We Stand with WDBJ

920x920

This is a story I wish I didn’t have to write:

They were two young journalists, eager and hungry for a story, fulfilling their dreams of working in TV news.

Reporter Alison Parker, 24, and cameraman Adam Ward, 27, grew up in the Roanoke, Virginia, area and started their television careers there, becoming local celebrities in the process and finding love along the way.

I haven’t stopped thinking about these two journalists who were murdered on Wednesday. I’m not ashamed to say that I cried in my office when I read what Parker’s boyfriend, station anchor Chris Hurst, told the media in the hours after the shooting. I’m including it here because Hurst was the epitome of grace and class when talking about the incident, and his girlfriend.

“I don’t want to be away for very long. I don’t think Allison would want me to be away for very long. We have a lot more stories that we need to cover. There are always stories that are being uncovered and that’s our job. And Allison was very excited because yesterday she had just been able to secure a substantial interview and documentary process for a hospice series that she was going to try to execute and I hope that we’re able to take that and bring it to fruition.

She was so tireless in trying to build up this idea for a five-part series on hospice care. And was making great, great progress on being able to accomplish it, pretty much on her own. And had meetings for it yesterday and was very, very excited for that. So between that and where we were on vacation this past weekend on the Nantahala River in North Carolina, she today, I believe, was the happiest that I had ever seen her.

When I sent her in the car on her way to the station today, she was the happiest I’ve ever seen her. We made it a point whenever either of us was coming or going for work to text each other. I pleaded with her every single day to text me when she got to work safe, because it’s late at night and you’re driving by yourself. And she always did. The last thing she said to me was, ‘Goodnight sweet boy.’ And that’s the last thing I have from her.”

Florida.

So I’ve been in Florida for fifteen years. During that time I’ve covered countless crazy stories. Things that I never dreamed I would write about when reporting and living in staid, tame New England.

Everyone always asks me: is Florida crazy or what?

Well…it’s not that simple. The truth is, Florida has a strong tradition of open public records. Because of this, lots more information is available to reporters – and the public – in Florida than in many other states.

What this means: Florida’s a great place to be a journalist. If a reporter can’t find a story here, they should think about finding a different career.

Here’s my offering from today:

It was a Florida prison inmate’s escape that led investigators down a rabbit hole of sin involving a corrections officer and two strippers the sheriff says brokered deals for malt liquor, cigarettes and “conjugal visits in the woods.”

It all unfolded in September, when inmate Jason Adams escaped from a work crew in suburban Pasco County, about 30 miles north of downtown Tampa. The corrections officer overseeing the crew, Henry Blackwelder, didn’t tell his superiors of the escape until three hours later. When investigators arrived, they found empty cans of Straw-Ber-Rita and Four Loko malt liquor, empty packets of synthetic marijuana known as “spice,” and a blanket in the woods used for hook-ups.

 

 

 

A confession, of sorts.

So I’ve been a journalist for…let’s see. Almost 23 years. I started my career in radio, then worked at a really small weekly newspaper in Massachusetts, then at small dailies in New England. Eventually I made my way to the (then) St. Petersburg Times and to The Associated Press, where I am now.

Along the way I’ve thought about writing books. Non-fiction. True crime. And romances. I’ve always been a fan of the romance genre. I like sexy, smart books. Even as a teenager, my favorite book was Fear of Flying by Erica Jong – not exactly a romance, but almost. The romances with strong heroines are my catnip. I’m of the firm belief that writing a romance novel is a feminist act.

As author Sarah MacLean says: “the heroine is the hero of the story and she is taking action.”

This summer I began toying around with a romance story. I somehow had the space in my brain to think about a fictional tale of two young reporters. I wrote the first chapter, then another, then another. Eventually I enrolled in a Media Bistro class taught by the very talented Susan Squires, who has published lots of smart romance novels. She was kind and encouraging and didn’t laugh at me. I’ve learned a lot from her about conflict and story structure.

