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?

Behind the scenes

Location plays a vital part in any novel, especially novels of mystery and suspense. I’ve written about place as character several times but now, thanks to author and blogger Lorna Holland of Northamptonshire UK, my musings on crime scenes in sunny Florida have made it to the other side of the pond.

The marina in Sarasota, Florida provided the inspiration for the CW McCoy novels

The marina in Sarasota, Florida provided the inspiration for the CW McCoy novels

 

A Narrow Escape

When the owners of a dying ad agency ask Brinker to make the competition disappear, the PR whiz must choose between jail and the love of his life.

In Mr. Magic, the disgraced journalist struggles with the forces of greed, addiction and affection as he tries to rebuild the bonds he broke in last year’s debut novel, Mr. Mayhem. Can he carry out his assignment without vanishing himself? Chapter 1 sets the stage for the conflict to come.

(For more on Brinker, the CW McCoy series and news of the publishing world, be sure to sign up for the Beyond the Book newsletter, at the bottom of this website’s homepage.)

1.

BY THE TIME the first bullet struck the concrete wall, Brinker had run halfway across the parking garage. The second slug hit a car and set off its alarm. As he plunged down the metal stairs, he heard a third strike the blockhouse.

Stumbling out at ground level, Brinker hit the sidewalk at a dead run. A half-block later, he glanced behind to see Buddha gaining on him, the streetlights showing the big man breathing through his mouth. Rounding the corner, Brinker pressed his back against the plate glass window of an abandoned hair salon as a car roared out of the deck, blew through the traffic light and disappeared.

He was twenty yards from the ad agency in downtown Bethlehem and a million miles from safe.

Buddha waved him to keep going.

Chest heaving, Brinker held up a finger and tried to swallow. “She pulled a gun!”

Hands on his hips, Buddha bent forward and talked to the ground. “I am mindful of that fact.”

Brinker massaged a stitch in his side. “She could have killed us.”

“If you remember, I suggested you stay out of sight.”

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000030_00049]Close to two a.m. on a bitter day in early April and Buddha wore sunglasses, a hooded sweatshirt and camo shorts. He straightened and started hopping in his high-top sneakers, his face as round as a balloon. For a moment he looked like that Korean rapper with the bowtie, the guy with the jerky dance moves.

Brinker said, “I thought you said she was drunk.”

“That would be my guess,” Buddha said. “Why else would she open fire on a pair of outstanding citizens in a public garage?”

They started walking, tracing the route Ginger Wright had taken in her flight.

“Christ almighty,” Brinker said. “I thought women only carried Mace.”

“At this point,” Buddha said, “I am more concerned about the police than her method of self-preservation.”

They stopped on Main Street with their backs to the three-story building where Brinker worked and stared at the bulk of the Hotel Bethlehem. The street that ran past the Moravian settlement toward the Hill to Hill Bridge appeared deserted, not a flicker of taillights at this hour to show where the owner of the rival ad agency had fled.

Brinker shook, from cold or adrenalin, he couldn’t tell. He gazed past the hotel with its ancient brick façade and pinprick lights in its arching windows and remembered the last time he’d gotten himself in a jam like this, when an assassin he’d hired came gunning for him in a deserted sandpit. He’d run so hard he could have swallowed a lung.

“No more,” Brinker said as they walked past wrought-iron tables and chairs to the car they’d left in front of the Italian restaurant. “You said when we got into this there’d be no violence.”

Buddha used a remote to unlock the door of the Lincoln. “It is a little late for that, my friend.”

The Big Dig

Author Ann Hood came to Sarasota, Florida on Tuesday with a message for readers: It’s OK to feel.

Hood, the author of twelve novels including The Knitting Circle and The Obituary Writer, was in town to promote her latest, The Book That Matters Most, a work that involves one of Hood’s favorite groups—book clubs.

That was how she conducted her talk and signing at Bookstore 1 in Sarasota, a group of more than fifty people seated around her, enclosed by shelves of hardcovers and paperbacks.

Growing up, she said, “I wanted to live in a book.” Books provided relief from conflict. She wrote her first short story at the age of eight, after a reprimand from her grandmother. That, Hood said, was the beginning of her literary career.

But it was the tragedy in her life that has forced her to dig deep for meaning, and that process, something akin to an archaeology expedition, gave her writing a purpose.

“When I wanted to escape, I could pick up a book. But when I wanted to understand something, I could write a story.”

ann-hood-closeup

Return of the antihero

Brinker’s back. Can the advertising world survive?

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000030_00049]The antihero of last year’s Mr. Mayhem has lost his magic. The 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.

Throw in toxic waste, a nude car wash and a gun-toting presidential candidate and the czar of PR will have to spin some potent magic to escape the snare of sex, lies and greed that threatens to destroy his job, his sanity and the love of his life.

In Mr. Magic, the ad world struggles to cope with the defrocked journalist famous for sex, satire and PR events that push the boundaries of legality and taste.

Published by Allusion Books, Mr. Magic is available through Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and jeffwidmer.com, as well as bookstores everywhere. It is the sequel to Brinker’s debut novel Mr. Mayhem, a book Kirkus Reviews calls “eccentricity at its finest in a detective story, and proof that a flawed protagonist can still earn sympathy.”

And be sure to sign up for the Beyond the Book newsletter, at the bottom of this website’s homepage.

Month of Magic

J.G. Ballard once said that the dystopian landscapes in his books reflect the character’s inner world as much as the outer one.

We’re more familiar with the opposite. Places affect how people feel and act. Think New York in the decade when the city cleaned up graffiti-defaced buildings, repaired windows and installed lighting as part of its crime-fighting strategy.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000030_00049]I’m interested in the collision of those two ideas. In writing fiction, I look for places that both create and reflect a mood. The post-industrial cities of Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley provide a wealth of locations that meet that criteria—the ruins of Bethlehem Steel, the abandoned quarries of the Slate Belt, the cement plants near Nazareth.

As you might expect if you read Mr. Mayhem, the novel’s main character, a disgraced journalist called Brinker, thrives in this dystopian world. In Brinker’s second outing, Mr. Magic, the PR whiz who turned a serial killer into a national brand has gone to work for the advertising agency from hell, where the owners have hired him to make the competition disappear.

The Lehigh Valley is the perfect backdrop for the ensuing struggle. From Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Allentown to the historic Moravian settlement in Bethlehem to Route 22 at rush hour, the Lehigh Valley provides both a canvas and a mirror for a character tormented by addiction and failure. (Alert readers will note that while Chernobyl is not a tourist stop in the Lehigh Valley, the location plays a role in the novel.)

Each day next month, I’ll post on social media images of those seminal locations, places that may have become part of your own inner landscape. How many do you recognize?

 

Corner of Walnut and Main streets in Bethlehem inspired offices of DAR Advertising & PR in MR. MAGIC

Corner of Walnut and Main streets in Bethlehem inspired offices of DAR Advertising & PR in MR. MAGIC

 

Interior of Crocodile Rock inspired underage pickup scene at Gator Club in MR. MAGIC

Interior of Crocodile Rock inspired underage pickup scene at Gator Club in MR. MAGIC

 

Across from DAR Advertising stands the majestic Hotel Bethlehem in MR. MAGIC

Across from DAR Advertising stands the majestic Hotel Bethlehem in MR. MAGIC

 

Carly has her heart set on converting the Moravian Waterworks to a theater in MR. MAGIC

Carly has her heart set on converting the Moravian Waterworks to a theater in MR. MAGIC

 

In MR. MAGIC, remains of Bethlehem Steel play a role in ad agency’s downfall

In MR. MAGIC, remains of Bethlehem Steel play a role in ad agency’s downfall

 

Buddha helps people disappear to places like Chernobyl in MR. MAGIC

Buddha helps people disappear to places like Chernobyl in MR. MAGIC

 

Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Allentown, site of the Hiroshima die-in

Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Allentown, site of the Hiroshima die-in

 

 

Month of Magic

J.G. Ballard once said that the dystopian landscapes in his books reflect the character’s inner world as much as the outer one.

We’re more familiar with the opposite. Places affect how people feel and act. Think New York in the decade when the city cleaned up graffiti-defaced buildings, repaired windows and installed lighting as part of its crime-fighting strategy.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000030_00049]I’m interested in the collision of those two ideas. In writing fiction, I look for places that both create and reflect a mood. The post-industrial cities of Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley provide a wealth of locations that meet that criteria—the ruins of Bethlehem Steel, the abandoned quarries of the Slate Belt, the cement plants near Nazareth.

