Wednesday, March 14, 2018



by Sonja Stone

University of Oregon sign

100 hours doesn't seem like much, does it?

I've just returned to sunny Arizona after a long weekend in Oregon. I went to the University of Oregon to see a theater production--Mother Courage and Her Children. The performance lasted for three hours (and very much felt like it). To be fair, the show started at 7 pm, and I'm usually in bed by 8:15, so it's possible that the one hundred and eighty minutes it took to tell me about the Thirty Years War were necessary, but I found the play wanting an editor. However, the actors were phenomenal, the set exceptional, and the live music sublime. 

We packed a lot into the trip, which took place on the heels of my latest project, Cleaning Out The Garage. As I reviewed my cell phone photos on the plane ride home, I realized something: flipping through my photo stream is like peeking into my psyche. It's very disorganized and fragmented, with very little weaving the myriad threads together. I see something interesting and snap a picture. I currently have over 10,000 photos on my iPhone. My boyfriend is really good about looking through his pictures after every event, and immediately deleting those he doesn't like. 

I'm not that guy. 

Which brings me to the point of the following picture.

In January, 2017, I wrote a post about my New Year's Goals. This past January, as you may recall, I again discussed how I move my goals from the previous year to the current year because I never seem to complete anything. And always first and foremost on the list, organize the house, once and for all. It tops my to-dos every year, and every year it just doesn't happen. Well, not this year, my friends. 

A few weeks ago I started sorting through decades worth of treasures in my garage. I've discarded a lot, donated a lot, and still have a long way to go, but I found something equally charming and creepy tucked along the block wall by the electric door.

lizard eggs, Arizona
These are the cutest little things I've ever seen. Each was the size of my pinkie nail. I tried picking one up, but they're so fragile, it crushed between my fingers. So I took a picture.

After finding a stack of books to donate, I drove to the public library. It was time for a new library card, and I discovered my library now offers a choice of photo cards--and the cards include a mini version for your keychain. I was so charmed, I took a picture.

The next morning we flew from Phoenix to Portland, then drove to Eugene. It rained the whole first day, which is always a treat for those of us from Arizona. So much so, in fact, that I felt the need to snap a picture of this rainy highway sign:

The following day we went for a hike. Notice me in my parka. Anything under 74 degrees is chilly. (This one is actually a legit time to have captured a memory on film. Also, I airbrushed myself with an awesome iPhone app called Facetune. I'm telling you this because I love and respect you.)

hiking in Eugene, Oregon
The last day, we drove along the coast to return to the Portland airport, and stopped for a hike and a walk along the beach. The tidal pools inside rocky crevices teemed with muscles, barnacles, and sea anemone. About 100 of the new pictures I took over the four day period are of sea creatures. Why do I need 100 photographs of sea anemone? Time will tell...

the Oregon Coast

Finally, back at the airport, I snapped a picture of one of my favorite bookstores, the infamous Powell's Books. WHY? Why do I need a picture of the storefront of Powell's Books at the Portland airport? What possible use will I ever have for such a photograph?

Powell's Books, Portland Airport
So my organizing continues to progress in a two-steps-forward-one-step-back dance. I toss a box of old clothes, I take fifty new pictures. 

I have to admit, the digital clutter snuck up on me. I didn't even see it coming.

What about you? What's your vacation collectible? Where are your hidden stores of stuff? Confess in the comments below!

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Tips for When Writer's Block Hits

I love this piece of art at the Riverside Public Library in Illinois. The little red book by the typist says "20,000 words." I think I know the artist, but want to check and will update this post once it's confirmed, but for now suffice to say this is how I feel on any given day.

Writing sometimes feels like you're disgorging your dreams directly from your brain onto the typewriter. That's when the words are flowing and you know exactly what you want to convey. Well, not exactly, because you're going to revise, revise and revise again, but for the moment, when the words are flowing, it feels great.

And for those times when they're not? I have a few tips for that.

First: Research.

While I don't advocate stopping a regular flow of words to research, when you're blocked a little can go a long way to unblocking you. Often research gives you an insight into a character. I was halfway through my first book in the Covert One series, The Janus Reprisal, and looking into financial shenanigans when I came upon the (then) rare world of Bitcoins. I loved the idea of a currency not tied to any country, not subject to regulation and freely mined on the Internet. I resolved to buy some, but once I read that they were created by a Japanese man no one had ever seen or even was sure existed, I backed off. Suffice to say I wish I have bought them now! But just reading about them gave me an idea for a character in the story.

