Thursday, November 26, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Christmas Tree Lane could still earn its name

(This article originally published Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2000, in The News Herald's "Bay Book"  column.)

PANAMA CITY BEACH — Christmas Tree Lane, a meandering paved trail on the western reaches of Panama City Beach (Laguna Beach), is lined by everything but what you might expect, given the name.

More oleanders and palms grow here than spruce and cedar, more scrub oaks than even scraggly Charlie Brown-style pine saplings.

There's no snow to frolic in, either — an early morning frost is the most one might hope for. Ground cover consists of sand, red clay, weeds and one yard given over to white marble rock and gravel.

You'll find no igloos or enchanted elf castles on Christmas Tree Lane. Instead, lines of mobile homes give way to abandoned houses, old tourist properties for sale or rent, and empty lots.

But sprinkled among these are pockets of brightness, houses where people have planted roots (and grass). One such place is a modest home that, despite being situated about halfway along the lane, is labeled "The Rhodes End" by a sign at its entrance.

In the front yard stands a brightly-painted 3-foot-tall wooden Santa Claus and a similar snowman that may or may not represent good ol' Frosty.

Homeowner Richard Rhodes, 65, has lived on the lane since 1987, and he said the Christmas spirit has always moved him to decorate.

"I came here from Colorado," he said. "I bought a little hotdog stand on the beach, and I've been working on the beach ever since."

When Rhodes first moved onto the lane, none of his neighbors did any holiday decorating.

"I've always done that all my life," he said. "My wife died four years ago and my son died two years ago on Christmas Eve, so last year was the only year I didn't do any decorating."

He's gotten back into the spirit this year — a toy train runs around the Christmas tree inside the home, much to the delight of his two grandchildren — and he has plans for an even bigger display for Christmas 2001.

"I want to plant a Christmas tree in the front yard in January so I'll have one to decorate next year," he said.

And finally, Christmas Tree Lane could live up to its name.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Childhood dreams sometimes come true — a generation later

(This is my “Undercurrents” column for The News Herald this week.)

The Offer
PANAMA CITY BEACH — If you claim you never stood in front of a mirror and played air guitar or lip-synced into a hairbrush, pen or other object, then I’m going to (generously) suggest that you might be fibbing.

If you grew up in rock ’n’ roll age, that kind of activity is a given.

Me, I’ve wanted to be a rock star since before David Cassidy had a TV series. That’s a long, long time. However, I also have the good sense to keep away from karaoke machines, because no matter how long a time has passed, my singing skills have not improved.

So it comes as something of a sense of pride to say my son is a rock star. At least, that’s what I tell him, and anyone else who will listen. He’s the vocalist and co-writer of songs for “The Offer,” a band that released its second CD (this time a 5-song EP titled “Adrift”) just last weekend.

The other band members are Mike Jordan (guitar), Mikhail Cintgran (bass/vocals), Tristan Reynolds (guitar), and Chase Hopkins (drums). The band has experienced a couple of lineup changes over the past few years, but has maintained its music and style (which they tell me is rock/post hardcore), as even a casual listen shows.

Listening to the new EP, particularly a song that references Doctor Who and “writing in her journal of impossible things,” my brain took an unexpected leap: I wondered how or if my life choices had reflected my father’s childhood dreams.

It’s a reasonable question, and one I think fathers and sons (and mothers and daughters) have mulled since time began. I’m sure it’s a question that occurs regularly to people in middle age, able to look at the generations before and after them simultaneously.

Dad didn’t want me to be a writer. He wanted me to be an electrician or a chemist, get a job in manufacturing, make a living wage. When I was bringing home Ray Bradbury novels from the middle school library, he was supplying me with Radio Shack electrical kits and chemistry sets from Kmart and giving me reading assignments in science texts.

(I remember debates with my son over his choice of study in high school and college — Theatre — and whether he could make a living wage with that kind of degree.* Sometimes, “living” is less about the wage and more about the life; that’s a lesson with which I’m still coming to grips.)

And yet, much later on, after I had established what became my career and started writing novels and short stories on the side, Dad started writing a regular history column for his local paper, The Tri-City Ledger in Flomaton, Ala., and wrote or co-wrote books on local history. He liked to joke that he was going to be me when he grew up.

I can say with certainty that I am not going to be a rockstar when I grow up. Still, I wondered if Dad had ever fantasized about being a writer in his youth — typed an air typewriter in front of the mirror, or lip-synced an interview into a tape recorder.

Probably not, now that I put it that way.



* And let’s not forget how upset my daughter became after a career counselor at her school noted her high scores in aptitude tests and suggested she might pursue a career in journalism. I think she still cries when she thinks about that.

Friday, November 06, 2015

The view from the back seat

(This is my Undercurrents column for The News Herald this week.)

PANAMA CITY BEACH — It has been a week of highs and lows, as life tends to be — and pretty clearly illustrated, at least in part, by the perspectives attained according to where I sat in a moving vehicle.

Buckle up.

Saturday, my wife and I drove to Tallahassee to be with our daughter for her birthday, then traveled with her and her boyfriend to Thomasville, Ga., for a daytrip. The old downtown has been revitalized with boutiques, restaurants, a theater, a bookstore, a record shop — even a cupcakery and a fudge shop. We strolled the brick and concrete walks, sampled the local flavors, admired the old architecture. We laughed a lot.

I rode in the front passenger’s seat with my teeth clenched as my daughter’s boyfriend drove like he was auditioning for “Fast & Furious 8.” At one point, a piece of brown cardboard blown into the highway from the right caused him to swerve — I had seen it coming, but he thought it was an animal.

Sunday, we attended the wedding of my son’s best friend in Jacksonville; it took place at a waterside venue, by an old Florida woodframe house under oak trees strung with white lights. Bride and groom were funny and beautiful, and the event felt like a family reunion — everyone was genuinely happy to see everyone else. Afterward came dining, dancing (yes, even me), speeches, and tears of joy all around. My son caught the garter.

I drove most of the way there, but was relegated to the back seat for the trip home, sleeping the sleep of the just, the exhausted, the old. I’m not built for snoozing in a Corolla, but I managed. Pulling back into Tallahassee near midnight was like rolling into a dream — the streets were vaguely familiar, just turned the wrong ways and strangely lit, and even my daughter had trouble recognizing them.

“I’ve never come into town from this direction at night,” she explained.

We next jaunted to Pensacola, where I visited my father in the hospital and then traveled with him to Atmore, Ala., where he was moving for physical therapy. On that trip, I took the back seat again as my wife drove and Dad perched in the front passenger seat. I joked about being the backseat driver, then tried to give my wife directions. Dad chuckled and looked out the window.

That’s when it finally struck me and the mental airbags deployed.

I thought of my own children, of their years in the back seat, looking forward and reading my temper or humor by the bulge of a grinning cheek, set of a clenched jaw, or crinkle of the skin at the corner of my eye. Watching my hairline recede from the center outward.

I couldn’t tell you how many thousands of roadtrips I’ve taken with my father over the decades, covering hundreds of thousands of miles. Short hops to the grocery store, to church, to school, to Grandma’s  house and a million other places. Longer slogs to Orlando, or Cleveland, or Stone Mountain or wherever.

And I couldn’t begin to guess how often I saw him from a similar angle as I was growing up — sitting in the back seat and watching him scan the road as he drove or rode shotgun with someone else. Yet, I had never seen him from quite this perspective ever before. Exhausted, weak, at the mercy of a body and brain suffering from brutal and random tribulation.

