Follow by Email

Thursday, April 16, 2015

In Search of My Irish Past - Part 4

By the time I began writing The Tempest Murders, my fans let me know how much they appreciated the Irish characters in my books. There are more than 34 million descendants of Irish immigrants in the United States alone, and I was very interested to see how many readers still connect with their Irish heritage. They particularly enjoyed Dylan's Song, which was set in Ireland and featured a typical Irish village as well as the bogs.

I enjoy adding weather to my books; weather can become an antagonist, such as the snow storm in The China Conspiracy or the "dark and stormy night" - though authors often joke about that oft-overused phrase, it's undeniable that things appear more sinister at night than during the day and during a storm versus a time when the sun or moon lights up our world.

I knew I wanted to include two storms in The Tempest Murders; one that was present-day and another that occurred in Ireland's past. The two would then be weaved together into a series of murders that took place during particularly vicious storm backdrops.

During my research, I came across The Night of the Big Wind. There had been a religious group that believed the world would end on the Day of Epiphany, January 6, 1839. So when this unusual storm swept across Ireland, it was believed by many to be the end of the world.

The storm, also known by its Gaelic name, Oiche na Gaoithe Moire, actually began on January 5 when an unusual snow storm blanketed much of Ireland. But January 6 dawned quiet and bright and temperatures rose swiftly, melting the heavy snow. This was a time before weather forecasters could easily get warnings out to the public, so children were playing outside while women were busily preparing for the Feast of the Epiphany.

By mid-afternoon, a dense cloud had covered the island and winds seemed to come out of nowhere. By many accounts, the wind appeared to whip the Atlantic Ocean into a frenzy so dramatic that it swept the ocean as well as the melting snow all the way across Ireland, from west to east. Even Dublin, on the far eastern edge of Ireland, suffered heavy casualties.

By the evening of January 6, the winds had increased to hurricane force as a cold front from the north merged with the warm temperatures of the south. Livestock were swept away in the fast-moving waters as creeks turned to rivers. Fields were stripped bare. Many poorly constructed homes were swept into the raging waters. Even historic castles made of stone were heavily damaged; some remain to this day unrepaired.

The waters rose so high that houses were flooded when the waters came rushing down the chimneys. A full 25% of Dublin's buildings were damaged or destroyed.

It is said that in the single Night of the Big Wind, the storm was responsible for more deaths and homelessness than the mass evictions that transpired from 1850 to 1880 - a 30-year period. To this day, that night has become ingrained in Irish history and folklore.

In The Tempest Murders, I used the Night of the Big Wind as the backdrop to a series of murders that culminated in Rian Kelly losing his beloved Cait at the hands of the killer as the storm swept through the village. The book picks up with Ryan O'Clery in present-day North Carolina as Hurricane Irene is sweeping across the Atlantic toward the coast. A detective, he is working a series of murders that are identical to the ones his ancestor, Rian Kelly, was investigating in 1839. When he realizes the next target is his soul mate, Cait, he becomes convinced that they are the reincarnation of his ancestor and his beloved - and that the killer is determined to separate them by death once more. It is the story of what lengths one man will go to alter his destiny and that of the one he loves.

The Tempest Murders was a 2013 USA Best Book Award Finalist and 2014 International Book Awards Nominee. Read the reviews here.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

In Search of My Irish Past: Part 3

Last week, I wrote about the introduction of the first Irish character in my writing - Dylan Maguire, who made his appearance in Vicki's Key and the Black Swamp Mysteries Series. A little known fact about the book is the original plot called for Vicki to kill Dylan in self-defense; the intent was for him to start out as someone she would fall hard and fast for, but who ultimately would turn out to be someone else - and someone very dangerous to her.

However, in my effort to make him the kind of man she would fall in love with, I must have done the job exceptionally well because the initial editors and reviewers sent the manuscript back to me and said there was no way he was going to die. He was the most likable character I'd ever created, and he had to remain in the entire series. I rewrote portions of the book and to my relief as well as everyone else's, he became Vicki's permanent love interest.

In Dylan's Song, the fourth book in the series, Vicki and Dylan arrive in Ireland for two purposes: his grandmother is dying and they have been given a CIA assignment: to locate an operative who had gone missing in Dublin, rescue him and return him to the States.

When I developed the village in which Dylan grew up, it was based on a village in which someone close to me once lived. Ireland is dotted with small villages, many of them with only a few hundred inhabitants. Ballygawley, the village my ancestors once owned, today has fewer than 1,000 residents.

