‘What’s not to like about this new novel?’

What’s not to like about a good review?

No, they’re not uncommon. Most writers can find something positive to say about a book. But unqualified praise? It’s rare.

That’s why I’m so pleased to see Ryan G. Van Cleave’s assessment of Curb Appeal, the latest in the series of mystery/thrillers featuring detective-turned-real-estate-agent CW (Candace) McCoy. (No, that’s not her in the photo on the left.) The piece appears in the October edition of Scene magazine.

For those of you who don’t feel like following the link, here’s an excerpt:

“What’s not to like about his new novel by Sarasota resident Jeff Widmer? Most of the things I look for in a mystery are right there. Hot new cop boyfriend faces assault charges—check. Rival real estate agent is strangled by a lacy black bra in chapter 1—check. Back-to-back hurricanes—check. Seriously, Widmer understands the value of pacing and creating a driving forward momentum. But he still knows how to sprinkle in telling details. Widmer’s Curb Appeal presents the image of an intriguing book—and the reality matches.”

I’m especially pleased to see the review combined with one of Patricia Gussin’s latest books, Come Home. Dr. Gussin is a former executive with Johnson & Johnson who specializes in writing medical mystery/thrillers. She and her husband Robert run the independent Oceanview Publishing on Longboat Key, Florida. I’ve read her work and heard her speak at the annual Venice Book Fair, and she’s as informative in person as she is in print.

Ryan has a raft of publishing experience, too. He is a poet, editor, and teacher who lives in Sarasota, Florida, where he heads the creative writing program at The Ringling College of Art + Design. An Amazon.com best-selling author and co-author, he has penned and edited a diverse field of books, including Memoir Writing for Dummies, Contemporary American Poetry and Unplugged, My Journey into the Dark World of Video Game Addiction.

He’s a writer who is generous with his time and praise, as is the person who brought Curb Appeal to his attention, fellow author and teacher Eric Sheridan Wyatt.

What’s not to like about that?

Stormy weather

Starting a new project is never easy. Working during a storm that threatens your entire state makes it even harder to concentrate.

Now that Hurricane Irma has swept through Florida and spared our home, I’m trying to refocus efforts on a new novel, tentatively titled Born Under a Bad Sign, although The Peaceable Kingdom might provide an ironic description of the theme.

Set in 1969 just before the historic Woodstock Music & Art Fair, the book pits the residents of eastern Pennsylvania against the government in a battle to save or dam the Delaware River. It introduces two young people, a budding photographer named Elizabeth Reed and a prodigal musician called Hayden Quinn, who struggle with their own personal conflicts as they weigh the risks and rewards of love and fame.

For Elizabeth, the peace of the Minisink Valley is a form of paradise. For Quinn, whom Rolling Stone calls the next Jimi Hendrix, Eden lies to the north, at Max Yasgur’s farm. Whether they realize their dreams is an open question.

Unlike its predecessors, the CW McCoy and Brinker novels, this work is more mainstream, an exploration of the baffling mysteries faced by a sixteen-year-old woman on her emotional journey to adulthood.

I started working on paper (hence, the image of the notecards) before graduating to Word, with its document-view feature that uses headers to provide a visual outline of the manuscript. Less onerous than outlining, it’s a system I recommend to fellow writers who want flexibility as well as organization.

 

Author Anna Schmidt on why she writes

“There is only one reason to write,” says Sarasota author Anna Schmidt. “That is because you can’t not write.”

Anna, known to her friends as Jo, has written for therapy, but for most of her career, she’s written for publication. She is the author of several series of inspiration and romance, including ones set during World War II (All God’s Children), in Sarasota’s Pinecraft Mennonite community (A Sister’s Forgiveness) and in the Southwest (The Lawman).

She shared her experience this week with members of Sarasota Fiction Writers.

Her advice for emerging authors?

