This month, Fabulous Florida Writers is pleased to welcome guest blogger Elaine Viets. Elaine has written 12 Dead-End Job mysteries, set in South Florida. The New York Times Review of Books praises her “quick-witted mysteries.” Her bestselling Dead-End Job series is a satiric look at a serious subject – the minimum-wage world. Her second series features mystery shopper Josie Marcus. Elaine won the Agatha, Anthony and Lefty Awards. She was our featured writer on May 9, 2011
"For readers who live far from the beach, Board Stiff is a vicarious Florida vacation,” mystery reviewer Oline Cogdill said.
I wanted my twelfth Dead-End Job mystery to give readers an insider’s view of the South Florida tourism industry, beyond the glamorous beach hotels. On those same beaches, the small companies who rent ocean kayaks, Jet Skis, surfboards, paddleboards and more fight for their lives – and tourist dollars.
Board Stiff started after I read a newspaper story about a beach concession company whose equipment was vandalized right before Spring Break. It was a small step from sabotage to murder – at least in my book.
The big tourist hotels have legal teams, PR firms, ad agencies and more. The small operators navigate a maze of regulations without this help. The bad operators poach on their territory. I talked to paddleboard operators for this book. One was dismissed as a crank by some. Sadly, he’s now out of business. His story has some elements of Sunny Jim’s, the owner of the paddleboard rental company in Board Stiff.
Sunny Jim hires newlywed private eyes Helen Hawthorne and Phil Sagemont to investigate who’s ruining his business in Riggs Beach, a beach town similar to Fort Lauderdale, without the lawyers. He tells the two private eyes: “I keep a trailer – like a lawn service trailer – and rent my paddleboards, but you gotta be good to go out on the ocean. I also give lessons at Riggs Lake: one hour of personal instruction and a half hour of practice for a hundred bucks. The water is quieter and calmer on the lake. It’s a good place to learn. You ever do stand up paddleboarding?”
“No,” Helen says. “I’ve seen guys paddling along on those big surfboard-like things on the Intracoastal Waterway.”
“Stand up paddleboarding is the hot new sport,” he says. “Everybody wants a piece of the action, and I’ve got the best spot in the city.”
Sunny Jim has caught a rival, Bill’s Boards, “poaching on my territory. Giving lessons right next to my space. Even set up a sign like he belonged there. His lessons are cheaper, but he doesn't pay the city to rent the land or buy the license or carry liability insurance like I do. He can afford to undercut me.”
“How come Bill doesn’t have to follow the rules?” Helen asks.
“I’m getting to that,” Jim says. I called the cops and they shrugged and said it wasn’t their problem. Now if I don’t open up early so Bill’s Boards can’t park there, he tries to set up his business again. I’m out there at six a.m., though most of my customers don’t show up until after nine.”
“Sounds stressful,” Helen says. “Did you complain to Riggs Beach?”
“Hah! Rigged Beach is more like it,” Jim says. “I’ve made more than two hundred complaints to the police, the beach patrol and Riggs Lake park rangers. The city commission won’t do a blessed thing. I finally went to a meeting and complained. Put on a suit in Florida. One commissioner said it would cost too much to enforce the rules. What about the fees the city is missing? What about following the rules? The commissioners said they wanted proof that my competitors are poaching. I even stood behind a palm tree and took photos, but the commission said that still wasn’t proof unless I caught ’em when the money was changing hands. I was never cynical about government, but after that meeting, I saw that same commissioner say hi to his good buddy, Bill, my competition. Slapped him on the back and they left together. In public. No wonder the police won’t arrest him.”
Sunny Jim hires Phil to work at his beach location. Helen has an easier dead-end job.
“I want you to sit on the beach with a video camera,” Sunny Jim says. “Like a tourist. You can document my competitors stealing my business. Tourists video everything – even palm trees doing nothing but standing there.”
Helen and Phil take the job. They watch – along with scores of beach goers – an innocent tourist fall off her paddleboard. Her death looks like an accidental drowning. But the medical examiner says it’s murder.
They’ve witnessed a murder, and they haven’t a clue.
Friday, May 24, 2013
Friday, May 10, 2013
Morris is a fourth-generation Floridian whose comedy/mysteries have been compared to the works of Carl Hiaasen and Elmore Leonard. His novels, set in the Caribbean, are quick-moving, hugely entertaining, and almost impossible to put down.