Memories and that moment in time collided, the weight of those intervening decades like a yoke on my back, and I wondered what it must be like for him, relegated for a time to being a backseat passenger in his own life.

My advice is to take the wheel while you can, but from time to time, be willing to occupy a back seat and view the world from that perspective. Remind yourself how it feels to follow, to have to trust another’s ability to navigate the miles of rough road ahead.

And don’t forget to buckle up.


Thursday, November 05, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Not Fade Away

(This column originally published in The News Herald on Sunday, November 14, 2010)

Not fade away: Connecting across time and space

Surrounded and bolstered by kindred spirits on Thursday night, Wewahitchka-based author Michael Lister talked about the sacred calling of the storyteller. He used the word “shaman” to convey the mystical connection between the teller and the listener.

Like an alchemical equation seeking balance, the work birthed in the act of creating art can’t reach maturity until the work is interpreted. Otherwise creation is the silence in the forest when a tree falls and no one is there to hear it.

It’s the sound of one hand clapping.

Michael’s words, as usual, started me thinking. In particular, I recalled a few events of the past week where the things people said (or wrote) and the things I heard (or read) connected with memory to
create new meaning. You never know what people will say, or how the things they say will stick with you and bubble to the surface of your thoughts.

A couple of examples:
I visited the set of “A Doll’s House” on the Amelia Center Theater stage at Gulf Coast Community College this week. Decorated for Christmas, the lights and baubles stood in stark contrast to the dull walls and furnishings in shades of brown. It looked like a scene out of “A Christmas Story.”

The play is set in 1950s Chicago, and the short sequence I viewed made me think about those folks on our Squall Line who want their country back — one of whom even went so far this week to type on his or her computer that “The 1950s was a better time.”

On stage, the husband teased his wife with $10 bills that she greedily snatched from him, one by one, and promised to spend wisely. He called her pet names and spoke in soothing tones, making sure she understood her place and function in his world.

I was reminded of an early Saturday morning recently, when an older man joked about spending his entire “allowance” on yard sales. He circled among some tables stacked with colorful trinkets and clothing, asking silly questions and flirting with the ladies at the sale. Suddenly, he grew quiet.

“I was married three times,” this total stranger said to me, his breath misting in the morning cold. “I left the first one, the second one left me, and the third died. She was the only one who ever said she loved me. She was the only one I ever loved.”

He cleared a lump in his throat and pointed at a coffee maker designed for one person.

“Is that real or a toy?” he said, and I told him I believed that it was real.

He bought it and drove away alone.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Best ‘witches’ for the happy birthday ghoul

(Originally published Sunday, October 31, 2010 in The News Herald.)

She arrived squalling in the dark and early hours of a Halloween morning, an absolute treat after a frightening and tricky delivery, our own tiny gremlin. Later that day, a boy dressed as the Flash gave her a kiss — through his face mask — before zooming off to trick-or-treat.

She has worn many costumes in the 19 (all too short) years since then: baby pumpkin, fairy-tale princess, pink Power Ranger, witch, Indian princess, police officer, Dorothy Gale, gangster moll and many more. She’s even been known to create a costume and makeup out of boredom (see above).

She won a prize in a sci-fi convention costume contest one year for the Star Trek outfit we dressed her in — mostly because she was an awfully cute 4-year-old at the time. The grownups in their expensive “uniforms” were not amused.

Over the years, we developed a tradition of taking the birthday ghoul out to eat before going trick-or-treating; the whole family would wear costumes to whatever restaurant she chose. That came to an end the year I wore a Star Trek costume and everyone in the joint came by the table to make jokes.

She absolutely refused to let me wear a Mr. Fantastic outfit a couple of years back, but that might have had more to do with the way my gut stretched the fabric.

I suppose there’s only so much humiliation a young woman will endure from her father.

For the last few years, she has wandered the neighborhoods of the Hammocks in Lynn Haven with her friends and has hauled home loads of candy — so we’re a little disappointed that she has finally decided she’s “too old” for trick-or-treating. Looks like we’ll have to hit the after-Halloween sales on All Souls Day.

All this is to say that, no matter what outward outfit she wears or how many Halloweens she has seen, she’ll always be our little monster under the surface.

Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Behind the Writing (Part 3): Refilling the Creative Well

The following is the last in a three-part series about the craft of writing, specifically characters and situations, why we write stories, and how to refill the creative well. These conversations took place in early October 2015 with author Mark Boss and myself.

>>Click here to read the first installment<<
>>Or here to read the second one<<

Mark Boss, our friend Carole, and me at Books Alive 2015.

Mark: One last thought. I’ve been thinking about this one a lot lately. I’m convinced — you’re torn so many different ways. You’re expected to blog, you’re expected to tweet and Facebook and all these different things. But every time you do that during the day, I think you use up a little bit of creative energy. Maybe not a lot, but a little bit. And then you have to wonder, is there any left over when you actually go to write? So my question is not whether that’s worthwhile or not — because it’s probably necessary — but rather, how do you refill the well after you’re tapped out, after a long week or a month, or even when you finish a long project? Because with a book, you might be committing to a year or two’s worth or work.

Tony: And that last push leaves you with the thousand-yard stare.

Mark: And by the end, you’re a zombie. How to you refill the well? What goes into that to bring the water level back up? ... I find that I do a flurry a reading as soon as I’m done (writing) a book. All the stuff that’s been piling up on the Kindle or in stacks, and not just fiction, a lot of non-fiction. When I’m working, I might be reading about 50/50. But afterward, man, I’ve got to fill my brain back up. There’s wanting to catch up on all the TV shows you missed and all the movies you didn’t see. So, for like a month, I go nuts. But then, pretty soon, there’s that itch like, man, I’ve got to write something. You can’t wait until you feel full again to start writing.

Tony: For me, there’s a couple of things. One is, I give myself permission not to be obsessed or upset that I’m not writing. I didn’t always do that. I don’t really do a lot of reading while I’m in the middle of a project. I’ll read a comic book, or magazine articles, watch TV for an hour or two — during the writing process. After the writing, I want to go somewhere.
Mark: A change of scenery, literally, to refresh the brain.

Tony: Clear the palate, yeah, and I think that’s why going up to visit Birmingham even jumpstarted that (steampunk novel) idea. I was in the middle of a project, and it was driving me crazy trying to finish it so I could start the new one. I was writing notes on one and working on the other. That’s one thing I do, even if it’s just taking a day, me and my wife going to Apalachicola (about a 90-minute drive from home) and walking around. Just something to change the surroundings for a few hours and get your head out of the space it’s been in.

Mark: Get away from the computer. Plus, you bring up the point: Even though you have anew idea in your head, the discipline — the part that’s the difference between being a professional and not — is that you finish the project you’re on. And then you start the next one. You don’t get distracted and start something else. It’s a small point, but important for other writers out there, and readers.

Tony: Yeah, there’s really only two rules: (/Holds up one finger/) Sit your ass in the chair and write. (/Holds up second finger/) Finish what you start. Even if that means just getting to a stopping point. I spent too many years dropping a project and starting something new, just to drop that too.

Mark: I think that happens a lot.

Tony: Somebody said it’s like being in love. You’re committed to this project, and all of a sudden you see this nice shiny new idea over there. And you’re like, this project is just not as pretty as I thought she was. She makes me work too hard. But this idea is exciting. I think I’ll go play with this one a while.

