Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Theory Of Opposites

by Jamie Freveletti

We all know the famous characters in literature: Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, Sherlock Holmes in the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Percy Blakeney in the Scarlet Pimpernel. Also well known are the opposites that play against these famous protagonists. Without the opposite character, the initial one pales. Whenever I’m writing a novel I think about the opposites. Those characters that make the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the main protagonist interesting.

One of the most famous, of course, is Dr. Watson. He’s smart, logical and a war veteran with no lack of fear. Nowhere do I recall Doyle writing that he had an addiction or mental illness. Conan Doyle did a wonderful job juxtaposing him against Sherlock, who had a whole host of quirks, eccentricities and a full blown cocaine addiction. Under normal circumstances two men such as this might never have met, much less worked together, but Watson can see the decency along with the quirks and he’s unafraid to stay close to this mercurial, addicted and brilliant man. It’s through his eyes that we come to know and love Sherlock. Good thing, too, because I doubt that Sherlock telling his own story would have been so clear eyed regarding his problems.

Elizabeth Bennett has an entire group of opposites: her beautiful, sweet natured sister Jane, her strident, obnoxious mother, and her selfish and flighty sister Lydia. Elizabeth’s character fascinates because she keeps a clear and critical eye on society’s restrictions and refuses to bend to them. Her self esteem and resolve shines through.  I keep Darcy out of my list of opposites, because he is much more like Elizabeth rather than an opposite. We never learn what happens after the marriage, but I can only assume that his choice of a less well connected bride rattled his crew and raised eyebrows, yet he ignored it all and married for love.

Percy Blakeney of the Scarlet Pimpernel is one of my favorites because he literally creates his own opposite. He’s the fashion obsessed and empty headed fop by day, and a savior of condemned aristocrats in France by night. This character is the closest to an actual spy and his use of society’s assumptions about people with certain characteristics is a brilliant manipulation.

I’m in the final stages of another Emma Caldridge manuscript, and I’m having those episodes of waking up in the middle of the night thinking “perhaps if I move that section, add some more conflict there and what the hell am I going to do with that chapter that I love so much but might not fit?” moments. This morning it was 4:00 am with me lying in bed listening to the rain hammer the roof while I mulled my almost finished manuscript. I thought about today’s post and the theory of opposites and decided that I would run through every character with an eye toward this theme.
I have no doubt it will enrich the story.

And who knows, maybe tonight, after it’s done, I’ll rest easy.

To the writers reading this, add your opposites and may you sleep through the night!

Monday, August 29, 2016

International Villains and Their Motives

by Karna Small Bodman

All this week my Rogue colleagues have been writing terrific articles about various types of villains, from those featured in great thrillers to historical and contemporary leaders who have been responsible for heinous acts not only against their adversaries, but also against their own people.  There is often a fine line between truth and fiction -- in fact, rather than "ripped from the headlines" as some novels are described in reviews, there are thrillers that have predicted future headlines.  And with that in mind, certain administrations have invited thriller writers to come to The White House and engage in what we call "Red Team/Blue Team" exercises whereby the writer sets out a threat scenario and the staff must figure out what resources we could use to pre-empt just such a strike  (Note: Brad Meltzer was one of those authors invited to participate).

Having worked in the national security field, I have always been fascinated with the motives of international villains, be they heads of government or outside groups, and  I have tried to focus on many of these motives in my own novels: fomenting a war, re-orienting the world order, capturing territory, regaining an empire, increasing profits or subduing a population. Heavy stuff, right? And yet, when you think about it, these are all things that keep our top national security experts and military leaders up at night!

In my first thriller, Checkmate, I wanted to emphasize the importance of building expanded missile defense systems. For locations, I chose India and Pakistan since both countries have nuclear weapons and have fought three wars -- two over the disputed territory of Kashmir.

But first I had to have a villain.  In doing my research some years ago I discovered a little-known (at the time) militant group going by the name Lashkar-e-Taiba. Translation, "Army of the Pure." (Pure hatred for India that is). In the story, I use their name and write that their motive is to plan attacks on India with cruise missiles stolen from Pakistan with the help of certain Pakistani officers.  Then that country would be blamed, thus fomenting another war. In the ensuing chaos, Lashkar and those officers would take over Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

My heroine invents a new technology for the defense of cruise missiles and the challenge, of course, is to use it to prevent that type of attack.  Some time after the novel came out, many aspects of the story came true - which I have to admit rather freaked me out.  For example, remember that horrible attack on the Indian city of Mumbai? Turns out it was planned and executed by none other than the actual group, Lashkar-e-Taiba. Ever since then, that militant crowd has often cropped up in the news. (In fact, the "Shoe Bomber," Richard Reed, was trained by Lashkar!)

