15 seconds of fame . . . in march time

September 10th, 2014 by Jeff Widmer
15 seconds of fame . . . in march time

John Philip Sousa III unfolded himself from the director’s chair on a grassy hill in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, and looked back to his childhood. “I paid no attention to it at all,” he said of the grand marches written by his famous grandfather. He went to work as a publisher and forgot about the legacy until he assumed the leadership of the Sousa Foundation.

A few decades ago I met Sousa’s grandson at a concert in his honor and wrote about the patriotic music. And then I forgot about it, too. Until I became a member of WRTI-FM, the classical and jazz station in Philadelphia, and started listening to Gregg Whiteside and the Sousalarm. Every weekday precisely at 7:15 a.m. Gregg plays a march by Sousa and others. If you send him an email he’ll induct you into the Sousalarm Club and mail you a certificate.

Man Behind the Gun sheet musicFor me, he played “The Man Behind the Gun,” a march Sousa wrote in 1899. (The title is more ominous than the music. Sousa wrote the march as part of a larger musical called “Chris and the Wonderful Lamp.”

The march, the certificate. . . . At first you feel a little embarrassed. Then you remember the good parts of childhood, the joy of listening to bright music on a dark morning, the pep bands and parades. And then there is the guilty pleasure of hearing your name on the radio, of succumbing to the subtle lure of public approval.

In a world of instant media, 15 minutes of fame has shrunk to 15 seconds. Still, a little brightness, no matter how short-lived, is reason to celebrate. So put on your marching shoes and step lively. The band’s about to play.

Scene of the crime: the character of place

September 3rd, 2014 by Jeff Widmer
Scene of the crime: the character of place

Location, location, location. The mantra isn’t just for real estate agents. Writers have long known that a place works better as character than background. NPR does, too, which makes the radio program “Crime in the City” a delight for tourists of murder and mayhem.

The long-running summer series features well-known authors and their beats—George Pelecanos’ Washington, D.C., Walter Mosley’s L.A.—as well as writers exploring smaller cities and towns—Archer Mayor and Brattleboro, Vt., Julia Keller’s fictional town in West Virginia.

“Crime in the City” also gives armchair detectives a travelogue of international cities—Mary Lou Longworth in Aix-en-Provence, Ann Cleeves in the Shetland Islands, Richard Crompton in Nairobi, Paco Ignacio Taibo II in Mexico City.

Big or small, noisy or quiet, home or abroad, these locales illuminate both the authors and their characters in unexpected ways.

NPR’s correspondents intersperse the ambient sound of streets and cafes with the voices of police, shopkeepers and the writers themselves. As summer draws to an end in North America, the spots serve as a sweet treat for readers who like to investigate their favorite novelists. (In addition to the live broadcasts, the programs are available on the NPR website as downloadable MP3 files.)

As a reader or writer, what role do you think place can play in crime fiction?

Chris Grabenstein, a sure voice at the shore

August 25th, 2014 by Jeff Widmer
Chris Grabenstein, a sure voice at the shore

What makes Chris Grabenstein’s Down the Shore novels so entertaining? I think it’s the voice he chooses to tell the stories.

Iraq war veteran John Ceepak is a police officer in the town of Sea Haven, New Jersey. With a code of ethics as strong as a gun barrel, he’s clearly the hero. But Grabenstein chooses to filter the fluff and drama of beach life through the eyes of 24-year-old Danny Boyle. A part-time police officer who likes to impress his friends, Doyle plays the role of the post-adolescent, alternating between irreverent and respectful, hopeless and hip.

With a quick eye for contrast, Danny becomes the perfect filter for all that is crass and criminal during summer at the Jersey Shore. He’s Watson, Hastings and Natalie Teeger rolled into one. Ceepak forms the strong moral core of the books, but it is Danny’s voice that resonates long after the saltwater taffy is gone.

What do you think? Is the hero the best narrator for mystery and suspense novels or the sidekick?

For Margaret Coel, the perfect view

August 18th, 2014 by Jeff Widmer
For Margaret Coel, the perfect view

I don’t usually appreciate head-hopping in novels. The author gains a global perspective but sometimes sacrifices intimacy and suspense—when we see everything in real time, the heroine’s discoveries don’t always land with the same impact.

Unless the author is Margaret Coel. In The Perfect Suspect, the author makes a good case for the technique, employing it to craft a book with perfect pace. Using duel points of view, that of the killer and the investigator, she lights the candle at both ends . . . and we’re happy to watch it burn.

The plot involves the murder of a candidate for governor in Colorado. The point of view shifts from the killer, a female police detective by the name of Ryan Beckman, to a journalist, Catherine McLeod, as each races to track the other. By alternating POV, Coel not only illuminates their motives but sets the two on a course that can’t help but result in a collision. It’s a heady rush to a satisfying end.

