The inner landscape of Florida

Writing gives us a chance to explore. Since moving to Florida, that’s meant close encounters with alligators, beaches, police cars, rooftop bars, concert halls and wall-to-wall tourists with traffic to match. In six years, I’ve made it a mission to distill those encounters into a series of books.

As we head into fall, I thought it time to take stock of where I’ve been since washing up on the Gulf Coast. To abuse a lyric by the Grateful Dead, it hasn’t been a long trip, or an especially strange one. But it has resulted in a wealth of material that’s yielded two crime series, a standalone novel and two short additions to the roster of nonfiction works.

As Julie Andrews famously sang, here are a few of my favorite things.

Published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, my newest novel, Born Under a Bad Sign, follows two young people as they fight for their dreams, and their lives, in one of America’s most turbulent decades—the Sixties.

My first mystery series, set in a fictional version of Sarasota, Florida, features former police detective turned real estate agent CW McCoy and her struggles with clients and crime. The series consists of four titles, with (fingers crossed) a fifth on the way. Here’s a brief rundown:

Peak Season. Life at the beach can be murder. Forced to shoot a fellow police officer, CW McCoy surrenders her gun, her badge and her confidence to take refuge in Southwest Florida. But even in paradise, violence finds her like a divining rod.

Tourist in Paradise. When a gunman mistakes Candace McCoy for a wealthy visitor, the former detective faces her biggest challenge yet: Is the violence the start of a full-blown war on tourists? Or are the attacks a smokescreen for an even greater threat?

Curb Appeal. While showing a mansion on Florida’s tony Spanish Key, CW McCoy discovers the naked body of a rival real estate agent, a bra wrapped around her neck. As the deception and bodies mount, CW must uncover the truth about her friends, her lover and a serial killer bent on murdering fellow agents . . . before she becomes a victim herself.

Permanent Vacation. In the luxurious resort town of Spanish Point, sea levels are rising. So is the body count. Both threaten the real estate industry, and its agents. Including Candace McCoy.

My other crime series, the one set in Northeast Pennsylvania, features a defrocked journalist by the name of Brinker who becomes an agent for an assassin. Frequent trips back home provided new material but most of it comes from memories of my days working for the daily newspaper.

Mr. Mayhem. Sued by his publisher for libel, Brinker is reduced to promoting trolley tours of crime scenes. The tour business is dying. There aren’t enough murders to draw a crowd. A good serial killer would help.

Mr. Magic. Brinker has lost his magic. The ad agency’s CEO wants him to ace the competition. His former girlfriend wants him in detox. And as rival advertising executives disappear, an ambitious state trooper wants him in jail. If this keeps up, the PR whiz who turned a serial killer into a national brand may have to vanish himself.

Fans of science and true crime might enjoy the nonfiction works. In addition to Finding Woodstock, a collection of essays and photos about the impact of the 1960s on all of our lives , those books include The Spirit of Swiftwater, the story of vaccine pioneers in the 20th century (University of Scranton Press) and Riding with the Blues, a behind-the-scenes look at the Sarasota Police Department.

The books are available on every platform and in virtually every format. Check out the Amazon author page for details.

The 32 Days of Christmas

Have you ever wondered where writers find their ideas?

They come from a multitude of sources, from friends and family, scandals and events. Even dreams. Those sources shape a book’s characters and plot. But what about the setting, which often becomes a secondary character? Where do those ideas originate?

For me, they spring from the places I’ve lived, from the wooded hills of eastern Pennsylvania to the beaches of Florida’s Gulf Coast. Time spent there has yielded not only a treasure of sights but insight into the culture that produced them.

All of that is on display in Permanent Vacation, the fourth in the CW McCoy series of crime novels. For the next 32 days, I’ll share on social media the places that inspired the novel, each image accompanied by a quote from one of the 32 chapters in the book. The photos illustrate some of the major themes of the novel—over-development, coastal flooding, financial fraud—all challenges faced by business and residents, real and fictional.