The attack on Mumbai

In Final Finesse, the motive is to raise the price of oil and gas to increase the profits for the government of Venezuela by sending a secret team to our country to sabotage pipelines and destroy our energy sources.  But that story was also written several years ago when oil and gas supplied 95% of that country's income. I was simply imagining what might happen if the prices fell.

Venezuelans trying to buy food in Colombia
And fell they did. This, coupled with complete economic mismanagement has turned a country once blessed with abundant natural resources into a total basket case where their people have to pour over the border into neighboring Colombia to buy food and medicine.

Those thrillers might be called "prescient" but I hope and pray the premise of another of my novels, Castle Bravo NEVER comes to pass. Not here. Not anywhere.

In this story, the government of a former Soviet Republic decides to launch a small nuclear device from a disguised fishing vessel off our West Coast...but not aiming it at San Francisco or Los Angeles, which obviously would be unbelievably devastating. No, their plan is to detonate it straight up in the air -- 50-100 miles up.  This explosion would create an "Electro Magnetic Pulse" - EMP -- that would "fry" all electronics on the ground. We would have no communications, transportation, sanitation, refrigeration -- as one General explained to me, "It would set us back to the year 1910...and don't think our enemies aren't looking at this!"

So now, picture yourself sitting in the Situation Room of The White House analyzing possible threats from around the world and endeavoring to figure out the best ways to protect our country from potential villains with motives to harm us.  What motives and scenarios would YOU find most threatening? Think about that and leave a comment below. We would love to have your thoughts. They could be the inspiration for the next thriller.Thanks for being with us today!

Karna Small Bodman

Saturday, August 27, 2016


In any country there must be people who have to die. They are the sacrifices any nation has to make to achieve law and order.  --Idi Amin Dada

by KJ Howe

Africa was once my home.  My father was responsible for telecommunications in Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya.  In the years I lived there, a larger-than-life figure played a critical role in shaping the country of Uganda.  Idi Amin.  TV, radio, public events--everywhere you turned, the gargantuan third President of Uganda was there.  And my father had many meetings with him via his telecommunications work, witnessing the mercurial moods of this iconic character.  This week, the Rogue Women Writers are focusing on villains--interesting ones--and Idi Amin Dada is that and more.

During his time in power, Amin shifted in allegiance from being a pro-Western ruler enjoying considerable support from Israel to being backed by Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko, the Soviet Union, and East Germany.  Amin's leadership was characterized by human rights abuses, political repression, ethnic persecution, extrajudicial killings, nepotism, corruption, institutionalized racism, and gross economic mismanagement.  The number of people killed as a result of his regime might have reached a half a million.

Uganda decorated in the colors of the flag.
During his reign, Uganda was a hotbed of international intrigue and espionage operations.  The British, American, Israelis, Egyptians, and others had active intelligence operations in Uganda, sometimes supporting Idi, sometimes trying to have him overthrown.  At first, it was thought he would be a loyal ally to Britain, but soon after he was seizing all British businesses, offering to marry Queen Elizabeth (lucky her), and awarding himself the title CBE, Conquerer of the British Empire. He also claimed to be the uncrowned King of Scotland.  Speaking of which, if you're up for a phenomenal movie based loosely on the life of Idi Amin, watch The Last King of Scotland, featuring the talented and eerily believable Forest Whitaker who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Amin.

In June of 1976, Amin allowed an Air France airliner from Tel Aviv to Paris hijacked by two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine--External Operations (PFLP-EO) and two members of the German Revoluntionaire Zellen to land at Entebbe Airport.  There the hijackers were joined by three more.  Soon after, 156 non-Jewish hostages who did not hold Israeli passports were released and flown to safety, while 83 Jews and Israeli citizens as well as 20 others who refused to abandon them (including the captain and crew) continued to be held hostage.  In the famous Israeli rescue operation, codenamed Operation Thunderbolt (or Operation Entebbe), a group of Israeli commandos were flown in from Israel and seized control of the Entebbe Airport, freeing nearly all the hostages.

