New crime series launches with ‘Mr. Mayhem’

A doctor wants to euthanize his terminal patients. A disgraced journalist wants a better job than flogging tours of crime scenes. The tour business is dying. There aren’t enough murders in this sleepy town to draw a crowd.

A good serial killer would help.

So begins Mr. Mayhem, a new crime thriller from a mind the folks in my writers’ group have alternatively called clever and demented. The work is available as an ebook pre-order through Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble and Kobo, with the print release set for Nov. 27.

Mr MayhemHere’s the story: For a man known only as Brinker, the trouble starts when he’s fired for reporting his publisher’s DUI. Reduced to doing PR for a funeral home and its trolley tour of murder sites, Brinker despairs of ever restoring his pride, or his bank account. Compared to journalism, PR is degradation, an excuse to lie for a living. His addiction to prescription medication only fuels the rage.

When his doctor asks for a hand in dispatching hopeless patients, Brinker hires a wildly successful assassin named Angel, who brings chaos and fame to a backwoods town in Pennsylvania. But as Angel’s demands soar with the body count, Brinker wonders whether he’ll become the latest addition to his own list.

I’d like to think that Mr. Mayhem turns the suspense genre on its head. I’m hoping that fans of Elmore Leonard and Gillian Flynn will enjoy the double- and triple-crosses that give the book its dark edge.

A note of caution to readers: Mr. Mayhem is wildly different from Peak Season, my first novel of suspense. That book is set in sunny Florida and chronicles the life and loves of former police officer and real estate agent CW McCoy. Mr. Mayhem is set in the snowy mountains of Pennsylvania and draws on my experience as a journalist with Dow Jones/Ottaway News.

The parallels between Brinker and me end there. But not the drama. The two of us are planning a sequel. I think we’ll set it in the world of advertising. No chance anyone in that industry ever lies.

Now hear this . . . tips on creating audiobooks

Kids aren’t the only people who like to hear a story.

According to the Pew Research Center, 14% of Americans listened to an audiobook in 2013. Adults with higher levels of education are more likely to have read audiobooks than those who did not attend college. And the vast majority of those who read e-books and audiobooks also read print books.

Good news for writers who like to listen to as well as tell stories.

Convinced audio could prove a way to boost my audience, I contracted with an Amazon service called ACX to produce an audio version of my first novel, Peak Season. ACX connects authors with producers and distributors of digital files, in this case, iTunes and Audible.com. It does not produce CDs.

ACX made it easy to import cover art and relevant details of the novel from Amazon. I completed a form with the specs I wanted–a female narrator with a voice in the lower range, speaking in American English with no regional accent. After uploading a short script that called for multiple voices, I listened to sample readings from producers, asked for auditions and even reached out to friends who have a flair for this kind of work.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000038_00064]Choosing a narrator from the auditions proved difficult. All of them sounded professional. Most handled the multiple voices well, even the male characters. A few got creative and tossed in southern or Jersey accents. Two producers offered to include a short musical segment at the beginning and end of the narration, just as traditional publishers do.

The decision was entirely subjective. At the risk of sounding deranged, it came down to a choice of who sounded most like the voices in my head. I chose Pamela Almand, who does business as The Captain’s Voice. (She’s a former pilot. More on that in a later post.) The Audible.com cover appears at left. The audio version of the book should be listed on Amazon by the end of October.

For those of you who’d like to hear your work produced as an audiobook, a few suggestions:

Research the format before you head over to ACX. These projects take just as much work and time as independent print and e-book publishing. Fellow writer Erika Liodice (Empty Arms) has written a pair of insanely detailed posts on creating and marketing audiobooks, Navigating the Next Frontier in Digital Publishing: Audiobooks and 9 Easy & Inexpensive Ways to Promote Your Audiobook. The posts are encyclopedic.