As you might expect if you read Mr. Mayhem, the novel’s main character, a disgraced journalist called Brinker, thrives in this dystopian world. In Brinker’s second outing, Mr. Magic, the PR whiz who turned a serial killer into a national brand has gone to work for the advertising agency from hell, where the owners have hired him to make the competition disappear.

The Lehigh Valley is the perfect backdrop for the ensuing struggle. From Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Allentown to the historic Moravian settlement in Bethlehem to Route 22 at rush hour, the Lehigh Valley provides both a canvas and a mirror for a character tormented by addiction and failure. (Alert readers will note that while Chernobyl is not a tourist stop in the Lehigh Valley, the location plays a role in the novel.)

Each day next month, I’ll post on social media images of those seminal locations, places that may have become part of your own inner landscape. How many do you recognize?

Corner of Walnut and Main streets in Bethlehem inspired offices of DAR Advertising & PR in MR. MAGIC

Corner of Walnut and Main streets in Bethlehem inspired offices of DAR Advertising & PR in MR. MAGIC

 

Interior of Crocodile Rock inspired underage pickup scene at Gator Club in MR. MAGIC

Interior of Crocodile Rock inspired underage pickup scene at Gator Club in MR. MAGIC

 

Across from DAR Advertising stands the majestic Hotel Bethlehem in MR. MAGIC

Across from DAR Advertising stands the majestic Hotel Bethlehem in MR. MAGIC

 

Carly has her heart set on converting the Moravian Waterworks to a theater in MR. MAGIC

Carly has her heart set on converting the Moravian Waterworks to a theater in MR. MAGIC

 

In MR. MAGIC, remains of Bethlehem Steel play a role in ad agency’s downfall

In MR. MAGIC, remains of Bethlehem Steel play a role in ad agency’s downfall

 

Buddha helps people disappear to places like Chernobyl in MR. MAGIC

Buddha helps people disappear to places like Chernobyl in MR. MAGIC

 

Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Allentown, site of the Hiroshima die-in

Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Allentown, site of the Hiroshima die-in

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.

Month of Mayhem

Next week kicks off a Month of Mayhem, with a look at the places that shaped Brinker’s story in his debut crime novel Mr. Mayhem—all in preparation for the return of the defrocked journalist and PR whiz this fall in the sequel, Mr. Magic.

Brinker returns a kinder, gentler guy who draws inspiration from his girlfriend Carly, a mate he calls The Buddha and the landscapes of the Greater Lehigh Valley. But in the meantime, he’s still stalking the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania.

Each day in August, visitors on social media view the scenes that inspired Brinker’s day job and his extracurricular work, as well as the ones that fueled his loves and addictions. Here’s a look at some of the sights that became models for the novel.

1959 Cadillac hearse used by Col. Mabry when the modern version breaks down.

1959 Cadillac hearse used by Col. Mabry when the modern version breaks down.

 

Stroudsburg, Pa. funeral home that inspired Brinker’s workplace, Mabry & Sons.

Stroudsburg, Pa. funeral home that inspired Brinker’s workplace, Mabry & Sons.

 

The house on Sarah Street in Stroudsburg, Pa. where Eddie Maps allegedly killed his wife and daughter plays a seminal role in Mr. Mayhem.

The house on Sarah Street in Stroudsburg, Pa. where Eddie Maps allegedly killed his wife and daughter plays a seminal role in Mr. Mayhem.

 

Corner house in Stroudsburg, Pa. served as a model for the home of the first victim.

Corner house in Stroudsburg, Pa. served as a model for the home of the first victim.

 

Brinker’s mascot, Pecan Man, haunts Mabry & Sons funeral home.

Brinker’s mascot, Pecan Man, haunts Mabry & Sons funeral home.

 

One of most famous taverns in the Burgs, Rudy’s served as model for Willy’s Tavern.

One of most famous taverns in the Burgs, Rudy’s served as model for Willy’s Tavern.

 

Infamous intersection at 7th & Main in Stroudsburg, Pa., host to politicians and fatal accidents.

The intersection at 7th & Main in Stroudsburg, Pa., plays host to politicians and other fatalities.

 

The Water Gap Trolley became the model vehicle for Brinker’s Magical Murder Tour.

The Water Gap Trolley became the model vehicle for Brinker’s Magical Murder Tour.