There are only 4.6 million residents in the Republic of Ireland today and yet more than 34 million Americans are of Irish descent. The population of Dublin is almost 600,000, which means that nearly 14% of Ireland's population lives in the capital. The second largest city, Galway, has more than 250,000 residents. Between Galway on the west coast and Dublin on the east coast are tiny villages that are sometimes comprised of not much more than a main street and a few farms and businesses.

In Northern Ireland, the population is 1.8 million, of which 280,000 live in Belfast.

In the village where Dylan grew up, the Catholic Church appears almost to loom over the village from a nearby hill; it symbolizes both the culture of Ireland, its ties to the past, the role it plays in its present, and perhaps its link to the future. (Shown here: St Vincent's Catholic Church in Kerry, Ireland.)

Dylan, Vicki and her sister Brenda (who joins them in the book), walk from their rented cottage to the church, to his grandmother's home, and into the main street of the town. In America, we are accustomed to driving everywhere, even if where we're going is just a mile from where we started. However, in Ireland most people walk everywhere.

When my sister was in Dublin, she was struck by how fast everyone walked. She was taken by the beautiful architecture and was moving more slowly so she could see the sights when a man walking by himself strode past her at a fast clip. As he passed, he said into the air, "And there's a lost one."

It seems tourists are easy to spot.

Dylan's village lies near the Bog of Allen, which stretches for nearly 400 square miles in the center of Ireland between the River Shannon and the River Liffey. The bogs are topped with peat, which is harvested in much the same way as sod farms in the States. Among other uses, peat is used to make fireplace "bricks" which are burned in lieu of wood.

The bogs go back into ancient Irish history. Because of the unique composition of the bogs themselves, skeletons and artifacts which would normally have deteriorated are surprisingly well-kept. In the Bog of Allen Nature Center's Museum, a 2,000 year old oak boat is on display, which was excavated from the bog.

Also found was a jar of butter, which has surprising details about the lives and customs of people who lived in or near the bogs a thousand years ago. It was a custom for people to bury food as a gift to the Gods and as a way of asking them to provide a bountiful year. Butter was an expensive and rare commodity and yet someone buried a jar of it in the bogs as a gift to the gods. A thousand years later, it is surprisingly well preserved.

Over the years, many tools, jewelry, clothing and even bodies have been found throughout the bogs. The findings inspired the scenes in which Dylan Maguire finds gold artifacts. In a twist of fate, the ground caves in, burying the priceless items - but Dylan has not forgotten them, and readers will find him in future books planning to secretly excavate them.

I was captivated by the moors of England when I was growing up. One particularly suspenseful book is Daphne du Maurier's Jamaica Inn, which takes place in the rural English countryside. Heading into the climax, we find our heroine trying to escape a killer as she flees over the moors. The soft earth and the way her feet sank into the ground intrigued me. The vision remained with me for years and when I moved to southeast North Carolina, which has similar swampland, I knew I had to write books that included this unforgiving terrain - a terrain that becomes as much of an antagonist as a character of flesh-and-blood.

Setting the backdrop of Dylan's Song near the Bog of Allen allowed me to use that unique terrain, to set a midnight scene there as Dylan escapes with one man wounded by a gunshot while another clings to life from months in an underground dungeon.

Next week: come with me while I discuss the most severe storm in Ireland's history: The Night of the Big Wind, which swept the Atlantic Ocean across the island from west to east in January of 1839, which inspired the backdrop of The Tempest Murders.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

In Search of my Irish Past - Part 2

Last week, I talked about the connection between my Scot-Irish ancestors and my two historical books, River Passage and Songbirds are Free. Both these books took place after the Neely family had arrived in America from Ireland.

When I began researching for Vicki’s Key, my book featuring CIA psychic spy Vicki Boyd, I knew the plot required her to fall in love hard and fast. I combed through surveys conducted through major women’s magazines on what most women found attractive in a man—such as the five o’clock shadow and a sense of humor. Then I stumbled upon the accent.

It turns out that most women find the Scottish accent most appealing, followed by the Irish accent and then the Australian accent. As I pondered which to use, I looked more deeply into the cultures of the Scottish, Irish and Australians, as well as the geography. It was then that my mother’s side of the family—the Harpers—began to surface in earnest.

The more I read about the Irish, the more I saw my mother in them (shown above beside my father's picture). She loved a good laugh, and throughout her lifetime she and I had an ongoing “Laugh of the Day”. Long before the Internet, long before email and free long distance, I would snail-mail jokes to her that I’d heard during the course of my day. I frequently cut comic strips out that I thought she would enjoy, and when I came upon books with jokes she’d like, I bought them for her. When she passed away, I was astounded to learn that there were drawers filled with my letters, comic strips and jokes that she had held onto for decades.

