Imagine being able to fire up your laptop and experience history in real time, whether at the Old Slave House near Equality or on the Trail of Tears in Golconda.
That’s exactly what happens to a Southern Illinois woman and her friends in a series of novels written by Waterloo resident Deborah Heal. But their magic software works only when they’re visiting old homes.
“Sometimes they have to sneak around because they don’t want anyone to know they have the software,” Deborah said. “Can you imagine what the government would do with it?”
Deborah, 61, seems to be having the time of her life since retiring as an English teacher and fulfilling her lifelong dream of being an author. She has self-published seven books in six years.
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The first three are part of a “History Mystery Trilogy.” The last four, known as the “Rewinding Time Series,” are described as “inspirational novels of history, mystery and romance.”
“The books have Christian themes in them, but I certainly don’t use a sledgehammer,” Deborah said. “They’re not like most Christian fiction.”
Merrideth Randall is a lead character in all the books. She acquires the time-traveling software at age 11 in the first series and rediscovers its power as a McKendree University history professor in the second.
All the books are set in Southern Illinois, which has prompted Deborah and her husband, Bob Heal, to do some traveling of their own and visit places where history unfolded.
“Debbie does a lot of deep research,” said Bob, 63, a registered nurse in geriatric psychology at Jefferson Barracks hospital in St. Louis. “The history is right. She makes up the characters, but she doesn’t fudge on the facts.”
Deborah has published her books through the Amazon company CreateSpace and sold thousands of Kindle and print-on-demand paperback versions. She hires someone for editing but designs her own covers.
The books have Christian themes in them, but I certainly don’t use a sledgehammer. They’re not like most Christian fiction.
Deborah Heal on her novels
Like many aspiring authors, Deborah had manuscripts rejected by traditional publishing companies in the ’90s. Today, she makes no apologies for self-publishing. She likes the control and access.
“It really levels the playing field,” she said. “So the unknown, the indie writer, the nobody has as much chance as anyone else to be successful if they produce a good product.”
Deborah’s seventh book, “A Matter of Time,” is being released in December. It takes Merrideth back to 1842, when English writer Charles Dickens visited Lebanon and stayed at the Mermaid Inn.
Merrideth joins forces with McKendree physics professor Brett Garrison, also her love interest. Mainly, they’re trying to figure out why Dickens was so critical of America in general and Lebanon and Belleville in particular.
“As usual, everyone from the past has much to teach Merrideth about mankind’s sinfulness and God’s plan to rescue them,” according to promotions.
Deborah and Bob grew up on neighboring farms near Bunker Hill. He was a high-school basketball star, and she was the “nerdy type,” who had her nose stuck in Nancy Drew mysteries while other kids were playing.
Deborah reared three children and Bob farmed until health issues forced him to quit. He went to college and became a science teacher at Waterloo Junior High.
Deborah also got a degree later in in life. She studied English and creative writing at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and taught at high schools in Hillsboro, Freeburg and Columbia before retiring six years ago.
“My first book (‘Time and Again’) started out as a short story in one of my creative-writing classes,” she said.
That book introduces readers to young Merrideth, whose father gives her a desktop. It’s loaded with software that allows her and her tutor, Abby Thomas, to see what it was like at Merrideth’s house in rural Brighton in 1858.
It was easy to read, and the characters were interesting. I could follow it easily. I’m a history buff, and I really appreciated her putting in all the old facts that many people don’t even know about.
Sue Watters on “Time and Again”
The house stands near a train depot on the Alton & Chicago Line. Merrideth and Abby meet Charlotte Miles, a real person who in the book is inspired to become an abolitionist after going to the Lincoln-Douglas Debate in Alton.
“(The book) was easy to read, and the characters were interesting,” said Sue Watters, 68, of Waterloo. “I could follow it easily. I’m a history buff, and I really appreciated her putting in all the old facts that many people don’t even know about.”
Sue is a Monroe County History Museum board member who arranged for Deborah to give a community presentation earlier this year.
More than 113,000 people have downloaded the Kindle version of “Time and Again” at www.amazon.com in the past year. It’s offered free so readers can sample Deborah’s work and decide if they want to buy her other books.
Deborah loves history, but sometimes she finds it disturbing. Her fifth book, “Only One Way Home,” takes Merrideth back to 1838, when Cherokee Indians arrived in Illinois on the Trail of Tears.
“I cried when I did the research,” Deborah said. “I cried when I wrote the book and again when I edited it. Andrew Jackson’s policy of Indian removal was just tragic. So many things came together to form a perfect storm for misery.
“The government hadn’t intended for (the Indians) to travel in the winter, but that’s what happened because of all the delays and logistical problems. They froze. They starved. It was just heart-breaking.”
When not writing, Deborah gardens on her 10 acres and spends time with her husband, three children, five grandchildren and two rat terriers, Digger and Scout.
Deborah is writing one more book for the “Rewinding Time Series.” Then she plans to try her hand at contemporary Christian romance, basing her first book on the Biblical story of Ruth and Boaz.
“I keep telling her, ‘If you make enough money, maybe I can retire sooner than 3 1/2 years from now,’” Bob joked. “I’ve read the reviews, and they’re good. People have said she writes in a way that nobody else does.”
Deborah Heal’s books
- “Time and Again,” set near Brighton
- “Unclaimed Legacy,” set in Alton and Hartford
- “Every Hill and Mountain,” set near Equality
- “Once Again,” set in Waterloo and Columbia
- “Only One Way Home,” set in Golconda
- “How Sweet the Sound,” set in Cave-in-Rock
- “A Matter of Time,” set in Lebanon
from “Only One Way Home” by Deborah Heal
Blindly Merrideth grabbed the mouse to stop the action on the screen. Her brain was a roller coaster of conflicting thoughts and feelings. Naturally, she had picked up some of the Cherokee’s emotions as they trudged by, filled with either seething anger or weary resignation. From some of the townsmen watching on the boardwalk she had sensed a nasty mixture of hatred and actual satisfaction at the Cherokee’s plight. But mostly her head was filled with Matthias Frailey’s shock, anger, compassion — and shame.
All that, together with her own feelings, resulted in an emotional overload to her system that was almost painful.
Next to her, Abby and John shivered. Abby held a hand to her chalky lips and looked like she might be sick any minute.
“Take deep breaths, honey,” John said, putting an arm around her shoulders.
“It helps if you keep your eyes closed, Abby.” Merrideth realized she was shivering, too. She willed her body to stop, reminding herself that she was in a comfortably heated room, not outside on that cold December day in 1838.