Award winning author, Heather Ashby is a Navy veteran who taught school and raised a family while accompanying her Navy husband around the United States, Japan, and the Middle East. In gratitude for their Army son’s safe return from Afghanistan and Iraq, she now writes military romance novels, donating half her royalties to Fisher House Foundation in support of wounded warriors and their families. Her son serves as her cover model, helping to raise money for Fisher Houses around the world. Heather lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida with her retired Navy husband. UNFORGETTABLE is the fourth and final book in her “Love in the Fleet” series.
Find interviews like this one on the Military Veterans in Creative Careers podcast.
Justin Sloan: I know you are passionate about your writing and helping military families, but before we dive into that, let’s focus on you. What did you do in the Navy, and what did that teach you about life?
Heather Ashby: I was a Personnelman working in the Transient Personnel Unit in Norfolk—what many people call the armpit of the Navy. I hope I made some sailors’ trip through TPU hell a bit more palatable by taking an individual interest in them as I processed their records. It was not my choice of duty stations, but I did meet my husband there, so it was all for the best. What the Navy taught me about life was to appreciate what I have and to not complain. I have little tolerance for whiners.
JS: When you were in the Navy, did you have any idea you wanted to be an author?
HA: No. Although I had always written journals, essays, and detailed letters, I never considered writing fiction until 2010.
JS: What were the first steps you took toward learning how to write? Was it reading other books, or do you have any books on writing, websites, etc. you can recommend?
HA: I’m an organic writer. I jump in and write. I only understood craft books after I’d completed my first novel. Even now, I don’t pay attention to their checklists until I’ve finished a book. Then I find I’ve done all the things they recommended anyway. I guess I internalized “how to write” from reading novels. I teach a workshop that’s a play on Outback’s slogan: “No Rules; Just Write.” There are a few books that had inspired me over the years, such as anything by Natalie Goldberg, including Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind. Also, Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. The series of books that enticed me to try my hand at fiction is mentioned below.
JS: Okay, let’s talk about your Love in the Fleet series. Were these your first books, and what made you write them? Why do you write, and why do you continue to write?
HA: I discovered The Troubleshooters Series by NY Times bestseller Suzanne Brockmann while my son was in combat. Losing myself in her military romantic suspense novels helped keep me sane. Because they are romances, I knew the characters would find their happily ever afters—which means they would return from war. I swore I would find Suzanne Brockmann one day and thank her for getting me through those difficult years.
My son had joined the Army pre-9/11, so he did not know he’d be searching caves for Taliban on his 21st birthday. Or help take Baghdad a year later when we did not know what Saddam did or did not have. These were the scariest years of my life. When he returned safe and whole from both deployments, I was brought to my emotional knees with gratitude and looked for a way to show it. Since I was a Navy veteran and knew military lingo, I remembered Brockmann’s series and considered writing military romances myself. It took me a few years to get started because I was still teaching. Forgive and Forget was my first stab at fiction. My intention was to write about a Navy heroine on a ship and send it out to our women at sea. I did not know there would be three more books and that those books would deal with healing troops. Recently I learned that a neurologist in Washington D.C. is using my books to help his combat PTSD patients. This is the high point of my publishing career! I like to think my books meet the Three E’s of Writing: Entertain, Educate, and Enlighten.
JS: You mentioned that you donate 50 percent of royalties to Fisher House Foundation. Can you tell us about this foundation and why you chose it?
HA: I woke up one morning with these words in my head: “Since you’re not writing these books for the money, why not put your money where your mouth is?” I decided to donate half of everything I earned, hoping the rest would cover my travel and marketing expenses. Fisher House Foundation provides lodging at military hospitals for family members while their wounded warriors are being treated. Since my husband and I are blessed and don’t need to use Fisher Houses, we decided to support those families who have not fared as well as ours in the War on Terror.
JS: I know you have mentored at least one veteran writer. Can you elaborate on your experience with other military/ veteran writers, and what this has meant for you?
HA: I’m not only a veteran, but also a Navy wife whose parents served in the Navy and Marine Corps in WWII. My heart is always open to nurturing those associated with the military. I’m also a retired teacher and now an author who has learned some of the ropes of publishing. If I can share any of my expertise with military vets and/or those who write to make a difference, I’m all over that. I’m also happy to promote these writers on social media.
