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Monday, September 6, 2010

Planning a Crime

Before I became a full-time writer, my favorite job involved planning crimes. And the best part about it was the federal government paid me to do it.




As the use of computers and the Internet grew, so did white collar computer crime. And the federal government was losing billions of dollars - your tax dollars, by the way - to fraud, waste and abuse. So for years, various government agencies have been paying people like me to stay one step ahead of the criminals. This involved thinking like a criminal, planning the crime, and then writing a computer program to detect the type of crime we'd just invented. The result led to identifying people and organizations who were committing fraud through the use of computers - saving the taxpayers millions, if not billions, of dollars.



I was sitting in a restaurant one day having lunch with two of my coworkers as the televisions began to report the 2000 election results, leading to the famous Florida Chads. Pregnant chads, dimpled chads, half-punched chads, hanging chads. I learned more about chads than I ever wanted to know. And during the course of the recount, I made the comment to one of my coworkers that in this day and age, it was ridiculous to depend upon people making a little hole in a card and putting it through a machine. It should be computerized.



But as we continued to watch this Chad Fiasco unfold, it occurred to me that if voting technology was computerized, I could easily write a program to rig the election. I could even write the program so it erased itself after it provided the results, so no one would ever know it had been rigged.



Simply by infiltrating one voting machine - just one - I could communicate to other voting machines through the use of satellite technology. The same satellite technology you rely on for cell phones. I could send out my rigged voting program like a virus.



That thought became the basis for my second suspense/thriller, The China Conspiracy. I have long believed that China poses as big a threat as the Soviet Union once did. It has quietly grown to surpass the United States in many areas. Why not have a plan to take over the United States without firing a single shot?



It could be done by rigging the elections. Like a modern day Manchurian Candidate, they could recruit people who are sympathetic to Chinese causes. For example, instead of having say, a shoe factory, textile mill, manufacturing plant, or even weapons manufacturing right here in the United States, the elected officials could vote for tax breaks or incentives, enabling and encouraging business owners and conglomerates to move their operations overseas - to China. It would reach throughout the government to officials who help set policy regarding trade agreements, tax regulations, and even turning the other way if China became a threat to its neighbors - or to us.



In The China Conspiracy, Kit Olsen is a programmer for the CIA. Then two of her coworkers are murdered and her 16-year-old son, Tim, is kidnapped. The ransom: Mandarin computer code the CIA had convertly intercepted from the Chinese - a program Kit had been assigned to decipher. Kit is trying to get her son back and also feverishly trying to decode the program - which leads her into an inner circle of Chinese-backed CIA operatives and a political bonfire she never could have imagined.



When The China Conspiracy was released, Johns Hopkins University had just completed a study regarding the new voting technology and its security weaknesses. Their findings raised red flags, which opponents sought to discredit.



At one point, Congress considered mandating a paper trail: although the voter would record their initial vote via touch-screen, a paper ballot would be generated so the voter could verify their vote was recorded accurately. And if a recount was necessary, it would be possible to do with the paper ballots. Because, as any programmer knows, if a program is set to count entries, it will always count them the same way - meaning a technological recount should always produce the exact same results.



However, the measure was voted down. Congress argued that paper trails would cost too much money.



The news continued to get worse. Just days before the 2006 elections, World Net Daily reported that one of the touch-screen voting machine technologies might be owned by anti-American Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who would have a lot to gain by having our elections rigged, putting into place people sympathetic to his views.



Then Princeton University published an independent study of another brand of voting technologies, raising serious red flags about the security flaws. Watch them demonstrate how easily they can rig an election, live on TV (posted now on YouTube.)


So as you head to the election booth this fall and cast your vote... How do you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that your vote was recorded exactly as you intended it?



You don't.



Check out The China Conspiracy and reviews on amazon, including the newest release for amazon Kindle.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Smallest Step Can Be the Largest Leap

Sometimes it's the smallest step, the one that is thought to be the most insignificant, that can lead to the largest leap.

