Sometimes the Little Things Mean the Most

Today, I was in a post office, mailing off two paperback short stories to people who’d recently subscribed to my newsletter, Secret Briefings.

(If you’re interested, click here and subscribe, and you can pick from four different short stories: “Best Served Cold,” “Blood Cover,” “Brave New World,” and “Spymaster.”)

One was to someone not far from me, and the other was to a fan in Africa. I’ve known this person on line since I used to participate in a Friday flash fiction exercise called Friday Fictioneers. She always commented on my 100-word stories, and I appreciated her comments and suggestions.

Indeed, she is one of my most frequent commenters on this blog. She’d indicated to me she wanted to buy my novel, A War of Deception, but where she lives there is no Amazon. However, she gleefully told me of her workaround: She had her sister buy it on Amazon.uk and ship it to her!

That touched me deeply, that someone would want my book enough to go through hoops to get it. So, I was excited to see she subscribed to my newsletter and picked a short story to receive.

However, sending a small package overseas to Africa wasn’t as easy as sending the one to someone down the road. First, you have to fill out a customs form and bring that with you to the post office. Silly me, I thought the region, city, and country information would be sufficient, but the small town postal clerk couldn’t find the country on her list and informed me she’d never heard of “Guana.”

“That’s because it’s Ghana,” I said.

“G-a-n-n-a?”

Mind you, I printed the country name on the package. “No. G-h-a-n-a,” I said.

“Still never heard of it.”

“Not to worry. There are millions of people in the world who’ve never heard of Virginia.”

Well, that didn’t go over too well, but the clerk finally found Ghana on her list of countries, applied all the labels, inked the various stamps on the envelope, and entered all the details into her computer, not simply one-handed, but one-fingered.

The short story is winging its way across an ocean and a couple of continents, and I hope my first fan–I trust she doesn’t mind being called that–enjoys “Best Served Cold.”

Little things like this make it all worth it.

Thank you, Celestine.

Sign Up for My Newsletter; Join My Facebook Group; Books for Sale

Here I am, an indie author begging again.

NEWSLETTER

I have a newsletter where you can learn more about what inspires me, get excerpts of my upcoming works, and learn a thing or two about the world of espionage. I won’t fill your inbox with countless emails; it comes out twice a month–and you can always opt out once you sign up.

To sign up for SECRET BRIEFINGS, click here.

Oh, and if you sign up for SECRET BRIEFINGS between now and the end of the year, I’ll send you a free paperback copy of a short story. You can choose from one of four:

“Spymaster” – The heads of two intelligence organizations clash in a mini-Cold War.
“Blood Cover” – Mai Fisher talks a doctor into marrying a man she doesn’t love so Mai can have access to his secrets.
“Best Served Cold” – Computer guru Nathan Hempstead loses his son in an horrific manner, but his hot anger becomes cold revenge.
“Brave New World” – A U.S. president wants help fixing an election, but Mai Fisher refuses, something she may come to regret.

FACEBOOK GROUP

In addition to my Facebook Author Page, I’ve also started a new Facebook Group called “Readers Who Love Real Spies with Real Lives.” If you join, we’ll talk about books and movies in the genre, with an emphasis on those with strong, female protagonists.

There’ll be posts to stimulate conversation and some fun things, too, like “What Would Your KGB Code Name?”

It’s free and fun, and you can join on the group page itself.

CELEBRATING MY NANOWRIMO WIN

This year I won my tenth NaNoWriMo and what better way to celebrate than to put some of my books on sale.

From November 28 through November 30, you can get the ebook of Blood Vengeance and The Better Spy for 99 cents.

From November 28 through November 29, the ebook of Spy Flash II will be 99 cents.

Any of these three books are a great introduction to my canon of works about “real spies with real lives.” Definitely money well spent.

You can buy them by clicking here.

Okay, done begging. For now. 😉

NaNoWriMo Update, A Change in Book Distribution, and Holidays

It’s been a busy November, as it always is with NaNoWriMo. This year, however, I was co-municipal liaison for the Shenandoah Valley Region, with some added responsibilities, like write-ins (online and in-person) and cheerleading. On top of that, I made some changes to how my ebooks are sold, and there’s the whole holiday thing.