It’s a visual journey I hope you won’t miss. You’ll find the photos on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Here’s a preview.

For a closer look at the world of CW McCoy, you can order the novel from Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords, as well as bookstores everywhere.

 

An aerial view of the marina in Sarasota, Florida

 

A circus-themed bar like the one Rae Donovan runs

 

Supermoon coastal flooding in Florida stalls a motorcycle built for speed

 

Glass condominium in Sarasota, Florida suggested the twin towers of InSpire

Will Walter sail into the harbor of Spanish Point ever again?

 

 

An artists’ rendering of The Bay in Sarasota becomes the inspiration for the rejuvenation project in Permanent Vacation

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mapping the Novels of CW McCoy

Readers of the CW McCoy series of crime novels are treating the books like a treasure hunt. Many have fun comparing the scenes with places they know in Sarasota and Manatee counties. Some locations correspond, like the infamous Route 41, aka the Tamiami Trail. Others are inventions created to simplify the landscape for people living beyond the borders of Florida.

If you are reading the latest book, Permanent Vacation, you’ve discovered something new to the series: a map that guides visitors around downtown Spanish Point, the fictional mashup of the cities of Sarasota and Bradenton.

For readers who haven’t ordered a copy and are curious about the geography depicted in the first three novels–Peak Season, Tourist in Paradise and Curb Appeal–here’s a full-color version of the map. (The print edition features a black-and-white image.) Click here for a downloadable PDF file.

Published by Allusion Books, Permanent Vacation is available from Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords, and by request from bookstores everywhere.

Happy trails.

 

The return of CW McCoy

Florida’s detective turned real estate agent returns to determine if you really can fight city hall.

In the tony beach-side town of Spanish Point, CW (Candace) McCoy tackles a crime waves that’s rising faster than the tide. But that’s not her biggest dilemma, as trouble comes in threes. Will she keep her job? Can she choose between Tony and Mitch? And will she ever see Walter again?

Permanent Vacation, the fourth in the crime series, launches Dec 12, but you can preorder the ebook from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple Books, Kobo and Smashwords.

Stars and Stripes and Sousa forever

John Philip Sousa III (1913-1991) did not follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, but those who met him discovered a spirit as creative as the famous march king. I interviewed Sousa the younger in the summer of 1987, when he visited Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, for a concert in honor of the man who wrote what many consider to be America’s second national anthem.

John Philip Sousa III marches to the beat of a different drummer than his famous grandfather. It isn’t that the New York City resident doesn’t thrill to the stirring marches of his illustrious forbearer. It’s just that he’s more inclined toward the written word.

“I love hearing them,” Sousa said of the marches during a concert featuring “Semper Fidelis,” the Marine Corps anthem, and other favorites. “But writing always has been my enthusiasm.”

The New York resident is the author of two books, both nonfiction, of which one was a bestseller. He was assistant publisher of Fortune and formerly head of public affairs for Time magazine and in charge of long-range development for the Time-Life Book Division.

“Right now, I’m writing a book on good taste in management,” he said. “Then I think I’ll write my memoirs.”

John Philip Sousa III relaxes during a concert in honor of his grandfather

He is also head of the Sousa Foundation, which controls the rights to his grandfather’s work, although he admits that, when he was young, he wasn’t aware of the music.

“I paid no attention to it at all. As far as I was concerned, he might not have existed. Then, when a certain aunt died, I got stuck with the whole Sousa Corporation. It’s just something I have to do every day. I think I owe it to my grandfather.”

As a youth, Sousa may not have been familiar with the music, but he has fond memories of his paternal ancestor.

“He was charming, relaxed. He had a good sense of humor. He smoked cigars all day long, but back then, it was good for you.”

The elder Sousa wore mismatched clothes and “always had a piece of music in front of him.”

He’s familiar with the music now. “I love it. I have the same favorites everybody else does, ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’ and the ‘Washington Post March.’” But one piece stands out. “It’s ‘El Capitan,’ from the operetta. He wrote 20 operettas, you know.”