What do you think? When you read or write fiction, are two heads better than one?

For Vanessa Munroe, the menace within

August 12th, 2014 by Jeff Widmer
For Vanessa Munroe, the menace within

Many reviewers compare Taylor Stevens’ Vanessa Michael Munroe to Stieg Larsson’s hacker Lisbeth Salander. But I think Munroe owes some of her literary genes to one of the original cyberpunks, William Gibson.

In 2003’s Pattern Recognition, Gibson gives us cool-hunter Cayce Pollard and a head-rush culture addicted to self and fueled by anxiety. In Stevens’ first Munroe novel, The Informationist, the author presents a character who polishes her paranoia like a talisman. We find a similar theme in Larsson’s dragon tattoo trilogy, where the government Salander trusts becomes the monster of betrayal. All three vacuum information for a living.

Gibson, most famous for computer mind-meld books like Neuromancer and Mona Lisa Overdrive, uses the digital world to portray disorientation and chaos. Stevens uses water and dirt to create the claustrophobic feel of corruption and pursuit. Different characters, different settings, yet books with surprising menace from the very people assigned to protect us.

Do we recognize a pattern?

The mystery within

August 8th, 2014 by Jeff Widmer
The mystery within

I’m staring at a mug I bought at a craft show in 2008. The potter has glazed the outside in muted blues and greens and let the speckled brown surface show in faint rows. It is a serviceable piece.

Inside, the colors burst from the sides, washing over circles like watercolor, changing hue and depth as they flow.

I have a bowl like that. We use it to hold fruit. On the outside it looks utilitarian. On the inside, the colors explode. We see the outside daily. We notice the inside only when we clean the bowl.

Why do potters hide their best work? Comments are open.

V is for verb

June 23rd, 2014 by Jeff Widmer
V is for verb

The leader declared war on passive verbs.

Noreen Wald, aka Nora Charles, author of the Ghostwriter and Kate Kennedy series, vowed to stamp out all forms of the verb to be. Her fervor had inspired the Wednesday Critique Group, an offshoot of Noreen’s class in writing fiction, to the point that its members adopted a vigilance Paul Revere would envy. As we read our work aloud, we’d slash and burn to invigorate our prose.

Now an obsession with active verbs can deliver a crisp manuscript, or drive a writer nuts. Active verbs speed the story but call attention to the writing, and sometimes pull the reader out of the scene. Passive verbs put those readers to sleep. With all due respect to our instructor, what we need is balance.

It’s not always possible to find alternatives to the word is. Sometimes sentences sound less pretentious with passive verbs, and sometimes they have a better flow. The question is (and I use that word advisedly), when do we permit passive verbs and when do we pop for active language?

Does the answer require a mechanistic approach—as a former president once said, does it depend on what the definition of is is?—or does the choice grow from the writer’s intent, which changes from sentence to genre to type?

In P is for Peril, Sue Grafton’s character Kinsey Millhone hears a woman calling to a dog. “She emitted a piercing whistle, and a young German shepherd came bounding over the hill, heading in my direction at full speed. I waited, bracing myself for the force of muddy feet, but at the last possible second, the whistle came again and the dog sprinted off.”

The passage ripples with tension as Grafton propels the prose with active verbs.

In Edwin of the Iron Shoes, Marcia Muller tackles a less straightforward task. She needs to convey supposition as well as continuing action. Leaving the scene of a murder, Muller’s character Sharon McCone wants to rejoin her employer. “The ambulance had pulled away and the crowd was dispersing. Across the street, a light burned in the front windows of Junk Emporium. Hank was probably waiting for me. . . .”

And we burn to read more of the story.

In Laura Lippman’s Baltimore Blues, Tess Monaghan writes the equivalent of her New Year’s resolutions in a student composition book. Keeping those resolutions has proven a challenge, so Lippman conveys the character’s frustration and resignation through a mix of active and passive language: “Tess slapped the notebook closed, filed it on a shelf with twenty-two others—all blank except for the first page—set her alarm, and was asleep in five minutes.”

Like Grafton and Muller, she uses language that embodies emotion as well as information. Had she stuck with passive verbs, we’d have nodded off in ten.

One more example and I’ll let you go. In To Darkness and to Death, Julia Spencer-Fleming conveys both action and reflection as one of her characters, the Rev. Clare Fergusson, searches for a missing woman: “Clare forced herself to keep her steps even, her head moving methodically as she climbed up the increasingly steep slope. She was, she had to admit, too impatient to be a naturally good searcher.”

As we are, too often, with passive construction.

So, do we need an iron rule about banishing passive verbs forever? Or can we allow the function and emotion of the scene to drive the choice?