Forest Whitaker Playing Amin in The Last King of Scotland
With at least seven wives and an estimated 43 children, Amin created an unforgettable legacy for future generations.  Yasser Arafat served as best man at one of Amin's weddings.  His ego as large as his stature, Amin bestowed upon himself a title, "His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Haadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beast of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conquerer of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular."  Seriously.

Internal dissent coupled with both the economic collapse in Uganda and Amin's attempt to annex the Kagera province of Tanzania in 1978 led to the unravelling of his eight-year regime.  The Tanzanian army fighting alongside Ugandan exiles forced Amin to flee into exile--first to Libya, and then Saudi Arabia. It had been quite a journey for a man who'd been abandoned by his father, a man who started as a simple cook in the British army.

Sometimes it is hard to untangle the legend from the man.  There were times Idi was funny, enchanting, and inspiring, demonstrating a mischievous sense of humour.  He enjoyed sports, music, and playing games with children.  Other times, he was a sadistic murderer, dismembering people, possibly including one or more of his own wives with his bare hands.  There is credible evidence that he was a cannibal, and some think he was the victim of unchecked syphilis or bi-polar disorder or both.  Even today, his shadow looms large over Eastern Africa.

After such a whirlwind of a life, his final days were surprisingly uneventful.  Taking us full circle, my father came face-to-face with Idi Amin again when we lived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.  One day at the bank, my father saw a massive man in the line next to him.  Idi Amin.  Fortunately, my father encountered the public face of Idi--charming, warm, engaging--on that occasion.  Tens of thousands of others had seen the darker side of Amin and not lived to tell about it.

In my upcoming novel, THE FREEDOM BROKER, elite kidnap negotiator Thea Paris faces an African General, a gargantuan burning for power and privilege, a man who had profoundly altered her family forever.  Parallels?  Perhaps.  When life experiences imprint on writers, those moments seep into their books, a cathartic way of working out the footprints of the past that still haunt them.

Friday, August 26, 2016


S. Lee Manning: The topic for this round of blogs for Rogue Women Writers is creating a great villain. (If you haven't already, sign up to subscribe to our blog here.)   

In honor of the current topic, I am sharing my recipe. Caution: this recipe is for international or political thrillers. It should be modified for serial killer or domestic thrillers.



What is the underlying reason or concern that the villain thinks justifies his or her actions? (For purposes of this recipe, I will be referring to the villain as “he.” Not that women don’t make wonderful villains, and not that I don’t believe in equal opportunity for female villains, but the villains I’ve created have been male. And it gets confusing to switch back and forth.)

In international and political thrillers, the villain often justifies whatever he’s doing because of a higher goal – in other words, he thinks he’s the hero. And, villains who imagine themselves as heroes are those most likely to commit the worst acts.  Think Hitler. Think Pol Pot. In their minds, they weren’t mass murderers whose very names would become an evocation of evil. In their minds, they were heroes. They did what they perceived as necessary to achieve a goal. Pol Pot thought he was creating a socialist new world order where everyone would be equal. Hitler thought he was bringing the German people back to greatness after the humiliation of World War I.

 And in the realm of international espionage, that’s where the greatest villains come in. Because they think what they’re doing is for a higher purpose, even if achieving that purpose requires terrible or despicable acts. And the acts committed for that higher purpose are more likely to be far ranging, affecting hundreds, or thousands, or millions.

Of course, the motive and the justification can be more mundane, even in international thrillers. The desire for revenge, the desire for money or power. What is important in this ingredient is that the villain believes that he’s justified, that somehow he sees himself as the hero of the story. In my work in progress, one of my villains is primarily motivated by revenge. But in his mind, revenge is a noble righting of a wrong.


What is the underlying reason for the villain’s actions, despite whatever he may tell others or himself is his real motive?

This motive comes from deep within: an insecurity, a twisted childhood, a belief in his own superiority, lust for power, even a sadism born of abuse. It’s the psychology behind whatever allows the villain to think that he has the right to act as he acts.

This needs to be a little more carefully diced than the above. The villain may say he wants to protect the German people but is really motivated by the fact that he’s a little man who failed at art and wants to get back at people who mocked him. Chop finely and sprinkle as you stir.