  • Build a track record in your genre and develop a following
  • Don’t chase trends (unless your agent and editor tell you to)
  • During dry spells, attend events and conferences outside your area of expertise (for Jo, that’s mystery and suspense)
  • Join book clubs and writers’ groups
  • Read outside your genre.

She ended the program by giving away copies of her latest book. Surprised by her generosity, the moderator asked why. With a sly smile she said, “The publisher sent me forty copies. What else am I going to do with them?”

Back to the Future

Working on Curb Appeal, the third novel in the CW McCoy series (after Peak Season and Tourist in Paradise), I realize that I write backwards.

In school, we learned to organize our material using an outline. I’ve adopted that technique to sort large amounts of material when writing nonfiction. The tool came in handy when I worked for Mack Trucks and had to find a lead buried in hours of interviews. I used a highlighter and flagged passages that were important to the telling of the story, writing subheads for those highlights and prioritizing them so they flowed in a logical way.

curb-appeal-summary-editsDigging out the nuggets from a pile of information seemed a more organic process than writing an outline. The process allowed the structure of the piece to grow from the material, the research and interviews from primary sources. But when it comes to fiction, I seem unable to follow that scholarly advice.

I write backwards.

Yes, I have a solid idea of the nature of the characters and the arc of the story, but I don’t know the exact scope and sequence of the work. I discover that as I write.

And then I write the outline. In fiction, it’s called a synopsis, a summary that’s written with the same flavor as the novel. It’s longer than a logline and shorter than a chapter-by-chapter description of character and action. But, like a GPS device, it can keep me on track.

Do you write forward or backwards?

Thinking Out Loud

I met Anna Quindlen at a video store in Snydersville, PA. We were feeding cassettes into the drop-off box. It was after hours and getting dark. I think I startled her. She used to live in New Jersey and was living in Cherry Valley, not far from my home, near Stroudsburg. Maybe she still lives there.

I worked for the local newspaper. She worked for the New York Times. I’d written a corporate history. She’d won the Pulitzer Prize. Now she writes novels with an eye a detective would envy.

millers-valley-coverMiller’s Valley is her latest book. At times the novel sounds like the saga of the Tocks Island Dam. At times it sounds universal, as if the flooding and evictions take place everywhere, all the time.

In a passage near the center of the book, the narrator, a high-school student named Mimi Miller, is talking to her brother Tommy, who’s just back from Vietnam.

“I didn’t know exactly what Tommy did with himself all day, but he was still in basic-training condition. All the other guys at the VFW had big bellies sloping over their belts. ‘Baby likes beer’ they would say, rubbing their midsections like a genie would show up and they would get three wishes.”

I wish I could write like Anna Quindlen. I wish I could see like Anna Quindlen.

Just thinking out loud.

The locus of murder

In fiction, when does setting become a character? When does location move from background to foreground?

Readers from Pennsylvania to Florida have called out locales they recognize in both the CW McCoy and Brinker series of crime novels. Even with altered geography and names, those places seem to resonate like the voice of a friend.

As they did with me while doing research for Tourist in Paradise, Peak Season and Mr. Mayhem. Here, then, are some of the images that inspired the characters that inhabit those books. As well as the writer.

Sarasota marina, similar to one where Walter Bishop berths his sailboat in CW McCoy novels

Sarasota marina, similar to the one where Walter Bishop berths his sailboat in CW McCoy novels

 

Sansara condos in Sarasota, one of models for DeSoto Park complex in “Tourist in Paradise”

Sansara condos in Sarasota, one of the models for the massive DeSoto Park complex in Tourist in Paradise

 

Farmers Market in downtown Sarasota, where CW and Tony Delgado meet in “Peak Season”

Farmers Market in downtown Sarasota, where CW and Tony Delgado meet in Peak Season

 

The Sarasota skyline inspired creation of CW McCoy’s Spanish Point

The Sarasota skyline inspired creation of CW McCoy’s Spanish Point

 