NaNoWriMo Update

I passed 50,000 words on November 17 and officially validated my win on November 24. This year’s NaNoWriMo was my first as a co-municipal liaison for my region, Shenandoah Valley. I had a lot of fun, met some great writers online and in person, and  hope to do it again.

My project this year was a bit different from my usual work. It takes place present day, instead of in the past. And a couple of interesting and unplanned things happened–NaNoWriMo just does that.

First, I reached the logical conclusion the existence of my super-secret, fictional intelligence organization, The Directorate, needed to be acknowledged. Without spoilers, I’ll simply quote one of my characters, Alexei Bukharin, “The time for that secret is over.” That freshens things up a bit and adds a new protocol to any further stories about it.

Second, I created a character initially for perhaps two or three scenes. I had no intention of making her a permanent character at all. Remember, your NaNoWriMo project is a rough draft. I’ve removed whole threads of plots and characters in subsequent edits. However, as I was writing what I thought was the character’s final appearance, my other character, Mai Fisher, and I recognized something interesting: This character deserved to have a future.

Enter into my canon, Cybill Fleming. For now, all I know about her is she’s a Directorate operative-in-training and that Mai Fisher spotted something of herself in Cybill. This coming year while I work on publishing two books (Books One and Two of A Perfect Hatred), I’ll be fleshing Cybill Fleming out a lot more. Stay tuned.

As of today, this year’s NaNoWriMo project stands at 70,776. Four days to go and four more planned scenes. I like it when a plan comes together!

Going Wide

No, not talking about a football play or race cars passing each other. Last month I decided to take all ten of my published ebooks out of exclusive Amazon distribution. After seeing the success others had had using a service called Draft2Digital, I decided to give it a try. Coincidentally, two of my ebooks were nearing their automatic KDP Select renewal, so I “unchecked the box” and a few days later uploaded Spy Flash and Who Watches the Watchmen? to D2D. An easy process over all, though formatting was an issue in places. That is, you can’t simply take the Kindle version file and upload it; you have to make certain the formatting imbedded in the file doesn’t glitch. I’m pleased with D2D and its ease of use and may use it for the release of my second novel next April.

Not long after, three more ebooks were due to automatically renew in KDP Select. I unchecked those boxes too. Now, the ebooks of my novellas My Noble Enemy and The Yellow Scarf, as well as my first novel, A War of Deception, have wider distribution.

Some of the places where the ebooks will appear are Kobo, iBooks, Barnes&Noble, SCRIBD, among others. You can also purchase ePub versions of these five books via PayPal right here on my web site. From the home page, look for the tab, “Shop for Books.”

Let me say, I have nothing at all against Amazon’s distribution of my paperbacks and ebooks. KDP Select is optional; however, it is one of those “opt in” processes with an automatic renewal unless you take a physical action to change it.

As with the new directions my NaNoWriMo projects took me with my characters, my other books will be going off in new directions as well.

Change is scary but good.

Happy Holidays

No flames please. December happens to be the month where a lot of religions celebrate winter holidays. Unlike KDP Select, I don’t want to be exclusive, rather inclusive.

I’m not a fan of the winter holidays. Lots of bad childhood memories abound, and the crass commercialism turns me off. The holidays also take a lot of time away from writing, but family is family. I’ll do the shopping, I’ll wrap the gifts, and I’ll take delight in watching my grandchildren unwrap their presents. As six-year-old Emory says, “It’s about giving not getting.” Love her.

What holiday traditions do you fondly remember? What are those you’d just as soon forget?

Book Launch, a Bookversary, and NaNoWriMo

Hidden Agendas

Today, Hidden Agendas, the sequel to Who Watches the Watchmen?, launched. Yeah, it’s rather lost in the hoopla over National Novel Writing Month, but I wanted it out before the first anniversary of last year’s election.

These two novelettes aren’t exactly historical fiction but more current events or… How about “current political thrillers”? That works.