She loved good stories—telling them and listening to them. She could spin a story like no other, and I believe I inherited much of my storytelling talent from her. The most fun I ever saw her having was when her sisters came to visit and they sat around and told one story after another.

The Irish have always been known for their good humor. And it’s downright impossible for a woman not to fall in love with a man who loves life and every minute in it.

I named the character Michael Dylan Maguire; Michael is my son’s name and Dylan was my grandson’s name (pronounced Dillon). In America, the character is known as Dylan but as the series progressed and he returned to Ireland, the nickname Mick was a glimpse into a past that he’d left behind when he sought to reinvent himself.

Dylan had emigrated from Ireland to the United States, and I found it fascinating how so many Irish left predominantly rural homes for a country they knew nothing about, a culture far different from their own, and for the opportunities they lacked in their native country. Many people make the mistake of believing that we are similar to Ireland, Scotland and England simply because we speak the same language (though there are huge differences between American English and British English). The truth is that they are vastly different.

My father was always very quick to point out that his side of the family was Scot-Irish, not simply Irish. As I delved into this, I discovered the unfortunate fact about immigration into the United States: apart from the British, it appears that we have discriminated against every other group of immigrants. Whether they were the Chinese building our railroads, the Italians, Germans, Japanese, Pakistanis, Indians (from India) or Mexicans/Hispanics, there have always been groups that tried to place them at the bottom. The signs of “No Irish Need Apply” below signs of employment or businesses prohibiting the Irish from eating or entering establishments have largely been forgotten; but they did indeed exist.

Those with higher education that had proven themselves as leading businessmen sought to put distance between themselves and the massive immigration of the Irish, particularly during the potato famines. I always believed my father’s family fell into this group, always making certain that people knew they were Scot-Irish. (Scotch-Irish, by the way, is incorrect; the Scottish people will be the first to inform you that Scotch is a drink and not a people.)

Later, when I began researching A Thin Slice of Heaven (release date May 2015) I realized the differentiation went far deeper. More on that in a future blog.

My father’s family had black hair and green eyes and they were tall. My mother’s family, in contrast, had many redheads among them and many of the women tended to be petite. My mother, when she married, was only 5’3” and weighed 105 pounds.

There is a saying amongst the Irish: “Red on the head where the Vikings tread.” As the Vikings moved south into the Irish Sea, they often raided villages close to the sea. It involved raping—or sometimes falling in love with and marrying—the Irish women. Further inland, particularly the western side of the island which was more geographically inhospitable, one didn’t encounter red-haired or fair-haired people. All of this has changed over the centuries, of course, as the world has become smaller and it seems no place on Earth is out of bounds.

Next week: I’ll talk about Dylan Maguire’s journey back to his homeland, the Irish bogs and the small village in which he lived—and the true story of my own ancestors.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

In Search of the Irish Past: Part 1

In Search of the Irish Past: Part 1

This blog is part of several that address the increasing presence of Ireland in my books. It is also a journey to discover and understand my ancestors when they lived in Ireland (both in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland), Scotland, and eventually, America. There has also been a Viking or two (or three) in my family’s history. Come with me as I discover their journey and give you an inside look at how close to reality some of them have been.

I didn’t understand the connection between the Neely and Harper families to Ireland until very recently. When I was growing up, I was told vaguely that my ancestors were from Ireland or Scotland or England or perhaps Wales, but there were never any details that brought them to life.

In the early 1980’s I had lunch with my mother’s brother and he mentioned that he had recently returned from Ireland, where he researched the Harper lineage and discovered their roots in the McCullough (or MacCullough) clan. I should have known then that the use of the word “clan” meant they went back further than Ireland, because Scotland is known for their clans but not Ireland.

We had more important things to discuss that day so his information was tucked away somewhere in the back of my mind, where it lay for the next three decades. Unfortunately, the information he uncovered that day was misplaced or largely forgotten, as no one in the Harper family seems to know of any European connection. I suspect he decided that no one was particularly interested. Perhaps the documentation was thrown away, lost in a move or is still somewhere yet to be located.

After my suspense books began to be published, my father suggested that I write the story of Mary Neely, a woman on his side of the family who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. When I began researching her story, the Neely family came alive for me—and so did their struggles as they searched for better opportunities, not only for themselves but for their children and descendents.

I know now that Mary descended from a man who left Europe in the early 1700’s in search of a better life in America. I will be traveling to Ireland in just a few weeks, and I’ll have much more information on that connection and what I’ve discovered.