Mark: I think it’s fear. I think people fear finishing. When you’re done, the dream is over. Now it’s time to let go. I really do think fear plays a big part in that. It’s easier to tinker than to finish.

Tony: Today, that fear goes even further. I can submit to all these (traditional publishers) and if they say no, then in the old days that was the end of the story. Now you can publish yourself so fairly easily that you don’t have any excuse to keep it hidden away in a drawer.

Mark: You can’t say, “Well, they kept me out. I never got my shot. I never had a chance.” Now, your baby has to get out there and compete, and it might get beat up on the playground. Those are my deep thoughts I had recently.

Tony: I appreciate it, because I had no deep thoughts to bring to the table.

Mark: You’re good at spontaneous deep thinking.

Tony: Or bullshitting.

Mark: It’s a craft.

Tony: It can be learned.

>>Check out Mark’s stories, available in ebook and paperback at Amazon.<<

Friday, October 23, 2015

Former narcotics agent begins third chapter

Merle & Judy with actor Shemar Moore
  • Who: Merle Sheppard, author of “Ghostly Shade of Pale”
  • Where and When: Sundog Books in Seaside 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, and Hidden Lantern Bookstore in Rosemary Beach 2-6 p.m. Saturday
  • Details: and

SEASIDE — Merle Temple, at age 67, has begun a new career as a novelist — a third career, after retiring from the law enforcement and communications. He has worked for the FBI, the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, and BellSouth. Now, he’s a successful author.

I caught up to him by telephone this week as he relaxed in Destin with his wife, Judy. They had been out birding, and he had recently spoken to a class at a Destin elementary school. He mused upon his new life and how it reflected in those youngsters, just starting their lives.

“These books have opened up a whole new world for us in our retirement years,” he said. “I didn’t know if anyone other than friends and loved ones would want to read them. ... I am so grateful that I lived long enough and survived so much tragedy to know who and what never mattered, and Who always will.”

His debut novel, “A Ghostly Shade of Pale” introduced the character of Michael Parker, which is based on Merle. Parker leaves Ole Miss in the early 1970s to enter America’s “War on Drugs.” He is kidnapped by heroin dealers and held hostage while working solo undercover. Later, he’s ambushed near Memphis by contract killers hired by the Dixie Mafia. When he becomes a captain, he and his men are ambushed in a heroin deal near Columbus by a sniper.

“Only the dramatic intervention of God saves the lives of agents that day,” Merle said, adding, “All these things and more really happened.”

Merle, originally from Tupelo, Miss., claims to have crossed paths with many of the iconic figures of the 20th century, including Margaret Thatcher, Charlton Heston, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, J. Edgar Hoover, Newt Gingrich, Dennis Hastert, and countless other senators, congressmen, governors and celebrities.

“I pull the curtain back to allow people to see Washington as it really is, and it is not a pretty sight — where everyone and everything is for sale,” he said.

The second book in the trilogy, “A Rented Love,” follows Parker into the corporate world and high-level politics. There, he finds that the organized crime figures who tried to kill him are choir boys compared to the political criminals he encounters in what Merle calls “the unholy trinity of crime, politics and business.”

Merle is currently at work on the final book in the trilogy, “The Redeemed,” in which Parker — a would-be dragonslayer — pays the price for his crusades and for opposing the power brokers. The treachery runs all the way to the White House, Merle hints.

 “So many I have known in politics love only power and money, but beyond that, so many of them refuse to surrender power even in old age and infirmity,” Merle said. “They made a Faustian deal to rule in hell on earth, rather than to serve eternally in heaven. They equate retirement with death, and they are terrified to stand before their maker. They know what they’ve done, and they know that the road is running out.”

The novels are being considered for adaptation into TV series by various Hollywood producers, which took Merle and Judy to the West Coast for meetings. They watched the filming of “Criminal Minds,” signed books for actors Joe Mantegna and Shemar Moore. The series writer-producer Jim Clemente is pitching “Ghostly” for Merle.

“I have written all my life in the public and private sector — speeches, technical papers,” he said. “People told me, ‘you have a gift of writing,’ but I found out fiction is difficult. It’s tricky to speak in other voices. It has so many threads in it, it’s so complex. It has been a real learning process.”

Merle also believes that what he writes and how he presents it is important. His work, placed in the public eye, is equivalent to the epitaph on his tombstone, he said, in that it’s how he will be remembered.

“My novels, written as fiction but drawn from my life, have no profanity or graphic intimacy,” he said. “They are written as literature to endure, and people love them for that reason. ... People are hungry right now for that, even if they’re gritty books, but behind it is a message that’s uplifting.”


Thursday, October 22, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Don't wait for Godot's great pumpkin

(Originally published October 30, 2005 in The News Herald)

As you read this, it's the morning after my daughter's first-ever hosted multi-guest sleepover party.

If all went according to plan, she had youngsters traipsing through the halls in Halloween costumes, eating snacks and birthday cake, half-watching scary movies, staying up to all hours, and dancing to music at a volume that probably was turned down over and over again by weary grownups.

Pray for them.

Bad enough that I can be grouchy on the best of mornings. Worse that my daughter is even more grouchy than me. But that's not really what this is all about.

It's about The Great Pumpkin, and the girl who came to us on a Halloween morning 14 years ago,
and the lessons she teaches.

The Great Pumpkin, like Godot, never arrives. It's the anticipation of his arrival, and our loneliness in the waiting, that matters. Linus sends letters that are never answered; he waits in the patch all night and never sees a sign. He believes in things the rest of us find laughable.

For many years, despite requests from our own "peanuts" gallery, somehow we seldom had a jack-o'- lantern on the doorstep. This year, we got a great pumpkin. We chose it from the patch off State 77 in Lynn Haven and brought it home to lovingly mutilate. It wasn't huge by any means, but it had a good shape and size. And it was ours.

We went to get the pumpkin because our Hallowed Eve princess wanted it, of course, and because her mother's insistence overcame my considerable inertia. And after a few days of having the pumpkin sitting patiently unmolested by the front door, for much the same reason, we took it into the backyard to carve.

As her mother watched, I showed the spooky little girl how to trim off the top and dig out the guts — or brains, if you prefer — to stick to the gourd-as-head analogy. I skimmed seeds out of the fibrous orange mucous and put them into one bowl to be cleaned and roasted. The brains and inner meat went into another, to be made into pumpkin pie or something else Mom might decide to make.

Then daughter and I drew the face, and I helped her cut the holes. She outlined the holes with red paint to increase the daytime scariness. We have since placed the candle inside and shined the light, and it is one formidable jack-o'-lantern.

But there was a moment in between those steps, a moment when I was up to my elbows in pumpkin brains, fingers coated in goo, when I realized my place in all of this. The role I had taken, though active in these final steps, was not the role that had put the gourd on its journey to the front porch.

"This is cool," said the Halloween girl. "Thanks, Mom."


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Behind the Writing (Part 2): Why do we write?

The following is the second in a three-part series about the craft of writing, specifically characters and situations, why we write stories, and how to refill the creative well. These conversations took place in early October 2015 with author Mark Boss and myself.

>>Click here to read the first installment.<<

Mark Boss
Mark: That brings me to my second question: What is it in us that demands that storytelling? I think you go to your caveman, and other people (with him) like stories but there’s probably only one person in the tribe or village that’s a storyteller, and he’s probably a shaman or he’s painting on the walls — “Oh, that was the best hunt ever!” (The number of storytellers is) probably a bigger percentage of the population now because the tools are available to write, but telling stories has always (come from) a small part of the population. I think it only feels big now because there’s so many people publishing. Why is it a small part, and why are people like us driven to tell stories?