Second: Exercise

When I'm really blocked I head out for a run. Right now I'm writing in California (see my road trip post here) and I have the luck of being a block or two from the gorgeous beach in the photo you see below. I run there, kick off my shoes, and continue to run barefoot. By the time I'm done, I usually have some inspiration. Exercising rarely fails me and I highly recommend it.

Third: Power Through

Sometimes when you're blocked you just have to power through the moment, refusing to leave your chair until you've written your daily requirement, whatever that may be. After staring at the computer for half an hour I'll sometimes tell myself "Okay, done. You have forty five minutes to write one thousand words. Now GO!" I start pounding the keys and the self imposed deadline seems to motivate me. While I don't always make those thousand words in that short of time, I always end up getting it done within a few minutes of the goal. Which tells me that deadlines motivate me in a way that nothing else will.

I hope these tips help the writers out there that find themselves staring at a blank screen in frustration. We've all been there, and you're not alone. Write on!

 Best, Jamie Freveletti

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Great Books and Films about Great Spies

Submitted by Karna Small Bodman

Stories and films about spies, real and fictional, have always been popular but seem to have engendered even more readers and movie-goers of late.  Many are on the bestseller lists and even heading for a theater near you.  This weekend we'll see the opening of the new movie "Red Sparrow" starring Jennifer Lawrence in the role of a former Russian ballerina who is recruited to be a Russian spy and sent to "Sparrow School" to learn the art of seducing her targets. .

Jennifer Lawrence
 This one is based on the terrific thriller of the same name by Jason Matthews, a member of International Thriller Writers.  (our Rogue colleague, Gayle Lynds was a founder of the organization). I remember attending our annual conference, "Thrillerfest" at the Grand Hyatt in New York when Jason was given the award for Best First Novel. Now in addition to the film, his third thriller, The Kremlin's Candidate, featuring the same characters, was just released.

While these books are works of fiction, they are all inspired by Matthews' 30 plus years' of experience serving as a CIA agent in Russia. Verisimilitude indeed!

And while the New York Times Review of Books usually features literary fiction and non-fiction, I saw that last Sunday they asked Jason Matthews to give his list of great books about great spies -- several featured Russian operatives who ended up spying for the United States.  

Oleg Penkovsky
One of those spies was Oleg Penkovsky, a colonel in the GRU -- Soviet military intelligence -- and the highest level Soviet officer to spy for us and Great Britain at the time. He volunteered to help western intelligence and was handled by both MI6 and the CIA.  His story was written by Jerrold Schecter and Peter Deriabin in their terrific book, The Spy Who Saved the World. Penkovsky provided us and our allies with papers about Soviet military systems along with the location of launch sites. But his greatest contribution was giving us information during the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, the KGB started watching him, eventually arrested, tried and killed him for his "treachery."

Another Russian  that our agents recruited was Adolf Tolkachev, an aviation specialist working on stealth technology.  He left notes on the cars of US diplomats near the American Embassy in Moscow saying he wanted to meet with CIA officials.  His life as an informer was described in a recent non-fiction book that many say "reads like a high-tech thriller." The title, The Billion Dollar Spy, is by David Hoffman and was taken from case files of the CIA. As for Tolkachev's demise, he was finally arrested and executed by the Russians in 1986.

Of course, in addition to men who gave our country incalculable information, these blogs have featured many female spies who made enormous contributions.  I'd like to add one more: Nancy Wake, an elusive American spy whom the Gestapo dubbed the "White Mouse." She was among the most decorated secret agents of the Second World War. Born in New Zealand she was described as "a good-looking girl with a streak of rebelliousness."  At a young age, she set off to explore New York and Europe, supporting herself as a freelance journalist.

Nancy Wake

After Hitler's rise, when she heard from refugees about Nazi brutality and the persecution of Jews, she said, "If I ever get a chance, I would do anything to make things more difficult for that rotten Nazi party." And so she did. Parachuting into France, she embarked on a double life as a courier, establishing an escape route from Vichy France across the mountains into Spain. In fact, she escorted escapees and also provided a safe house in the  Alps. Nancy was also involved in ambushing German convoys, destroying bridges and railway lines and was on a raid that destroyed a Gestapo's headquarters leaving 38 Germans dead.  She described it as "the most exciting sortie I ever made.  I entered the building by the back door, raced up the stairs, opened the first door, threw in my grenades and ran like hell." The incredible story of Nancy's life was told by Peter Fitzsimons in this bestselling book. Her exploits were also made into a fascinating documentary. But unlike those Soviet spies listed above, Nancy led a good life and died at the age of 97!