Though I'd always wanted to be a novelist, I fell into the world of computing long before the invention of PC hard drives, laptops, flash cards, and email and the Internet as we know it today. I'd founded and operated two computer companies with customers that included the CIA, United States Secret Service, the Department of Defense, and local law enforcement agencies.

But one day I received a phone call from a trucking company, who wanted me to automate their deliveries. After developing the initial program, I was called into the boardroom and asked to hide their kickbacks.

The men proceeded to explain to me how they made under-the-table payments to purchasing agencies in return for the award of contracts. Their current system tracked the money, which was dangerous in the event that federal agents raided their offices and seized their computers. What they wanted me to do was develop a new computer program that would track the payments for their own records, but completely obliterate the information afterward, removing any audit trails.

I decided it was too risky for me to jump up and try to run; after all, I joined the school band to get out of gym classes. So I pretended not to notice that they were asking me to commit a crime, and I proceded to gather the information I'd need to write this program. And I found out in that moment that people will tell a programmer anything.

They provided me with a complete set of their books, showing where the money was going and who it was being paid to - at the tune of $30,000 a week. As I drove away with printouts and a CD filled with incriminating evidence, I was certain I would be stopped somewhere along the rural, winding roads to my home. And the next morning, someone would find my head in a ditch.

Of all the programmers they could have confided in, I was the world's worst. My father was a retired FBI agent. And like a dutiful daughter, I went straight home and called Dad. After listening to my story, he said he'd identified at least seven federal offenses. I was put in touch with the local FBI office, who arrived at my home within the hour and gathered up the evidence.

But I couldn't simply walk away. I knew too much.

So for the next year and a half, I provided as much information possible to the FBI while I continued to work with the trucking company. It was the most stressful time of my life. I couldn't tell anyone what I was doing, though my local police department was aware of my status and were presumably keeping a close eye on me. One police chief asked me if I was afraid I'd find a horse's head in my bed. To which I replied that I'd never thought of it, but now that he'd planted the seed, I was.

The years passed and I was extricated from the trucking company. Trying to make lemonade out of lemons, I decided it was time for me to write that suspense/thriller I'd always dreamed about. The experts always said "write what you know" and I knew this crime inside and out, backwards and forwards.

Kickback took two years to write. I changed the location so it wouldn't identify the specific trucking company. It would be too easy for the main character, Sheila, to have an FBI father so I made her an orphan with no one to turn to. When she contacted the FBI, she didn't yet have the evidence and they didn't believe her. But when she tried to extricate herself from them, the bad guys pursued her - making it clear that her life depended upon her cooperation.

It took another two years for the book to be published. I started with the big guys, accummulated the pile of rejections from them, and worked my way down to the medium-sized publishers and small publishers until eventually I found a micro-publisher willing to publish the book.

As it was going into the market, I googled "trucking kickback scheme" just for the fun of it. What I found made my blood run cold. I had changed the location of the crime to the Washington, DC area, with the main character living in Old Town Alexandria - never realizing a trucking company was being prosecuted for a trucking-related kickback scheme identical to the one in my book. And at the very moment my book was released, their trial began - in Alexandria.

The marketing "arm" of the publisher wanted me to have the launch at the annual trucker's convention. Terrified, I replied, "But they'll kill me!" To which she replied, "Yes, but think of the book sales!"

I had the main character, Sheila, graduating from Vanderbilt University, never realizing that a now-former purchasing director had been prosecuted for a kickback scheme.

I didn't know whether to enter the witness protection program, flee the country, change my name, or all of the above.

In the end, I decided to tell my story. The first time I went public with the true story behind Kickback, I left the venue and headed for Interstate 81 in Virginia when a tractor-trailer came out of nowhere and avoided flattening my car by a thin coat of paint. I became the spokesperson for The Virginia Crime Stoppers Association, and some fantastic law enforcement officers began accompanying me on my speaking engagements and book signings.