Tony: If you strip all the publishing away from it and get down to storytelling, I think everybody tells stories. Every conversation we have with our loved ones, we’re telling stories. If my Mom calls and tells me about an uncle that’s not doing well, she’s storytelling. As a people, a species, we developed language and writing — well, in part to keep track of what we were telling —

Mark: To give it permanence, because we wanted to give stories multi-generations.

Tony: But in those days, and up until recently, most people couldn’t read and write, but everybody would go down to the square to hear the town crier tell what happened in the court, or gather around their radio to listen to serials.

Mark: My grandfather told stories on the porch, and neighbors would come over to listen.

Tony: When it comes to writing, I think the difference between most people and people like you and me is the difference between a child drawing a picture with crayons and the artist painting a landscape or portrait. We found something in us that felt fulfilled and we were drawn further to continue filling that empty hole in our hearts.

Mark: You’re so driven, you spend years learning the technical skills, just like a painter. You take it way beyond what most people would do because you spent all these years developing it. If everyone else did that, you’d have a lot more people who were writers. They’d end up at the same place.

Tony: It is a craft, and it can be taught. It can be learned. Those of us who felt drawn to it also had to learn it —

Mark: Over a long period of time —

Tony: With a lot of trial and error. … If I turn away from it for too long, as you do from time to time, I actually feel heartsick, like there’s something missing. That ‘something’ is telling those stories. At least, for me it is.

Mark: Sometimes it’s the only way I can cheer myself up. If I sit down and start writing, within an hour or two I’m smiling and happy again. It’s unreal. It’s weird how sometimes you purposely turn away from it, then you think, “What the heck was I thinking? Why am I not doing that?”

Tony: What are we hoping to do is to write something that’s going to affect somebody. That they’re going to carry with them, share with other people, and it’s going to make their world a better world, and it’s going to go on beyond you, after you’re long gone. Or, we could just be writing stories to have fun with. If we’re lucky, we’ll be like H. Rider Haggard and a hundred years after we’re gone people will still be making movies out of our stories.

In the next post, we’ll talk about how writers and readers can refill the creative well.

>>Check out Mark’s stories, available in ebook and paperback at Amazon.<<

Friday, October 16, 2015

Get your write on this NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo Kick-Off Party
  • What: Tips and tricks for writers; light refreshments
  • When: 5:30-7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 19
  • Where: Bay County Public Library, at 898 W. 11th St., Panama City
  • Details: or call 850-522-2120
PANAMA CITY — Writers, it’s time to limber up those typing or scribing fingers, bulk up the brain muscles (or whatever) and get ready for the best month of the year.

November is just around the corner, and that means you’re invited (in fact, encouraged — nay, required!) to set your mind to writing a novel during the 30 days of National Novel Writing Month, or “NaNoWriMo.”

“NaNoWriMo challenges people to write 50,000 words of a novel in the 30 days of November,” said Regina Burgess, Community Relations and Marketing Coordinator for the Northwest Regional Library System. “Crazy? Yes. Doable? Absolutely!”

My recent novel of zombie survival, “This Mortal Flesh,” began as a NaNoWriMo project. I’m planning to write the bulk of a new steampunk novel in November.

As Regina notes, more than 250 NaNoWriMo novels have been traditionally published, including Sara Gruen’s “Water for Elephants,” Erin Morgenstern’s “The Night Circus,” and many more. Last year, NaNoWriMo welcomed 351,142 writers from around the world. Of those participants, 58,917 hit their goals, completing a 50,000-word draft of a novel in November 2014.

If you’ve always said you wanted to do so too, then now’s the time.

To help locals get the ink flowing, the Bay County Public Library will host a NaNoWriMo Kick-Off Party from 5-7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 19. I will join local authors Michael Lister, Sharman Ramsey and others during that period to share some helpful writing tips and prompts. Friends of the Bay County Public Libraries will supply light refreshments.

Attendees may also enter a drawing for three gift boxes, each of which includes goodies and the book that started it all: “No Plot, No Problem: A Low-Stress High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days” by NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty.

The library will also host “Come Write In” sessions 5-7 p.m. each Monday in November, with library staff on hand for support and encouragement; participants are welcome to bring their own refreshments.

Finally, the library will have a “Thank God It’s Over” party 5-7:30 p.m. on Dec. 7 to celebrate finishing (or at least attempting to finish) your novels. Again, Friends of the Bay County Public Libraries will supply light refreshments.

 “We have some staff members who are going to participate in NaNoWriMo this year,” Regina said. “I’m one of them, and I am both looking forward to it and scared out of my wits! So far, I have no idea what I’m going to write about or even what genre I’ll attempt. But the unknown is half the fun!”

In writing, it’s about the journey as much as the destination. Come with us into the trackless unknown.


Thursday, October 15, 2015

FOUR books of mine for FREE!

Have you ever wondered if you'd like to try my books? Now's your best opportunity:

Three of my novels and a short story collection will be available for FREE via Kindle from Oct. 16-20 leading up to my signing event at Arena Comics on Oct. 21. As always, you don't have to own a Kindle device to read them, as the Kindle app is also FREE to download for your smartphone, laptop or desktop. Here are the books I'm giving away:

THE BOOK OF GABRIEL (An Endtimes Fable)

TALES OF THE AWAKENING DEAD (zombie short stories)

DRAGON RISING (Book 1 of The Shadow War)

THIS MORTAL FLESH (A Novel of the Awakening Dead)

And if you're looking for more details, just check out >>this Facebook event page<< and watch for updates there.

Throwback Thursday: Some leave monuments when they go

(This column originally appeared in The News Herald on Sunday, October 23, 2005.)

Hugs all around, and smiles, and some laughs.

We compare bald spots, and aches and pains like the guys on Jaws comparing their scars. We brag about our children, their grades and accomplishments, bestow compliments and accept them.

(We live through our children, after all. We put our arms around them and hang on for dear life. The future is there. Here is the past, we say to the child as we brag to our forefathers about the living future.)

So many faces in the crowd. We don't see them any more, except at family reunions, or weddings or funerals. We don't have family reunions any more, and those of us who were once considered the kids of the family are now at that intermediate age when it seems like nobody's getting married.

I guess you know what that leaves.

I'm thinking it's a shame that it has been so long since I saw so many of these people, and I'm thinking Bobby would be glad to see so many of them gathered up in one place. He'd have something inappropriate and hilarious to say about it.

There are pictures and flowers, as there always are. And tears. But there are inordinate amounts of smiles. Bobby would have appreciated that — it's what he brought into rooms.

Later, after the service at the Flomaton Funeral Home and another one on the green hill overlooking the town, we gather at his house. We are greeted there by a wooden sculpture Roland Hockett might have conceived on a whim.

Bobby built the monument to the recent hurricanes Ivan and Dennis after they dropped trees — twice — on his house. The second time, after repairs from the first time had been significantly completed.

The freeform sculpture stands at the end of the walkway that leads from the street to the front door of the home. It's made of pieces cut from the trees as they were removed from the house, as well as various other debris.

Maybe it's a warning of what can happen if you fight the forces of nature, I thought. Maybe it's a kind of pine ju-ju meant to appease the hurricane gods. Most likely, it's just a typical joke — Bobby's way of saying he's not going to let something like a one-two punch from Mother Nature get him down.