Now, do you have a favorite book or movie about a famous spy to share with us and our readers? Please leave a comment and tell us about it. Thanks for visiting us here at Rogue Women Writers.

...Karna Small Bodman 

Tuesday, February 27, 2018


by K.J. Howe

Stories about double agents pepper the annals of the history of spies, stories showcasing misplaced trust and betrayal.  Still, how could a soft-spoken physician become a triple agent, deceiving those who live and breathe the trade?   That is exactly what happened on December 30, 2009 when a doctor named Humam Khalili al-Balawi arrived at a CIA base near Khost, Afghanistan.  Although little was known about the doctor, he breezed through security checks with his promise of intelligence on al-Qaeda.  The end result was the deadliest strike against the CIA in 25 years.  Balawi detonated his explosive vest, killing seven CIA officers, two other personnel, and himself.  The shock wave rippled straight up to Leon Panetta, the CIA director at the time.  How could the elite experts on tradecraft have become victims of this triple agent?

The story starts in January 2009, when a Jordanian Mukhabarat intelligence officer named Ali bin Zeid brought in a mild-mannered doctor named Balawi who treated the poor in Palestinian refugee camps.  Balawi had adopted several online personas in highly inflammatory anti-Western blogs.  After three days of interrogation, Balawi "cracked," and Zeid believed he could use him to further his cause.  Sending Balawi into Pakistan was a gamble, but the joint approach of the Mukhabarat and CIA was to imbed as many long shots as possible in an attempt to penetrate al-Qaeda's inner circle.  A grave miscalculation.

After the young doctor was released by the Mukhabarat, bin Zeid attempted to woo him by sharing tales of the Mukhabarat's exploits and offering large sums of money in exchange for tips about al-Qaeda's leadership.  Although Balawi didn't speak Pashto, he had lived in South Waziristan for several months where he met Baitullah Mehsud, a Taliban commander.  Balawi offered to travel to the tribal areas of Pakistan.  Several months passed with no word, but then a video arrived with Balawi sitting with senior al-Qaeda officials in a tent.  Working his way into the inner circle, Balawi was treating Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's second in command.

In retrospect, there were many red flags in Balawi's background.  While the doctor claimed to abhor violence and disavowed his extreme online rhetoric as a hobby, he had tried to join the Abu Musab al-Zarqawi insurgency in Iraq.  Also, while living in Turkey, Balawi and his future wife, Defne, had translated books about Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.  And, they named their first daughter after an infamous female Palestinian hijacker, and their second daughter after a woman who had made a film about the hijacker.

When Balwali shared that he could lead the CIA to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Americans were excited and wanted to meet him in person.  There were a few skeptics, including Darren LaBonte, bin Zeid's CIA counterpart and friend in Amman.  He felt that this manna from heaven was too good to be true.  Sadly, he was correct.

Balawi and his wife who was supportive of his anti-American sentiments.
It's difficult to believe that there was no formal counterintelligence vetting of Balawi.  Three suggested reasons for this oversight include the CIA being too busy with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the fact that Balawi had been recruited by an allied intelligence service, and the sad truth that top policymakers were too eager to deal a serious blow to al-Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks.  The bomber infiltrated a highly secure base by duping both the CIA and the Jordanian General Intelligence Department who believed he was a trusted informant.  Balawi walked around the side of the car that brought him into camp, began chanting in Arabic, 'God is great,' and hit the detonation switch on his 30-pound suicide vest, killing ten people and proving there is no greater threat than the triple agent.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Josephine Baker – Le Jazz Hot and Le Hot Spy

 S. Lee Manning: I have an affinity for jazz, France, and spies, so for my post this month, I chose to celebrate someone who combined all three.

Many people know that Josephine Baker was an American jazz star, celebrated in France, who in her later years worked for civil rights.

Did you also know she was a spy? While most spies strive to be invisible, Josephine’s very fame allowed her to become a valuable asset against the Nazis.

Her story starts with a rise from poverty to stardom.

Josephine Baker was born in a poor black neighborhood in St. Louis and was hired out to a white woman as a maid when she was eight years old. At sixteen, she joined a dance troop and eventually wound her way to New York and the Cotton Club.