In the end, the release of Kickback led to a new career for me. In 2002, the year it was released, my largest programming contract ended. They say in the publishing industry "never quit your day job" but my day job appeared to have quit me. So I went with the flow, writing The China Conspiracy (published in 2003 by a slightly larger publisher), followed by five more books in five more years.

I've been largely out of the computer industry since 2002, except for supporting causes I am passionate about.

I never dreamed it at the time, but that one seemingly insignificant phone call ultimately led to the leap from computer programmer to full-time novelist. And I'm loving every minute.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Once a Soldier...

I got up this morning at 2 am to take my husband Don to the airport. He's on the last leg of his training in preparation for deployment to Afghanistan. There are those who think he's crazy for going. And others who probably think I'm crazy for supporting him. But those are the folks who really don't know who he is...

Don joined the military in 1967. His first deployment was Vietnam, where he was wounded twice. He doesn't talk about the Vietnam War, but others have told me when his buddies were dead on either side of him and only a handful of wounded soldiers were holding their position against overwhelming odds, he thought he wasn't going to make it off that hill alive.

We recently ran across his album of soldiers who graduated boot camp with him, and of the ninety who left for Vietnam, less than half survived the war. As a result of that experience, Don doesn't have any patience for those who wear their military "career" on their shirtsleeves but who actually were in service for only two years and never saw combat. Or for those who sit in air conditioned offices and think they know exactly what the troops should be doing.

He remained in the military for nearly thirty years and served in every conflict through Desert Storm. He was one of an elite few who airlifted the students out of Grenada. At the U.S. Army Aviation Museum at Fort Rucker, Alabama, they even have a picture of him, alone, walking away from his helicopter after landing in Grenada (shown at right).

He was in Panama when they flushed out Noriega. He served two tours in Korea - the coldest place on earth, he said, until he got to Kansas. He served in Honduras, El Salvador, and in Saudi Arabia, among others.

He taught Army pilots how to fly Hueys and Black Hawks for more than sixteen years. One of the pilots he taught was in Somalia when his helicopter was shot, and Don was proud that "his student" made it back to base and to safety. The incident was immortalized in "Black Hawk Down."

He retired from the military in 1996. He flew EMS for a few years and then took a job with the North Carolina government, fighting forest fires by helicopter. Recently, an old commander from the Army asked him to come back. He remembered that "Don didn't flinch in a war zone." Don jumped at the chance.

To those who think it's "too dangerous" for him to fly in Afghanistan, I wonder if they understand that for the past few years, my husband has been flying INTO forest fires.

Yes, Afghanistan is dangerous. And I know, as every military spouse knows, that there are no guarantees he will come home safely. But I understand the sentiment that so many have expressed: he is doing what he loves the most.

And in the end, isn't it better to live the life you've always dreamed about, than to die feeling that you never lived at all?

Monday, July 5, 2010

230 Years Since Mary was Captured

It occurred to me last week that August, 2010 will mark the 230th anniversary of Mary Neely's capture by Shawnee warriors. In case you don't know about this true story, here's some of the background; my father ran across her story while researching our ancestry:

On August 3, 1780 while Mary Neely was singing and boiling water at Neely's Salt Lick (near present-day Nashville, TN) to make salt, she and her father William were attacked by Shawnee warriors. William was killed and scalped and Mary was taken captive.

She was brought up the Cumberland River and the Ohio to Shawneetown, a thriving village of 2,200 Indians, where she was renamed "Songbird" for her beautiful voice. She was given the choice of marrying the brave who had just killed and scalped her father, or become a slave. Though she wanted to return to her family, that was not an option, so she became a slave to the chieftain's wife.

She was then taken hundreds of miles from home, through present-day Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. She suffered brutality at the hands of the Indians, as well as starvation and illness. Her thin cotton dress was all she had, and her shoes had long ago worn out. They crossed through an area known as the Great Black Swamp, which was malaria infested and almost wiped out the band of Indians who brought her there. When they emerged on the other side, they continued to Fort Detroit.

