and the Amish books, I send them to my old editor and she does what she used to do when were both at Hachette. Leslie Peterson was my editor at Hachette and we had a great working relationship, and so for those two genres I send them to her for a developmental edit, which adds, you know, a couple of weeks into the production schedule, but I think it’s been worth it.
And what does she do? Do you get a lot of line-by-line edits or what exactly is she looking for?
She’s…well, the thing about being the project manager for these, is that I know what it needs. So I say, “I need, like, an emotional edit.” for the romances in particular, because I’ve been doing adventure for, what, almost ten years or something. And sometimes you want the emotional stuff in there, but you forget because you’re so busy, you’re so caught up in the adventure. So that’s why I have to go back and make sure the beats, the emotional beats, are there. Particularly in a romance, this is vital, and sometimes I’m too close to it. And she…I ask for an emotional developmental edit, and Leslie delivers. She knows what it needs, and so she’ll write in, “You know, the motivation to back up ts declaration of love is not here. Here’s where you could work it into these scenes and you need to add a scene in chapter three that brings this out…” And so, she’s very, very detailed and very good at helping me get that right, because I don’t want to disappoint the readers in that department, either.
So, it sounds like you would say that there is definitely a value to editors for writers.
Absolutely. Oh, yeah. The good ones are worth their weight in gold.
You are happy with yourself as an editor?
I’m a copy editor. I’m not a developmental editor. For the steampunk, I’m so deep in the world that I kind of know where it’s going. I know the characters so well that I can bring out their emotions and bring out the world without the developmental edit. But for the romance in particular, I feel like I needed a dev editor and the Amish, certainly, because that’s a whole other level of complication. But for copy editing, I’m pretty confident and I think my beta reader, she found two errors in the last manuscript, so I was feeling pretty happy about that.
I did want to ask you about the Amish romance, because that’s an unusual genre and not one that I have encountered talking to science fiction and fantasy authors very often However, what was it, two years ago?…Yeah, I guess it was the sesquicentennial. So yeah, would’ve been two years ago. I was at a thing for, at our local Chapters, with several other local authors, you know, Canadian authors in the house kind of thing, and they had us scattered around the store and for some reason I was seated up where I was looking at this rack of romance novels and I was looking at and I was seeing…maybe it was one of yours. I was seeing Amish romance and other subgenres that I had no idea that they existed. So, how did you end up writing in that particular subgenre?
Well, there is a parallel universe out there called the Christian Booksellers Association, and Amish is the biggest seller in that. It’s like the ABA only for the Christian publishing side. Amish is pretty much the Tyrannosaurus rex that ate the rest of the industry. People in that readership love them. And so, my editor at Hachette gave me the beady eye one time when we met at a conference to have lunch. And she says, “Why aren’t you writing Amish romance? You grew up plain. What’s wrong with you?” And I said, “Well, you know, I left that in my thirties. I kind of…I’m okay with leaving that behind.” And she looked at me and she said, “Hachette needs an Amish author.” And she offered me six figures and I said, “OK, we’re in.”
Well, you know, I guess I vaguely knew it existed. But I suppose if it’s not what you read, then there’s all sorts of these subgenres out there that you may not be familiar with. So it was interesting to me.
Well, the learning curve was not as high as it could have been because I grew up in a plain church. So, the doctrines and things were very much the same. But the customs, the clothing, the worldbuilding, the lack of electricity and all that stuff that that means was like a ninety-degree learning curve. So, I’ve been out to Pennsylvania many times. Luckily, Seton Hill is in that state, so it was pretty easy. I go out there twice a year and I do a little research trip on the side.
Do you think it’s kind of that low-tech lifestyle that actually makes it appealing to people?
Yeah, the getting off the fast lane and taking a country road behind a horse and buggy. I actually drove a horse and buggy. Nearly ran into a bus.
I’ve trundled along behind a horse and buggy.
Yeah, it was quite the experience. But you know, how are you supposed to know how your characters feel and behave with the reins in their hands? Who knew that the reins came through the windshield into a little slot? I mean, stuff like that that Amish readers just eat up because they love the detail. And so, for me, feet on the ground research in the Amish genre is necessary.