Although Sousa has heard the marches hundreds of times and is used to the fireworks and fanfare, he still marvels at the reception with which audiences greet his grandfather’s music.

“Last summer I was in [New York’s] Central Park for a concert with Leonard Bernstein. There were about 100,000 people there. They cheered and applauded him and he played a number of his own compositions, but they wouldn’t let him go. And finally he turned around and what did he play? ‘Stars and Stripes Forever.’”

During a speaking engagement in Toledo, Sousa was asked about the connection between John Philip Sousa and the Fourth of July. “I said, ‘Funny you don’t know that. He invented the Fourth of July.’”

Does he see a resurgence in Sousa’s popularity together with heightened interest in patriotism?

“No, they are just good marches. Yes, they make everybody cheer and clap, but if the marches weren’t that good, everybody wouldn’t be cheering and clapping.”

Sousa saves his sentiment for other things. He will not divulge his age. He will not even discuss it. Once, when he bought a ticket on the Long Island Railroad, the ticket agent asked if Sousa was over 65 and eligible for the discount rate.

“I asked for a ticket, not a discussion of my age,” Sousa fired back.

He seemed more relaxed at a tribute to his grandfather’s music in the tiny borough of Delaware Water Gap, Pa., lounging in a director’s chair in a white suit that matched his hair. “I thought it over and the concert just sounded so enchanting, with everybody up here knocking themselves out. And it wouldn’t kill me to come up, you know.”

Sousa appreciates music but never learned to play an instrument. “I blame this on my mother, if blame is the right word. She couldn’t carry a tune. Talking to myself I said, ‘He did it better than anybody. Do something else, John.’ So I did.”

Pat Dorian directs the band on Aug. 20, 1987, 75 years to the day when John Philip Sousa conducted a similar concert on that spot in Delaware Water Gap, Pa.

The Magic of Bob Dorough

For Bob Dorough, three is a magic number. For his legion of fans, it’s Bob himself who’s magic.

Whether he was singing times tables or scat, Bob made music and learning fun for adults and children alike. He died April 23, 2018, at his home in Mount Bethel, Pennsylvania, at the age of 94.

In the late 1970s, I wrote an article about him for DownBeat that was never published. Here it is at last, the story in his words of how he created Multiplication Rock, presented as a tribute to a most remarkable man.

* * *

It can be no accident that Bob Dorough included the song “Because We’re Kids” on his album Beginning to See the Light. The piece not only sums up his attitude toward children, which led to his job as composer of the ABC-TV series “Schoolhouse Rock!” It reflects the relaxed image he projects, the open smile that reaches you even before the soothing Southern twang of his voice.

Intoning the words of Dr. Seuss, Dorough sings, “But we’ll grow up someday, and when we do I pray we just don’t grow in size and sound and just get bigger pound by pound. I’d hate to grow like some I know who push and shove us little kids [sniff] around.”

No chance of that now. Dorough has spent the past several years scoring “Schoolhouse Rock!” in which he teaches children math, grammar and civics in a respectful and entertaining way. Listeners have long associated him with jazz, from his work as an accompanist to his own 1957 classic on Bethlehem records, Devil May Care. But that challenge met, he turned to producing popular artists like Spanky and Our Gang and writing advertising jingles.

After a decade-long hiatus from the jazz world, his career has come full-circle and he’s back to doing some of his favorite things. The veteran of swing and New York City jam sessions has returned to nightclub performing (including a recent stint at Bradley’s in New York) and has released a new album—a live performance recorded in California with longtime associate and bassist Bill Takas.

The duo recorded Beginning to See the Light on their own label, Laissez-Faire, to achieve the artistic freedom they desired. The track from which the album receives its name—a Harry James, Duke Ellington composition—finds Dorough swinging on piano around Takas’s strong walking bass lines. Throughout the rest of the recording, Dorough livens the recording with his unique voice, a reedy sound that’s soft and thin as a whisper, spiced with a drawl that echoes his West Texas roots.