Sarasota Police Dept. inspired Spanish Point’s PD where Cheryl, Oz, Delgado work

Sarasota Police Dept. inspired Spanish Point’s PD where Cheryl, Oz and Delgado work

 

Drumming the sun down at Siesta Beach, where CW finds second body in “Peak Season”

Drumming the sun down at Siesta Beach, where CW finds a second body in Peak Season

 

Key Breeze stands in for galley of Mary Beth, where CW finds an unconscious Walter Bishop

Key Breeze stands in for the galley of the Mary Beth, where CW finds an unconscious Walter Bishop in Tourist in Paradise

The Real McCoy

Many places have informed the CW McCoy crime series. While the books are set in the fictional Florida coastal town of Spanish Point, both Sarasota city and county provided much of the inspiration for Candace and her cast.

Over the past five years, I’ve taken hundreds of photos throughout the region, focusing on the places where CW, Walter Bishop and others might live, work and do their worst. From the office building of One Sarasota Tower to the Sunday night drum circle on Siesta Beach, they illustrate the lives of people struggling to adjust to a changing world. (Full disclosure: I didn’t take the photo of kd Lang, although I did see Tony Bennett in concert at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center in Sarasota.)

I’ve enjoyed reviewing the images that inspired Peak Season and Tourist in Paradise. I thought you might enjoy them, too.

Tony Bennett and kd lang make their debut in crime fiction in “Peak Season.”

 

Anna Maria Island City Pier, one of the models for Spanish Point Fish Camp in both CW McCoy novels

Anna Maria Island City Pier, one of the models for Spanish Point Fish Camp in both CW McCoy novels

 

Mascot of the Sarasota Sheriff’s Office Animal Services unit, Sugar Bear is the model for the abandoned dog in “Tourist in Paradise”

Mascot of the Sarasota Sheriff’s Office Animal Services unit, Sugar Bear is the model for the abandoned dog in “Tourist in Paradise”

 

Sarasota’s Bayfront Park, where Bobby Lee Darby meets his fate in “Peak Season”

Sarasota’s Bayfront Park, where Bobby Lee Darby meets his fate in “Peak Season”

 

One Sarasota Tower, model for offices of Mitch Palmer and Casey Laine in CW McCoy novels

One Sarasota Tower, model for offices of Mitch Palmer and Casey Laine in CW McCoy novels

 

Bradenton Riverwalk, the inspiration for Baywalk in “Peak Season”

Bradenton’s Riverwalk, the inspiration for Baywalk in “Peak Season”

John Ringling’s Cà d’Zan, site of attack on Tommy Thompson’s condo project in “Tourist in Paradise”

John Ringling’s Cà d’Zan, site of attack on Tommy Thompson’s condo project in “Tourist in Paradise”

 

 

Darkness descends on the Sunshine State

Someone has declared war on Florida’s tourists. And caught in the crosshairs is CW McCoy, the retired female detective desperately trying to lead a normal life as a real estate agent in tony Spanish Point.

She does, until that someone comes gunning for her.

As if a midnight carjacking isn’t enough trauma, CW must deal with savage punks, corrupt politicians, an errant lover and a disease that is rapidly obliterating her beloved grandfather.

Welcome to Tourist in Paradise, the sequel to Peak Season, the book that kicked off the CW McCoy series of crime novels. The sequel debuts this week in trade paper and ebook formats through Amazon, iTunes and Barnes & Noble. But fans of the spunky sleuth who are eager to read about her troubled past and doubtful future won’t have to wait. They can read the full first chapter of Tourist in Paradise here.

Enjoy.

1.

THE AIR FELT THICK and wet. Lightning slashed the clouds and thunder detonated over the Gulf of Mexico. In the rental lot of the Spanish Point International Airport, palm trees swayed like frat boys. Mercury vapor lights buzzed. The sky dropped another foot.

A hard rain was gonna fall.