Well, this podcast is called The Worldshapers, and, you know, that whole idea of how we shape our fictional worlds..it sounds like also, you know, you’ve been in Belgravia in London and you’ve been in Lancaster County, talking with Amish women. Research is something I always ask about, so what kind is what kind of research do you do for any of your books? I mean, in the case of the steampunk books, there’s also some technical things in there, and I don’t know how much…how much work you put into making these devices practical or if they could really exist? You said you’re married to an engineer, so does he help with that?
He has been very helpful, as a matter of fact, I had to blow up a dam once. And so we’re like, you know, Arlo Guthrie with the 8 by 10 glossies in the X’s and the circles and the arrows.
And you just hope that it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.
Well, exactly. People wonder about my Google search history.
Yeah, that’s true of all of us. So you do a lot of research.
I do a lot of research. Yeah. And some of it is just serendipitous. Like, I was at a bed and breakfast one morning and I was moaning and groaning to the innkeeper about how I needed to know whether there could be a steam-powered submarine. And he turned around and he said, “Why don’t you ask him? He’s a submarine captain.” So, you know, book seven took shape right then and there because I had undersea dirigibles. And they’re technically correct in how they operate. But, you know, some things, like the behemoth in books nine through twelve, I sort of take it for granted that the readers’ imagination will lead them into the guts of that machine where I am afraid to go.
So, the other thing, you are publishing most of this now…well, I guess all of the steampunk books are published yourself…and having started my own similar company last year, Shadowpaw Press, I’m always interested in that. What I have found in my dabbling with it is, there’s a lot more work goes into putting out your own books than you might think before you launch into it. So, how do you balance that with also getting the writing done?
Well, that’s…running the business as part of the stuff that happens in the morning with my left brain. Because I do publish one or two other people’s books and I’m actually kind of not doing the best job. They’re very forgiving people. But because these days, with the whole pay-to-play advertising thing, you can get lost in a rabbit hole of advertising and never come out. And it kind of affects your emotions, too. So the emotions affect how you’re writing the books. If you spend too much time in that rabbit hole, you’re you’re not going to be able to put the words down on the paper. So it’s a fine balance. I use time to make sure that the balance happens, like nine to noon. That’s all you get. You can’t have any more of my life than nine to noon. And then then I’m free. The brain shuts off and then I’m free to go into my imaginary worlds in the afternoon.
Do you…you’re your own copy editor? But do you then farm out cover design and layout?
I was going to say I got the free e-book and I started the book and I said, “Oh, she’s using Vellum.”
Yes, I’ve loved…
Because I use it, too, and I instantly recognized that little swirly symbol.
Scene break. Yeah. Oh, yes.
They do a fabulous job…it does a fabulous job. It’s only available for Mac, I think, if anybody is curious about it. But if you’re a Mac user and you do your own books, you should definitely check out Vellum.
Yeah. It’s like a creative act in itself, and I like making beautiful things like costumes and quilts and books that look pretty.
I have done three so far with my press and they’re all, they’ve all been done on Vellum and, yeah, I haven’t had any complaints about it at all.
Yeah. And I do copy edit for other authors, so those morning hours are sacred also, if I have a client on deck, then they get those morning hours when I’m fresh.
Clearly, I need to adopt your schedule because I do all of this stuff, too, only not in as organized a fashion.
Well, remember the executive time in fifteen-minute blocks? That’s kind of, this is what it derives from.
So, and then you mentioned that you do farm out your cover art. Do you give a lot of. input into what you want, or do you leave quite a bit of that up to the artists?
Well, I figure I’m hiring a pro who’s good at what they do. And I would say something like, “I need a Victorian woman on the cover.” Like, for my Mysterious Devices series, each mystery has a watercolor color in it from the 1800s palette. So the one that came out last week or the week before, The Matchmaker Wore Mars Yellow, I’ll send Jenny at Seedlings, she’s my cover designer for these books, I’ll send her mars yellow from the 1800s palette and say, you know, “Find me a Victorian woman. Here’s the dress color, and I need a watercolor background.” And she creates it. We’ve worked together for so long now that it’s like one and done. She’s really good.
Well it’s nice, I guess, to have the same artist for every cover in a series.
Yes. And actually, I think that’s really important, because there is that continuity. Once the reader’s eye is trained to look for your covers, if suddenly in the middle of the series you go with something different, then you lose them. Like literally on the results page.