For Army wives, an image of independence

April 7th, 2014 by Jeff Widmer
For Army wives, an image of independence

Three years ago, Lea Hartman took up photography to deal with the pressures of life as an Army spouse. Today she’s leveraged that interest into a project devoted to showing the strength of fellow wives.

To date she has photographed nine women for the I Am Project, a collection of black and white images featuring a military wife with an empowering expression painted on her body. The expressions range from “I am Independent,” to “I am a Survivor” to “I am Blessed.”

“I decided to create a series of images that allow us to put a voice and a face to the title of ‘Army Wife,'” Hartman told Sarah Campbell of the Fayetteville Observer. “I felt military spouses weren’t well represented in the media in general.”

The photos are simple, direct and moving. Much of their power comes from their authenticity. As Lea says on the project website, “Though we may not wear a uniform, we serve our country with each breath we take.”

You can see the work at the I Am Project website and on Hartman’s blog and read her story on Stars and Stripes.

Beyond ‘Likes': Growing Your Business with Social Media

January 28th, 2014 by Jeff Widmer
Beyond 'Likes': Growing Your Business with Social Media

Just because someone “Likes” your Facebook page doesn’t mean they’ll visit your business. Entrepreneurs need to engage these visitors, whether they encounter your business through Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or your website. Please join me in a discussion of how to meet and measure success in digital communications at the Rotary Club of Sarasota Keys’ Business to Business Mixer.

The event will take place from noon to 1:15 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 4. At Café L’Europe on St. Armands Circle. Admission is $5 per person. Lunch is included. There will be a cash bar.

Enjoy meeting fellow Sarasota business professionals and community leaders as the Rotary club continues a 50-year tradition of fostering good will and building lasting friendships. I’ll be making a short presentation on planning and measuring a social media program.

To RSVP or for more information contact Jack Geldi at jjgeldi@aol.com or (941) 586-2777.

Beyond Likes 3 Planning and Measuring Social Media title slide

Learning to Look: a Year in the Life in Photos

July 22nd, 2013 by Jeff Widmer
Learning to Look: a Year in the Life in Photos

We were sitting at a table in a small restaurant. My friend Joan had just received a high-end digital camera as a gift. She’d decided to chronicle her life by taking a picture each day and posting it to her social network. I wondered how anyone short of National Geographic’s Jim Brandenburg had the discipline to not only take a photo every day but make it an interesting one.

Back at work, I thought about following Joan’s lead. Would the project be worth the effort? Could I sustain it? Would anyone view the work?

We never know until we try. So I downloaded the Instagram app to a smartphone, linked it to my accounts with Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Tumblr and started to shoot. I wanted the first image in the series to reflect reality, not aesthetics, and chose to photograph the highway through the windshield during the morning commute—not something I’d recommend doing on a regular basis, given the problem of distracted driving. And since online privacy is also an issue, I avoided photographing family members.

During the year I’ve taken photos on vacation, at concerts and in the office, shooting from airplanes, sailboats and cars. The subjects range from kayaks to cats, from people in line at Wal-Mart to flowers to Ferris wheels. The images are straight or processed. They chronicle a life in transition, capturing the changes in families, careers and seasons.

Some days I knew what I wanted to shoot—the current activity, the dramatic change in weather, the empty road that captured the sense of isolation we sometimes feel. Other days I left things to chance. I vowed to shy from the overly familiar subjects on the Internet—pets, food and sunsets—and never to take a photo of something just to fulfill the daily requirement. But on busy days I had to bend those rules.

In reviewing the year, I find I enjoy the images that look artfully composed, like the still life of silver frost edging green leaves. The impromptu images seem more interesting, like the elderly couple falling asleep at the gate while they wait for their plane. I also enjoy social commentary—the bored faces of fellow workers during meetings, the pre-school girl using a $600 smartphone some adults can barely afford, the empty chair outside a classroom in a district that just dismissed dozens of teachers.

But my favorites are the unexpected images—the delighted look on a woman’s face as she wins a prize at Bingo, the college mascot flexing his muscles during graduation, the couple photographing themselves at a baseball game. Each carries an emotional impact as well as an aesthetic appeal.

While I’m pleased with the images—you can view the collections at the Year in the Life board on Pinterest or the two YITL sets on Flickr—I’m amazed at the response. Almost every picture posted to Facebook receives more “likes” than anything I’ve written.

That enthusiasm is contagious. After a year of collecting snapshots I find myself as fascinated with the process as the product. Photography is a great teacher. It urges us to act boldly, to stand in the rain, to get close to noise and dirt and smiles. It helps us to focus, to crop the distractions. It teaches us to see.

What better way to spend the year.

Jeff Widmer is a writer, editor and photographer. He is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.

A Year in the Life collage