By the time Walter Bishop dropped me off at the car rental counter, the display on my cellphone read 12:01 a.m. Despite the hour, the rental agent looked crisp in white shirt and black slacks. Tall, early twenties, with black hair slicked forward in a rapper quiff. His nametag read Ken. No Barbie in sight.

The agent stood at a computer terminal in front of a banner that read, “Spanish Point—Welcome to Paradise.” The photo showed a man in a white shirt, striped tie and madras shorts leaping through the surf with a smiling woman and young girl, both in swimsuits and sarongs. At least the women had dressed the part.

Ken handed over the keys and a copy of the paperwork. “Here you are, Ms. McCoy. You’re in Number Three. Enjoy your stay.”

He smiled. He had a right to look happy. This was Southwest Florida after one of the worst winters on record, when tourists had fled south like refugees. I should have been happy, too, because I’d moved to this beach town two years ago, although trouble with money and men had thrown a bit of sand in my face.

I considered correcting Ken’s assumption that I was a visitor—he should have known, he’d looked at my license—but I kept that thought to myself. Score one for self-restraint.

Walter had the parking lot to himself. Leaning against his gold Mercury Grand Marquis, arms folded, jaws snapping gum, he looked every inch the former state police commander and proud owner of a forty-one-foot sloop. Not exactly your typical beach bum, he still carried a weapon. Louie, his vintage black Labrador Retriever, stood on the passenger seat with his head hanging out the window. All this time in the South and Louie didn’t know better than to wear black.

I walked to slot number three and beeped the remote of a white car that could have passed for a Hyundai, Toyota, Ford or an enameled rickshaw. The front looked like the helmet of an imperial storm trooper. The back bore a Florida license plate.

Walter walked to the car. Last winter, while helping me take down an enraged investor in a bank-fraud scheme, he took a bullet in the thigh. He still walked with a slight limp, but when I’d asked how he felt, he’d always say, “Fine.”

I slid into the seat and started the car. “Why is it that half the rental tags in this state begin with the letter J?”

“They used to begin with Y and Z, until the governor banned the practice.”

“Why?” Even after midnight, the August heat made my clothes feel like a sausage casing. I cranked the knob for AC. The system fought back with a blast of hot air.

“Carjackings and robberies near Miami International.”

I adjusted the mirrors. “How’d that work?”

“Gangs would tail a tourist out of the airport based on stickers and tags. They’d bump the car from behind. Tourist pulls over, puts up a fight, gets popped.” Walter snapped his gum for emphasis.

In the distance, thunder rolled off the horizon. “When was this?”

“Nineteen ninety-two, right after Hurricane Andrew.”

The air blowing out of the vents smelled like the wrong end of a vacuum cleaner. I adjusted the fins and clicked on the headlights.

Walter leaned on the doorframe. “So tell me why you need a rental.”

“I’m showing a house.”

“You always rent cars at midnight?”

The sky crept closer to the ground. I looked for the stalk that controlled the windshield wipers and sighed. “I got a last-minute call to show a condo on Spanish Key and had to return Cheryl’s car. You’d think the cops would let her take a patrol wagon home for the night.”

He crossed his arms and grinned. “You’re diligent.”

“I’m broke, remember?”

“What happened to the SUV?”

“I loaned it to someone.”

“To whom did you loan it?” His grin tempered the mocking tone, but only a bit.

“Chet.”

He smiled to reveal a gap in his top teeth and curled two fingers in a “come on and spill it” gesture.

The car’s clock read 12:06 a.m., the temperature gauge eighty-six. I sighed. “You’re not going to let go of this bone, are you?”

He shook his head.

“Chet, my auto body guy.”

“Ah.” His smile grew wider. “And what did you hit this time?”

“A pole, all right? I was pulling out of the marina lot—you know they won’t let you back in—and this sign came out of nowhere and clipped the bumper. Totally did not look where it was going.”

He laughed and walked to the Merc. “I’ll follow you home. Wouldn’t want you to get ambushed by a traffic light.”