She took the last name of a man she’d married briefly in 1921. In 1925, she left for Paris, which offered her freedoms not available to a black woman in the United States and became an international sensation, promoting “le jazz hot.”

Appearing almost naked except for a string of rubber bananas around her waist, she sparked an
international craze for banana-clad Josephine Baker dolls. By 1936, she was one of the highest paid entertainers in the world. She lived the glamorous life of a star, covered with jewels, strolling in Paris with her pet cheetah. In 1936, she traveled back to New York for a show, but horrified by the prejudice against her as a black woman performer, she returned to Paris. In 1937, she became a French citizen.

The start of World War II changed everything.

In 1939, she toured the front lines, doing shows for the French soldiers. But her more secret work came with her recruitment by the Deuxieme Bureau, the French intelligence service.  As a star, she attended embassy parties thrown by the Italian and Japanese embassies, and diplomats would attend her glamorous affairs – which put her in a perfect position to overhear information.

She would scribble information on her arms, even her hands, and report back to Jacque Abtey, her handler. She brushed off the risk to herself, saying no one would suspect her.

Following the fall of France, things became more dangerous.

Abtey, who was also her lover, holed up in her estate. After the Germans in August 1940 banned black and Jewish entertainers from appearing on stage, Abney and Josephine devised a plan for her to take information from France to British intelligence. With Abtey posing as her ballet instructor, Josephine traveled to Lisbon for a scheduled performance, delivering notes written in invisible ink on her music. The two succeeded in their mission and received new orders. From Lisbon, they traveled to Casablanca to set up a liaison station.

In Casablanca, she continued to mingle with diplomats and continued to gather information. Abtey remained in Casablanca, while she traveled back and forth to Lisbon. According to legend, she not only concealed messages on her music, but also would pin messages inside her bra. After a stillbirth, she was hospitalized in Casablanca for eighteen months. After the Americans captured the city, she was tapped by General De Gaulle to entertain troops in North Africa, and her image was used for propaganda for the Free French.

At the end of the war, her efforts earned her the Croix de Guerre and the Rosette de la Resistance.

After the war, her life was tumultuous, and she lost most of her fortune. But she continued to fight for civil rights. While not a featured speaker during King’s 1963 March on Washington, she offered her thoughts during the introduction to the main speakers, saying in that address: I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents... But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee….

In 1975, she died of a stroke at the age of 68, a few days after her last appearance on the stage. Twenty thousand people lined the streets of Paris to say farewell – and she received a 21-gun salute,
making her the first American woman to be buried in France with full military honors.

Bravo, Josephine, a true rogue woman.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Lisa Black Goes Rogue

...Submitted by Karna Small Bodman

We are delighted to welcome New York Times bestselling author and friend Lisa Black as our "In the Rogue Limelight" guest blogger.... a writer whose books have been translated into six languages -- one has been optioned for film and a possible TV series.  

Author Lisa Black
Lisa is one writer who truly follows the dictum, "Write what you know."  And what she knows and how she "feels" about it is, to say the least, rather unusual.  The first line of her bio reads, "I spent the happiest five years of my life in a morgue." Come again?  You see, Lisa got her Bachelor's degree in Biology and worked as a forensic scientist in the Cleveland Coroner's office  analyzing gunshot residue, DNA, blood,  and many forms of trace evidence, as well as crime scenes. And she has brilliantly turned that experience into spellbinding thrillers and mysteries that now place her in "A solid position in suspense, a solid backbone of detection" according to Kirkus Reviews. Lisa's new novel was just released. We asked her to tell us about it. 

I have always believed in the Golden Rule: He who has the gold, makes the rules. This is largely inevitable and in some ways, not unfair—after all, if someone had the wherewithal to get all the gold, perhaps he or she should be making the rules. Perhaps our history is nothing if not the constant battle to balance this practicality with the better parts of our humanity—an unachievable goal that nevertheless must be pursued.
            My new book Perish utilizes a skirmish in this battle: the feeding frenzy that was the subprime mortgage market.  

