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A Whakatane grandmother who had "no idea" she could write is celebrating the publication of her first novel today.

Denise Muir, 79, combined her fascination with New Zealand's pioneering history and passion for the South Island to write Chandler's Run, the story of one family's struggle for survival.

The story centres around Lucy Chandler, the head of an English immigrant family who is torn between her ailing husband and a Scottish sheep and cattle driver named James McKenzie.

McKenzie, who actually did live in Canterbury in the mid-1800s - the Mackenzie Country is named after him - was jailed for stealing 1000 sheep, but Mrs Muir believes he suffered an injustice.

"I felt sorry for James McKenzie. He was accused of something he probably didn't do. He didn't have a good grasp of English and they put him in prison for five years.

"I decided to turn him into a romantic character. He was a loner and very antisocial but he was a pathfinder and a master driver of sheep and cattle."

Mrs Muir said her own family emigrated to Auckland in the early to mid-1800s and it was her history and that of the people who built New Zealand that drove her to write the book. "I love the pioneering way of life, the way they struggled and used their brains to make everything work, and I love the South Island, so I just put the two together."

Mrs Muir said the publication of her first book was still sinking in.

"I'm just amazed at the thickness of it. Seeing it all done like that made it very real."

She said she was interested in the process of writing the book, but found it draining at times. "You can't write a story unless you get completely immersed in the characters. You have to live in the story and make it an escape from everyday life. The times you get inspiration are the times you'll have your hands in dirty dishwater."

Mrs Muir worked as a furniture saleswoman during stints living in Christchurch and Dunedin and Auckland, where she grew up, before settling in Whakatane.

A keen painter for much of her life, she was fascinated by the imposing height and grandeur of the Southern Alps, which have formed the backdrop of her first literary effort. She said it took two years from the day she "just picked up a pen" and began to write. She was now on to her second book, a novel called The Scarlett Dove.

The writing itself was a big undertaking, and Mrs Muir said her family were a huge help. Daughter Lynne spent countless evenings typing her mother's longhand on to the computer, and granddaughter Kim was helping with the latest book.

"There were times I could have binned it but Lynne would say, 'No, it's a great story, keep going with it'," Mrs Muir said. "I don't think I could have done it without her."

Lynne Muir said she was so pleased for her mother. "She did exceptionally well, especially since it was picked up the first time she submitted it. Others have to submit books a number of times before they're picked up but she got it on the first go."

Lorain Day, publishing manager at HarperCollins New Zealand, said Mrs Muir's courage and determination were "the icing on the cake" after she first read the manuscript. "I was delighted to find she was a very lively and spirited senior with strong views on the lack of stories of the sort she and her friends enjoyed reading."