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