            Here’s what happened: Used to be, banks gave loans to people and kept those loans for ten or twenty or thirty years until they were paid. The banks, then, had incentive to loan only to people they felt sure could repay the loan with interest. Then came securitization, the packaging of mortgages into groups which were sold to investors, which increased a bank’s available funds beyond their customers’ deposits. These securities were from all over the country (spreading the risk, since home prices could not be expected to fall everywhere, all at once—until, of course, they did).  Mortgage originators—banks, nonbanks, financial firms—no longer had to care whether or not the home buyer could repay the mortgage/refinancing/home equity line, since they promptly sold the loan into the murky world of these securities.
Eventually, this house of cards began to crumble.
I found this completely fascinating and over-the-top dramatic. But I couldn’t fashion a way to transport events of 2008 Wall Street to 2018 Cleveland, so in Perish, here’s what happens: The scene
of the crime is lavish but gruesome. In a luxurious mansion on the outskirts of Cleveland, a woman’s body lies gutted in a pool of blood on the marble floor—Joanna Moorehouse, founder of Sterling Financial. Its offices seethe with potential suspects, every employee hellbent on making a killing. When another officer uncovers disturbing evidence in a series of unrelated murders, the investigation takes a surprising detour.
            Forensic expert Maggie Gardiner must demystify the cutthroat world of high-stakes finance but also discovers troubling new details about her colleague Jack Renner, a homicide detective with a brutal approach to law and order. And all the while, a unique and unpredictable killer circles ever closer, the motives impossible to discern.
Maggie knows that he who has the gold makes the rules. But she’s always known that truth, after all, is its own kind of gold.....Lisa Black

This spell-binding story is the third in the Gardiner/Renner series -- you may want to start with these:

Besides writing terrific novels, Lisa has testified in court some 65 times and is often on book tours around the country.  Please visit her website: 

Now, thanks Lisa for being our guest here on Rogue Women Writers!......Karna Small Bodman

Wednesday, February 21, 2018


DCI Casey & President Reagan in the White House
By Gayle Lynds....  Do you want to know who you are?  Thomas Jefferson had some good advice:  “Act!  Action will delineate and define you.” 

That was certainly true of CIA legend William J. (“Bill”) Casey (1913–1987), who on paper could sound boring — tax attorney, businessman, government official, and author.  Still, Ronald Reagan appointed him Director of Central Intelligence in 1981, and for the next few years Casey oversaw all of the U.S. intelligence community. 

Secrets go along with the responsibilities of leadership.  Governments and armies can’t operate in an intelligence vacuum.  As Sun Tzu wrote, “Choosing not to use spies should be considered a primitive act.”  And it wasn’t long before Casey, whose background also included the OSS during World War II, became known as the wild-man impresario of espionage.
Director of Special Intelligence Casey, OSS, London

There’s always tension in the CIA between those who believe risks must be taken, and those who are opposed. 

Casey was concerned that his people understood he approved of intelligent risk-taking.  He needed to find a way to get them off their butts.  At the time, one of the CIA’s Middle East stations had been trying to figure out how to put an eavesdropping device in the office of one of the country’s senior officials.  The official was very important, and his conversations would provide vital hard intelligence.

But instead of acting, the officers in the station argued....

“It’s too risky.”

“Bull.  It’s not.” 

“We can do it!"

You may have heard of the board game Bureaucracy.  The way Bureaucracy works is, if you move, you lose.
Vice President George H.W. Bush and Director Casey consult

Casey was fed up.  He reportedly said — and I’ll clean up his language — “I’ll do it myself, dammit.”

It was completely against tradecraft practice to gamble using a covert officer to plant a bug, and using the director of Central Intelligence was a very serious violation.

Still, Casey had his people arrange a visit to the Middle East and to the country in question.  Then he got on a plane.  While in country he paid a courtesy visit to the government official.  There are two different versions of what Casey did next.

According to one account, he took a gift book to the official, and the listening device was built into the binding.  (I like the idea the fellow was a reader.) 
The other version is that Casey sat down on the sofa and, when the official’s back was turned, he jammed down into the cushion a thin, miniaturized, long-stemmed microphone and transmitting device shaped like a large needle.  And it worked very well for a substantial amount of time.

I like to think of it this way: Casey single-handedly gave new meaning to the old cliché “pain in the butt.”

All humans are complex, and Casey was no different.  He oversaw the rebuilding of the CIA and strengthened other agencies.  He increased funding and global anti-Soviet activities.  As Winston Churchill said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”  And that was something Casey did, over and over even as furor, controversy, and charges repeatedly swirled around him, including serious accusations of the role he played in the Iran-Contra scandal.

Do you have a favorite spy story?  Please tell!