JS: I understand you write with a co-author, correct? How did you find someone to write with, and what lessons can you share with others of us that may be considering writing with someone else?
HA: I’m afraid the answer is “Magic.” One of my co-authors is a Navy pilot and parent of a student from years past. I contacted him and cried, “Help! I know nothing about Seahawk helicopters.” Because he is still on active duty, I only mention him by pen name. Since my other co-author, Christopher Bergeron, retired from the Marine Corps recently he is now legitimately listed on the cover of Book 4, Unforgettable. (However, he was also the military advisor for Book 3, Never Forget.) These two men authenticated the military scenes, camaraderie, and jargon in my books, and even did a bit of the writing. Okay, they added a lot to the military scenes. Both gentlemen said they would like to write a book someday, but were not ready to go solo. They liked that I sent them a framework of scenes for them to flesh out. I told them to send me all the sand they had and I would make sand castles from it. We discovered that part of the magic is that egos are never involved. I am not offended if they correct my stabs at technical military “stuff,” and they are not offended if I re-write what they send me, often softening it for my female civilian readers. Trust is vital.
JS: What is your writing process like? How does that differ when working with a co-author?
HA: I am what’s called a “Pantser” as opposed to a “Plotter.” I write by the seat of my pants. I can only write an outline or synopsis once my book is 2/3 complete, because I don’t know everything that is going to happen. I am also a “Puzzler,” as opposed to a “Linear Writer.” I write scenes as they come to me, not necessarily in order. I get everything down that flows into my head, regardless of where I might use it—or if I might use it. Then I puzzle the scenes together later, sometimes literally printing out chapters, cutting them up, and sliding the pieces of paper around. I understand Scrivener is a very good program for people who write like this, but I’m too old to learn new tricks. My co-authors are also Pantsers and Puzzlers, so we write our books all mixed up and inside-out. And again, magic happens. Somehow, we end up with finished novels that just need a final polish.
JS: I just started trying out Scrivener myself, and it is amazing. If you ever get a chance, it might be worth a try. At what point did you feel like you were an author? When did you stop trying to write a book and pull your energy together to actually get it done (what Steven Pressfield calls “Turning pro.”)
HA: In my eyes, I turned pro in January 2010, the minute I started writing my first novel. Perhaps it was because I was on a mission. When Forgive and Forget won the Florida Writers Association “Book of the Year” (unpublished) that October, I knew I wasn’t a total hack. (A romance had never won before, but they’d probably never had one where a female sailor saves her aircraft carrier from terrorists.) My husband, on the other hand, did not think of me as an author until my book won the eye of a publisher.
JS: As far as the next step after writing the book, what did it take to get published? How did you get published, and what do you consider when looking at the question of self-publishing versus traditional publishing?
HA: Despite that award, it still took me two years and 153 agent/editor rejections before I signed a four-book deal with a small print press. I entered and won more contests, but the fact that my story was out of the box did not endear it to the romance industry. Self-Publishing has come a long way, even since 2010, and I would have no qualms about self-pubbing if Amber House Books had not taken me under their wing. Some of my colleagues are making way bigger bucks from their self-publishing endeavors than with their traditional publishers. I would recommend lots of research on the marketing side of self-publishing though, since I’ve learned that no matter how good—or bad—one’s product is, success is all about marketing.
JS: Thank you again, Heather. Before we sign off, is there anything else you would like to share?
HA: Remember how I swore I’d thank Suzanne Brockmann one day for getting me through my son’s deployments? Well, I’ve not only thanked her for that, but also for inspiring me to write military romance. The ultimate was when she gave me cover quotes for Never Forget and Unforgettable. Considering she is the biggest name in military romantic suspense, this was beyond my wildest dreams!
JS: How about one last piece of advice to leave fellow military and veteran aspiring authors?
HA: Here are the words I close my writing workshops with: Trust yourself. Find your true writing style and don’t let anybody tell you there’s a right way or a wrong way. The only right way is what works for you. So… trust yourself.
Thanks for inviting me to share my story with your readers, Justin. I appreciate all you do to promote military veterans in their creative pursuits.
Links to connect with Heather:
Unforgettable on Amazon: http://amzn.to/1PAHVCj
These interviews, along with the author’s advice, are available in the book Military Veterans in Creative Careers.
To follow Justin Sloan: http://eepurl.com/bbpNjv