Morris grew up on a fern farm in Lake County. His great-grandfather was the first fern grower in Florida, but young Bob wanted no part of the nursery business. After two unsuccessful bouts with organic chemistry, he spent two years traveling around the world and ultimately changed his major from marine biology to journalism. He credits his mother with encouraging his writing career. “She told me I wrote such good letters home that she had them laminated and passed them all around Leesburg. I’m still embarrassed to show my face there today.”
After graduating from the University of Florida, Morris became a newspaper columnist and wrote for the Florida Keys Free Press, the Fort Myers News-Press, the Orlando Sentinel, and the New York Times Regional Newspaper Group. He also wrote restaurant reviews and spent two years in California where he created AQUA, a magazine for watersport enthusiasts. In 1999, he returned to Florida and took a job as editor-in-chief of Caribbean Travel & Life and Gulfshore Life magazines. This allowed him to combine his love of writing with his other passion: travel. It also led him to take the plunge into full-time fiction writing.
In 2002, while on assignment in the Bahamas, Morris was walking along the beach when he came up with the title for Bahamarama, and the idea for a series of books set in Florida and the Caribbean. He returned to his cottage and wrote the first chapter. When he announced to his wife, Debbie, that he wanted to leave his job and devote himself to writing novels, she gently reminded him that they had two sons in college. But Morris decided to follow his dream. “I’d always wanted to write mysteries, and I knew I had to do it now or never.” And how did Debbie take it? “Well,” says Morris, “she’s still my wife.” Bahamarama was published two years later to rave reviews, and was a finalist for the Edgar Allen Poe Award for Best First Mystery Novel.
Morris finds a wealth of story ideas in the Florida newspapers. “The road to hell passes through Florida,” he says. His Zack Chasteen mysteries feature a Florida boy and ex-Miami Dolphins safety with a cynical streak and a wry sense of humor. According to Morris, “I got tired of reading about deep, dark, brooding heroes who over-thought and were conflicted about their lives. Zack is a good guy who helps people and tries to do the right thing, especially if there’s a pay-off in the end.” Zack’s sidekick, Boggy, is a full-blooded Taino Indian. “The Tainos were the ones that met Columbus,” Morris explains. They were pretty much wiped out, but many Caribbean natives claim to have Taino blood. There are no full-blooded Tainos left. Only Boggy.”
Morris’s third novel, Bermuda Schwartz, has been described as “Carl Hiaasen meets The DaVinci Code.” Morris got the idea for the story while on assignment in Bermuda for the National Geographic Traveler. “I’d already come up with the title. I just had to decide who Schwartz was going to be.” While scuba diving one of the many wrecks that ring Bermuda, Morris met Teddy Tucker, a man he describes as “an old-time 1940’s diver, a kind of rogue water guy. He would dive the wrecks for salvage.” Schwartz is loosely modeled after Teddy.
A Deadly Silver Sea, the fourth novel in the Chasteen series, has Zack on a cruise ship that is taken over by gunmen. When Zack goes overboard, he must rely on his wits and Boy Scout training to survive. In the fifth Chasteen novel, Baja Florida, Zack risks his life in a search for the missing daughter of a dying friend. Morris can’t say which of his novels he likes best. “They say you get better with each book, but choosing a favorite is like choosing between my kids.”
In addition to his five mystery novels, Morris has released five e-books: The Man With a Fish on his Foot and Other Tales from a Peculiar Peninsula; The Whole Shebang – Stories of Love & Marriage & Kids & Chaos; Short Road to Hell – Tales of Chronic Misbehavior, Mostly Mine; All Over the Map – Getting Lost in Good Places; and Gut Check – Adventures in Eating, Drinking, and Wretched Excess.
As proud as he is of his literary “kids,” Morris is even prouder of his two real sons, Bo, a director of public relations for the Bonnier Corporation, and Dash, an executive with a New York-based digital marketing firm. He considers his family his greatest accomplishment and doesn’t let his writing interfere with family time. “It’s easy for me to stop writing and make time for family fun stuff,” he says. “Writers are easily distracted. We only finish writing projects out of a deep and abiding guilt.” While he still contributes to a number of publications, including Bon Appetit, Latitudes, National Geographic Traveler, Islands, and Robb Report, Morris has turned much of his attention to Story Farm, the custom publishing company he founded in 2009. It creates collectible, coffee-table style books for a variety of clients including hotels and resorts, restaurants, charitable foundations and notable businesses. Morris has no regrets about his decision to become a writer. “It’s never boring,” he says. “Every day is different. I get to travel. And I can work in my underwear with my dog at my feet.”
Next: A Florida Vacation - A Guest Blog by Elaine Viets