Read the contracts. ACX says it delivers royalties of up to 40% but one example shows authors receiving a little more than $2 on a $30 audiobook. Audible gives free product to new customers and discounts to members, actions that will reduce the list price of your audiobook, and your royalty. Some producers will accept half of your royalty payments in exchange for their narration. Others want an additional stipend for narrating a book that may not sell enough to earn royalties. And unlike other Amazon services such as CreateSpace for print and Kindle Direct Publishing for e-books, ACX doesn’t allow authors to set the price of their audiobook, so you can’t control the profit margin.

Finally, learn from the experts. Indie author Joanna Penn offers several tips for creating and marketing your work as an audiobook. When it comes to running your writing career as a business, she’s one of the leading voices in the field . . . and well worth a listen.

Scouting for talent with Kindle

In another effort to challenge traditional publishers, Amazon has announced a program to test and market e-books before they’re published.

Called Kindle Scout, the program allows authors to place their unpublished work before a focus group of readers. If they like your book, Amazon may offer an advance and royalties through a five-year contract.

It’s crowd-sourcing for the unpublished author. And the key word here is unpublished. Only e-books that have not seen publication in any form except blog posts are eligible for Kindle Scout.

Authors thinking about selling their e-books through competing channels such as iBooks and Barnes & Noble’s NOOK should read the fine print. Kindle Press acquires worldwide publication rights for e-book and audio formats in all languages. The e-book is automatically enrolled in Kindle Unlimited and the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library.

On the plus side, giving away a previously unpublished e-book enrolls the author in Amazon’s marketing program.

Amazon is looking for e-books in these categories: Romance, Mystery & Thriller, Science Fiction & Fantasy, and Literature & Fiction. Action & Adventure, Contemporary Fiction, and Historical Fiction will be accepted within the Literature & Fiction category. To apply for the program, the author must be 18 or older with a valid U.S. bank account and a U.S. Social Security number or tax identification number.

Should you jump in? Only with eyes open. You can review the Kindle Scout guidelines here.

Kindle Scout

Summing up summaries

Writing the book was easy. Writing the synopsis was a bear.

You’d think that, after investing the better part of a year in my characters, I could crank out a summary as easily as ordering at McDonald’s. Not so for Peak Season, the first in a series of crime novels featuring the former cop turned pacifist Candace McCoy, known to her friends as CW.

Peak Season 3D cover 375x548Even after writing headlines at a daily newspaper for 14 years, I couldn’t distill the essence of the book. Should I focus the synopsis on the plot? On the characters? What if the plot arcs like a roller coaster, and the characters reject their labels? Fanciful but not helpful. Agents want to read a clear, concise summary of the book. They won’t appreciate digression.

I went at it draft after draft, pulling a few characters and themes from the wreckage. Eventually the copy wound up on the back cover of the novel. Here’s the synopsis. I’d be interested in hearing what you think. You can reach me through the comments section or the email link on the bottom of the website’s homepage.

Peak Season synopsis
Life at the beach can be murder.

Forced to shoot a fellow police officer, CW McCoy surrenders her gun and her badge to take refuge in the wealthy tourist mecca of Spanish Point, Florida. There she pedals luxury real estate, cares for her ailing grandfather Pap and tries to escape her past.

But even in paradise during peak tourist season, violence finds her like a divining rod.

Declared dead by the courts, Bobby Lee Darby bursts into CW’s office to demand the family friend clear his name in a scheme to bilk millions from investors. When CW refuses, the fugitive financier kidnaps Pap to ensure her cooperation, triggering a chain of burglary, assault and murder that convinces local police that the former cop has gone rogue.

Racing to find Darby, CW must confront her violent past, risky affairs and love-hate relationship with Southwest Florida before those personal demons turn her new-found paradise into hell on earth.

‘Peak Season’ goes video

It’s the latest rage: just as movies have trailers, books do, too. Here’s the video with voice-over for Peak Season, the first of the CW McCoy crime novels. Is it under the bar, over the top or does it hit the Goldilocks spot . . . just right?

Watch it here or visit my site on YouTube.

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In Sarasota, train for the worst, hope for the best

Sgt. Daniel Weinsberg trains by watching footage of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Sgt. Bryan Graham practices by building bombs with Play-Doh instead of C-4. Officer Tammy Featherstone role plays a scenario where she’s talking to a suicidal veteran with traumatic brain injury.

When they aren’t training, they’re confronting protesters, removing explosive devices and rescuing hostages, always dealing with a high level of danger, to the public and themselves. They accept the risks and seem to enjoy their work.

Just another day at the office for three specialized units of the Sarasota Police Department—Emergency Response, Explosive Materials and Crisis Negotiation. The three team leaders brought their equipment and expertise to the Citizen’s Academy in the third of a series of 12 classes that give civilians a glimpse of life behind the badge.

First up, Sgt. Weinsberg, team leader for the the department’s contingent on the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office Emergency Response Team. The ERT deploys during times of emergency or crisis when there is a high probability of criminal or civil unrest. Think hurricanes, riots and, yes, weapons of mass destruction. It consists of three teams from the sheriff’s office and one from the city, 10 officers per team.

Viewers who watched protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle will remember cordons of police with body armor called turtle gear wading into the crowds. “That’s what we don’t do,” Weinsberg said. The ERU doesn’t even suit up if it isn’t necessary to preserving life because that image alone can trigger a backlash.

Many of the drills involve learning how to not to respond when provoked. “As one of our training sergeants said, ‘You don’t want to be on TV.’”

As leader of the Explosive Materials Unit (EMU), or bomb squad, Sgt. Graham and team have a different but equally perilous situation to defuse. They use a host of equipment, from protective suits that weigh 90 lbs. to the Remotec ANDROS F6A robot. It has a telescoping camera, a claw to position an X-ray device and the ability to climb stairs.

The team’s primary job is to remove the bomb to a remote location and detonate it, often with a charge of highly pressurized water. No Danger UXB guesswork about which wires to cut first. But in the end, someone has to get close to the explosive device . . . if only to pick up the pieces for FBI analysis.

Officer Tammy Featherstone, a member of the Crisis Negotiation Unit (CNU), deals with another kind of danger—threats to the lives of hostages and potential suicide victims. The CNU deploys two negotiators to every incident. The first talks to the suspect, the second takes notes and feeds that information to intelligence officers.

Her goal is a peaceful end to the situation. “We want to bring everyone home.”

Next: SWAT and the dive team.

Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.

Sgt. Bryan Graham and the equipment used by the Sarasota Police Department's Explosive Materials Unit. The robot used to remove ordinance sits on the far right. On the screen, an X-ray of a victim-activated bomb.

Sgt. Bryan Graham and the equipment used by the Sarasota Police Department’s Explosive Materials Unit. The robot used to remove ordinance sits on the far right. On screen, an X-ray of a victim-activated bomb.

 

‘There is no such thing as a victimless crime’

Demetri Konstantopoulos stands before the screen and narrates a list of Florida police officers killed in the line of duty in the last few years. One slide shows a pair of faces, one fresh, one veteran. One officer leaves behind a pregnant wife, another a wife and three children. The slides continue for a long time.

On this, the second night of the Sarasota Police Citizen’s Academy, Konstantopoulos has a tough lesson to present. He shows a video of a driver opening fire on Ohio police with an automatic weapon after a routine stop for a moving violation. He plays audio of an incident on Martin Luther King Boulevard when crowds and gunfire threaten Sarasota officers trying to rescue a man with arterial bleeding.

Konstantopoulos, a sergeant in the Bureau of Criminal Investigation assigned to the Street Crimes Unit, wants us to remember several things. Police work is dangerous. No call is routine. All crime has consequence. “There is no such thing as a victimless crime.”

That theme carries through the presentation by Jude Castro, the victim advocate coordinator for the department, who tends to the needs of people suffering the aftermath of crime.

“The victim advocate speaks up for people who can’t,” Castro says before outlining the major services she provides, including crisis intervention, death notification and bereavement support. She also helps victims file restraining orders and accompanies them to medical, legal and judicial proceedings.

