Like many writers, I was a shy kid. My mother claims I never spoke a word until high school. I preferred writing to talking. I penned poetry and 12-page letters to my relatives (who thought I had way too much time on my hands). I wrote Stephen King-like stories about my sister’s stuffed animals coming to life — stories that made them think I was deranged.

Regardless of my sisters’ opinions, my high school teachers suggested I pursue a writing career. I wound up at the University of New Hampshire, where I studied photography and journalism. My grades were okay — until I flunked a writing class.

My professor gave me an F for turning in a final paper late. He wanted to prepare me for journalism and deadlines, but I thought my career was over before it started. Luckily, my parents convinced me otherwise. “You’re a writer,” my father said.

Still, I wasn’t sure. After graduation, I flew to Ireland searching for adventure and my far-flung Irish roots. I told my parents I’d see them in a year (which really didn’t make them too happy). Preferring to take pictures rather than confront my deadline phobia, I applied for a photography job at a weekly news paper in Galway.  I took pictures of Irish Tinkers, fishermen, parades and First Communions. Eventually, after picking grapes in France and traveling throughout Europe, I grew homesick and returned to the States.

When my hometown weekly paper in Pelham, New Hampshire hired me as a reporter, I learned to meet deadline — barely. Over the next 25 years, I worked at four daily newspapers in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and Florida. In Fort Laurderdale, I covered the court beat reporting on drug shootings, murders and killers sentenced to “Old Sparky,” Florida’s electric chair.

In Maine, I wrote about mentally ill children who could not get the help they needed; kids living in rural poverty in unheated trailers without electricity or running water. I reported on teen suicide, domestic violence and Maine’s deadliest drug: alcohol.

But the story that I will most remember covering is Willie Horton Jr. and Massachusetts’ flawed furlough program.

I was 27 and a rookie when my editors at the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune assigned me to the story. Horton was a first-degree killer who escaped while out on a weekend pass from Walpole, Massachusetts’ top security prison. It turned out that many killers and rapists were getting furloughed on the weekend — unsupervised.  Ultimately, our investigation into the prison program changed lives, laws, affected a presidential election and earned our newspaper a Pulitzer Prize.

The Horton story also taught me that journalists have tremendous power and responsibility to inform, to tell stories that need to be told.

Like the stories I reported during my journalism career, my two books ─ Sammy in the Sky and August Gale: A Father and Daughter’s Journey into the Storm ─ are true and they are stories that I was compelled to write.

When I am not agonizing over words or deadlines, I can be found by the water, swimming, kayaking or just staring at the blue-green waves.

SAMMY IN THE SKY. Illustrations copyright © 2011 by Jamie Wyeth. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.