But suffice it to say that in the early 1700s, a man’s fortune was tied to the whims of a monarchy. Taxes were backbreaking, opportunities were limited and a man’s fate was tied not to who he was or who he aspired to become, but his lineage.

Around 1720, three brothers left what is now Northern Ireland in search of opportunity in America. At this time, America was divided by European nations who had conquered parts of it; primarily, England, France and Spain. It was also the home to more than 500 Indian nations who were at war with these strangers who entered their lands and lay claim to it.

The brothers, by accounts I’ve discovered thus far, settled in Pennsylvania and eventually their families (particularly their children) moved further south to Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

By 1779, William Neely was enticed by John Donelson and James Robertson to move his family westward to Fort Nashborough, a beautiful area in the North Carolina Territory in the vicinity of the Cumberland, Tennessee and Ohio Rivers. William was already a successful farmer but I suppose he’d inherited his ancestors’ yearning for a better, brighter future so he agreed to move his family westward.

They sold everything they owned except a few sparse possessions that would fit on a small flatboat. Mary Neely, William’s daughter, and her brothers, sisters and mother joined Donelson on a river voyage that would take them through hostile Indian Territory at the height of the Chickamauga Indian Wars. William took an overland route that was supposed to be more dangerous. He was herding cattle westward while his family supposedly took the safer river route.

However, once they entered the area now known as Chattanooga, Tennessee, they were attacked repeatedly for hundreds of miles. Many in their group of 300 settlers were wounded. Some were killed, and some were captured, including two girls—one was Mary’s best friend.

They soon faced starvation, as they were unable to stop and hunt for their food as they’d intended, due to the ferocity of the Indian attacks. Small pox erupted on one flatboat, and frostbite claimed at least one life. By the time they reached Muscle Shoals, Alabama, they were navigating whitewater rapids that would tear their boats apart, losing all the possessions that at least two families had.

This river journey is the story told in my book, River Passage. It was determined to be so historically accurate that the Nashville Metropolitan Government Archives has the original manuscript in their possession for future researchers and historians. It was also the 2010 Winner of the Drama Award.

Four months after they left Virginia for Fort Nashborough, a ragtag group of settlers arrived with the harrowing story of their journey westward. And just four months after that, Mary Neely was working with her father William at the Neely Salt Lick (in Madison County, Tennessee) when they were attacked by Shawnee warriors.

William was killed and scalped along the riverbank. He was only in his early 40’s. Mary, only 19 years old, was captured and taken deep into Indian Territory, where she was held as a slave for three years.

After researching Mary’s story online, I took to the road with my father, retracing her footsteps from the point where she was captured to where she eventually escaped and made her way back home. A plaque is erected in honor of Mary near where she was captured, and I arranged to meet with historians in Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan—all the places where she was taken as the Shawnee tribe journeyed toward Canada.

Eventually, she managed to escape in Northern Michigan, made her way across Canada and into New York. The American Revolutionary War was at its peak and afraid she would be captured by the British, she remained alone on foot until she was rescued by an American soldier from Fort Pitt, Pennsylvania.

Her story is told in my book, Songbirds are Free. It is named that because her captors renamed her Songbird for her beautiful voice (she’d been singing at the Salt Lick when she was captured).

Her story was not difficult to piece together. I found out during my travels and again during the subsequent book tours that Mary is a legend in many parts of our country, particularly in the Tennessee school system where students were taught about her, and even in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I learned so much about the Neely family that it prompted me to look even further into the stories of my ancestors and all they endured. It would lead me not only to those in America, but it would eventually lead me to Ireland, Scotland and points north.

Next Thursday, I’ll talk about the true stories behind an Irish character in my book, Dylan Maguire, who made his debut in Vicki’s Key.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Suspending Disbelief

One of my favorite childhood books was The Wizard of Oz. Most of us are familiar with the story of Dorothy, who is transported from her home in Kansas during a hurricane to the mystical world of Oz and her trials and challenges in finding her way home again.

To fully appreciate the story and become immersed in it, however, the reader must suspend disbelief. From the Munchkins to good witches and bad witches... to a talking scarecrow, a tin man and a lion... we have to be willing to leave our present world behind and enter hers.

Suspending disbelief in books has grown increasingly more popular since the rise of science fiction, a genre unknown until this past century, in fantasy, the genre in which The Wizard of Oz falls, and in horror. Horror has been around for some time - who hasn't read Dracula or Frankenstein, for example? It, too, has gained additional popularity with the rise of vampire novels, otherworldly creatures, and paranormal abilities.