Both novelettes were certainly cathartic for me to write, and I hope they are for the readers, too.

If you’d like to take a look, go to my Amazon Author Page, and you’ll find them there.

Celebrating The Yellow Scarf

The Yellow Scarf was one of my first novellas, and Facebook just reminded me it came out two years ago.

This novella started out as a 5,000 – 6,000 word short story, which I workshopped at Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop. My fellow writers in the workshop and its instructor, Edgar-Nominated Laura Benedict, suggested that it needed more backstory, that perhaps it was too much of a story for a short story.

Armed with their suggestions, I added the backstory, beefed up a character, inserted the imagery of a yellow scarf throughout, and extended the story over the period of a year. The result? A novella based on real events in the Balkan Civil Wars. It’s a story I’m particularly proud of and am glad it’s out in the world.

To celebrate its second birthday, The Yellow Scarf will be on sale for 99 cents Friday only. Again, go to my Amazon Author page (link above) to have a look and buy a copy if you like.

It’s NaNoWriMo Time!

It’s the mad month of November where several hundred thousand people around the world write a 50,000-word novel rough draft in 30 days. Crazy, right? But we’re writers, so it’s expected.

I guess you could say the novelettes, Who Watches the Watchmen? and Hidden Agendas are prequels to this year’s project, A Squalid Procession of Vain Fools. Again, this will be a current events political thriller with some family angst mixed in, just to make it interesting.

This will be my 10th NaNoWriMo, and this year I’m a co-municipal liaison for the Shenandoah Valley region. My municipal liaison and I have lots of online and in-person events planned, and if you’re local to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, come join us. Check out our Facebook page, Shenandoah Valley Wrimos, for times and places.

I kicked us off last night right at midnight with an online write-in, and, boy, I was up way past my bed time! But it’s great fun with great writers.

I’ll also be occasionally posting about my project here, including some (unedited) excerpts, but if you follow me on Instagram (@paduncan1), you’ll see some NaNoWriMo-related graphics along with my other posts.

If you’ve never tried NaNoWriMo, give it a go. No pressure. Well, there is pressure: 50,000 words in 30 days, but for a type A personality like me, bring it on!

Cover Reveal, Pre-Order, and NaNoWriMo

A couple of weeks ago, I teased the cover of the upcoming sequel to Who Watches the Watchmen?, and now, it’s time to show the whole thing!

Hidden Agendas

HA Kindle Final

And here it is, the cover for Hidden Agendas!

Lots of secrecy and hiding implied there. I found the graphic of the hand and eyes on pixabay.com, where you can download and use public domain images for limited commercial use.

I’m no graphic artist, but I’m becoming more adept at using Canva to design covers for some of my smaller work. For my upcoming series of novels, A Perfect Hatred, I’ll be using professionals!

Pre-Order

Pretty cool, and even more exciting is it should be ready for pre-ordering for your Kindle by Monday, October 16, 2017.

As I explained in the previous post, this sequel details a significant change for The Directorate. I didn’t know it at the time I wrote it, but Hidden Agendas perfectly sets up the story I want to write for this year’s National Novel Writing Month.

NaNoWriMo

This year’s NaNoWriMo project has a working title of A Squalid Procession of Vain Fools.

I love it, right? But where does it come from, you ask?

I recently finished re-reading John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Toward the end of the book, the protagonist, Alec Leamas, is having a heated discussion with his former lover, who questions the ethics of spies. Taken back by her naiveté, Leamas says,

“What do you think spies are: priests, saints, and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists, and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.”

That second sentence stood out for me, and I decided it was a perfect working title.

What do you think?

NaNo Cover 2017And if I have a working title, I should have a working cover, right?

This cover holds a certain amount of symbolism as well. The final scene of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold takes place at the Berlin Wall in the 1960s. The public domain image I used for the cover is a portion of a photo of graffiti on the Wall before it came down.

I’m ready for November!

 

Sometimes You Get It Right

One question people often ask me when looking at my books’ subject matter is, “Were you a spy?”