Some people leave memories. Some leave legacies. Some leave monuments.

I snap a picture, and wonder.


Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Behind the Writing: PART 1: Characters or Situations?

The following is the first in a three-part series about the craft of writing, specifically characters and situations, why we write stories, and how to refill the creative well. These conversations took place in early October 2015 with author Mark Boss and myself.

Mark Boss at PC Creative Con 2K15
Mark: We were talking the other day about characters. You read Stephen King’s “On Writing,” and he says he always starts with a situation; I started thinking, how predominant is that? How many authors start with a situation versus starting with a character? When you told me about your Alabama trip, it seemed like the seed of it, the germ was the character first. What triggered that idea, and then did you build the situation around that character?

Tony: I think that story came out of inundating — immersing myself in a bunch of unrelated ideas. I’m in Birmingham, and there’s a lot of stuff about the Confederacy, it’s an iron town — that whole blacksmithy, iron works, steam era feel to it. And I’m reading a lot of steampunk. All of those things fed into the mulcher, and then, driving home, seeing those old Southern city names —

Mark: Specifically, Jemison and Thorsby. Were they in that order?

Tony: Yes.

Mark: Because you might not have thought of it (if they were in the reverse order).

Tony: Right. That came from character first, from a mixture of the names and a time period I had floating around in my head. So in a way, the situation was kind of already there. I was primed to find a story that was steeped in the Old South.

Mark: Which is quite a departure, because I’d say most steampunk, maybe 90 percent of it, is Victorian England. At best, they cross the Channel to France. So Steampunk-USA is a departure.

Tony: With my Caliban stories, it definitely came out of character first. I was 14 years old and wanted to write Doctor Strange. Before I knew it, I wasn’t writing about the wizard, I was writing about the kid he trained and the development of his potential as a magic-user. Over the years, both of those characters kind of developed in the back of my head. — So, how about you, Mark? Character or situation?

Mark:  Looking at the last few books, I realize I’m going more ‘situation.’ My thing was a “what-if.” What if all these bad things happened at the same time? I love zombie things, and zombies were very big at the time. And yet I thought, okay, what if we ramped it up? Because one apocalypse is not enough for me. That’s just too slow. I want to see us get devastated. So you throw in aliens — the classic thing of alien invasion — and then you throw in a robot uprising, and then we’re starting to get it boiling. We’ve brought it up to temperature. Then I started thinking, everyone is going to be caught in this, but we don’t want to follow the people who just sit in their basement and wait for it to stop. We want to follow people out there actually doing things. The books jump around a fair amount to different characters. Even so, I tried to focus on the excitement: Let’s go look for the most important things happening or the most fun things happening. That was more a situation thing, but I had never thought hard about it until recently.

In the next post, we’ll address the question: Why do we make up stories?

Check out Mark's blog "Chimp With Pencil"<<
Mark's website<<
and his Amazon author page<<

Friday, October 09, 2015

Undercurrents: Honoring Rosie, establishing a legacy

  • The Amelia Center Honors: Rosemarie O’Bourke
  • When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 17
  • Where: Amelia G. Tapper Center for the Arts, Gulf Coast State College, 5230 W. U.S. 98, Panama City
  • Tickets: Free admission; online reservations at suggested to guarantee seating
  • Details: Call 850-872-3887 or email

PANAMA CITY — I first met Rosemarie O’Bourke, or “Rosie,” many years ago, when I started reporting on education for The News Herald and the Gulf Coast State College theatre was undergoing a massive renovation. But I finally got to know her when my son entered the college’s Performing Arts track.

Next week, Oct. 17, the college will celebrate Rosie’s career and legacy following her recent retirement as chairwoman of the Visual and Performing Arts Division — a department that started when she first arrived at the college, about 30 years ago.

“The Amelia Center Honors is an event celebrating the numerous contributions Rosie O’Bourke has made to arts and education in this community and the positive impact she has had on so many students during her career,” said Jason Hedden, who assumed his role as chairman of the GCSC Visual and Performing Arts Division upon Rosie’s retirement. “The entire community is invited to share in this exiting evening of entertainment.”

The special ceremony will feature performances and tributes by students, alumni, colleagues and community members. NYC-based performer and alumnus Matthew Holtzclaw will serve as guest emcee. Formal attire is requested.

The Amelia Center Honors, as it goes into the future, will become an event to honor others who contribute extraordinary value to the area’s cultural life.

In 2013, I sat down with Rosie in her office, which was decorated with University of Florida and Gator items, and we talked about her life and career.

Born in Cuba, she came to the U.S. in 1961 at age 13 as one of the “Peter Pan” children. The Miami Catholic churches had arranged passage for Cuban children and placed them in foster homes and orphanages to get them out of Castro’s regime.

“I didn’t speak any English or any such thing,” she said. “My brother and I went to live with a family we knew, friends of our parents. We were lucky.”

Rosie completed high school and college in St. Petersburg, graduated from UF with a master’s in music, took a second master’s degree in theater from St. Louis University, worked in a playhouse in Cleveland while getting her MFA, married and had three kids.

The first show she produced at GCSC (still “Community” College at the time), was “Bye Bye Birdie,” with choreography by her longtime collaborator and friend Jenny Freed. The last one she directed, a career-long dream, was “Les Miserables.”

But retirement doesn’t mean she’s far from the footlights. She plans to spend more time at a family cabin in North Carolina, but also to work with children, teaching and producing children’s theater and choral performances. Arts education is as important to her now as ever.

“My soapbox is keeping the arts in our schools,” she said. “Kids really need it, and research shows they do better in all the other subjects if they’re (exposed to) the arts. My students have gotten so much from the arts — self concept, energy, compassion. They had to learn to be team players, to accept other people, and no matter what field you go into, you have to be a team player.”

As the team gets together next weekend to honor its coach, mentor, and fellow player, they’ve had occasion to reflect on how they got where they are — and who helped guide them along the path.

“Rosie has had a profound impact on my life and career,” Hedden said. “For over 20 years, she has believed in me, more than I believed in myself. That unwavering support has given me a confidence that has led to many of the personal and professional successes in my life.”

That’s a legacy anyone would be proud to count. Congrats, Rosie, for a career well spent, and best wishes for many years of creativity and inspiration to come.


Thursday, October 08, 2015

Throwback Thursday: On the road — I remember the warrior

(The following originally was published in the Sunday edition of The News Herald, October 16, 2005.)

I remember a time of chaos, ruined dreams, this wasted land. Most of all, I remember the man we called Max, the road warrior.

Here, the signs stripped of numbers, the bags over the nozzles. There, cars backed up 10 deep and into the street with a police officer directing the lines and watching for drive-offs as the last drops are drained of premium.

And finally, cars following a tanker as it drives from the Chevron terminal on St. Andrew Bay to deliver thousands of gallons to a station on U.S. 231. There, the lines form again, and only hours later the underground tanks again are dry.

There's desperation in the eyes of those who sat at the ends of the lines, those who did not get a taste of the golden juice, those whose needles rest on the red "E."

Without fuel they were nothing. They'd built a house of straw. Suddenly their machines sputtered and stopped. Their leaders talked and talked and talked, but nothing could stem the avalanche. Their world crumbled.

I was one of the lucky ones during the recent shortage who found gasoline — enough to make a trip out of town — and there I found gasoline enough to make it back home again. It was a worrisome thing to do.