Henry Hamilton, a British officer, was in charge of Fort Detroit during the Revolutionary War. He had instituted a policy of paying the Indians, particularly the Shawnee, for every captive they brought to the fort and for every scalp that presumably showed they had killed an American. Mary was branded by the British as proof they had paid for her capture, but she was released back to the Indians.

At Fort Detroit, her captors gave Mary the opportunity to get one item from the trading post. She could have asked for clothing or shoes. She was starving and could have asked for food. She had no comb and nothing to call her own. Yet the one item she asked for was a Bible. That Bible has been handed down through the generations and now belongs to a distant cousin.

In Northern Michigan, she escaped with the help of French villagers, only to be captured by the British and held as a prisoner of war. Months later, she was being transferred to British-held Fort Niagara when the ship ran aground in a gale. In the confusion that ensued, she escaped once more.

She walked across Canada and into New York, then headed south on foot all the way to Fort Pitt, where she was rescued by an American soldier who eventually reunited her with the remnants of her family. In her three-year absence, her mother and youngest brother had been killed by a separate Shawnee attack.

Though my "claim to fame" is suspense, I felt Mary Neely's story tugging at me, begging to be written. So I spent two years following in her footsteps, finding the exact spot where she was captured (which is now commemorated with a plaque) ... to the Shawnee village (now a ghost town) where she was renamed "Songbird" ... and across hundreds of miles. Songbirds are Free was published in 2007 and remains my most popular book. You can order it through amazon at this link.

Next Monday, July 12 at 6:30 pm EST (5:30 Central) I will be discussing Mary's true story live with radio host DeAnna Radaj. You can tune in and email questions for me at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/makeadifference/2010/07/12/kick-a-women-in-historymary-neely. I hope you'll join me there.

I've posted many of the pictures and video I took while following Mary's journey at www.maryneely.com.

Her story touched so many hearts that it has spawned a series. The second book, River Passage, was released in 2009 and follows Mary's journey westward through hostile Chickamauga Territory, arriving at Fort Nashborough just four months before she was captured. The books are considered both creative non-fiction and historical fiction, because although they are historically accurate, I used dialogue and imagination to fill in the gaps.

River Passage was determined to be so historically accurate, the Nashville Metropolitan Government Archives admitted the original manuscript into the Archives for future historians and researchers. River Passage also won the 2010 Best Fiction and Drama Award (Bengal Book Reviews.) You can order it from amazon at this link.

Join me for my radio interview next Monday at 6:30 pm EST, and if you're in the Paris, TN area, look for a newspaper article this week in The Paris Post-Intelligencer newspaper commemorating the 230th anniversary.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Path to Published Success

I've been to many writers conferences where I've heard audience members ask the speaker how they became a New York Times best-selling author or achieved other publishing success. The answers have pretty much been the same: write as best you can, and don't give up. I think their answers are vague because, frankly, they don't even know how it happened to them...

My first book was published in 1984. So I have more than 26 years of experience - some firsthand and some watching other authors from the sidelines. I've seen authors who wrote horribly and ended up on bestseller lists. I've seen others who are remarkably talented give up because they were unable to find a publisher or agent. I've seen many others ebb and flow.

My own publishing success has been a roller coaster. Although I always wanted to be a writer, I found myself on the ground floor of the personal computer industry in the late 1970's. By the early 1980's, I began writing articles for computer magazines such as PC Magazine, inCider (an early Apple magazine), PC World and others. I received a letter in the mail (this was long before the Internet, email and text messages) from a publisher who said he'd read one of my articles and wanted me to write a book on creating databases. I thought he was representing a vanity press and I threw the letter away.

By the time the third letter arrived, I was curious. So I called him and I have to admit, I wasn't that friendly - I was ready to tell him to stop sending me letters. But in the course of our conversation, I realized that he was calling from a major publisher of textbooks. And THEY were wanting to pay ME.

I jumped right on that bandwagon and my first book sold tens of thousands of copies, even though computer books have a notoriously short shelf-life. That book was Creating the Perfect Database and it was used as a college textbook. I followed it with The Dynamics of WordPerfect when WordPerfect was the Number One word processing software for DOS. This was obviously pre-Windows. By the time the second book was released, the success of my writing made it possible for me to start my first computer company, McClelland Enterprises, Inc. By the time the third book, The Dynamics of Reflex, was released, my computer business was in full swing - and another computer company would follow soon after.

But my goal had always been to write suspense. And though I was now a publishing success - without a single personal appearance, book signing, or media appearance - I wasn't satisfied. I wanted to write novels.

When I contacted my editor, I found that publishers have their niches. And while he was wonderful at publishing textbooks, he didn't have a clue what to tell me about publishing a novel - except it was "different."

I fell into writing my first publishable novel 16 years after my first non-fiction was published.

I had continued in the computer business (which, let's admit, was extremely lucrative), primarily working with government agencies. But one day, I received a call from a trucking company, who proceeded to tell me they wanted me to write a program to hide their kickbacks.

To make a very long story short, I became a government informant, passing information to the FBI and helping to provide data that would eventually be used to assist the government investigations. And some time later, I was still a bit traumatized by that incident. In doing some soul searching and trying to make lemonade out of lemons, I came to the conclusion that I'd always wanted to be a writer. And they say "write what you know" so I did. I wrote my first suspense/thriller called Kickback. Though it was based on my own experience, the main character had more chutzpah than I would ever have. In fact, she was a lot of things I wished I was: athletic, daredevil, afraid of nothing.

It took two years to write it but another two years to find a publisher. I started with the big NY publishers, received those rejections pretty quickly, and worked my way down to the medium-sized publishers. By the time Kickback was published, I'd amassed more than 70 rejections.

But the success of Kickback was enough for me to decide I wanted to a writer. I learned quickly that getting a novel published was a lot different from textbooks. Novels required a lot more publicity - book signings, media attention, talks. By the following year when The China Conspiracy was released, I'd learned how to do television shows, radio interviews, newspaper interviews, book talks, participation in panels, the whole gamut.

But three years would elapse before my third suspense would be published (due to a move and other personal commitments), and by the time Ricochet was released (2006), the publishing industry was a different animal... More on that in a future blog.

One thing I learned from this process and from watching others: every author's path to success is unique. And that's why they can rarely tell you how to get to the top. Once it happens and the author looks back, they often have a difficult time figuring out how THEY got there.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Of Mice and Men

My home office is separated from my house. Each morning with drink in hand (non-alcoholic, of course) I leave my home and walk across to the staircase that will take me up to my bird's nest office where I can survey my property from 360 degrees.

This morning as I reached the bottom of the staircase, a field spider sat in my way.

"It's dead," I told myself just before it moved.

I stood there and it sat there and we studied each other for a long time.

There was no alternate way to my office. So there I stood, prepared for the day and unable to proceed.

If my husband had been home, I would have screamed. Screams and crying always get a quick response.

But he wasn't home.

I have a pest control contract. I thought briefly of going back in the house, calling the pest control company and reporting the spider.

Then I decided I was a big girl, and this was my house.

So I went back in the house and went out the side door leading to my garage. I would get the vacuum cleaner and suck up that critter, I thought. But it wouldn't be with MY vacuum cleaner. After all, what if it crawled out while I was vacuuming the living room? No; I would use my husband's handy-dandy shop vacuum that could suck up a Volkswagon.

I sneaked inside the garage door. Quiet, quiet, so the spider wouldn't know I was there. I walked along the back edge, tiptoeing, until I spotted the vacuum cleaner. Very gently, I pulled out the cord and tiptoed back to the far wall and plugged it in. Then silently, like a sniper, I walked in slow-motion back to my weapon. I disconnected the floor attachment and quietly moved into position.

A baby gate, meant to keep my dogs from eating all my husband's tools, separated me from the location of the spider.

So silently, stealthily, I raised the vacuum cleaner hose over the baby gate and maneuvered into position. I was ready.

I stepped forward, pointing the vacuum cleaner toward the base of the steps.

The spider was gone.

The only thing worse than seeing a spider is knowing there is one big, hairy, fat field spider somewhere in the room, and you don't know where.

My husband's garage has never been cleaner.

And no, I never found it.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Blank Page

Many of my friends and fellow authors have been blogging for quite some time and they've finally convinced me to do the same. Ideas for books flow to me like hummingbirds gravitate to flowers. Give me a computer screen and tell me to start a blog, however, and I'm clueless. I looked at other blogs; some humorous, some dark, some downright frightening. Others tend to be about the day's flavor of gum and others much deeper.

I decided to begin at the beginning.

This blog will give you a peak into my world.

I heard Carrie Underwood say that she wanted to be a singer "from the womb" and I identified immediately. I was born with an imagination that has been both a curse and a blessing. But it wasn't until the 4th grade when I really began to write.

I'd been born in Washington, DC to an FBI Agent and his homemaker wife. We moved around a bit during my first few years but in 1967, with the Civil Rights Movement in full swing, my father, a native Tennessean, was sent to the Mississippi Delta to help break up the Ku Klux Klan, search for Vietnam War deserters, and more.

By this time, I was living in New Jersey and had a pronounced northern accent. So on my first day of school, when the teacher told me to "open a winder" I didn't know what a "winder" was. I found out, after being threatened with a "paddling" that it was a window. Turned out, this teacher didn't embrace us Yankee upstarts coming down to Mississippi to tell them what they could and could not do. So on that first day of school, she threatened the other students if they had anything to do with me. Play with me, and get a paddlin'. Clear and simple.

I'd always had a vivid imagination, and now I was alone with whatever characters my mind could conjure. I have two brothers and two sisters, but we were a few years apart. I was the one in the middle. Too young to do the things the older ones did. And too old to do the things the younger ones got away with. So I dreamed. I dreamed of people who would play with me. Of places I would go. Things I would see. In the hot, humid summer of the Mississippi Delta, I thought of exotic, far-away places, cruises, castles, knights in shining armor.

My first "book" was written on the backs of white cardboard that came with the stockings my mother purchased. When it was done, all thirteen pages of it (thank God my mother's stockings "ran" quite frequently) I bound it together by sewing yarn along one side. It was about time travel to another world - a world where animals talked, where vegetables and fruits lived lives like humans, and a place where I was always safe, even if danger abounded around me.

Later that school year, I won a poetry contest. I don't remember the poem, but I do remember walking across the stage and being awarded a poetry book by the principal of the school. She was good to me, and encouraged me to write. She would be only the first.

By the time I reached the 8th grade, I was writing prolifically. Ms. Webb, my English teacher, was about 150 years old. She encouraged me to participate in a writing contest and I was astonished to learn that she'd been notified that I'd won. But our celebration was short-lived. It turned out, she'd written my name as "Pat" on the entry form, and the judges had assumed I was a boy. (To this day, I've never gone by that name, and I don't know what possessed Ms. Webb to write that name.) When it was discovered that I was a girl, they disqualified me. Turned out, they didn't believe girls could write as well as boys so the contest was only for the males.

I was disappointed but Ms. Webb was fit to be tied. She died two years later, and I felt her every time I sat down at my manual Smith-Corona typewriter. I'd buy a ream of paper and draw penciled margins around each page so I'd know when to stop typing each page. And I would bang on that typewriter, putting out page after page, for years...

Some people write off and on. Some tell me they want to write a book, but they never do. Others are like me. I can't stop writing. It's something I've been called to do. It's like water. Like food. Take the keyboard from under my fingers and you may as well chop off the fingers themselves.

And to me, that's what makes a writer: it's what you are when you can't imagine being anything else.