Sometimes, I joke and reply, “If I were, I couldn’t tell you.” Most of the time I tell the truth. No, I’m not nor ever have been a spy. I merely write about them.

The reaction to that is usually, “Well, then, how do you know what to write about?” or “How do you know you’ve gotten it right?”

I don’t know that one hundred percent. What I do know is with a background as an historian, I’m a great researcher, and I work as hard as I possibly can to “get it right.”

What if I Don’t Get it Right?

That plagues me. I’ve written a novel about two spies who struggle to balance their personal lives with their work. That part is real. The mechanics of espionage is what I don’t have personal experience with beyond cheesy novels and B-movies. For myself, I like real world espionage, as found in John Le Carre or Alan Furst’s novels, over James Bond and Jason Bourne.

I’ve read nonfiction works on the history of espionage and tradecraft, the memoirs of Soviet defectors, and declassified reports of actual operations. I borrow from that for my fiction, but I keep it as authentic as I can. What helps is having acquaintances from a certain counterintelligence agency who’ll take a look at what I’ve written and tell me honestly what’s authentic and what’s not. Even then, I take some dramatic license.

Was I ready for a real spy to read A War of Deception?

Nope. Never. No way.

Almost Like a Covert Op

A couple of weeks ago, I was at an outdoor book festival in central Virginia, hawking books and making a couple of sales. At a break in the activity I look up and who should be standing there but one of those acquaintances mentioned above.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“I’m buying one of your books,” was the reply.

I had to bite my lips to keep myself from talking the buyer out of it. Money was exchanged–man, I wish it could have been a dead drop.

“Would you like for me to sign it and make it out to you?” I asked.

“Make it out to [opposite gender name],” was the reply.

“Who is that?” I asked.

“A retired spy I think will like this.”

Once again, I reminded myself a sale is a sale and what said acquaintance does with a purchased book is no concern of mine. I wrote the transcription.

And said acquaintance’s departure was as quiet and unobtrusive as the arrival. I rather felt as if this had all been some version of a covert op, but, then, I do have an overactive imagination. Help, I’m a writer.

Then, it hit me.

Oh, s**t, a real spy was going to read my book about spies. Here comes a bad review, or at the least a list of what I got wrong. Because I’m me, I braced myself for the worst.

Validation

I’d put the incident completely out of mind, though yesterday when I noticed A War of Deception had a new review on Amazon, I had a momentary hesitation before I looked at it. Whew, it was posted by my niece.

Then, I got a message on my Facebook Author Page from said acquaintance who’d bought a copy. Here it is, I thought, the list of what I got wrong.

Instead, I read:

“This weekend I brought A War of Deception to my friend who retired from the Intelligence Community (where she actually DID espionage-related activities for many years). She just wrote to me saying that she couldn’t put the book down. High praise, indeed, for a thrilling tale.”

After about the fifth time I read it, I believed it. A real spy liked my book.

At first, I couldn’t describe what that meant to me. One, it meant my research skills are undiminished. Two, I’d done a good job of making the characters, whom I’ve worked on for decades, believable. Three, I got it right.

And not only was this a real (retired) spy, but it was a woman–just like one of my protagonists.

I got it right. And. That. Feels. Good.

Cover Tease

Just in time for the one year anniversary of when-it-all-changed-for-the-worst, I’m releasing the conclusion to a story I published earlier this year. Who Watches the Watchmen? is a novelette about people colluding to rig an election. (Timely, right?)

You can get Who Watches the Watchmen? for your Kindle by clicking here, or if you want a paperback, click here.

wwtw-front-cover

The cover for WHO WATCHES THE WATCHMEN?

Who Watches the Watchmen? is a standalone, but other aspects of the story still rattled about in my brain. So, I wrote some more, a natural extension of the original story.

The Sequel

The second novelette is called Hidden Agendas, and those sneaky agendas are everywhere–from my fictional espionage agency The Directorate to the White House itself. Yes, ripped from the headlines, as they say, but fictionalized.

Here’s the back cover copy:

In this sequel to WHO WATCHES THE WATCHMEN?, all good things must come to an end…and a new beginning.