How quickly do you then get things published once all this is done? One of the nice things about the self-publishing is, of course, that it’s like once it’s ready to go, it goes.
You’re putting out four books a year, I think you said?
Yes. The last Wednesday of every quarter, in the middle month of the quarter, is release day. And so I have everything…everything is kind of backed up from there. So Jenny is now booking out about six months, so I have booked my February cover already and she’ll be starting work on it in September.
And what has the response been from readers?
They really like these watercolor covers and they’re selling quite briskly. Thank you, readers.
But what has the readers’ response been to your books, was what I was actually asking.
To the Mysterious Devices?
Well, the steampunk readers were willing to give me a chance. They were willing to follow me, follow these new characters into the same world. They like being in that world and they like coming back to it. One reader wrote on, I think it was on Amazon, that it’s like coming home again and they can just sink into the world and be in a familiar place that they love. And these new characters, they’re willing to go along with them. Some people don’t like the new sleuths, but, you know, to each their own. So, I think building the world and having people that your readers can relate to is really important when you’re doing a long-running series, because they want to come back to it. And so, the response has been pretty healthy. I think that the preorders have been nice to see.
I guess one thing that I have run across is that people follow…they’re usually following a series that they like. They’re not necessarily following an author that they like? Do you think that’s fair, that it’s the series that draws them in? And will they follow you to something else if you’d completely changed? Like, do you have overlap, I guess, between your Amish romance readers and your steampunk readers? Or is it one or the other? Are they sort of separate groups?
They’re separate groups. There were some of the steampunk readers that told me flat out, “You know, I can’t read romance. I’m here for the adventure.” And there’s others that said, “Well, you know, it’s you. I trust you. I’m going to take a leap. I’ve never read a romance before, but because you’re writing it, I’ll try.” And that reader was happy because she got the worldbuilding, she got the characters, the sympathetic characters that she liked in this new genre that she had never been exposed to before. So I call that a win.
Wwll, I guess that kind of leads into my big philosophical questions here towards the end of the conversation. And I always ask, first of all, why do you write? Second, why do you think any of us write? And third, why do we write fantastical stories of stuff that never really existed?
Oh, boy, hard questions. Why do we write? I write to shut up the voices in my head.
I hear that a lot.
My mom says, “How do you know a book is done?” And it’s like, “They stopped talking.” So that’s pretty much…I mean, I’m hearing bits of description in my head all the time. I’m hearing people talking. I see the flash. It’s like you have to…and the only thing that cures that noise is writing it down. So, part of it’s therapy. Part of it is, it comes out of you. You can’t help it. I suppose it’s like a composer. We went and saw Rocketman on Tuesday, and the way they showed the music playing in Elton John’s head all the time as a kid. That’s kind of how I feel now with writing, that the stuff is, words are happening all the time. And…what was the second question?
Why do you think…well, why do you think people write in general? Why do any of us write? Why do we tell stories?
Because that’s a basic human need, right from in the cave around the campfire. You told the story of the poisonous plant, or the small creature with the nasty bite, to be kind of a cautionary tale for your companions. And so, it’s transmuted, I think, into, “Here’s situations maybe that you will never live. But if you did, here’s what you could do.” It’s…I used to love the series of books called The Worst Case Scenario Handbook, ’cause it’s like, OK, I do know how to jump from a moving train if I ever need to.” So, you know, I could steer an undersea dirigible if I never needed to. I think that, and we want to be heard. We, you know, sitting in our rooms, we want to say something that someone will want to go, “Oh, I want to come and live in your world with you. Let’s be friends.” I think that’s why I do it.
And then, why do you think we write stories of the fantastic? I mean, there will never be a world in which steam took over and the internal combustion engine failed, so.
Well, you never know. After the apocalypse, anything could happen.
Well, that’s true. What’s the appeal of the fantastic and the made up and the imaginary?
Well, for me, it’s that limitless horizon, that I could…my imagination is free to play in this space. And by golly, it’s going to. And I’m gonna write it down and have fun and then say, “Hey, come on, look, look at this thing. Isn’t it cool?” And somebody else will say, “Yeah, that’s cool. Let’s tell somebody else.” And so, not only do I have a world I’m living in that’s fantastic and, you know, there’s giant behemoths, and Venice is built on a huge clockwork, and it changes every time the church bells ring. You can have that and you can live there and have adventures that you couldn’t in real life. I think it’s just….it’s kind of like space exploration from your armchair.