Born in Arkansas, Dorough fell in love with music while in high school, to the point of going back to school another year after graduation to take advantage of playing with various bands. He picked up piano by ear after discovering he could compose and hold down more jobs by playing that instrument, then headed for North Texas State at Denton to polish his skills. “It was the first college to put jazz on the curriculum,” he says. “It was just a hotbed of jazz.”

His salesman father had other ideas for his son. “I was a natural mathematician. My father said, ‘You could be an engineer ‘cause your math grades are so good.’”

But New York City beckoned. “I played in different bands and combos and mostly we jammed. We were always playing. It was a way of learning. And I also liked singing. I got into my own style of singing. I guess I pretty much formulated my own style at a fairly young age, although I had what I thought was a late start in music. I was interested in serious music, too. Composition was my major.”

Dorough’s late start may account for his affinity for children and his long life in the business. “I always endeavored to think young, act young and live young, and take care of myself. As I say, I felt I got a late start in music. I was drafted and was in the Army. All that threw me way behind schedule. I dropped out when I was 28 or so, working on a master’s degree I never got at Columbia. And I’m probably one of the few American boys who took a high school post-grad course.”

When jobs in his field ran thin, he turned to producing popular artists—Chad Mitchell, Roberta Flack, Spanky and Our Gang. He tried advertising work. That move gave him an exciting job and a whole new audience—children. “It’s like anything else. You make a contact and get a job, and if it’s good, you get another one,” he says of his introduction to “Schoolhouse Rock!” and its creator.

David McCall, president of the McCaffrey and McCall advertising agency in New York, faced a problem that Dorough was soon to solve with twelve songs later released as Multiplication Rock. “His idea was to set the multiplication tables to music. He got it from his own child, who couldn’t memorize the tables but he could sing along with Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles and memorize all the words. So my partner, Ben Tucker, claimed I was the man to do the job.

“Apparently they’d tried other New York City composers and they had gotten a kind of result they weren’t looking for, sort of a simplistic writing-down-to-the-children insipid approach. So I went to see them about it and that was it. Even though they were in the advertising business, they seemed prepared to develop this idea, which was nothing new, actually. It was a little bit new in that he [McCall] wanted the multiplication tables set to rock music. Everything was rock music in that year.”

Dorough calls the assignment “a rare opportunity, one of the most exciting commissions I’ve ever had, a chance to communicate with the younger generation. I didn’t know if it would be on record; I didn’t dream it would be on TV.

“I sort of laid back a couple of months. I didn’t want to go popping out obvious rhythmical tunes. So I just studied my math books. It’s strange. I’m a collector of mathematics books. I’m a mail-order freak. I’d see Fun with Games and Numbers and Mathematics for the Millions, well I would order the book. Maybe I wouldn’t even read it. When I got this assignment, I just came home and started cracking all these books. I was prepared for the job.”

He also received some help from his daughter, Aralee. “My daughter was just entering the grades where they studied math. It gave me a chance to try some things on her.”

While the outcome was supposed to be rock, Dorough found he had created a gentler sound. “Some of my friends said, ‘That’s not rock, that’s jazz. You snuck it in on them.’ I don’t know. It’s neither rock nor jazz.”

The advertising agency originally tried to market Multiplication Rock as a record and a book, but the agency’s animation department worked up a better deal for another client, ABC-TV. To date, the network has produced 25 3-minute films. Dorough makes several a year and works as the show’s musical producer and arranger.

Until now, Dorough has concentrated on writing and recording for some of the legends of jazz. His 1957 release, Devil May Care, featured himself and Miles Davis. The trumpeter later invited Dorough to compose and sing a number for The Sorcerer. Mel Torme and others have recorded Dorough’s “Comin’ Home Baby,” and the Fifth Dimension covered his “Winds of Heaven.”

Now he takes life easy on his 3-acre farm in the foothills of Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, playing piano and flute duets with his daughter, lounging in flannel shirt and wool socks in his sparsely furnished home, an easy hour from the studios in New York. “I sort of fell in love with this part of the country. This reminds me a little of my boyhood in Arkansas. It’s similar terrain. Matter of fact, my grandfather used to be this far from the river there,” he says, pointing to the Delaware River.

