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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.