If you think her job is any less stressful than that of sworn officers, consider that one of her most recent duties was to notify the family of a man who jumped from the Ringling Bridge.

Back to Konstantopoulos. After explaining when officers need a warrant to search a house, vehicle or person, the sergeant introduces the concept of consensual contact. It’s when a person agrees to a search and there is no evidence of coercion—a fine line to walk in even the best of circumstances.

To demonstrate, Officer Dominic Harris and Dick Smothers, a Sarasota resident and one half of the Smothers Brothers comedy team, create a scenario where Harris plays a drug dealer hanging on the street and Smothers an officer who does not have probable cause to search Harris but wants him to consent to a pat-down.

After about five seconds of street patois Harris says, “Man, you hassling me ’cause I’m black?” Things go sideways, fast. Officer Jeff Dunn, who organized this year’s academy, steps in to show how police would handle the request. He obtains consent . . . and finds a handgun.

Police work is dangerous. No encounter is routine. Crime makes victims of everyone.

It’s a tough lesson.

Next week: emergency response, explosive materials and crisis negotiations.

Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.

Officer Dominic Harris, left, and Dick Smothers role play a street encounter

Officer Dominic Harris, left, and Dick Smothers role play a street encounter

Beyond the badge: citizens get inside look at department through Sarasota police academy

One of the first things Bernadette DiPino did when taking over as chief of the Sarasota Police Department was to ban her 161 officers from eating doughnuts while in uniform.

Members of the Sarasota Police Citizen’s Academy chuckled at her story but the chief has a serious purpose: she wants to counter stereotypes about officers as part of a larger campaign of community policing.

And that’s one of the reasons why 23 of us were admitted to the fourth offering of the academy, a boot camp for civilians who want to learn what it’s like to work as a police officer. The 12-week program will cover everything from search and seizure to criminalistics to firearms.

After introducing her command staff—Acting Deputy Chief Pat Robinson and Patrol Operations Chief Kevin Stiff—and Training Officer Jeffrey Dunn, DiPino opened the academy with a recital of her background. As the granddaughter and daughter of police officers, she’s a blueblood and proud of it, starting her career in Baltimore County, working as a narcotics detective and serving as chief in Ocean City, MD before assuming the position of chief in Sarasota at the end of 2012.

She talked about the challenges of a job in a seasonal resort town as well as her mandate to officers to stay visible, strictly enforce the law and appear professional at all times. Which is what led to the ban on doughnuts. But she spent most of the time discussing her philosophy of community policing. Because police need cooperative citizens to prevent and solve crime, they need to build trust and relationships with the residents on their beat. Officers need to get out of their cars and go door-to-door if necessary to introduce themselves and provide help.

As an example of that outreach, DiPino offered a barbecue police held for residents of Newtown. She said the strategy has led to numerous arrests and, more importantly, safer neighborhoods.

It didn’t take long for Dunn as the academy’s chief organizer to transition from strategic to tactical. He introduced bicycle patrol Officer Jerry Pucci, who illustrated DiPino’s goal of standardizing police uniforms for greater visibility. He reviewed dress and patrol uniforms for summer and winter and ticked off the 20 pounds of equipment officers carry on their duty belts: gun (.40 caliber Glock 22), two magazines, handcuff case, Taser, radio and flashlight.

Pucci drew the biggest laugh of the night when he pointed to a short black cylinder on the back of his belt and announced, “This is my ASP.” For the record, ASP is a brand of telescoping baton police can use in close combat.

Despite the laughter, Pucci didn’t miss a beat, saying police didn’t have much cause to use the defensive weapon. “If something goes sideways, I’d rather use the Taser.”

Keep that in mind if you’re tempted to eat a doughnut.

Next week: how crime endangers both victims and police.

Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.

Sarasota Police Chief Bernadette DiPino

Sarasota Police Chief Bernadette DiPino