How is the villain pursuing whatever his stated goal may be? Yes, some stated motives may themselves be despicable, but ultimately, it’s what the villain does, not why he does it. The motive explains the villain; the bad acts make the villain.

It’s not that Pol Pot wanted to equalize Cambodian society, it’s that he murdered a million and a half people in seeking that goal. It’s not that Hitler wanted to raise Germany up after World War I and the depression, it’s how he went about doing it.

In my novel Trojan Horse, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with Mihai Cuza wanting to increase the standing of the country of Romania, and improve the standard of living for its people. There is not necessarily anything wrong with wanting power to achieve what he believes is his goal. It’s how he plans to achieve that goal, and the acts he takes along the way.

Because the villain's and the hero’s motives may not be that different. They may even be the same. Both may want to protect their own people. Both may want to exact revenge for wrongs.

It’s the lines that are crossed – and how far they are crossed.

There are heroes who sometimes tread on the line between good and evil. In a novel that I read recently, the hero summarily executes a bad guy who is responsible for slowly killing hundreds of people, even though the bad guy has surrendered. It doesn’t necessarily make the hero into a villain. It’s over the line, but it’s only a step over.

The difference is that a great villain doesn’t just step over the line. He drives over it in a Mack truck.

He doesn’t just kill one guy. He’ll kill an entire village of innocent people in order to get one person he thinks needs to be killed. And if it’s one person that’s killed, it’s a person whom the reader thinks does not deserve to die.

The great villain in the international thriller needs to violate our sense of morality and our sense of fair play, and he needs to do it in a way that appalls us. Trojan Horse starts with my villain killing an American intelligence agent by impaling her so she dies slowly and in agony.


Pinch of humanity

Not every villain has it. Certainly not the Terminator types. But a pinch of humanity adds a richness to the stew. Show something about your villain that the reader could actually relate to – that he is stuck in a loveless marriage with a drunk, nagging wife, that he likes German shepherds, that he loves a woman who died. My villain, Cuza, appreciates birds and is gentle with his horses. My taste is for the villain who, despite his evil, is three-dimensional.

Soup├žon of charm

Not every villain has this, either. Wit, cleverness, an ability to charm can add flavor to your novel. Add to individual taste.


Gently stir the mixture so that the ingredients blend together. Pour generously over the other ingredients of the novel. Bake for anywhere from a few months to a few years.

Serve warm.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016


BY GAYLE LYNDS:  How do you beat an unbeatable villain?  As an author, it’s a question I grapple with a lot.  For inspiration, let’s take a look at one of history’s most notorious and elusive mass contract killers. . . .

“He almost never emerged from the turbid underworld of international crime, and he had no consistent belief system,” according to Time magazine, September 2, 2002.  “He switched allegiances with ease.  Governments actually paid him just to leave their people alone.  Even so, beginning in 1974, he was responsible for 900 murders in 20 nations, according to the U.S. State Department.” 

Perhaps you remember news coverage of this master terrorist of the Cold War — Abu Nidal of the Abu Nidal Organization (ANO).  But do you remember how he was brought down?

With today’s blog, I’m beginning the next series of Rogue Women posts, this time about the fascinating topic of Great Villains. To be sure to receive each blog, just sign up here
Abu Nidal, 1970s

An Impossible Situation

How difficult was it to stop Abu Nidal?  Imagine the situation:  It’s 1986, and the ANO is highly active, dangerous, and state-sponsored, with the resources of entire nation-states backing it.  Americans are among its favorite targets.  It goes out of its way to kill innocents, even children.  Counterterrorist organizations around the world consider the ANO invincible. “Long before 9/11, the title of most dangerous terrorist in the world belonged to Abu Nidal,” Time magazine proclaimed. 

One prime reason was Abu Nidal himself.  His tradecraft was sophisticated, and his operations and operatives compartmentalized.  He demanded complete loyalty and obedience from his followers.  New recruits were required to commit a crime before joining — a bank robbery, an assault, a murder — which also gave him a way
to control them. 

