Monday, December 7, 2015

Favorite Author Shirl Henke: The Interview

Today, my guest is Favorite Author Shirl Henke, author of wonderful Western historical romances. Shirl lives in St. Louis where she enjoys gardening in her yard and greenhouse, cooking holiday dinners for her family and listening to jazz. In addition to helping brainstorm and research her books, her husband Jim is “lion tamer” for their two wild tomcats, Pewter and Sooty, geniuses at pillage and destruction. Sooty's repertoire would be considered more impressive by many gardeners than Shirl's--he averages around a hundred mole kills a year.

Shirl has been a RITA finalist twice, and has won three Career Achievement Awards, an Industry Award and three Reviewer’s Choice Awards from Romantic Times.  In 2013, Shirl was designated by Romantic Times as one of the "pioneers" of the modern romance novel.

“I wrote my first twenty-two novels in longhand with a ballpoint pen—it’s hard to get good quills these days,” she says. Dragged into the twenty-first century by her son Matt, a telecommunication specialist, Shirl now uses two of those “devil machines.” Another troglodyte bites the dust.

The Interview:

Regan, I'm thrilled and honored that you have asked me for this interview. I hope my answers will pique your reader's interest in my novels.

You have written many Westerns, Shirl. Is that your favorite period in which to set a story? If yes, why?

For me, the most fascinating place to set a story is the West.  I've been intrigued by it since childhood when I watched all those wonderful TV westerns. "Have Gun Will Travel" was a favorite. It wasn't until I was in high school that I learned Paladin actually meant "knight errant." I was delighted with the sense of humor and cleverness of the writers. But it wasn't until I became a history major in college that I realized the West was far more.

The West (with a capital "W") is a thing of the imagination, a promise for a better life, as limitless as each individual's dream. The idea of West shifted borders over time. The first settlers who crossed the Cumberland Gap called it Kentucky. Men crossing the Sabine called it Texas. Dirt farmers found it in Kansas. To gold seekers it glittered in California, then rode on Nevada's zephyr winds and beckoned under Montana's Big Sky. Later the grandeur of the Rockies and finally the ice palaces of Alaska held that promise of western freedom.

What an incredible cast of characters a writer can find on the frontier, where every ethnic, racial and religious group converged. All encountered the Native Americans, about whom I have written nearly a dozen books, particularly focusing on heroes or heroines of mixed blood, caught between red and white worlds, belonging to neither.

Who were these diverse and intrepid people lured by the mystic of the West? First to arrive were the Spanish. Then came Appalachian settlers, Czarist Russians, French fur trappers, and the so-called "cattle barons" who were often titled noblemen from the Germanies, England and Poland. Welsh and Irish dug canals and Chinese built railroads. Newly freed African-Americans escaped the bloody carnage of civil war to become farmers, gunmen and the famous "Buffalo" soldiers. No city in the west was without a Jewish community. I've found a treasure trove of heroes, villains and colorful supporting actors.

All of these men and women traveled west to explore the unknown, to seek their fortunes for good or for ill.
The West is as spiritual as it is material, the stuff of primal myth. I don't think it's accidental that the "Star Trek" franchise has become as much a classic as John Ford's westerns. The opening line of that first TV series says it all: "Space, the final frontier..." Marshall Dillon and Captain Kirk have a lot more in common than Hollywood ever imagined.

How could any writer wanting to combine romance and adventure and to create bold, fearless protagonists resist weaving stories from this rich tapestry?

Do you have a favorite among your stories?

Of well over thirty books I've had published, my favorite single title remains one of my earliest, Love Unwilling, set in Old California where a New England sea captain married into a wealthy Hispanic family. He had two sons, brothers, whose double love stories still touch my heart in ways no others have.

David is the lucky golden elder brother who throws away his inheritance when he wins an Irish saloon girl in a card game. Miguel is the shy, bookish younger brother, studying to become a priest when he is summoned home to make a dynastic marriage with an American girl to save the family's vast land holdings. Impoverished and eager to better herself, Katie has David teach her to read and write. Ellie is young and spoiled, a rich girl forced into a marriage with the second son who she believes does not want her. Ah, yes, the conflicts and twists of their tales and how they intertwine still fascinate me.

Your original covers were awesome… is there one you liked more than the others?

Yes, actually I have two, one painting I purchased from the artist many years ago. Max Ginsburg is a gifted artist as well as cover illustrator and I am honored to call him my good friend. When I told him I wanted Hawk Sinclair to look like Nick Mancuso did in the movie Night Wing, he actually rented the film and then painted Hawk perfectly, to go with the female model I'd selected from his vast collection of cover illustrations. I looked at his rendering of her face and said, "That's Carrie!" Capture the Sun's cover was so perfect that I received permission from Max to use it on my e-book edition.

The second cover I really felt captured the protagonists and theme of the book was Pale Moon Stalker's cover. I bought the rights to the painting from the illustrator Franco because I loved it almost as much as Capture The Sun. It graces both print and ebook editions, too.  Oh yes, if I don't mention this Jim will kill me:  on the River Nymph cover, he is the guys pulling off the ruffled gambler's shirt. 

When you put yourself in the heroine’s role?

That would drive me crazy. I'm not bold and adventurous enough to be a heroine. I'm a storyteller who works until I can see the hero and heroine as well as the setting and plot before I begin to write. While I'm writing, I get inside the heads of the heroine, the hero and, perhaps more importantly, the villain. No story works without a really good, or if you will, a very bad villain.

I also don't follow the "rules of writing" by remaining in only one point of view during a scene. I "head hop" but make very certain that whoever is thinking, feeling or saying something is clearly identified. I've never been able to have a good rousing fight scene--not to mention a love scene--without moving back and forth, whether it's between heroine-hero, or protagonist-villain.
What’s the first thing you do when you finish writing a book?

My husband says I have a German anal-retentive type personality, so the first thing I feel compelled to do (after having a glass of champagne) is clean my office! You can't imagine a worse disaster than my workspace when I've completed a book project. Every desk, chair and most of the floor are buried in notes, books, papers and maps. I gather all the usable reference notes together and create a file folder for that book. I replace reference books and maps in my cabinets or on my bookshelves or return books (always well overdue) to the library. Then, it's off to begin another book and the mess starts all over again...

If you could interview one person (and it doesn’t have to be a writer) who would it be?

No doubt, Sam Houston. Ever since I read John Kennedy's Profiles In Courage, I had admired Houston. While I was getting my M.A., I was assigned a research paper on Otto von Bismarck, Germany's Iron Chancellor. He was a brilliant political manipulator who played a long game. When I started writing my Texas Trilogy with Cactus Flower, Houston was the general of the Texas army who won independence from Mexico and created the Texas Republic where he became the first president. My fictional hero Jim Slade was a spy for Houston.

Originally, I had not thought to go further with Houston's character, but the more I researched and wrote on that first book in the series, the more his brilliant real-life machinations playing England and France against the United States impressed me. He, too, played a long game. I thought, "What a "Bismarckian" politician!" Then I realized that Houston maneuvered his Texas Republic into the American Union nearly forty years before Bismarck unified Germany! The Iron Chancellor was a Houstonian politician! Houston's bombastic, larger than life figure strides through Moon Flower and Night Flower as a United States senator and governor of the state. He was one of the most brilliant minds of the nineteenth century.

What do you do to unwind and relax?

I cook. I love reading cookbooks and clipping recipes from newspapers and magazines, as well as being in my kitchen. For those interested in what I've produced, please go to my website and click on the recipes page at the top right for a selection of nearly forty recipes I've "adjusted" to my specs from various sources. Nothing quite like smelling delectable aromas coming from the kitchen to soothe and relax anyone.

I know your husband Jim is a partner in bringing your backlist to ebooks… what is his role?

Actually, Jim began helping me with my writing long before ebooks ever made their appearance. He started as my "fight choreographer" for action scenes (on the way to a Ph.D he was a professional judo instructor) as well as my gun expert. Gradually, he began to edit and then to offer me story ideas, even to sketch out whole plots. The River Nymph, Pale Moon Stalker and Yankee Earl are good examples of books to which he's contributed heavily. Not only is he a retired English professor, but also possesses a razor-sharp wit that is great when I'm stuck for a good come-back line for one of my protagonists.

What are you working on now?