For Mai Fisher, the political climate in the United States after the election of a conservative billionaire, who’s surrounded himself with deconstructionist, ultra-rightwing advisors, has become too uncertain. After the incident where her own assistant director betrayed information to a political campaign, she’s on edge, especially after learning he intended to “give” The Directorate to the new administration as its private intelligence service.

She comes to the reluctant conclusion The Directorate has to cut ties with the U.S. and move to a more neutral location. Then, she has to convince her husband and former partner it’s necessary to leave their home of twenty-five years behind and move to a new country.

Mai can’t resist, however, executing one final act of subterfuge before she leaves, a reminder to those alt-right advisors…she’ll be watching.

Cover Sneak Peek

Here’s a peek at part of the cover:

Cover Tease

Cover tease for HIDDEN AGENDAS

Want to see the full cover? Hidden Agendas will be released for your Kindle and as a paperback on November 1, 2017.

Old Friends are the Best

Like many people, I made relationships in college that have endured, even nearly fifty years later. There were three of us who were roommates for the 1971-1972 college year, and that one year has led to a lifetime of events where we three supported each other like sisters: marriages, divorces, childbirth, miscarriages, children with special needs, illnesses, the deaths of parents, siblings, and a spouse, and a child coming out as gay. We’ve always been there for each other with absolute, unconditional love.

When my first novel came out, my two friends were some of the first to get a copy of A War of Deception. I appreciated that, of course, but I never expected either to read it. One is a mystery fan, the other more for historical romance.

I spent a few days last week with those friends, and the first thing one said when I arrived was, “I loved your book. I didn’t think I would because I don’t read the spy genre, but once I started it, I couldn’t put it down. Why, I was going to bed at 6 p.m. so I could read it!”

She went on to explain that though she’d proofread my college term papers, she didn’t know I was such a storyteller.

My other friend echoed her comments and told me she was “hooked from the beginning and can’t put it down.”

Now, you say, they’re your friends; of course, they’d say that. Nope, these are the kind of friends who have told and will tell me when I’ve effed up and will mince no words. If they’d hated A War of Deception, they would have told me in no uncertain terms. And I would have accepted it because it would have originated in love.

I can’t describe what it means that friends of long-standing appreciate my literary efforts. That means more to me than any five-star review. It almost makes up for my father and brother not being here to celebrate this accomplishment.

I love all my friends made over the years, but old friends are the best.

Which of your lifelong friends can be brutally honest with you about your writing? Let me know in the comments.

Feedback is Good

I’m a participant in this year’s NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. This past week I got the result of my Challenge 1, Round 1 entry–10 out of 15 points. That puts me in a good position for Round 2. (The scores from Rounds 1 and 2 get added together, and the top five scores move on to the second challenge.)

Fantasy, A Food Truck, and A Water Fountain

That was my prompt for the Round 1 challenge, and I had to write a 1,000-word story incorporating that genre (fantasy), location (food truck), and object (water fountain).

After much angst about the fact I don’t really write fantasy, I came up with the story, “The Orcs’ Food Truck.”

Because I’m me, the story became dark fantasy. You can read it here.

Feedback

Part of this challenge is that every story submitted to the judges gets feedback–what the judges liked and didn’t like. In the past, I’ve had mixed feelings about this because the feedback from one judge often contradicted another’s, and I’d end up with no clue if the story were good or not.

This is what the judges had to say about “The Orcs’ Food Truck”:

(Note: My reactions are in [ ].)

What They Liked:

“Ah! A topical tale torn from the headlines, then! – ‘…after some recent elections in the human world, the old, human prejudices had sprung up again.'”

“Funny: ‘…because they’d bootlegged satellite television and become addicted to the Food Network.'”

“Absolutely gruesome interior scene!”

“It was fascinating how swiftly, and credibly, matters escalated. This is a good satire. [I didn’t intend it as satire, but oh well.] It has a  message and is well written with tongue in cheek. Behind this fantasy story lurks a darkness that quickly turns to horror. I especially like how the story skillfully sets up the plot for a surprise twist at the end.”