Well, that occurs to me that I failed to ask you something off this top, which is, most of us when we become writers, it’s because of the books that we read. So, what were the books that drew you into telling these kinds of stories back when you were reading as a kid?
Oh, boy. I well, I read the classics like Little Women and Anne of Green Gables. I have the entire library of Lucy Maud Montgomery in first editions. I was that…I’m that big of a fan. Yeah, if the house ever burns down, those are coming with me. I read so I read that I read a lot of Elizabeth Goudge. Not the one that wrote that story about Savannah. That was Eileen Goudge. I don’t know if they’re related, but anyway, it’s kind of turn-of-the-century children’s authors I really liked, and I didn’t really get into fantasy and science fiction as much until I was grown up and I could kind of, I don’t know, handle it, maybe. And then steampunk just seemed to be…the characters seemed to be an outgrowth of those English characters that I knew and loved as a child. And there’s that element of the Saturday afternoon serial in the theater also that I really liked, those adventures in the theater as a kid.
Steampunk is very much where those two things come together, isn’t it? The kind of Victorian era story that Dickens and all that, and then the super science story, they all kind of meet right there in Jules Verne’s time.
Yeah. And you can make it up. And as long as you make it believable, it doesn’t have to be, you know, physically correct. I don’t have to build models or anything. But my my aim is, is this believable? And so far, I think it’s working because I check it with my engineer husband.
A useful thing to have. As I said, I have an engineer wife, so…
I know, they’re very handy.
They are. Well, in my case, not least because I often say tha…she kind of hates this joke. But my best move is a freelance writer was to marry an engineer.
You know, I agree with you.
So, what are you working on right now? Although at the pace at which you’re working, it might be what are you working on next will be what you’re working on when this comes out.
Well, I alternate the Regency romances with the steampunk mysteries, so I have just plunged in…I’m three chapters into The Rogue Not Taken, the follow up to The Rogue to Ruin, my Rogues of St. Just Regency romances. So we’re on the middle book now.
And looking ahead?
Looking ahead. I will be…let me see. I’m looking at my schedule here. So that would come out in August. My November book would be what I call the Manor House novellas, that are kind of in The Magnificent Devices world and follow some of the characters. So the next one in that little series is called Gwynn Place. We’re going to go to Lady Claire’s home. In February, the next Mysterious Devices book comes out. And then after that, the next Regency. So, yeah, I’m eyeballing my calendar because it’s all laid out. I have to have it. I have to have dates to work towards. I’m very date driven.
And for your readers, where can people find you online?
I am at shelleyadina.com. That’s Shelley with an ey. Like the poet. And I have lots of…I have an ongoing blog. I’m doing a blogging the Ph.D. series, which may or may not be interesting to anyone but me. Also, things about the books. I’m going to be talking Mysterious Devices 3, The Matchmaker Wore Mars Yellow, is very,…it’s, you know, it’s the Wild West. So there’s a lot of old pistols and armaments and things in that book. And so I’m going to be doing one or two blog entries about the inspirations for those guns, which again, may or may not be very interesting to a whole lot of people, but it’s interesting to me.
And you’re also on other social media, are you?
Yes, I’m on Twitter @ShelleyAdina. I’m on Pinterest–you can see all kinds of inspirations for the things that I put in books. And some of them are just made up out of my head but some of them…you know, there are amazing steampunk artists out there. And I’m like, “Wow, I could take the leg off of this creature and really do something with it.” And let me see, what else am I on? I’m a failure at Instagram, so don’t look for me there. And I’m on Facebook as Shelley Adina.
I did realize there’s one last thing I forgot to ask you about. Why do you like chickens?
Because the engineer that I live with has allergies to pet dander, and this chicken walked into our yard one day and said, “Hey, I’m going to stay.” So, we built her a coop and got her some companions, and I’ve been doing rescue for twenty years now.
Because the affinity for chickens is one of the things that Claire…
Shares with me. Yeah, exactly. In fact, I have…Dinah the office chicken is overseeing this conversation at this very moment.
And doing a very good job, I’m sure.
She knows when to be quiet.
Well, thanks so much for for being a guest on The Worldshapers, Shelley. It’s been a great chat.
It’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much for inviting me.