I'm just putting the finishing touches on a big sprawling new Western romance, The Cherokee, set in 1872-73 that moves from Virginia City, Montana Territory to the Nations in what is now Oklahoma. This is another of my "half-breed hero" books with Ross Chisholm being one quarter Cherokee. He is highly educated, even having studied at the Sorbonne in France. But when my heroine Carolina Randolph meets him, he is a hired gunman working for her father's competition during the gold rush.

Caro is spoiled and rich, but also very well educated—in France. Imagine her surprise when the fascinating but "crude" gunman embarrasses her by translating her curses from French to English! Both are highly vulnerable people who have grown up without family love, lonely and rootless in a world that in one way or another rejects them...until her father hires Ross to become her bodyguard...two lost souls find each other.

I hope to have the book complete and on sale as an ebook original in January. Please check my website to read an excerpt of The Cherokee.

Regan, again, my thanks for giving me this opportunity to connect with the many followers on your outstanding site.

You are most welcome, Shirl! And for my followers, here’s your chance to ask Shirl a question. One lucky commenter will win the ebook of Love Unwilling.

Keep up with Shirl via her website, Facebook and Amazon.


  1. To all commenters: Shirl is having computer issues but she can see your comments. So do post them and tomorrow she will pick the winner of her book. I will also post a message from her then thanking all of you. --Regan

  2. Thanks, Regan and Shirl for such a fascinating interview. My favorite Shirl books (so far) are the trilogy that began with Love a Rebel, Love a Rogue. What are the best and most challenging aspects of following the same family through generations?

  3. Hurrah, Regan! I think now I can get through. I do so want to interact with your readers. My best wishes to everyone for a great holiday season--and happy reading.


  4. Anna, I tried for years to get my publisher to let me write about lords and ladies and Indians all in one story, and then in the Blackthorne series beginning with LOVE A REBEL I finally got my wish! The second book, WICKED ANGEL also has a Muskogee Indian hero in London

    Best wishes, Shirl

  5. Anna, I don't know about Shirl, but following a family though generations requires keeping track of them and their children... the ages and everything. A truly organized person might plan the series from the beginning but then there are those of us who thought to write a novel as a stand alone but the readers demanded more.

  6. Regan, actually, I've made whole geneologies to keep track of my cast of thousands--starting with my Texas Trilogy. By the time I reached the last book, NIGHT FLOWER, there were too many folks to herd around without starting a system. Some of my stand alones have also had reader interest for more. I'm still mulling on how to utilize one reader's great suggestion about a sequel to BRIDE OF FORTUNE. She wanted Lucero, the bad brother, to be redeemed and made a hero. Great idea and I do intend to write CHANGE OF FORTUNE as soon as I can find time.

  7. Or, you can just sprinkle the offspring through new books in later centuries, having them make cameo appearances the way I have done with the Torres family from my Paradise series, which begins in 1492.

  8. I do keep lists and anticipate future books. I have a Scottish series in mind that will cover several generations and for that I will definitely do a series list and a chart. Do you have a list of all your related books on your website?

  9. Good idea, Regan. My books are listed on my website's In Print page with trilogies and duos side by side, but I never thought about doing anything to explain relationships between books other than what's on the covers indicating each one is part of a series, like The Cheyenne Series or the Santa Fe Trilogy, etc. There are a lot more relationships between various books. Maybe that's a thought I should work on. Thanks!

  10. Shirl, your new book The Cherokee, just went to the top of my list of books to look for. Sounds wonderful! I'm fascinated by the Cherokee history and culture (my husband has Cherokee ancestry). How did you become interested?

  11. I love it when authors do that, Shirl.

  12. I'm so glad to "meet" you on this blog, Shirl. Regan has your books on several of her "best" lists so I'm going shopping on Amazon to get a couple. I've loved historical western romance a long time, having grown up on a ranch in SoCal where I read my Dad's Ranch Romance pulp fiction magazines in the 50's when he was through with them. My question is this: Which book or series of yours would you recommend to new readers of your works so that they would get a good sense of your writing style and thought processes? So glad I didn't miss this post of Regan's!

  13. I'm so glad to "meet" you on this blog, Shirl. Regan has your books on several of her "best" lists so I'm going shopping on Amazon to get a couple. I've loved historical western romance a long time, having grown up on a ranch in SoCal where I read my Dad's Ranch Romance pulp fiction magazines in the 50's when he was through with them. My question is this: Which book or series of yours would you recommend to new readers of your works so that they would get a good sense of your writing style and thought processes? So glad I didn't miss this post of Regan's!