What They Thought Needed Work:

“Your title is too mundane for your tale.” [Well, you try coming up with a pithy title when you have forty-eight hours to write a coherent story.]

“While I know the translator [a character in the story] exhibited reluctance, it would also be good to have another creature foreshadow menace.” [Good point, but having multiple viewpoints in 1,000 words isn’t easy.]

“Because ‘stained’ [a word used to describe rainbow colors on the fairy wings] conotates a blemish, it would be better to have the fairy wings ‘glimmering in the grace of’ the sculpture’s rainbows.”

“Tell us more about the place where all this takes place. Give us some history of the environment where these characters live.” [Did that to an extent, but 1,000 words.]

“The plot is well thought out and leaves little room for improvement. However fantasy stories usually do not embrace the macabre and this one has plenty of gruesome horror. Should the writer want to shop this tale around as a fantasy, the story would have to lighten up and focus less on the dark side; otherwise it might fit better in the horror genre.” [Has he (or she) ever read/seen The Lord of the Ring/The Hobbit trilogies?]

My Reaction

I got good feedback, though some of the “needs work” comments were more complimentary than critical.

Again, you can read the story by clicking here. Let me know in the comments if you agree with the judges.

Old School Spies

As a teenager, I read John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Along with the TV show, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., it intrigued me about the world of espionage, especially Cold War espionage.

I’m a child of the Cold War. The Cuban Missile Crisis is not mere history to me. I lived it. I was glued to the television news. I had to bring a shoe box to school with a change of underwear, a bar of soap, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and some other odds and ends I don’t remember. We practiced “duck and cover” and trooping to the school’s musty basement, designated a fallout shelter. My father, in the Reserves by then, was told he’d likely be called up and deployed again to Berlin.

At the time I didn’t realize if a nuclear exchange had occurred, he would have died quickly. Not so much us. We lived two hours outside of Washington, D.C. We would have survived the initial blast, but radiation poisoning would have gotten us sooner or later.

I was ten and a half years old, thinking I wouldn’t make it to eleven.

Le Carre – The Master

Born David John Moore Cornwell, Le Carre was a pen name he used for writing spy novels while employed by Britain’s Security Service and Secret Intelligence Services. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, was his third novel, and its success allowed him to leave MI-6 and write full-time. His best-known character is the spy George Smiley, who has appeared in most of his works. He swears none of his work, especially “In From the Cold,” is based on things he experienced. Rather, he says, he was a keen observer of behavior and people.

His novels are dark and gritty, the settings dreary places I’d read about. My father had served in West Berlin and talked a bit about the situation there. I watched news reports about the Berlin Wall and about the daring escapes by people from the east to get to the west section of the city. Le Carre’s books were “real” to me.

And I loved them. They drew me into the world of intrigue and counterintelligence, not enough to want to be a spy, but enough to want to write stories like Le Carre’s and, later, Alan Furst’s.

Back to the Beginning

Le Carre’s newest release is A Legacy of Spies, a sequel of sorts to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. That intrigued me enough to plan on reading A Legacy of Spies, but I decided after almost fifty years, it was time to re-read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

Oh, the language! The way he describes people and places. He puts you there. In the opening scene, I was at Checkpoint Charlie waiting in the cold and dark for an asset to defect, my tension a direct result of Le Carre’s scene-setting, his subtle revelation of the characters’ emotions. Though you never “see” the main character in that scene, Karl, the defector, when he meets his fate, your heart is pounding.

And it’s a writing lesson, too, on how to engage a reader, how to infuse a scene with tension, and how to deliver the punch to the gut.

It’s old school espionage, not the gadget-ridden, high-action novels and movies of this century. It’s spy vs. spy, it’s pitting wits against other wits, it’s manipulation and extortion, it’s human not tech, and it’s absolutely thrilling.

Do you want to know why I write about spies? Read anything by John Le Carre.

—————

P. A. Duncan’s first novel, A War of Deception, is available now on Amazon. This week only, the Kindle version is 99 cents.