Tourist in Paradise cover 3DI slammed the door with enough force to fly the rivets back to South Korea and headed down the access road to University Parkway, one of the main East-West highways in Spanish Point. We sailed across the railroad tracks and into the northern part of the city, encountering little traffic at this time and season, when well-heeled residents traveled to cooler climes and the tourists headed back to Canada and the Continent.

The few houses here stood far apart, guarded by cement-block walls with peeling white paint. Not the sign of a prosperous neighborhood. I rarely showed property this far north. The rich retirees preferred gated communities and five-acre ranches east of I-75. I preferred them, too, since I worked on commission.

At the cross street I hung a right onto Orange Avenue and headed south into a fist of rain. Fat drops smacked the windshield, then ratcheted up the volume. I checked the mirror. Walter hung back so far his headlights had disappeared.

The street numbers had dropped from the fifties to the thirties when a car fell in behind me. I glanced in the mirror and saw its glittering image edge closer. When I slowed to let it pass, the car lurched forward and rammed the back of the rental, not enough to set off the airbag but hard enough to jar my teeth.

I jammed the brakes. “What the . . .” I yelled as a black Honda with tinted windows and dual exhaust pipes spun a hundred and eighty degrees and came to rest twenty feet in front of the car, blocking the road and blinding me with its high beams.

A short black kid in a hooded sweatshirt and jeans bounded from the passenger side, raising a handgun as he ran. Hands and eyes, eyes and hands, I reminded myself. Watch the eyes and hands. My heart thundered, my vision narrowing to focus on the weapon. Ducking beneath the dashboard, I searched my ankle for the Beretta .25 only to remember I hadn’t carried since I’d shot that officer in Pennsylvania. I came up to see the black kid pointing the gun at my head and screaming for me to get out of the car.

Things happened fast. I heard Walter yell “Freeze!” and the black kid fired a round that splintered the windshield. Another shot slammed the kid’s shoulder and took him to the pavement. I looked for the driver, a light-skinned male, his features obscured by the blinding headlights. He glanced at his buddy, ground the gears and barreled north, forcing Walter into the ditch.

The kid on the highway rolled in pain. Walter climbed onto the crown of the road and kicked the boy’s weapon out of reach, then backed away and asked, “You all right?”

“Yeah,” I said. My breath felt ragged. I inhaled deeply, willing my heart to slow. “You get the tag?”

“Enough,” he said.

My stomach clenched as Walter moved his gun toward me but he must have changed his mind about asking me to hold the weapon. Flipping open his cell phone, he called 9‑1‑1, asked for police and fire rescue and disconnected.

The kid hugged himself and moaned and rocked on the double yellow line just as the sky opened wide, the rain mixing with blood as it soaked his clothes.

“We need to help,” I said.

With his weapon trained on the boy, Walter tossed his keys to me. “There’s a first-aid kit in the trunk.”

Arms shaking, I grabbed a checkered blanket and red plastic box marked with a white cross and knelt near the boy. He looked about fifteen with a scraggly mustache and a burst of acne on his forehead. With his high top fade, he resembled Will Smith in the “Fresh Prince of Bel Air.”

As shock set in, the kid stopped yelling and stared at me with eyes the size of quarters. Walter had shot him in the meaty part of the right shoulder, as far away from the heart as he could and still hit body mass. I cut away the shirt and, using scissors, tape and a large square of gauze, pressed the makeshift bandage to the wound. He groaned when I tipped him onto his side. The exit wound looked worse. Cutting away the shirt, I stretched the remaining gauze over the hole and taped it to his skin. The patches wouldn’t stop the bleeding but they’d slow it.

Leaning back on my heels, I glanced up at Walter. He stood ramrod straight, gun at his side, a living shadow backlit by the headlights. Between us, rain pelted the pavement, turning the stones to shards of glass.

I bent my head toward the kid. “Why’d you come after us?”