As for the future, Dorough is enthused about the rerelease of Devil May Care, out of print until it was reissued as Yardbird Suite. His plans include performing, finishing the TV series, composing and working on a grander scale with an orchestra. He will continue to compose along traditional lines, even though he embraces jazz-rock fusion

“I think it was inevitable jazz and rock would gravitate toward each other.” The musicians in both camps, he says, were using improvisation. “I think music is just coming together. It’s like the whole culture has been fused by communications. I myself was always in love with exotic music of all kinds. I liked Indian music from India and I liked African music. And naturally I liked some classical music, too, what you would call modern classical or modern contemporary.

“Culturally, I can see this fantastic blooming of all elements and styles. I’m definitely all ears.”

Jeff Widmer is the author of the CW McCoy and the Brinker series of crime novels.

Bob Dorough entertaining children in March of 1979 (photo courtesy of Donna S. Fisher; used with permission)

What’s my (opening) line?

I was sitting next to NPR science correspondent Christopher Joyce when he challenged the group to recall a favorite first line of a book. His was the opening of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. “Many years later, as he faced a firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

We went round robin. My contribution was the epic opening of John Mortimer’s introduction to his titular character in “Rumpole and the Younger Generation,” a line (it stretches half a page) too long to reproduce here, let alone remember in full at the time.

I hadn’t thought about that conversation until last week, when I came across the short story “The State of Nature” by Camille Bordas in The New Yorker. The story opens with the line, “I slept through the burglary.” Now, who could possibly do that? I thought. It’s a provocative lead, one that introduces the unique voice of a singular character. I read the story in one gulp.

There are many well-known openings, from Moby-Dick (“Call me Ishmael”) to the Tale of Two Cities (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”) to the oft-parodied line from Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

I’m sure you have some favorites, maybe Nabokov’s “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins” or Tolstoy’s opening to Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Just so.

And then there are the lesser-known kickoffs, the ones that brim with promise, that say, if you keep reading, you shall discover new worlds with a companionable guide.

Here, in no particular order, is a collection of my favorites, a mix of contemporary and classic lines from male and female authors alike:

“Woman’s lying in bed and the bed’s on fire.” Don Winslow, California Fire and Life.

“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups.

“I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ.” Gillian Flynn, Dark Places.

“It began, as the greatest of storms do begin, as a mere tremor in the air, a thread of sound so distant and faint, yet so ominous, that the ear that was sharp enough to catch it instantly pricked and shut out present sounds to strain after it again, and interpret the warning.” Ellis Peters, The Sanctuary Sparrow.

“On my forty-ninth birthday, I decided that all of life was hopeless, and I would eat myself to death.” Anne Lamott, Plan B.

“It was a put-up job, and we all knew it by then.” Anna Quindlen, Miller’s Valley.

“The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming.” Elmore Leonard, Glitz.

“This really happened, this story.” Laurie Lynn Drummond, Anything You Say Can and Will be Used Against You.

“I was living with a woman who suddenly began to stink.” T.C. Boyle, “Descent of Man.”

 “Her body moved with the frankness that comes from solitary habits.” Barbara Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer.

“Joe lived, but it wasn’t something he was particularly proud of.” C.J. Box, Open Season.

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” William Gibson, Neuromancer.

“There are some men who enter a woman’s life and screw it up forever.” Janet Evanovich, One for the Money.

And lastly, my all-time favorite, a slight deviation from the pattern we’ve established here in that the quote needs a second sentence to complete the punchline. It’s from Jennifer Crusie’s breakout novel Tell Me Lies. “One hot August Thursday afternoon, Maddie Faraday reached under the front seat of her husband’s Cadillac and pulled out a pair of black lace underpants. They weren’t hers.”

Now that’s a keeper.

What are you favorite opening lines? Leave a comment here, or on your social medium of choice.

‘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?”