There is a believable way in which to write such a book. In The Wizard of Oz, we begin in Depression-era Kansas with a young woman on a farm who could have been any one of us. A bump on the head and a cyclone later, we enter the world of Oz - and at the end of the book, Dorothy is left wondering if it was all a dream. The next books in the series tell us otherwise, as Dorothy returns to Oz again and meets more mystical creatures.

Books that allow us to suspend disbelief are often those that begin with something we deem normal; in another of my favorite books, The Mummy by Anne Rice, we begin in England with the daughter of an archeologist. The mummy was removed from his tomb in Egypt and transported to England, and by the time he begins to come alive, the story is so expertly told that we are ready to suspend disbelief.

What does it take for you to suspend disbelief? Is there a fantasy, horror or science fiction story that you have particularly enjoyed?

Friday, December 5, 2014

Mary Neely

My most popular book to date continues to be Songbirds are Free, the true story of Mary Neely's capture by Shawnee warriors in 1780, her time in captivity and her eventual escape three years later and her journey home through a war-torn country.

Mary's family came to the United States from Ireland in the 18th century. They journeyed from what is now Northern Ireland, County Tyrone, from Glencull and Ballygawley. They came to America in search of more opportunity and a better future for their children and grandchildren.

While many know of Mary's story--the murder of her father at the hands of the Shawnee and later her mother's and brother's deaths during a separate attack, and the struggle all the Neelys endured just to survive in the untamed wilderness of Middle Tennessee (then a Virginia territory) --little has been provided about the Neely family before the brothers' departure for America.

I will attempt to provide bits and pieces of information as I come across it, not only for Mary Neely's descendents, of which there are many, but also to those people who came to love Mary in the pages of Songbirds are Free and River Passage.

A treasure trove of information has come my way as a result of my sister Neelley Hicks' trip to Ireland in November 2014.

Below is a document she obtained in Ireland of the Neely territory in Ireland, the meaning of the name, the ancestors and the coat of arms. If anyone would like a full color copy of the original document, please contact me through my website at and I'll be glad to email it to you.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

One of my favorite books as well as a favorite movie is The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. I'd read the book years ago and just read it again with a new release for eBook platforms.

Josephine Lesley wrote the book in 1945 under the pen name R. A. Dick. It was published only in the United Kingdom and received interest in the United States after the movie was released starring Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison.

The book and movie are not to be confused with the television series that ran in America from 1968 to 1970; the series was a sitcom with slapstick comedy and not at all like the original book and movie.

Like all great books, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir shows a transformation in the main character. Left widowed at the age of 34, Mrs. Muir must break free of her oppressive, Victorian in-laws and begin life anew on her own terms. She moves her children with her to a seaside town where she purchases a run-down home left vacant for years after the previous owner, a sea captain, purportedly committed suicide there.

Mrs. Muir discovers Captain Gregg early after her arrival and also discovers that his death was accidental and not a suicide at all. He remains with her in the house and when her money has run out and she is facing destitution, he writes his memoirs through her. The book is published to great financial success, allowing her to remain financially independent for the rest of her life.

Mrs. Muir is transformed from a young, naive woman to an independent, self-sustaining woman. Yet through it all, she never wavers from her love for Captain Gregg, even after he disappears from her life and she is left wondering whether he was only a figment of her imagination. In the book, he does not appear visually at all but is a voice that only she can hear; yet with his accent, his colorful language and his memories of life at sea, she could not have mistaken him for imagination. Movies, of course, are visual mediums, so in the movie he is seen as much as heard - but again, only to her -- until she discovers years later that her daughter also saw him and had fallen in love with him as well (though not romantically as her mother had).

I loved reading about the tiny village near the sea and of the old home where Mrs. Muir lived and where Captain Gregg had died. The Victorian era was extremely oppressive and women looked down upon, and I had difficulty reading how she was treated by her in-laws before she managed to break free.

The new release has a forward by Adriana Trigiani and I learned more about the book and the movie. I hadn't known that it was shot entirely in California and that the shots of the sea were taken along the Pacific coast in Malibu. While the movie does not stick with the book entirely, it is a wonderful adaptation that stays true to the spirit of the story (pardon the pun).

I do not know why Ms. Leslie wrote the book under the pen name R.A. Dick. When my first book was released under p.m.terrell, I was asked numerous times if I was trying to hide the fact that I am a female. (For the record, no, I wasn't.) But the idea intrigued me, and I wondered if Ms. Leslie had encountered gender bias in the 1940's and believed her only hope to getting the book published was under a pen name that could be mistaken for a male. She died in 1979 and there is very little about her life on the Internet.

Below is one of my favorite videos; this is a trailer for The Ghost and Mrs. Muir to the music of Alex Band's Wherever You Will Go.