He stared over my shoulder, eyes glazed, blood trickling from a bitten lip. I pulled the blanket over his torso, propped his head on the plastic case and tucked the cloth underneath. Then I backed up to where Walter stood.

“He’s not going anywhere,” I said and heard a faint tremble in my voice.

“Trust but verify.”

“You going to toe him in the ribs to make sure?”

Without taking his eyes from the kid he holstered his gun. “How’s the car?”

“Drivable, if you don’t mind bullet holes.” Rain streamed through my hair and soaked my collar.

He shook his head. “You know what this is about?”

“Robbery for drug money?”

He glanced at me. “Anyone after you?”

I shook my head. “Does he look like a pro?”

“They had to pass me to follow you.”

In the distance, sirens split the air. I leaned against the rental to steady my legs and felt the water soak my pants. “What do you think?”

He stared over my shoulder into the dark. “It’s starting again.”

Dark night of the American Dream

A savage attack. A corrupt politician. A war on tourists . . . and within herself.

CW McCoy faces a barrage of challenges that threaten to overwhelm her in Tourist in Paradise, the sequel to last year’s Peak Season, the novel that marked the debut of the scrappy former detective who battles punks and politicians to head off a full-blown war in Southwest Florida.

Watch the video trailer for the novel here or on YouTube.

[iframe id=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/uTSJZC1PZLo” align=”center” mode=”normal” autoplay=”no”]

Veteran actor brings ‘Mr. Mayhem’ to life

Alan Wade is a character. It’s a description he likes, one that has brought him work in theater (King Lear), movies (The Pelican Brief) and television (House of Cards Season 4). And one of the reasons he was drawn to the narration of Mr. Mayhem, the first in my series of crime novels starring a defrocked journalist turned PR whiz named Brinker.

Alan is a veteran of film, television and stage. Actor, writer and director, he has appeared in regional theater and off-Broadway, as well as television (Homicide) and film (The Pelican Brief, Major League II).

For almost four decades he has served as a professor of speech communications and theater at The George Washington University and directed 30 plays there. His professional work has won praise from After Dark magazine and The Washington Post.

For his latest project, Alan drew on his extensive stage experience to bring the dark story of Mr. Mayhem to life as an audiobook, as he explains in this two-part interview, conducted shortly after he finished the narration.

Alan Wade as Sgt. Rough in “Angel Street” for the Olney Theatre Center with Julie Ann Elliott (Stan Barough Photography)

Alan Wade as Sgt. Rough in “Angel Street” for the Olney Theatre Center with Julie Ann Elliott (Stan Barough Photography)

Tell us a bit about the path you took to a career in acting and narration.
I was a freshman in high school when the “bug bit.” I took some after-school courses, went on to Northwestern University’s theater program, to Catholic University’s drama program (M.A.), and back to Northwestern for a Ph.D. in what is now Performance Studies. Intertwined with this academic work was a stint as a resident actor at Center Stage in Baltimore.

You’ve appeared in everything from King Lear to The Pelican Brief. How has stage and television influenced your voice work?
Well, I’m what is thought of, certainly now, as a character actor, which can often involve roles differentiated in part by changes in vocal characterization: dialects, accents, vocal qualities, and other speech mannerisms. My first Equity role was as Billy Bibbitt in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at Center Stage. Billy suffers from a pronounced stammer.

How does audiobook narration differ from your other projects?
You’re by yourself and, for someone like me who enjoys the culture of theater and its sociability, this aloneness is a pronounced difference. I’ve done two one-person shows during my stage career, so I’ve had a performance experience that approximates being in a booth alone, but there was always the audience to provide companionship.

What do you like best about voice acting?
In the case of audiobooks, it’s somewhat self-directed (though you do interact with the author and sometimes a producer), so there is a larger creative component to voice acting of this kind.

Next: the challenge of multiple characters.

Listen to Alan Wade bring Brinker to life in the first chapter of Mr. Mayhem: