Wednesday, February 29, 2012

It's a Violent World Out There


There’s a fine line I try to walk as a writer of mysteries. My goal is to create a compelling story filled with ever-rising tension and conflict as background for a cast of memorable characters. Together the characters and plot should jump off the page and form an adhesive bond with the readers. Like most writers, it’s hard to be objective about our own work, but we usually know when the story rings true. When we’ve created the illusion of realism in our fiction.

And that’s part of the balancing act. Truth and realism. The real world overflows with the all too true realism of death and destruction. We live it through the 24-hour news cycles that inch us closer and closer to paranoia, one gruesome story at a time. Today it’s a school shooting in Ohio. Tomorrow, another bombing in Afghanistan. My protagonist, Quint Mitchell, is certainly aware of this creeping paranoia. He opens Matanzas Bay with these words:

People who grumble about life being unfair have it all wrong. It’s life’s alter ego, death, that isn’t fair. Pick up the paper. Turn on any of the twenty-four hour news channels. See what I mean?

And he continues in that vein, listing some of the crimes that have galvanized the media’s and America’s attention over the past few years. These stories were front and center for a few days or weeks, until the next big scandal or missing child case came along. So sometimes I have to ask myself isn’t there enough misery in the world without fabricating more? Shouldn’t I be spending my golden years in more uplifting pursuits, or at least not contributing to the avalanche of violence that’s the mainstay of so many novels these days, no matter what the genre — mystery, thriller, suspense or horror?

Specifically, should I include these kinds of descriptions in my books?

Marrano’s head had a deep indentation over the left temple. Blood had seeped from the wound and caked along the left cheek in dried rivulets.

That comes fairly early in Matanzas Bay, after Quint unearths the body of St. Augustine’s vice mayor in chapter one. It’s not exactly the stuff of musical comedy, is it? Rest assured this is tame compared to many of the novels I’ve read. And it’s probably tame compared to the grisly cases real life cops see. Even so, many people read to be entertained, not grossed out. These are the folks who might enjoy cozy mysteries where the violence usually happens off stage, and the crime is solved by an amateur detective while working her pet-sitting job.

So why do we write such graphic passages? Why stress the negative side of life when we could accentuate the positive?

I could argue that hard-boiled crime fiction is just as entertaining as the soft-boiled variety. That there are many readers who enjoy the intellectual exercise of matching wits with the police and the detectives to solve the crime before the novel’s hero has an epiphany. There’s also a certain satisfaction to be found in living vicariously as the hero faces danger and death.

I know that my heart was racing when Quint stood outside the St. Augustine Alligator Farm late one night to meet an informant.

Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a dark shape rise up from behind the thick foliage. My muscles tensed. Adrenaline spiked into my system. I pivoted toward the hedge, raising the gun as I turned …

Well, you’ll have to read the book to learn what happens to our hero. But be forewarned, you may look at the Alligator Farm a bit differently after you’ve read that chapter.

I don’t think writers are much different than ordinary people. What was it that Shylock said in The Merchant of Venice? “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?”

True enough, particularly the poison part. Yet when I sit down at the computer it’s more likely I’m communing with the dark side rather than with the better angels of my nature. And it’s not for the shock value alone. If I do my job right, my story can ferry readers away from their everyday lives into a fictional world where they can forget their troubles for a few hours, maybe even feel intellectually superior if they solve the case before the protagonist. All of this and more can happen between the pages of a book.

If you haven’t read Matanzas Bay, I believe you’ll find it’s that kind of book. It’s filled with surprises, and it has a character you can believe in. Quint Mitchell is not a superman, but he’s good at his job and he wants to do the right thing. Yes, it has its share of violence. After all, Matanzas is Spanish for place of slaughter. But fictional violence is just that—fiction. A good book can help us forget the real violence that permeates our society. And maybe that’s why I chose to write mysteries.


Friday, October 28, 2011

The Day Arthur Ashe Spoke To Me

I’ll never forget the day Arthur Ashe spoke to me. Ashe was a quiet man who loomed large both in the world of tennis and as a determined fighter for the rights of others. He was also one of my heroes.

In my younger days, I was an avid tennis fan, a so-so player whose game ranged from mediocre to average. I accepted the fact my athletic abilities limited me, but I kept striving to improve. Like millions of others, I watched Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, and Boris Becker battle it out week after week. Arthur Ashe never quite achieved the notoriety of these players. He wasn’t volatile like Connors, or brash and explosive like McEnroe. He was a quiet winner.           

Ashe had a challenging childhood, which made his achievements even more spectacular. Ashe’s mother died when he was only six, a year before he picked up a tennis racket for the first time. He demonstrated an early aptitude for the game, but living in Richmond, Virginia meant living under the confines of racial segregation, which denied him an opportunity to play in junior tournaments. With the help of his mentor, Dr. Walter Johnson, he moved to St. Louis to continue training. In his first tournament, Ashe reached the junior national championships.
  
That was only the beginning. Ashe captured the junior national title in both 1960 and 1961. Later he accepted a scholarship to play for UCLA, and shocked the tennis world by taking the U.S. Open title in 1968 as an amateur. All-in-all, he won 35 amateur singles titles, and in only 11 years as a pro, netted 33 singles titles, including becoming the first and only African American to win titles at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open. I watched in amazement as he upset Jimmy Connors to win Wimbledon in 1975, not knowing 15 years later the quiet man himself, Arthur Ashe, would speak to me.

Sadly, a heart attack in 1979 brought an end to his competitive career, but in that short time he had accomplished more than most of us do in our lifetimes. He was one of the founders of the ATP, and served as its president, using his quiet assurance and intelligence to represent the world of tennis. While still a professional player, he protested the apartheid policies of South Africa, applying for visas to play in that country and being refused, until, in 1973, he became the first black to win a title at the South African Open.

The exciting day Arthur Ashe spoke to me occurred in 1990, a year after the Association of Tennis Professionals moved its headquarters from Dallas to Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, only three miles from my home. I was looking forward to watching the pros play, especially when I learned Ashe would make a special appearance to present scholarships. I knew I probably wouldn’t get close enough to meet him, but being there when he walked on the court would be a thrill.

When my Rotary Club partnered with the ATP for the exhibition match, I volunteered thinking I might have a chance to see Ashe up close and maybe shake his hand. Some of the volunteers sold tickets or acted as ushers. I was a driver, working a three-hour shift driving players and officials to the airport. That’s when fate stepped in and delivered the quiet man to the rented Cadillac I was assigned to drive. One of the ATP officials accompanied him to the car and settled him in the back seat. Ashe carried a heavy brief case and looked tired. Before I took the wheel, the official pulled me aside, telling me Ashe was running a little late for his flight. He also let me know that Ashe was a private person and preferred not to be bothered on the ride to the airport.

As we motored away from the tennis courts, I introduced myself and told him not to worry that I’d get him to the airport in time to make his flight. In the rear-view mirror I saw him look up and nod. He didn’t speak to me then, instead he opened his briefcase and pulled out a stack of papers. A maelstrom of thoughts blew through my head as I drove. I was in the same car with my hero. There were so many questions I wanted to ask him: How did it feel to break the color barrier in South Africa? What was it like to beat Jimmy Connors and take the Wimbledon title? What advice would he give young players today?

I should have been concentrating on my driving, but my mind raced with strategies I might use to break the ice. There must be a way to start a conversation with this quiet man who’d been so instrumental in the game of tennis. That’s when I made the mistake of flying through an intersection instead of taking the turn to the airport.

I thought he wasn’t paying any attention, but Ashe immediately looked up from his reading. He stared back at the intersection, the directional sign signaling the turn to the airport fading in the distance. Then he caught my eye in the mirror and spoke to me.

Arthur Ashe spoke in the same quiet, confident voice I’d heard when he presented the scholarships earlier in the day. But this time he was speaking directly to me when he uttered this unforgettable line:

“Do you know where you’re going?”

I assured him I did, made a nifty U-turn and got us to the airport on time. I can’t recall if he responded when I told him it had been an honor to drive him, and wished him well. But I’ll never forget the question he directed at me that day — “Do you know where you’re going?”

It would be overly dramatic to say the words had hidden meaning. But I like to think of it as a metaphor for getting the most out of life, and I have Arthur Ashe to thank for presenting it to me.

Arthur Ashe succumbed to H.I.V. in 1993, having been infected with the AIDS virus from a blood transfusion during his second heart bypass operation. President Clinton later posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and ESPN established the Arthur Ashe Courage Award as part of its annual ESPY Awards.

