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'Semblance' of Story-Telling

Family history and infamous murder converge in local author's novel.

May 2, 1994 in the prologue: "I barely remember Grandma, and what I do is only a patchwork of memories and feelings. We always heard these stories: how she and some of her sisters came to America, how she was a maid for a rich family in Chicago ... "

April 24, 2003: "I woke up one day and realized I had to write this story. It had been a tumultuous story in my family. There were whisperings."

Potomac Falls author Wayne F. Nielsen, 45, explained how he came to write his first historical fiction novel, "Semblance of Balance," as he sat in the sitting room last Thursday, unpacked boxes from his recent move scattered around. Near him was the bookshelf with some of the books from his eight to nine-year quest into the story of his grandmother Elizabeth Sattler. He was five the day she died and 10 when he saw a black-and-white movie about the 1924 trial of Leopold and Loeb, two boys found guilty and sentenced for murdering a third boy. "It started the queries rolling around my head, and that was when Dad first mentioned Grandma's participation, albeit unwilling, in that notorious trial," Nielsen wrote in the prologue.

IN THE EARLY 1990s, Nielsen started playing around with writing, putting down short thoughts and memories until he wrote out a two-page memoir of his grandmother. "I realized this is the story I wanted to write," he said.

In the 1920s, 23-year-old Sattler emigrated from Austria to America and was hired in Chicago by the wealthy industrialist Leopolds to care for their son Nathan. Nielsen wanted to find out how Sattler became employed and why she was afraid. He traveled to Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., Austria and England to research records and personal accounts and to dig up information on the trial that had the world mesmerized for six months, as Nielsen said.

"I love researching. I love taking an idea that is totally yours and spinning it," Nielsen said.

Nathan Leopold, who was 19 at the time, and his friend Dickie Loeb, 18, got involved with Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophy, Nielsen said. The boys believed they were the embodiment of the Obermache or Superman, who is above human law, and to prove it spent nine months planning the perfect murder and committing it in an opportunity killing on 14-year-old boy Bobby Franks, who was on his way home from playing baseball. Nathan dropped his spectacles at the murder scene that Sattler later identified with the driving clothes the boys had worn and the typewriter they had used to write a ransom note.

"It was unbelievable. People couldn't believe these two rich boys would go out and kill one of their own," Nielsen said. "We never know at the end who killed the boy. They both said the other did it."

Sattler, who witnessed against Nathan, was "pitted against" the boys' lawyer Clarence Darrow and received threats on her life from those who wanted the boys to live and those who wanted them to be executed, Nielsen said. She tried to cope and still perform as a maid, aiming to maintain a semblance of balance, hence the book's title.

While the trial was underway, Sattler met Nielsen's grandfather, Karl "K.K." Kristian Nielsen, a Danish immigrant. "You got all these things happening, and you got this murder story," Nielsen said.

NIELSEN STARTED writing and researching for the book in 1994 and finished it in October 2001. He liked writing while he traveled for research and business. "I travel a lot, and I'm on airplanes a lot. I love writing when I'm on a plane," he said.

Nielsen, who grew up in Illinois, originally planned to be a diplomat and studied political science, earning a bachelor's and master's degree in the subject, along with a bachelor's degree in economics. He received the degrees in 1980 and 1982 from Central Michigan University.

"It didn't happen that way. I found out I didn't fit the mold," Nielsen said about his change in career.

Nielsen and his wife Peg married in 1981 and as recent graduates moved to Northern Virginia a year later to look for work. Nielsen started working for a small marketing company, then worked for three telecommunication companies until 2001, when he started his own telecommunications consulting business, WFN Strategies, LLC. The Nielsens, who have three children, both work for the business, and volunteer for Scouts troops.

"I read it [Nielsen's novel] because I know the author," said Ashburn resident Shawn Hennesy, whose two sons are in Boy Scout Troop 761, where Nielsen serves as scoutmaster. "You could almost see him saying some of the things in it. ... It's a fun book to read."

STERLINGHOUSE Publisher, Inc. of Pittsburgh released Nielsen's book in August 2002 and issued a second printing in less than 90 days.

"It's presenting a famous case in a new way," said Cynthia Sterling, publisher of Sterlinghouse, which publishes about 25 fiction and non-fiction books a year. "He's got a good story, good writing and is easy to work with. ... He's one of those ideal authors you like to work with, good story, good writing, good understanding of the industry. ... We're happy with him. We think we'll keep him."

Sterlinghouse expects to release Nielsen's second novel, "The Snake Dancer's Song," in September.

"He's constantly out there," Sterling said. "That gives us more incentive to work hard for his book. ... I think his book is going to be in print for awhile and it will keep gathering momentum."