Since the CIA didn’t allow anyone under its direction to commit such crimes, it was almost impossible to infiltrate the group.  Still, the CIA managed it while also turning one of Nidal’s people into an informer.  All of this was done under the auspices of a brand-new organization — the CIA Counterterrorist Center (CTC), founded by legendary spymaster Dewey Clarridge in 1986.  Never before had personnel been merged from the Directorates of Operations, Intelligence, and Science & Technology.

Clarridge’s creation would soon pay off in a big way.

Putting the Pieces Together

The CTC analyzed the information from its agent and informant and added other pieces: Abu Nidal had a financing channel through the London branch of the infamous Bank of Credit & Commerce International, which led to the revelation of ANO activists in France, England, and Germany.  More intel showed an extensive commercial network in Eastern Europe, Greece, Cyprus, Yugoslavia, and even Western Europe.  Those businesses provided cover and help with ANO terrorist attacks while also giving occasional cover to Communist spy agencies.

For the first time, the picture of one of the world’s most secretive and violent terrorist groups was being fleshed out.

“After reviewing this astonishing network of terrorist support, I arrived at the conclusion that the best way to attack Abu Nidal was to publicly expose his financial empire and his network of collaborators,” Clarridge wrote in his memoir, A Spy for All Seasons.  The result was the CTC’s Abu Nidal Handbook, which detailed the inner workings of the ANO, including an organizational chart, its crimes, its members and accomplices, and home addresses, some of which were within countries friendly to the United States.

According to Clarridge, “The publication had the desired effect.  Governments in Europe squirmed, but they terminated their dealings with Abu Nidal.  Like many in his line of work, Abu Nidal was paranoid.  The CTC fueled his hysteria over plots against him — feeding fear to a paranoid is something we know how to do.  Not surprisingly, Abu Nidal panicked.  Those who reported having been approached by us were not rewarded for their loyalty, because Abu Nidal never quite believed that anyone in his group had turned us down.  Their loyalty was suspect thereafter, and the punishment for disloyalty was torture and death.”

The Bigger They Are

By 1987, the ANO was drowning in its own blood.  Abu Nidal had turned his terror campaign back against his own people.  When he grew suspicious of the ANO in southern Lebanon, he ordered more than 300 hard-core operatives murdered.  Soon his surviving lieutenants began to believe he was insane. 

“Abu Nidal’s paranoia, fed by our crusade against him, caused him to destroy his own organization,” Clarridge concluded.

And there you have it — an ingenious, calibrated, well-researched CTC operation that caused one of the world’s greatest villains to take down his own organization. 

Although he lived 15 more years, Abu Nidal never again commanded a world-class group.  In 2002 in Baghdad, he was shot to death — there are conflicting reports about whether he committed suicide or was murdered.  He was 65 years old.  His real name was Sabri Khalil al-Banna.

The Cold War’s stories of assassins such as Abu Nidal inspired my most recent international suspense novel, The Assassins.  Each of the six men of the title came out of the Cold War and, in the book, are still working today.  I faced the question of how to beat the unbeatable.  Do you have any answers?

Monday, August 22, 2016


by Elaine Viets (Guest Blogging for Chris Goff)

I find Elaine Viets inspiring! A multi-published, award-winning writer of four mystery series, she has often gone to extremes to find her story. For example, to know of what she writes, she has worked most of the jobs in her Dead-End Job Mysteries. Now, with her newest series - the Angela Richman, Death Investigator Mysteries - the experience is even more personal. It's impossible not to get a feel for Elaine's sense of humor and her newest characters as she reveals WHO INSPIRED her newest debut. Thank you, Elaine for such a great blog post! I recommend everyone go out and buy a copy of BRAIN STORM today!  Chris

          The first time I heard Dr. Jeb Travis Tritt, I was in bed.
          A hospital bed. He was the brain surgeon who saved my life after I had six strokes, including a hemorrhagic stroke, in April 2007. That's not his real name, and he doesn't look or act like the brain surgeon in my new mystery Brain Storm, but Dr. Tritt, as I baptized him, was a real character. I couldn't make up what he said. I'm not that creative.
          In fiction and reality, Dr. Tritt is a brilliant surgeon, but his bedside manner sucks. I expected someone who saws open skulls for a living to be a little odd. But I liked him.
          I'd arrived at the hospital unconscious and having multiple seizures. "You were circling the drain," he told me later. "Nobody thought you were gonna make it. The ER doctor said you'd be dead by morning. But I knew I could save you."
          Humility isn't his strong suit. But the doc's entitled to brag. Even a paramedic told my shell-shocked husband, "Sorry about your wife, man."