We all have heroes in our lives. Individuals who quietly fight for what’s right. Individuals like Arthur Ashe demonstrate by their actions that we can rise above the challenges of our past, racial bias, even issues of health, to act courageously and with dignity. So, yes, maybe Arthur Ashe was offering me more than a comment on my driving, which is why I constantly ask myself, “Do you know where you’re going?”








In my book, Matanzas Bay, private eye Quint Mitchell is a man readers can respect. He always tries to do the right thing, and he definitely knows where he’s going. Try it, you’ll like it.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Music Won't Wait

Most writers began telling their own stories because they loved to read. I wasn't any different. Grew up reading everything I could put my hands on, and I have my father to thank for that. He loved to read and I followed his lead early and often.

Dad taught me a lot of things, but I didn't share his other talents. He was a whiz of a carpenter, building a beautiful family room on our South Florida home. He had a knack for knowing how things worked and how to fix them when they broke. I'm so inept, my wife had to explain which end of a hammer to use.

Dad also had a pretty fair singing voice, while I couldn't carry a tune in a wheelbarrow. Not that he would have given Pavarotti any competition, but he could belt out a song, impressing his friends and family.

One thing dad couldn't do was play the piano. I remember him sharing that secret wish one day, and telling me he was going to get around to it before he was too old. Dad didn't usually share his feelings except when my brother or me made him mad. Then he let us know how he felt — big time. But he surprised me when he said he wanted to write songs and jingles, and thought playing the piano was the first step in the process. Words and music rattled around in his head, and he was convinced if he could play the music, the songs would come to life for him.

Perhaps it was all a dream, but we'll never know.

Dad waited until he had a heart attack before he bought an old stand-up piano. I recall visiting him and seeing the piano sitting in a corner of the family room. He said he was going to hire a teacher and learn to play as soon as he felt a little better. And he did. He'd just started his lessons when a second heart attack ended his dreams and his life at the young age of 52.

That was forty years ago this summer, but I often think about my dad and his unfulfilled dreams. We spend our lives working, raising a family. We pay bills, go on vacations, and back to work. It seems like we're waiting for some divine signal to start our real lives, putting off our dreams until the time is right.

"When the kids graduate, we can travel."

"When I pay off the mortgage, I'm going to write that book."

"When I retire, I'll learn to play the piano."

I've told my sons the story of my father and his piano dreams. Told them not to delay pursuing their passions because when it comes to how long we'll be around, we're not our own timekeepers.

Go ahead, play the piano and write your songs while the rhythm of life surges.

The music won't wait.

(See how I made one of my dreams come true with my newest book, MATANZAS BAY)

Thursday, July 7, 2011

How Hard Are You Working?

Every writer jumps into the publishing pool with dreams of making a major splash. We might work at a book for years, believing the payoff will come as soon as we see the book in print. Never mind that we haven't been paid a single cent for those many hours we've invested, our dreams are driving us forward.

And dreams are good to have, but reality tells us that most books never sell enough copies to compensate the author for the investment he or she has made. Still, the times they are a'changin', as Bob Dylan reminded us so many years ago. So we shouldn't be satisfied with small dreams. Last month, Amazon.com announced that John Locke was the first self-published author to sell more than one million Kindle downloads.

Now, self-published isn't a dirty word anymore because independently published authors are making serious money. But it still involves creating and working your marketing plan, continuing to work daily on self-promotion and building a buzz for your book.

I'm curious what has worked for you. Social media like Facebook and Twitter? Guest blogging? Or the old-fashioned newspaper review like this one in The Florida Times-Union for Matanzas Bay. Or Karen Harvey's kind review in The St. Augustine Record.

Let's share our secrets and keep our dreams alive.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Future is Now

It's a new day for authors and publishers. Everything we've learned has been flipped upside down. Traditional publishing calls for months, maybe years, of querying agents and publishers. Living and learning from rejections, continue writing to improve until the big day when finally signing a publishing contract. Then it might take another two years before your book is released.

The publishing house was in control of it all, from cover art to title, and, of course, keeping most of the sales revenue. Contrast that with how things have changed with epublishing. Today's independent publisher/author uses epublishing platforms to add their books to digital library shelves within days, while controlling the creative and business processes. It is a new day.