You become afraid to travel. If you give any thought to the ready availability of fuel, then you do. Can you get from here to there? And if you make it one way, can you get back home again?

Traveling last weekend, we passed any number of gas stations with empty signs and bagged nozzles in Walton, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Escambia counties. We paid more to travel one way to the old homestead and back again than it would have cost to drive three times that far a year ago.

Abandoned cars sat on roadsides, more than I've ever seen on that journey, and I wondered how many of them simply were out of petrol.

We'd been making Road Warrior jokes for weeks around the office because of the shortage, and now I was facing the images for real and wondering: Where was Lord Humungus? Where was the lawman, Max? How far were we from feral children roaming the wasteland with boomerangs?

To understand who he was we have to go back to the other time. When the world was powered by the black fuel, and the desert sprung great cities of pipe and steel. Gone now, swept away.

Strangely enough, AMC's "A One and A Two" (in which the cable network plays a movie and its sequel as a double feature) on Wednesday night showed Max Max followed by The Road Warrior.

And Thursday, the prices on the convenience store signs began to fall. I wondered if there was some karmic connection.

"You want to get out of here? You talk to me."

Here he would learn, amid the dark wreckage, that the fire which burns in the heart of man, will endure. Hope survives.


Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Writers Wednesday: Angier enters fictional realm with ‘Political Animal’

PANAMA CITY — A beautiful but ambitious wife, a delusional blogger, a police detective and a newspaper reporter are among the characters vying to understand lawyer Peter Madden. He’s running for State Attorney in the Florida Panhandle, and he’s pleading self-defense for having shot a client to death in his own law office.

This is the situation readers face in David L. Angier’s debut novel, “Political Animal,” the opening salvo of a trilogy that will explore Florida politics, courtroom drama and wacky characters. (Book two, which is not yet complete, is currently titled “Strange Bedfellows.”)

For Madden, a claim of self defense just might make him the ideal candidate for an ultra-conservative political group with a gun rights agenda. With the help of a savvy campaign manager and a mysterious “dirty deeds” man, Madden turns the election process on its ear, molds the killing into a political statement and runs as “the candidate who isn’t afraid to do what needs to be done.”

“Political Animal” is Angier’s first novel after publishing two nonfiction books, “The Madness of Joe Francis” (2013) and “Salvaged Santa” (2011, with Greg Wilson). He has two more nonfiction books on his schedule, but unlike his other work — which has focused on telling the true stories behind the headlines, and which is written with the audience in mind — this novel was about having fun.

David L. Angier
“I didn’t write this one for anyone else but me,” Angier said during a recent conversation at Amavida Coffee & Tea in St. Andrews. “I decided right off I was just going to have fun with this project, and I enjoyed writing it. I used to say I didn’t think I’d ever write a novel, but now I don’t want to write nonfiction again.”

Angier, 50, was raised in the Clearwater area near Tampa. He earned a degree in Journalism and Communications from the University of Florida,  where he “suffered along with my classmates through a spree of murders by a serial killer that terrorized the campus.” After graduation, he worked as a courts and crime reporter with several newspapers in Florida, Missouri and Illinois, before landing at The News Herald, where he covered courts and crime for the next 12 years.

“Florida is a great place to grow up, especially if you have an appreciation for tropical weather, string bikinis and warm Gulf of Mexico waters,” he says in a biographical note. “Panama City has turned out to be the richest area for news I’ve ever encountered, and my first two (and next two) nonfiction books are from events in that area.”

As a reporter, Angier said he often would find himself composing an article in his head as he drove back to the office from court or the scene of a crime. Now, he does the same thing with fiction, as an inspiration strikes and he begins letting a scenario play out in his head.

“Then I go back to my home office and start writing,” he said. “I try to follow the flow and let the story dictate itself. ... Dialogue moves things along. I do a lot of character development through dialogue.”

Real people are complex collections of sometimes contradictory personality traits. Angier said he builds characters by focusing on just a few traits, which allows him to divide aspects of “a normal human being” into several characters. Readers fill in the gaps, but the traits make the characters memorable.

“I find characters I want to write about and put them in completely fictional settings,” he said.

Angier doesn’t plan to hold formal book signing events, but he said you’re liable to catch him hanging out at The Wine Dog off 23rd Street any given Friday evening, having a cigar and a beer; he’ll have some books with him that he’s selling for only $5 each (they cost about twice that online).

“Like I said, I’m not trying to make a ton of money with this book,” he said. “It’s about having fun. If people read it and enjoy it, then I’ve succeeded.”
  • ‘Political Animal’
  • What: Debut novel by David L. Angier (242 pages, paperback)
  • Where: Available on or via
  • Price: $8.99 online or $5 in person

Friday, October 02, 2015

Forecast for a Blood Moon: Cloudy with a chance of snark

PANAMA CITY BEACH — I set up three lawn chairs in front of our house Sunday night and positioned them to face the glowing blotch floating overhead, where the full moon’s glow struggled to pierce the cloud cover.

We hoped to glimpse the supermoon and the “blood moon” effect of the total lunar eclipse. Clouds moving in opposing directions, depending on their altitude, worked to obscure our view — a condition made all the more frustrating by the open gaps showing black space and sparkling stars at the wrong angle from our position below to allow a view of the moon.

Occasionally, a piece of moon would peek from behind a passing veil of vapor, but only for a moment. Blue light flickered through the neighbor’s blinds and dogs yapped from somewhere beyond the surrounding trees. I listened for coyote howls, but heard none.

Strangely, I offered no howls of my own, and never once wondered about werewolves; I’d almost think I must be growing up, if I didn’t know better.

I did, however, think about the silly warnings I’d seen posted on Facebook about the “Blood Moon!” event, as well as the exhortations from various world religious leaders not to panic. Apparently, some people actually thought a full moon/eclipse augured the end of the world; I would have thought that kind of superstition had died out long ago.

But then I see the sort of things that become viral on Facebook — please stop sharing that blasted privacy notice thing! — or that become points of contention between otherwise “enlightened” and educated persons, and can’t help but accept that we, as a species, will believe almost anything.

I mean, there are some things “I want to believe,” as Special Agent Fox Mulder’s office poster used to declare. But I don’t want to be stupid about it.

Apropos of Mulder, my son tossed in the metaphorical towel early on, returning indoors to continue his binge-watching of “The X-Files” on Netflix as he anticipates the revival of the series early next year. I suspect he’s genetically predisposed to enjoy that kind of thing, and I know which of his parents is to blame.

Meanwhile, cloud-watching and eclipse-waiting, it seems, is an old-person’s game. My wife and I persisted in our quest for another half-hour or so, as she experimented with different settings on her camera and I experimented with magical cloudbursting spells.

Surely, just the right gesture and exhortation — “Expelliarmus!” perhaps, or “Rain, rain, go away!” — would pierce the veil in time to see the moon blush in humiliation over all this misdirected attention.

The wife was less amused by my silliness than I was, I suspect, but more patient than she might have been in earlier years. A lunar halo effect, perhaps, though it may be that she allowed me some leeway because our pearl anniversary was the next day and a dozen roses had mysteriously materialized on the dining table earlier in the afternoon.

But try as I might, I failed to dissolve the cloud cover with either magic or telekinesis. Whether that’s a testimony to the strength of the tropical weather pattern or an indictment of the weakness of frequency or amplitude in my brainwaves — you can decide.


Thursday, October 01, 2015

GIANTS IN THE EARTH — Now available on Kindle!