  14. I also grew up watching those TV Westerns. Cheyenne Bodee was a favourite .... such a long time ago! Since then I have retained a soft spot for the Wild West and the gun toting hero, though now I value a romantic thread much more.

    Learned of Shirl's books from this blog and was really impressed with 'River Nymph'. I have a lasting image of Delilah at the poker table when Clint stalks away, wearing only his guns, having gambled his clothes as a last resort to recover his losses .... absolutely brilliant!

    Looking forward to trying 'The Cherokee' soon :)

  15. I'll take these comments in order. First, E. E. I have always admired the Five Nations, sometimes condescendingly known as the "Civilized Tribes". My Blackthorne series deals with the Muskogee, called Creeks by the whites of the era. I'm so happy you are looking forward to THE CHEROKEE! I became interested in the Trail of Tears tragedy and wanted a hero from the latter nineteenth century, so I decided to make Ross Chisholm part Cherokee. When I began research, I admired these adaptable and noble people even more!

  16. Dear Janice, I began reading Zane Grey, Luke Short, Max Brand, etc., when I was growing up during the same era--only I lived in St. Louis. So I was always a western fan. Then when historical romance began in the '70s, I read Rosemary Rogers SWEET, SAVAGE LOVE and was really hooked on the history, action and romantic conflict. That's what got me started. So glad we were able to meet via Regan's wonderful blog! As to which books to read, that's a hard one. I'd say the Santa Fe Trilogy, starting with NIGHT WIND'S WOMAN. Happy reading!

  17. Dear Quantum, wow, I can still sing the Cheyenne theme song by heart! Loved Clint Walker. So happy you enjoyed the poker scene at the beginning of RIVER NYMPH. My husband Jim roughed that one out and I edited it a bit. It was great fun, as was that whole book...which led to PALE MOON STALKER and CHOSEN WOMAN. I enjoyed Clint and Delilah so much it was a pleasure to keep them in the next two books. Hope you enjoy THE CHEROKEE! Happy reading.

  18. Janice, I really loved Capture the Sun (the review is just below my interview of Shirl) but Night Wind's Woman is good, too.

    And Shirl, I actually met Clint Walker when I was a young girl and I was so impressed with him. His voice was deep and he had just a bit of a drawl. Very polite and so handsome. Sigh.

  19. Regan, yes Clint's voice was always wonderful! What a thrill to actually meet him. I know Walker is a common English name, but any chance the two of you are related? Wouldn't that be a kick!

  20. Anna, I just realized that I only answered part of your question. I'm not good with cyber-interaction, as you may have gathered :) Anyway, the most enjoyable aspects of following one family through generations for me is to see first, the original protagonists' children and how their parents fare through life. Then, with families such as the House of Torres in the Paradise books, it really became fun because I had from 1492 to the present to place Torres decendants in many subsequent books such as Pierro Torres who has a secondary romance with the contessa in WANTON ANGEL, or the doctor in MCCRORY'S LADY who works with Maggie to save the Apaches. I've done this with various other families as well. In DEADLY HARVEST, my first romantic suspense, Adam Moreland is a decendant of Kate and David Kane from LOVE UNWILLING. This spans from the gold rush to the 1980s in California. Such fun.

  21. Thanks, Shirl, for elaborating. Multigenerational series are my favorite kind. Following the descendants of one pair of lovers in an early book, through generations and even centuries gives me a thrill, so I'm very interested to spot the Torres descendants in later works. It's also fun to see what the stories the later generations are told versus what we "saw" happen in the progenitors' actual story.

  22. Anna, I agree. I love to hear about the descendants lives and adventures and to know what they think about their ancestors. When Adam Moreland tells his wife Marti about his family background, he only knows he's part Chinese and that one distant great-great grandfather won his great-great grandmother in a poker game! True, but a rueful confession on his part when speaking of David and Kate :)
    Many of my Torres descendants just make cameos without any mention of their progenitors who were Aaron and Magdalena Torres from Medieval Spain during the Reconquista. Some of their progeny ended up in Italy and France as well as in the New World where they did.