          After brain surgery, I was in a coma for a week and I spent three months in the hospital. When Dr. Tritt got off work at midnight, he'd stop by my room. First he'd check my healing wound – a hideous red-rimmed cobblestone. Then he'd settle in for a midnight monologue. He'd talk nonstop for two or three hours. I was a captive audience – I couldn't walk yet. He'd make jaw-dropping comments, and I'd squirrel them away. His visits were a gift. It took me eight years to use it.
          Brain Storm, the first Angela Richman, Death Investigator novel, is set in mythical, ultrawealthy Chouteau Forest, Missouri. Like me, Angela went to the ER for migraines. We were misdiagnosed and sent home for a PET scan later. Instead, we suffered a series of strokes, brain surgery, and a coma, and encountered Dr. Jeb Travis Tritt. And that's where I used his midnight monologues.
          One night he said, "Do you remember anyone talking to you while you were in a coma?"
          "No," I said. "No tunnel of light, no relatives waiting on the other side. I didn't see or hear anything."
          "Thank God," he said. "I used to stop by every night and say, 'Elaine! This is God! Wake up!'  But the nurses made me quit."

          Why did a surgeon spend hours talking to me instead of going home? He answered that question in another monologue.
          "My wife is divorcing me," he said. "She likes to shop and I don't make enough money. She thought brain surgeons would be rich, but I don't get that much. I only got three thousand dollars for your surgery. She wasn't that good in bed, anyway. She just laid there, like you did, except you were in a coma."
          Huh? The doc wasn't coming onto me. My face was swollen, my skin was bright red thanks to an allergy to some medication, and half my hair was shaved off.
          I'd always been proud of my long hair. I was shocked when I saw it had been partly shaved off for the surgery. Late one night, Dr. Tritt said, "I'm sorry about your hair."
          "In the grand scheme of things, it's not the end of the world," I said.
          "I burned your hair because I knew you were going to make it," he said. "If my patients are going to die, I save their hair because they like to look good in their coffins."
          I was speechless. But then I thought: What would he say if I was going to die? Would he come by one midnight, hand me my hair and said, "Elaine, you're screwed. But here's your hair. You'll look great in your coffin."

          Speaking of coffins – in real life I couldn't kill the doctor who misdiagnosed me. I couldn't even sue the bastard. But I killed him in Brain Storm. A drug-addled, hallucinating Angela learns that the doctor who nearly killed her has been murdered, and the chief suspect is the surgeon who brought her back to life. Angela isn't sure that she can trust her instincts or recover her investigative skills, but she's determined to save the doctor who saved her.
          My real life character saved my life – and he may help me pay off those hospital bills.

          Bestselling writer Elaine Viets has written 30 mysteries in four series. With BRAIN STORM, her first Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, she returns to her hardboiled roots. Elaine passed the Medicolegal Death Investigators Course for forensic professionals for this series. Booklist says, "Viets, a stroke survivor herself, builds her unusual premise into a compelling thriller that moves quickly and builds suspense steadily."  Elaine won the Anthony, Agatha, and Lefty Awards. Buy it here:

Sunday, August 21, 2016


by Sonja Stone

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You… Stronger, Bitter, Drunk. It Depends On Your Attitude.

Michael Cerpok, mobile monk, sabakiball
My sensei, Michael Cerpok
I was having dinner with a friend last night, and he said, “I couldn’t help but notice the uncanny resemblance between you and your main character. You’re both five-two, of Irish-Lebanese decent, have dark wavy hair… You also seem to share a childhood history.”

Since I care what my friend thinks, I was unable to state the truth (that I’m a low-key narcissist, lack imagination, and pretty much wrote out my fantasy life thinly disguised as a novel). Fortunately, he has the attention span of a gnat, and a second later our sushi arrived.

Saved by the fish.

It’s true that my protagonist, sixteen-year-old Nadia Riley, shares a bit of my history and backstory. But she’s not me. She’s way better than me.

One of my characters, however, is very much based on someone I know: Nadia’s mentor and martial arts instructor, Hashimoto Sensei. Sensei is reserved, serious, traditional, and focused. He’s quietly compassionate, but doesn’t tolerate excuses.

Enter my sensei, jujutsu instructor Michael Cerpok. Below are a few of the myriad lessons he’s taught me.


  • Pain is Temporary

Respecting that she’s a hard worker, Hashimoto Sensei concedes to Nadia’s request for private lessons. Over the course of her training, Nadia is repeatedly struck with a split bamboo pole, the length of a broomstick. It stings like a giant rubber band and makes a cracking sound as it connects with the body. I’m very familiar with this particular training device. At one point, she complains about his use of the bamboo pole, because it’s quite painful. He responds: 

Crack! “It is only pain. When you are in pain one of two things will happen: The pain will be so great that you will die, or the pain will eventually go away. Either way,” he smiled and bowed his head, “no more pain.”

This is a direct quote from my sensei, who has eagerly tested this theory with great frequency.

  • If You Can’t See Bone, Ignore It

“Sensei, I’m not sure I can grapple today. My shoulder hurts.”

“Of course it hurts. You’re old. Hajime!” (begin)

After my third set of X-rays from the ER (without ever actually breaking a bone), I stopped seeking medical attention, and instead asked my sensei to fix the pain. As part of my training he taught me Kappo, a method of Japanese massage. He insisted that I learn: if I had the skill to injure, I must also have the skill to heal.

The current M.O. of everyone living under my roof is as follows: sustain an injury; try to walk it off; try not to cry because feelings make us vulnerable; watch for swelling and intense pain; text Sensei a picture and wait for instructions. Only once has the response been, “Yeah, I’d get that checked out.”

Michael Cerpok, mobile monk, jujitsu
Sensei in the dojo


Interestingly, Sensei has taught me more about coping with emotional pain than physical pain. (Though he’s inflicted way more of the latter.)

  • Attachment Causes Pain

Though questions during lessons are strictly prohibited (“I will tell you what you need to know.”), at the end of our private sessions, Sensei invites me to sit seiza (on my heels) and speak freely. This is the time when he answers questions, shares his philosophy, and guides my spiritual development. 

Almost every one of my concerns can be addressed with this: Attachment to people, places, and things causes distress. Without attachments, we have no expectations. Without expectations, we have no disappointments. This isn’t to say we don’t love one another; but to love unconditionally is to wish for the greatest good for everyone involved. Sometimes the greatest good won’t include me.

  • Not Everyone Gets a Trophy

My sensei adamantly opposes participation trophies. I don’t get points for showing up and doing what I said I would.

While it’s lovely that small children are presented with an end-of-season trophy, I agree with him on this one. Do your effing job. Your reward is that you haven’t been kicked off the team. (For more on my stellar management skills—aka, “Why No One Wants to Work with Me Ever,” please see my last post, 5 Spy Secrets I Learned In Culinary School.)

I will say this: In all our time grappling on the mat, Sensei only ever tapped out once (indicating that I was the victor). Let me tell you something about that glorious day: I never questioned that I had found the position of strength. I earned that victory, and it was sweet. (Admittedly, he was several months into intense chemotherapy, but still…)

  • Control Your Breath

Breathing is an art. Sensei taught me the Zazen method of breath control. When we began, I was able to sit Zazen for approximately two uninterrupted seconds. I am now able to extend a single breath for over a minute.

The breathing method is as follows: Inhale through the nose for a count of four (to start), then exhale through the mouth as though blowing through a straw for a count of eight. Blowing through the imaginary straw (lips rounded) slows the exhale, which enables one to breathe out for twice as long as one inhales. Why is this important? The heart rate accelerates on the inhale, and slows on the exhale. For anyone who’s ever experienced anxiety, this is a valuable piece of information.

He insisted I sit Zazen to develop self-discipline. Another benefit he promised was endurance: I don’t tire quite so easily in a fight.

Osensei Michael Cerpok and his wife, Sensei Monica Rosen

Having known them for a decade, I consider my sensei and his amazing wife, Monica, to be two of my closest friends. They’ve both helped me thorough difficult times (mostly involving the raising of teenagers). My respect for him is so great that to this day I still address him as Sensei, whether in the dojo or at a party. 

It’s a title he’s earned.

Legal Disclaimer: Any resemblance to any person, real or imagined, is strictly coincidental. ;)

Here’s my question: If you could pick any fictional character to be a real part of your life, whom would you choose? A mentor like Albus Dumbledore? A childhood friend like Scout Finch? A boyfriend like James Bond?

Friday, August 19, 2016


image copyright Mark Ulriksen/The New Yorker
By Francine Mathews

Fifteen years ago, I was drafting a spy novel entitled Blown. It was my second novel about Caroline "Mad Dog" Carmichael, a CIA terrorism analyst very much like myself, who was combatting neo-Nazis at home and abroad. The draft wasn't going well. I was way past deadline. I'd rewritten it twice. To get out of the house and away from my computer screen, I was working out at a local fitness center and reading The New Yorker on my exercise bike. While idly flipping through the cartoons and shorter bits, my eyes were suddenly drawn to a familiar image: a runner in a Princeton University singlet pounding down the main path below Blair Arch.

I had spent four years at Princeton. So of course I was immediately intrigued by the subhead of David Samuels' profile of James Arthur Hogue, entitled "The Runner." 

He woke up one morning and decided to become someone else. 

[The profile is so artfully written that it feels like a travesty to summarize Samuels' work. PLEASE. When you have a moment, immerse yourself in it here.

Suffice it to say that Hogue, a "drifter, petty thief and ex-con," successfully fabricated an identity that almost changed his life, in ways that belong only in movies. [In fact, Con Man--a 2002 documentary by Jesse Moss--tells his story.]
In his college essay, Hogue renamed himself Alexi Indris-Santana and invented European parents, sadly dead, who were artists and intellectuals. He described himself as a teenaged working cowboy on the Plains of the West, an autodidact who'd read the Great Books by firelight while sleeping under the stars. This wistful thought piece appealed to every impulse among the hardened admissions officers at Princeton: a self-taught genius, both sophisticated and rustic! A child of Nature who understood multisyllabic words, and used them correctly in a sentence! A chance to give full aid to a deserving young mind, instead of admitting yet another product of Andover or Groton! And Alexi Santana had a special gift--all those years of rugged living among cattle herds had somehow made him an athlete. He was a runner. Princeton recruited him for Track and Field.
copyright The Daily Princetonian

Alexi Santana was nineteen. But James Hogue was nearly thirty. Becoming someone else on this scale is what is known as fraud.

He was a rousing success at Princeton both on and off the track--short on funds, of course, but intriguing enough that women thought he was dope and teammates carried him through difficult patches. It seemed odd that he was already losing his hair, but maybe that was a European thing. He was skinny enough as a runner that his age never came into question; if he looked haggard, it was attributed to excessive training. He was so accepted and his cachet was so secure that he was considered for admission to the most exclusive of the selective eating clubs on Prospect Street--the one usually reserved for members of the Ford and Forbes families and their wingmen--Ivy. Had Alexi Santana managed to graduate with a Princeton degree and those kinds of social connections, he would never have looked back.

I read "The Runner" without the kind of outrage many people, particularly Princeton grads, felt at the story. I was utterly fascinated. Because I recognized that James Hogue was destined for a brilliant career--if only he'd applied to the CIA instead of Princeton.

You see, what he had done--almost flawlessly--was created a Legend, as it's called in intelligence operations. His alternative version of his identity was so effective that it was accepted within the community he was determined to infiltrate. He had studied his target. He had mastered the cultural expectations and norms. He had adopted the local camouflage and color, he had gone into the hostile environment with profound confidence, and he had recruited every single person he needed into total faith and belief. All of them felt betrayed, used, exploited and violated by the end of James Hogue's run at the Ivies--but a talent that appears criminal in one setting, may actually be a job description in another. His brilliance, however amoral or sociopathic, was sadly misapplied.

Alexis Santana was eventually blown when a Yale student who'd known him as James Hogue in Palo Alto--where he'd impersonated a teenager and run track at a local high school--outed him at the HYPs, the Harvard-Princeton-Yale Track & Field event. He was arrested by the FBI for fraud. He's now in his fifties--still a drifter, ex-con, and petty thief, most recently booked in Boulder, CO, for stealing $1200 worth of sunglasses. 

Hogue's story inspired a secondary character in Blown that I still love today--Raphael, the CIA's master of legend and disguise. Some readers think he's the point of the whole story. Some think he deserves his own. Who knows? Maybe I'll write one for him, someday.