Ritualistic child murders bring FBI profiler GABRIEL STREET and occultist SIR ARTHUR MAGUS to the town of Junction, Alabama, just as a young woman seeks shelter on her estranged father's farm. REBECCA CALIBAN is pregnant, tormented by the belief her dead husband came to her in the night, leaving her with child. She descends into madness as the investigators battle the killer, an ageless shapeshifter preying upon the innocent in service to a forgotten god.

... Darkness haunts young Tom Caliban, who grows up in the shadow of his mother’s mysterious death, raised by his grandfather. Unaware of Tom or his connection to their shapeshifting enemy, Magus meets each year with the men who helped him battle the Changeling — but distrust begins to grow between them.

... A traveling preacher walks into Junction one summer day, shouldering a rugged cross and promising souls to his unseen Lord. And as Becca’s child reaches his 18th birthday, a new church rises on the site of the Changeling's pyre — and a girl goes missing in Junction. The souleater rises, its hungry call stirring the restless souls haunting the tiny town — including one spirit who has been searching the halls of the hospital for her lost child these past 18 years.

Previously serialized as three novellas, GIANTS IN THE EARTH is the first volume in an ongoing series, The Caliban Cycle. This edition, gathering the entire tale together, includes never-before-published bonus material that includes notes from the author about the origins of the tale and a sneak preview excerpt from the sequel story, AND THE MOON INTO BLOOD, which will be published in early 2016.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Weather or not, autumn is coming

PANAMA CITY BEACH — The turning of the season has brought its share of miseries. A death in the family. Illness. Calamity on the road. The first anniversary of another death in the family.

And yet, impossibly, this remains my favorite time of year.

It’s the month my sister was born, and her first son as well. The month I was married (three decades ago, now). The month I mark “Breakaway Day” (40 years, as of Sept. 13).

After a summer of heat and humidity that sapped the will and stifled activity, the world feels ready to be lived in again. The morning sky is a featureless dome of pastel blue when it isn’t filled by fluffy white cumulous clouds. The air feels crisp, smells clean, and makes me feel alive.

Yes, there’s a strong undercurrent of nostalgia — but the best kind. Time collides with recollection on the wake of a passing cold front, stirring echoes of past autumns.

In the misty distance are hints of football Friday nights in the 1970s and ’80s, hanging out with my buddies, driving my first car (a Ford Galaxy 500) with the windows down. From almost as far back comes the reminder of a being newly-wed college student and stopping to enjoy the sunshine between classes at Lake Alice. And later, standing with the kids on early school mornings to wait for the bus. My daughter’s Halloween birthdays.

More recently, the scent of fall in the atmosphere or tumble of positive ions on the breeze bring alive the months we rented a home a few blocks from the Gulf and spent our evenings walking the shoreline.

So yes, there is much joy in the memories that September fosters. But it has been a bad month, too. One in which the hits keep coming. One of those times when all you can do is hunch your shoulders, keep your head down, and just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

I have held people while they cried. Helped to carry a coffin. Given bad news over a phone. Stood by, helpless. Tried to solve problems. Gotten sick and gotten better. Suffered a surreal moment in an old church in my hometown.

And just the other night, back home and back in my routine, I stood in the dark under a crescent moon while the dogs sniffed and circled and looked for places to do their thing, and I looked at the stars. Sometimes I can fool myself into thinking it’s a different year, a different place — the stars are the same, after all, and the air is perfect.

But not this time. This time, despite the energy of the sky and atmosphere, it was all too much.

I saw chain lightning threaten in distant clouds, silent and ominous. The rain never came, the storm never materialized. And yet, it continues to feel like the bottom could drop out, lightning strike, rain pummel, and darkness fall.

Me? I’m holding out hope for October.


Friday, September 11, 2015

Visiting author shares secrets of story

Kathy Bennett, me, & Lisa Wingate
PANAMA CITY — Most of Lisa Wingate’s novels develop as she discovers an untold story that piques her imagination. Her new novel, “The Sea Keeper’s Daughters,” began with a tale related by a reader.

“A woman was traveling with her father, driving through the mountains of Appalachia, and she saw these doorways in the sides of the mountains,” Lisa said. “He told her that, during the Depression when families would lose their farms, they would move into the caves and scrap the house for doors and other things to outfit the caves.”

Intrigued, Lisa started looking for documentation about the anecdote, but she found something else instead: The Federal Writers Project, an all but forgotten Depression-era program in which some 5,600 people produced 300,000 documents — millions of pages of poetry, essays, novels and journalism.

Created in 1935 as part of the U.S. Work Progress Administration, the project provided employment for historians, teachers, writers, librarians and other white-collar workers. The original purpose was to produce a series of sectional guide books focusing on the nation’s scenic, historical, cultural and economic resources.

However, most of it was filed away in vaults during the Red Scare, and stayed there for 80 years. Recently, the Library of Congress began putting the documents online. (Link to the documents here<<)

“There’s an unpublished play by Zora Neale Hurston, slave narratives — I could read them all day,” Lisa said. “I’ve been to school, you know, been in the business a long time — this is my 25th novel — and I had never heard of it. It’s sort of sad. ... It’s amazing to me all of this exists and no one knows about it.”

According to her online bio at, Lisa was inspired to become a writer by a first-grade teacher who said she expected to see Lisa’s name in a magazine one day. She also entertained childhood dreams of being an Olympic gymnast and winning the National Finals Rodeo “but was stalled by a mental block against backflips on the balance beam and by parents who stubbornly refused to finance a rodeo career.”

A born storyteller, Lisa equated the hidden stories of Depression-era America to the untold tales of families. It’s an important link to her, as her first novel was inspired by life stories her grandmother told. The tales changed her opinion of her grandmother, who she had regarded as a hard-edged woman.

“Sometimes there are things you don’t like about someone, but it’s because you don’t understand where they’re coming from,” Lisa said. “Ordinary stories can teach you, inform your life.”

That first mainstream novel, “Tending Roses,” is still in print after 15 years, and Lisa still hears from readers who were inspired by it. Most of them tell her they wish they had gotten their grandparents to open up and tell their stories. That’s why she shares “ice-breaking” techniques when she meets with readers, such as her visits this week to the St. Andrews Coffee House & Bistro on Tuesday and the Blountstown Library on Wednesday.

(You can also find a great list of story catalysts and interview techniques at her website under the heading “Storytelling forFamilies.”)

“People get intimidated. There needs to be a catalyst to get the stories flowing,” she said. “I worry sometimes where the next storytellers will come from.”

Probably, they will be inspired by storytellers like her.


Friday, September 04, 2015

Best-selling author shares new novel

Lisa Wingate
PANAMA CITY — “Stories beget stories,” said best-selling author Lisa Wingate, who will share the sources of her inspirations with local readers Tuesday and Wednesday.

Wingate’s latest novel, “The Sea Keeper’s Daughters,” begins in 1935, as First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt cajoles her husband into signing an executive order creating what will become Federal Project Number One. The results will touch every corner of a vast but struggling country — yet, 80 years later, will be virtually forgotten.

“Those involved in Federal One were far ahead of their time,” Wingate said. “They were the beginning of the Civil Rights movement before there was a Civil Rights movement. They pushed toward equality for women before anyone was talking about equal opportunity.”

Her new novel.
The new novel follows the struggles of a young woman hired into the Federal Writer’s Project, a subdivision of Federal One.

