Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Meet Heather McCollum

My guest today in My Writing Corner is author and cancer survivor, Heather McCollum, who has a very special story to tell. Welcome,  Heather.

Thank you so much for having me here today! I never get to talk about myself : ) I’m a busy mom of three, dog mom of one, guinea pig mom of three, and wife of one so there’s always someone else to talk about. This is a refreshing change. Fire away, Rebecca!
Heather, did you always want to be a writer? When did you know you wanted to write?

I’ve always written stories and poems, since I was little. By high school any fictional assignment ended in a happily ever after (and kissing). Everyone thought I’d be an English major. I surprised them all by majoring in Cellular Immunology, a branch of Biology, instead. But after years of working in the drug development field and coming home to write in the evenings, I joined my local Romance Writers of America chapter and have pursued publication ever since. I stayed in my day job for a decade until paying for 3 kids in daycare no longer made sense. Then I began writing during nap times and in carpool lines until I had some manuscripts I could submit. In 2009 I became a finalist in the prestigious Golden Heart writing contest (with my paranormal romance, MAGICK) and published shortly after that.
How did you get published?

Got an idea, wrote lots of words, changed lots of words, attended workshops, started over, attended conferences, pitched my book ideas, submitted manuscript, ate chocolate over rejections, took out adverbs and added stronger verbs, entered contests, cringed over red ink marks, changed more words, started something new….repeat for ten years. LOL!

Fast forward from 1999 – 2009…
After writing the first two books in my paranormal romance series, The Dragonfly Chronicles, I entered them into several contests. I entered the Georgia Romance Writers Maggie Contest and won third place. I then won first place in the Lone Star Writing Contest and the final judge was an editor. She contacted me through e-mail about the book. Right after I signed my first contract I got the call of a lifetime about being a finalist in the Golden Hearts. From there I was able to attract and sign with an agent. 2009 was an incredible year!

You had some bad moments when you found you had ovarian cancer. Can you tell us about that and your journey back to writing?
Hearing “it is cancer” shatters your world. My days turned from producing witty dialogue and magical adventures to 6-hour chemo infusions and juggling a dozen different medications. At various times I was numb, frantic, in pain, furious, and afraid I’d leave my kids without a mom and my husband without a wife (he lost his own mom to breast cancer when he was 9yo). I didn’t believe in happy endings with my own happily-ever-after threatened. So I couldn’t write or even read fiction. I only wanted to read and write about how I was going to kill the beast trying to take over my body.

Being a writer, I was miserable NOT writing. So I started to blog about my treatments. As people began to follow me, I tweaked my focus. I wrote about how to survive any type of pain, whether from cancer, job loss, divorce, loss of a loved one, or some other tragedy. How does one continue on in the face of such loss? I bled my fears and pain and hope out into those pages and thus began healing emotionally.
As my treatments ended (15 months of kicking cancer’s booty) I found the mental strength to start writing fiction again. My growing strength and the realization that I just might live, rekindled my belief in happy endings. I’m thrilled to report that my last CT scan was clean and my cancer screening blood test (CA125) was very low, meaning that I am still in remission. Woot!


Tell us a little about your latest book.
CRIMSON HEART was released in June of this year and is the third full-length book in my Highland Hearts series (although each book can stand alone, they are best read in order). In the first books, the heroines possess a magic (colored blue) that moves small particles, either in the body to heal or in the air to affect the weather. Searc Munro, the Highland hero in CRIMSON HEART, is the first male to inherit the magic, except his magic is colored red and it kills.

When Searc’s killing magic is revealed, he journeys east to Edinburgh where no one knows his cursed secret. On the way he rescues an English lass, Elena, who is fleeing England’s Bloody Queen Mary and the threat of the executioner’s block with secrets of her own. Thrown together by chance, drawn together by desire, they must learn that love and trust go hand in hand before their secrets are exposed and Elena becomes the next victim of the murderer stalking the Scottish court?

What gave you the idea for this story?
Ideas for CRIMSON HEART came mostly from my fabulous trip to Scotland last summer. We stayed on Loch Linnhe, near Fort Williams in the Highlands. The rugged green mountainsides dotted with fluffy sheep, the raw beauty in every direction, and the rich history inspired me. When I later toured Edinburgh castle, I realized it was perfect for the setting of my latest story. St. Margaret’s Chapel, on the grounds of the castle, is quaint, ancient and authentic. I knew immediately that it would be a part of CRIMSON HEART.

Give us an idea of how you develop your characters.
I’m a very visual writer. I like to see my characters (basic features & strong emotions) and settings (authentic historical details). So I create collages for my books. I take a day toward the beginning of each new project to cut out pictures of landscapes, people and objects that mean something to my story. I paste them on an open folder, poster board or even in a blank book to give me something to glance at while writing.

I like to choose pictures that depict strong emotions. Sometimes just staring at a character’s tortured face helps me figure out their background, quirks, fears, and motivation. Once I start to understand my characters I let them loose in my mind. While I’m washing dishes, walking the dog, and folding clothes banter and disasters tumble my thoughts into fantastic plots. Then I run to a notebook and scribble down my ideas. The good ones make it into my computer.

How do you research your stories?
For basic dates and locations, the internet is fantastic. Pinterest provides lovely pictures of period clothing and accessories. I find current and ancient maps on the internet. I have some books on certain time periods, which detail out clothing, food, currency, transportation, etc.

For atmosphere, nothing beats actually setting foot on and breathing the air of the setting, which was why my trip to Britain inspired me immensely. Speaking with trained tour guides and investigating the authentic historical and cultural details at museums and sites provides us with the closest to first-hand knowledge available. 
What are you working on now?

CRIMSON HEART is the last full-length novel I have planned in the Highland Hearts series, although fans of the series have requested more. So there could be another long novella or full length book after CH.
My other historical paranormal romance series, The Dragonfly Chronicles, is almost complete. Four books are out and I’m currently writing the fifth and final novel, SACRIFICE.

Lastly, the sequel to my first Young Adult contemporary, paranormal romance, SIREN’S SONG, will be coming out in the spring next year. So there are several projects keeping me busy.
What would you tell writers who are facing life changing obstacles as they also try to write?

Great question. Everyone is different and each writer responds uniquely to life altering stress. I spoke to one author, who threw herself into her fictional world when she was diagnosed with cancer, preferring to lose herself there instead of dealing with her own frightening world.
On the other hand, writing fiction takes a lot of mental stamina. Creating worlds out of nothing, building two-dimensional characters into authentic beings, and teasing lives apart until they explode in conflict can be too much for someone fighting pain, fear and loss.

In that case, writers need to focus on their health first. I was told by some very experienced authors to “take a season” and heal. I was upfront with my agent about needing time and she worked with my editors to extend my contracts and deadlines.
My advice is to do what feels right to you. If you love to write, but can’t tear yourself away from focusing on survival (like me), blog about what you’re enduring. Give people someone to follow who is inspiring and positive. Make your difficulties work to help others.

What do you read when you are not writing?
I usually read in a genre that I am not currently writing, otherwise I tend to take on that author’s voice in my own manuscript. It’s rather like picking up a southern accent when visiting down in Dixie for a while. Right now I’m reading Cassandra Clare’s CLOCKWORK PRINCESS, which is a YA, paranormal set in old London. The series is very different from my current work in progress, SACRIFICE, an adult book which takes place in late 19th century Scotland.

I also read how-to-write books. My current favorite is Blake Snyder’s Screenwriting book called SAVE THE CAT. I love how he constructs an adventurous plot and makes me think about theme and pacing.
I’m also a lover of biographies and history books, which both help me flesh out settings and characters. Right now I’m reading everything I can find on WWII as I’ll be taking a break from writing romantic fiction to write my grandmother’s memoir on surviving a concentration camp sometime in the next two years.

Tell us a little about your writing day – how do you make time?
Now that all three of my kiddos are in school, it is much easier for me to find time to write. It takes me from 5:50 AM – 9:00 AM to get my kids to their three different schools. During those hours I sneak to my computer to answer e-mails, check Twitter and Facebook, and remember what needs to be done. After the kids are in school, I exercise, shower and warm a cup of chai latte to coax my muse out to play. She can’t resist the taste of cinnamon.

If it’s nice out, I sit on my back porch where I can hear birds. If I’m inside I sit at my lovely little writing desk, which I’ve named Eleri. I turn on my faux Tiffany lamp named Jule (after the heroine in SIREN’S SONG) and settle into my unnamed chair.
I pull out the collage of my current project and find where I left off in the book. If I can write for three solid hours each day I can usually stay on schedule. After the kids get home I squeeze in a little more time finishing a scene or writing a blog post or interview.

I am so blessed and thankful for this fabulous life. I might not live in a huge house or drive a new car, but I have my health again and I get to spend time each day doing what I love – writing about digging around in the ashes of conflict to find the perfect happy ending.
Is there anything else you would like to tell writers about facing overwhelming odds or ovarian cancer?

The same advice applies to both – don’t give up. Continue to take steps forward each day, even if on some days that just means making yourself get out of bed and shower. Steps forward for writers could be writing each day, even if it’s just one page. But each step takes you closer to your goal, whether it’s to be published or to finish chemo. And when you’re buried under rejections or must endure another intravenous infusion, and you feel like your day is closer to Hades than Heaven, just remember the words of Winston Churchill (which became my mantra) – “When you’re going through Hell, KEEP GOING!”
Ovarian cancer is the deadliest of the GYN cancers and there are no early detection methods (a PAP Smear doesn’t detect OC, that’s Cervical cancer). The symptoms are very quiet and are often missed until it is too late. Your best defense is to know the symptoms and listen to your body. If you experience one or more symptoms, every day for three weeks, please see a GYN for a pelvic exam. A trans-vaginal ultrasound and a CA125 blood test is recommended if OC is suspected.

Symptoms:
Bloating that is persistent
Eating less & feeling fuller
Abdominal pain
Trouble with your bladder
Other symptoms may include: fatigue, constipation, indigestion, back pain, pain with intercourse, menstrual irregularities, and unexplained weight loss or gain.

For more information about ovarian cancer, please check out http://www.ovarian.org/ . You can also feel free to contact me at Heather@HeatherMcCollum.com.
How can readers reach you or find you online?

Thanks for having me here today! I’ve had lots of fun answering your questions. For more information on me and my books, please stop by my web site at www.HeatherMcCollum.com. I can also be found here:

FB https://www.facebook.com/HeatherMcCollumAuthor
Pinterest http://www.pinterest.com/hmccollumauthor/

Thank you so much for being here today, good luck with your writing and thank you for your inspiration and advice on fighting ovarian cancer.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful interview, Heather. So happy that you're cancer free and writing!

    ReplyDelete