Fast forward a few months. My first few chapters are a finalist in a contest. An editor at Entangled Publishing has asked for the full manuscript. I actually finished the manuscript. I’m tweaking (thanks to my talented copy editor Carol Druga) and rewriting the manuscript and have an idea for a second book. It’s pretty damned exciting.

I’ve joined Romance Writers of America and met lots of really wonderful and talented women (Hi Kate, Tina and Leona!) and have learned a lot about writing just for fun, not because there’s a deadline. But I’m also looking at journalism in new ways. If nothing else comes from this project, I have a renewed sense of excitement about my job as a reporter because I’m writing creatively in my free time.

My novel, Uncovered, is about a rookie reporter in Florida who meets a mysterious Italian man while covering a plane crash. (No. It’s not an autobiography). It’s in the New Adult romance genre, which means it’s a coming-of-age tale about a young woman in her first job, falling in love for the first time and breaking away from her family’s values and traditions.

The heroine is Skylar Shaw. She’s 22. She in love with Florida, her job at a small newspaper and a handsome Italian man.

Here’s an excerpt.

——

I turned off my car and hobbled into Greenway, the upscale health food store that smelled like fresh-cut flowers and strawberries. Note to self: don’t wear three-inch heels to press conferences in Florida in August. My feet were swollen and achy.

I scooped up a container of my favorite greens at the to-go counter and wandered over to the produce department. Fresh guacamole and tortilla chips sounded like good comfort food. I dropped a bulb of garlic in the basket. Shopping here was like a religious experience because the vegetables and fruits always seemed to sparkle while gorgeous Baroque music wafted throughout the store. I was squeezing the Haas avocados for ripeness when I heard a voice.

“Skylar Shaw.” I looked up, startled. It was him. The guy from The Sanctuary who wouldn’t talk to me after the plane crash.

I froze, my hand on an avocado.

He gave me a full, seductive grin. It was the first time I had seen him smile, and oh my God, it was glorious. Like someone had sent the best-looking man to the health food store for my viewing pleasure. The produce misters blasted fine spray onto the nearby organic micro-greens, as if the guy was so hot that the sprinkler system came on to extinguish an invisible blaze. I suppressed a giggle at the thought.

I wondered if he was going to be a jerk again. He looked happy to see me.

He wore dark blue gym shorts and a white t-shirt that had the word “Napoli” in black on the chest. I saw a few letters of his tattoo peeking out from his shirtsleeve. He wore flip-flops and unlike the other day, he had dark stubble on his face.

I lamely attempted to flirt. Why, I’m not sure, since my effort had been so dismal after the plane crash.

“Oh. Hi. I didn’t recognize you with your shirt on.”

His eyes widened. He liked that. I could tell because he laughed.

“You’ve been doing a great job with all of the plane crash stories,” he said in that sexy accent. “I’ve been reading you in the paper every day. Your articles are very detailed and well written. Lots of sources. Impressive.”

He’s been reading me in the paper. That might be the hottest thing any guy has ever said to me. My words. In his brain.

“No thanks to you,” I said, laughing. “For all I know, you were the best source there.”

“Maybe I was. But I owe you an apology. I’m afraid I wasn’t polite to you that day. I’m sorry.”

I shrugged. “Oh. It’s okay. I’m a reporter. I’m used to people saying mean things to me. Or weird things. Or nothing at all.”

“I’m just glad you didn’t put me in the paper. Thank you for that.”

I tilted my head and opened my mouth to ask a question but he derailed me by sticking his hand out.

“I’m Luca. Luca De Rossi.”

Luca. What a sexy name. Italian. I rolled it around in my mind. Luca.

My hand was still on the avocado, squeezing it in a death grip. He looked much friendlier today, and I wondered why, since I was a sweaty mess.

I released the avocado and slipped my palm into his. Luca’s hand was big and swallowed mine in a firm grip. I wondered what it would feel like if he grabbed my body with that kind of force.

“I’m Skylar,” I said. I had momentarily forgotten that he already knew my name. It was embarrassing that I was giggling out loud. Raised by a feminist, I was not brought up to giggle like a helpless girl around men.

I conjured my best, professional voice and looked deep into his eyes. “You already knew that, though. From my byline.”

“Yes,” he laughed. “You’re in the paper every day.”

He didn’t let go of his hand when we stopped shaking. I didn’t, either. A warm tingle spread from my fingers, up my arm and into my body.

“I’m just getting off work. The governor was on the island today at a memorial for the plane crash victims and I had to cover the service and news conference. I think it was totally more of a campaign stop for the governor, though. He didn’t seem like he cared too much about the victims.”

Like he’s interested in the governor. Maybe I should shut up now.

He still had that delicious half-smile on his face. “Politicians. Can’t trust any of them. They’re all the same, in every country in the world, no?”

His eyes unlocked from mine and his gaze traveled to my lips, then my breasts, then further down to my hips. He quickly looked up at my face. I was a little shocked that he checked me out so obviously.

“I’m glad to see you aren’t in tatters today, Skylar.”

I bit my bottom lip and smiled. He seemed so casually confident, with more than a touch of ultra-masculine edge in his voice. Even though he wore gym clothes, he commanded attention with his dramatic features and amused half-grin. I wasn’t used to a man being this bold with his eyes or his words, and felt like I only had dealings with college boys up till this moment. Boys being the operative word.

I was warm all over, even though the market was air-conditioned. Was that a bead of sweat running down the back of my neck? I had a vision of his tongue in the same place.

Since he was being flirtatious, I would be too. Or at least try. Flirting usually doesn’t come easily to me. I’m more of the serious type.

“I didn’t have to slip through any fences today, so my clothes are intact.”

He grinned again and looked like he wanted to consume me.

“And what are you making for dinner tonight, Skylar?” He glanced in my basket. “Garlic. Well. You won’t be going on any dates tonight.” He opened his mouth in a lazy smile and his tongue slowly licked the corner of his mouth.

We could fix that, I wanted to say. But didn’t.

Skin Shocks Under Review

Often at The Associated Press, a team of people work on a single story or video. Usually, many editors, reporters, photographers, videographers, announcers and producers help bring a story together.

Take this story, for instance.

Self-injury is one of the most difficult behaviors associated with autism and other developmental or intellectual disabilities, and a private facility outside Boston that takes on some of the hardest-to-treat cases is embroiled in a major debate: Should it use electrical skin shocks to try to keep patients from harming themselves or others?

I didn’t work on the print story, but I did help with the video. I interviewed a very talented woman who had received these electrical skin shocks at the Massachusetts school. Jennifer Msumba is autistic and now lives in Florida. Her story – how she was tied down for the procedure, how the shocks left burn marks, how the shocks were used as punishment and made her feel like dying – was difficult to hear.

Going to Disney

No matter what I write about or what big stories I cover, I will always consider myself a police reporter. Doing the “cops” beat is usually reserved for the young, the inexperienced, the unlucky. I did it for several years, first at a few papers in New England, then at the St. Pete Times.

I loved it. Still do. I jump at the chance to write a good crime story. For me, writing about crime is a way to explain a part of the world that most of us will never experience firsthand. I try to treat victims with respect and the accused without bias.

Florida is an especially great place to be a crime reporter. Florida is never boring. (Wouldn’t that be a great state motto?)

So here’s my latest crime story. It was actually written by my friend and AP colleague Bert Mohr in Mississippi, but I did half of the reporting from Polk County.

If you don’t have time to read it, the story can be summed up like this: Man allegedly kills Catholic priest in Mississippi, then tries to take his ex-wife and two kids to Disney in Florida with priest’s car and money.

Story here.

Someday I’ll post my favorite crime stories from my Times days (the one about the 350-pound drag queen stealing wedding dresses from consignment shops will be on that list).

Agriculture? Yes, Agriculture.

When I’m not traveling and writing about Sept. 11, I’m writing about Florida. My favorite thing to write about is probably crime – I was a police reporter for many years at the St. Pete Times – but I write about other things as well.

Like agriculture. Here’s my article about a team of University of Florida researchers who are trying to detect problems with Florida’s orange crops by using remote controlled helicopters.

Story here.