“Roosevelt’s Federal Writers faced incredible challenges,” Wingate said. “They were told to document the stories of real lives and real people struggling to survive the Depression. Their mandate was to be all-inclusive, to break down hard and fast societal boundaries, much like Kathryn Sockett’s character does in ‘The Help,’ when she interviews black maids in the South.”

The Federal Writers not only documented the natural wonders of the country, but the hidden lives of minorities, working women, immigrant laborers, sharecroppers and others typically ignored by the history books. While Wingate’s tale is fictional, it brings to life the experiences of a Federal Writer when a modern-day woman discovers the letters of a great aunt who was disowned by her wealthy family after signing on with the WPA.

The tale explores the experiences of a woman traveling into the unknown, all for the sake of a story. The Federal Writers often found themselves on the wrong sides of local powerbrokers, special interest groups, and eventually Congressional committees hunting for communists at the dawn of the Red Scare.

The shifting of political fortunes meant the thousands of stories documented by the Federal Writers were quietly hidden away in filing vaults. Only now, as the Library of Congress begins posting the documents online, many of those narratives are being made available for the first time since they were written.

“These stories show us where we come from as a country and as a people,” Wingate said. “They inspired novels like Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ yet so many of us know little about the Federal Writers themselves. I wrote ‘The Sea Keeper’s Daughters’ to bring to light not only the lives of the people on the pages, but the lives of the people behind the pens.”

The Federal Writers is a forgotten part of American cultural history in much the same way as family stories are lost between the generations, simply because someone felt uncomfortable or unappreciated and kept their mouths shut.

Wingate will speak on the importance of preserving our stories — including unobtrusive techniques one can employ to get still tongues wagging and record your own family narratives — during her appearances next week. Besides addressing the Panama City Rotary early Tuesday, she will have two signing and speaking events open to the general public.

She will be at St. Andrews Coffee House & Bistro, 1006 Beck Ave., in Panama City from 5-7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 8; and at the Blountstown Public Library from 4-5:30 p.m. Wednesday.

“The Blountstown visit is special to me because my grandmother started that library,” said Kathie Bennett, Wingate’s publicist and the daughter of former Panama City mayor Gerry Clemons.

And one would be correct to suspect there’s an untold story waiting to be shared in that anecdote as well.


Monday, August 31, 2015

Tonight! 'The Souleater' rises!

The thrilling conclusion of GIANTS IN THE EARTH debuts on Amazon Kindle tonight at midnight for only 99 cents!

In the third and final chapter of "Giants in the Earth," the ancient souleater has risen, and its hungry call stirs up all the restless souls haunting the tiny town of Junction, Alabama — including one spirit who has been searching the halls of the hospital for her lost child these past 18 years.

Having barely survived the creature's rebirth, Sir Arthur Magus delves into the tunnel below the ruined church, seeking the prison that held the souleater all these centuries. Down in the dark, he discovers a legacy tying it to Tom Caliban and the hilltop grove where only truth may be spoken.

Tom’s spirit has separated from his gravely injured body, just as Magus and his few remaining allies must stage a desperate last stand against the Great Old One on the sacred hilltop — and not all of them will survive the encounter.

Also tomorrow: Part 2: The Child goes on sale FOR FREE for 5 days!

Friday, August 28, 2015

Hockett exhibit in Tallahassee leads month of art events

Art by Roland Hockett
PANAMA CITY BEACH — Local artist Roland Hockett will be honored with an exhibit of his work at the LeMoyne Center for the Visual Arts in Tallahassee through September.

The show will include new works in painting and sculpture, as well as works from Roland’s  private collection. A silent auction will run throughout the exhibit period, Sept. 4-26. The opening reception is 6-9 p.m. EDT at the LeMoyne, 125 N. Gadsden St., Tallahassee. Details: 850-222-8800. For more information on the artist, visit

Roland Hockett works in copper sculpture, bronze, and paintings that often combine carving and copper along with acrylic on wood. His “Eagles” was placed at the Florida Supreme Court building, and other works were sponsored by the U.S. Embassy and Centro Cultural in Costa Rica. A 14-foot-high 3-section sculpture dedicated to friendship with Spain, “New Liberty III,” was placed on the campus of Gulf Coast State College in Panama City.

His work shows that his passion includes experimenting with skill in combining materials. Thematically, he is interested in approaching combinations of figurative imagery with the freedom of abstraction to achieve the feeling that he is seeking in the works. 

He was an assistant professor at Florida State University in the department of Art Education and Constructive Design, and retired in 2003 as an associate professor in the Department of Visual and Performing Arts at Gulf Coast State College after 34 years. More examples of Roland’s sculptures can be viewed at the Panama City Centre for the Arts and the Bay County Public Library.

Art by Robin Pichelmayer
OK, so autumn hasn’t arrived, but you’d think the season had changed. Not only did lower humidity sneak into the area this week, and school start last week, but all of a sudden there’s a surplus of art exhibit openings to bring you indoors.

Here are some other openings and exhibits to check out in the coming month:

•“Oodles of Doodles,” an exhibit of work by artist Robin Pichelmayer, will be in the Bay County Bay County Public Library, 898 W. 11th St., Panama City, throughout September. Mainly self-taught, Robin grew up around very talented women — her mom is an interior decorator, and both grandmothers were avid seamstresses (one of whom is still going strong at age 91).

Originally from Birmingham, Robin bought her first cross stitch kit from Kmart while in high school and fell in love with the “art” of making things. She has branched out to other art mediums, including decoupage, sketching, drawing, decorative painting in homes, hand embroidery and most recently Zentangle and mixed media.

A member of Panama City Artists, Robin exhibits and sells her work along the Gulf Coast and an Etsy shop online. She teaches classes, accepts commissions and will work with you to design your own custom piece of art.

•Paintings by Dale Estka will be displayed at Roberts Hall, 831 Florida Ave., Lynn Haven, beginning in September. A reception will be at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 12, in  conjunction with an unplugged/acoustic jam session.

“The Odd Fellows have graciously opened their space to allow art exhibitions curated by Beach Art Group,” said Helen Balance of BAG. “Dale stays busy producing new art and working with Beach Art Group providing graphic art, photographs of all events including exhibits, workshops and any other activities, and publishes the BAG web page and Facebook.”

Originally from Chicago, Dale and has been painting for more than 30 years. She attended the American Academy of Fine Art in Chicago and was a long-time member of the prestigious Palette & Chisel Academy. She settled in the Panama City area 16 years ago, and has won numerous awards. Her most recent was the 49th Bay Annual Exhibit at the Visual Arts Center, where she won Best of Show for her portrait “Annabella.”

For information regarding Roberts Hall, email Arlene at; for Beach Art Group, email Helen at or visit

•Starting Sept. 1, Beach Art Group will bring back its Plein Air Tuesday 9-11 a.m. at a different location each week. Admission is free, and guests are encouraged to bring paints and canvases or drawing supplies to paint outdoors with group members. To find the week’s location, check the Beach Art Group Facebook page or email Helen at

More than 30 businesses in historic St. Andrews will have art activities, demonstrations and performances on World Art Break Day, noon to 6 p.m. Sept. 4. (Look for a feature article on this event in next Friday’s Entertainer.) Visitors can watch or participate in the events organized by Floriopolis. Singers, musicians, readers, dancers, actors, storytellers and more will be on site. Details:

•CityArts Cooperative, 423 Luverne Ave. in Panama City, will have its 10th Annual Half-Off Art Show and Sale 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 19, featuring dozens of works on display by local artists. Details: