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Thursday, April 30, 2015

In Search of the Irish Past - Part 6

This week, my 19th publication will be released. A Thin Slice of Heaven takes place in Northern Ireland, where the heroine, Charleigh, travels with the intention of meeting up with her husband for a second honeymoon. When she arrives, however, she receives a text from him informing her that he is leaving her for another woman.

Stranded in a remote castle three thousand miles from home, a snowstorm cuts off all access to the outside world. She is soon joined, however, by the grandson of the original laird of the castle, Sean Bracken. She quickly falls head-over-heels in love with him. There's just one problem: he's dead.

Soon she is whisked into a mass haunting as the castle comes alive with secrets hidden for centuries. It takes her into the politics of the potato famine, of lives and loves lost and found, of tragedy and triumph. Her world begins to blend until she no longer recognizes the veil between the living and the dead.

And when she discovers her appearance at Castle Brackenridge is not by accident, it will change her world forever.

I began writing A Thin Slice of Heaven more than a year before its release. I selected the site for the castle approximately 50 miles west of Belfast. The name Brackenridge was derived from the castle owners' last name - Bracken - and the fact that it sit high atop a cliff, or ridge.

When my sister, Neelley Hicks, journeyed to Dublin in 2014, she asked for information about our Neely ancestors, who had originally lived in Ireland prior to emigrating to the United States in the early 1700's. I asked a distant cousin if he had anything and he sent me a packet, which I forwarded to her.

It turned out that he had traced us back to Ballygawley, Northern Ireland, a site approximately 50-70 miles west of Belfast in Northern Ireland. When Neelley traveled to Ballygawley from Dublin, she was astonished to find that our ancestors had once been the Lairds of Glencull, an area just outside of Ballygawley. The castle was long gone, the stones reused in other dwellings and the ruins reclaimed by the earth. But it might have looked similar to this one, owned by the Stewart family, who would have lived in the area at the same time and presumably have been friends with my ancestors.

High atop a hill lay the Neely family cemetery. The stones were broken and rumor had it that the British had destroyed the cemetery while they looked for IRA weapons during the time of The Troubles. The last of the Neely clan to live in the region was Robert Neely, who died in the mid 1800's. His body originally was buried in the cemetery near Ballygawley but when the family arrived back at his home after the services, they were astonished to find his spirit there waiting for them. They quickly had the body exhumed and moved to the family cemetery, and his spirit was never seen again.

It was said that Robert had told close friends and relatives that when he died, he wanted to be buried at the top of the hill where he could keep an eye on his property. In the video and picture, you can see the lands beyond the hilltop - all Neely lands at the time he died.

Four years ago, I began having dreams that begged me to journey to Ireland. I didn't know why until I stood at the top of the hill and saw the sad shape the cemetery is in. The property had passed into the hands of someone who not only did not care about the upkeep of the cemetery, but had even boasted that he could destroy the graves within. Perhaps Robert Neely was asking for my help in preserving their final resting place. I have contacted the governing authority in Northern Ireland, asking for assistance in preserving the cemetery, and my hopes are that they will step in to ensure that the graves are not destroyed.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

In Search of the Irish Past - Part 5

Last year my 18th book, The White Devil of Dublin, was released. Writing the book required research into Dublin's history, as part of the plot takes place as the Viking occupation of Dublin was coming to an end, on the cusp of the Norman invasion.

The main character is called Hvitr Bard, which translates to The White Devil, because he is an albino Viking that is both feared and reviled. Prior to the Viking invasion of Ireland, Dublin (or Duiblinn as it was called) was a very small Christian settlement. Duiblinn is translated to The Black Pool, which in turn gets its name from a nearby tidal pool that appears very dark. Around 841, the Vikings came down the Irish Sea between England and Ireland; not only did they raid villages but they also made a permanent settlement at Duiblinn.

The Vikings ruled Duiblinn for roughly three hundred years. In my book I referred to them as Ostmen, which is how the Vikings referred to themselves.

Though we think of them today as pillaging nomads, the Norsemen actually are credited for much of the growth of Duiblinn and by the year 1171, a Norse king, Ascall mac Ragnaill, ruled the city. He and his regime had also established alliances with Scotland. It was in that year that King Dermot MacMurrough of Leinster, along with an army comprised of Norman mercenaries, invaded Ireland in full force.

In the fighting that led up to the capture of Duiblinn, mac Ragnaill fled to the Scottish Highlands and his Viking followers had the difficult choice of fighting the Normans without their leader, fleeing Ireland to avoid torture, imprisonment or death, or moving westward past the River Shannon.

After the Norman invasion, Dublin became heavily populated with people from England and Wales. This was the start of an uneasy conflict between England and Ireland that, in some pockets, still exists today. Over the past thousand years, there have been countless Irish attempts to run the settlers out of their territory and return the entire island to native Irish control.

In a future blog, I'll have more about the history of the Pagans, the Catholic conversions and the Protestant decree under King Henry VIII. In my book, The White Devil of Dublin, I allude to the fact that if Hvitr Bard, The White Devil, were to remain in Ireland under the Normans (provided they did not kill him), he would be forced to renounce his Norse gods and submit entirely to the Catholic faith. Since his Norse gods had existed in his culture far longer than the Christian - Catholic faith, he was not of a mind to do this. But in reality, many Vikings did convert.

Dublin today is the capital of the Republic of Ireland, which gained its independence from England in 1922 and officially became known as the Republic of Ireland in 1949. It was split from roughly 1/6 of the island in the 1922 Anglo-Irish Treaty; that region is now known as Northern Ireland and it is a part of the United Kingdom, still falling under British rule. The reasons for the split will be covered in a later blog but it had its origins in religion and immigrant versus native domination.

Today, Dublin has approximately 4.6 million inhabitants (including the metro area surrounding it), which accounts for most of Ireland's population. However, Galway, on the western side of the island, has been quickly expanding and is considered the fastest-growing city in all of Europe.

From the tiny village of Christian settlers to a city home to the Viking rulers with a bustling port to the capital city of Ireland, Dublin has had quite a history.

I have plans to continue writing about Dublin's history as my second series, the Ryan O'Clery Mystery Series, features Dublin-born Ryan O'Clery. In both The Tempest Murders and The White Devil of Dublin, Ryan's Irish history intermingles with his life in the present-day - and often leads to murder.

Buy The Tempest Murders from amazon by following this link, or The White Devil of Dublin by following this link.

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.