Matanzas Bay was launched as an ebook for Kindle and Nook about two months ago. Sales have moved briskly, particularly for Amazon.com's Kindle, which controls about 70% of ebook sales. My alter ego, Parker Francis, has been helped by guest blog interviews, such as Jerome Parisse's Alive with Words, and Nancy Quatrano's, Faith, Hope and Grace. And I was a guest on First Coast Connect, an interview program hosted by Melissa Ross of WJCT-FM. Listen to the interview here:
video

The final bit of news is equally as exciting—the print books are now available. You may order them from Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com or ask for them at your favorite bookstore. Or contact me for an autographed copy. If you're in the NE Florida area, Parker Francis is the featured author at the Ponte Vedra Beach Library on Monday, May 16 at 6:30 p.m. It's rumored that he will have books with him. Hope to see you there.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Let's Conference

I spent last weekend in Ft. Walton Beach at the Emerald Coast Writers Conference. I've attended a number of conferences through the years. The annual Florida Writers Association Conference each October in Lake Mary, Florida is one of the better ones, and the entire schedule is now online. Other conferences I've attended have taken me to Wilmington, NC (Cape Fear Crime Festival), SleuthFest in S. Florida, to several conferences of the Cat Writers Association, one in Dallas and another in San Francisco. Good times there.

The Emerald Coast Conference was a first for me. It was intimate, right on the beach, and I met one of my favorite authors, James W. Hall. In his keynote talk, Hall told about how he got his start with the Thorn novels. He hadn't intended for Thorn to be a series after he wrote and sold the first one. In fact, he was 150 pages into his second novel when his agent told him he'd make a lot more money if he continued with Thorn as his protagonist. He tried to tell the agent that his new work wasn't about Thorn and he wasn't interested in making more money. Can you believe it? Hall told us that to show how naive he was as a young writer. Of course, the agent convinced him it would be foolish to leave money on the table when all he had to do was change the name of his lead character.

Considering how successful he's been with that series, I'd say he made a good decision.

Conferences can play a valuable role for authors of all stripes. When you're just starting out, they are a way to learn from more experienced writers through the craft workshops. They're also a great networking venue, and a way to meet and pitch to agents and editors. Many writers have found their agents at a writers conference. As published authors, conferences offer exposure and book sales, although these tend to be limited unless your name is on the bestseller list.

One excellent conference I'm involved with is the UNF Writers Conference August 5 - 7. UNF, the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, has partnered with FWA to present this conference for the past three years. It is unique in several ways. The first day, Friday, August 5, offers a full day of exceptional workshops ranging from writing the query letter to writing dialogue, from converting your book to a screenplay to writing the YA novel. Saturday and Sunday offers a slate of comprehensive critique workshops in most genres, including general fiction, general non-fiction, screenwriting, and children's books. This year we've added poetry, romance, science fiction/fantasy, and a workshop for teen writers.

But that's not all. The conference ends on Sunday with a four-hour workshop on ePublishing. You'll hear from people who have insider knowledge on cover art, marketing, formatting, etc. It's an amazing value for the registration fee, plus there's the Pitch Book—an opportunity to have your logline included in a compilation to be sent to agents, editors and film producers.

So visit the conference website for details. And while you're there, check out the conference blog highlighting some unknown author named Parker Francis.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Book Launch News

Launching a new book may not be on a par with launching a NASA rocket, but it sure has kept me busy. I'm new at this independent publishing business, and learning as I go. What I've learned so far is that more and more readers are climbing aboard the ebook train.

While I've heard from some folks asking when the print books would be available, I've heard from many more who have downloaded Matanzas Bay to their Kindle or Nook. A true story, I walked into my local YMCA the other day, presenting my membership card to Mary Ann behind the counter. She greeted me with a big smile, saying, "I bought your book." She then proceeded to pull her Kindle out of her purse, turn it on and open Matanzas Bay to the page she was reading. "See," she said. "I love my Kindle."

Every author loves to hear from their readers. And instant gratification like Mary Ann's is fantastic.

What else is new? Florida Book News announced the publication of Matanzas Bay earlier this week. Then Kent Holloway, publisher of Seven Realms Publishing, was kind enough to interview me for his blog, Kent Holloway Online. And today, I found myself spotlighted on the UNF Writers Conference Blog.

Pretty heady stuff. Still there's a lot to be done, including working on the second Quint Mitchell Mystery, Bring Down the Furies. Did I tell you I included the prologue and first chapter of that book with Matanzas Bay? So when you purchase it either for your Kindle or Nook, you'll be able to preview the next book in the series.

Stay tuned for more launch news.