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.
If it’s June it must be time for Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop.
I got a memory on Facebook the other day about my first time here in 2012 and how I was terrified of what was going to happen during the critique. I had plotted how I could pack up and move out in the middle of the night.
Turns out it was the best writing experience I had in my life. And the best critique experience. That’s good and bad. Good because I’ve grown so much as a writer because of it; bad because I now expect them all to be that way.
I’ve been every year since 2012, and each time I’ve been validated as a writer, I’ve established a wonderful circle of writer friends, and, frankly, my novel wouldn’t have been published without TMWW.
Trying Something New
This year isn’t the typical submit 40 pages for review and critique. I’m with Dan Mueller, who last year taught a flash fiction workshop in the traditional manner. This year, he’s going to make this a true writing workshop. We’ll get prompts and other inspiration, and we’ll write on the spot.
A daunting task to be sure, but I’m looking forward to it.
They Really Like Me
For the past two years a group of TMWW alumna and I have contributed money for an Alumni Scholarship. This experience has been so meaningful to me, I can’t help but provide part of the means for someone else to be able to get the benefits.
That, along with the publication of my first novel, inspired the faculty to invite me to do an Alumni Reading this Thursday. I was surprised and shocked then honored and humbled. It’s my Sally Field second Oscar moment: “You like me! You really like me!”
I’ve settled into my 1950’s style dorm room and am greeting friends as they check in, listening to Leonard Cohen, and writing this.
It’s going to be a great week.
The other day on my Facebook Author’s Page I shared a graphic from a great on-line group called Writers Write. Based in South Africa, this group offers writing courses, some of which sound so great it might be worth the expense of a trip to Johannesburg to attend. They also post inspiring quotes from writers, renowned and otherwise, for writers. Almost every day, one of those quotes makes me stop and think about my writing and my writing goals. Those quotes are affirming on so many levels.
Here’s one I shared recently on my Author’s page:
That struck a chord with me because I want to write more short stories, but I’m always lamenting that the things I draw inspiration from (current affairs, history, politics) lead to longer works. (Not complaining by the way; I love writing novels.) I keep a notebook with me at all times, but it’s distressingly empty lately. I live in a very interesting area of central Virginia, full of intriguing, odd, and refreshing characters and, so you’d think that notebook would be full of dialogue snippets, bon mots, and killer ideas for a raft of short stories.
Maybe I need to overcome the MYOB attitude imbued in me by my grandmother. “It’s not polite to listen in on others’ conversations,” she used to tell me. I paid attention to that because I probably didn’t know then I was going to be a writer. It just seems rude to write down what other people say; a southern thing, I suppose.
I do manage to overcome the reticence of jotting down what other people say on occasion. My one-act play, Yo’ Momma, started from a single phrase I overheard at a bar: “This here’s my new phone–I gots it for free.”
Recently, in my town two young men died within two days of each other, both at the age of twenty-six. One had mental and intellectual challenges; the other was an award-winning and brilliant cellist. One was murdered; the other died in his sleep of a heart defect. They both warmed the hearts of everyone they encountered. All that is rife with inspiration, but it will have to wait. It’s too fresh and raw.
I’ve long wanted to write a novel based on the lives of my father and my ex’s father–I even have a great title: Two Fathers. The ex (when he wasn’t my ex) and I discussed it, and I took a lot of notes on his father’s history. The ex and I haven’t been together for nine years, and even though I haven’t forgotten the idea, it is also too fresh, too fraught with emotions I’ve tried to put behind me. Someday, I’ll be in a place to write it.
Day in and day out, I encounter the oddest collection of characters in the most routine places: the barista at Starbucks whose laughter could damage eardrums; the couple who own a local business and have arguments in front of the customers; a bail bondsman who dresses as if he’s the east coast version of Dog the Bounty Hunter; a senior citizen who is always front and center of every Tea Party event with a sign which reads, “Keep the Government out of my Medicare!” (I fixed the spelling.) And so on.
There is the challenge, of course, of making someone too recognizable. I don’t have a problem doing that with public figures. In my series based on the Oklahoma City bombing, people will have no trouble figuring out on whom I’ve based President Randolph. However, I also have a family member who is pissed about how I characterized my step-grandfather (that family member’s grandfather) in a story which is based on a family event. Just goes to show, every story has two sides.
Even with the pitfalls, look around you. There is inspiration in everything and everyone. Use it wisely, but use it.
The recent deep-freeze from the errant polar vortex this week froze more than water pipes and noses. It induced a brain freeze–in me, at least. I couldn’t seem to coax a single word from that cold-addled brain onto the computer screen. All I really wanted to do was sleep and eat soup.
I’ve already written about seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and how the shortened periods of daylight get me down, and, well, never mind that the intervals of daylight are actually increasing right now, when it’s mind numbingly cold and gray, my brain decides to hibernate. None of my usual writing pick-me-ups seemed to work. I looked at today’s Friday Fictioneers prompt (which comes out on Wednesday) and went “meh.” I scanned the news outlets for a topic for my mid-week political blog and went “ho-hum.” (Thank goodness Gov. Chris Christie is a perfect foil for a knee-jerk, bleeding-heart liberal; otherwise, I’d have skipped the political blog this week. So, thanks to the Jersey guy, my column was only a day late.)
Today dawned (I’m sure it did because it’s moderately light out there.) rainy and foggy but also with an idea for the Friday Fictioneers prompt, one that was at least satisfying. However, I managed to roll over and go back to sleep. My luck is improving, though, because when I woke again, the idea was still there–and ended up being 121 words, way too long for a 100-word story. Snip, snip, cut, slice, and lo and behold “Siren’s Song” met the word count with idea still intact.
As usual, if you can’t see the link on the story title in the paragraph above, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, then select the story from the drop-down list.
Now, I’m going to catch a nap or eat a bowl of soup. Whatever.
If you have a writer on your holiday gift list and haven’t a clue what to give him or her, let me help you out.
We love books, even ones besides our own. The path to being a good writer begins with being a good reader. Writers read books within their own genre, but if you’re like me, your tastes are eclectic–I’ll read almost anything, even if all I take away from a book is, “I don’t want to write like that.”
We love journals because when we’re without a computer, we need something besides a cocktail napkin to capture an inspiration. Smart phones with their built-in recorders go a long way, but there’s nothing better than a sweet little notebook you can carry in a pocket or your purse.
We love pens, too, and not just to write in those journals (or cocktail napkins). We’re always looking for just the right pen to use for book signings so we can make a statement. I’m partial to fountain pens myself (with cartridges, not ink bottles; I’m far too much of a klutz for them).
We love reviews of our work. Good ones, of course, and even bad ones–IF they’re constructive. The new trend in giving books you’ve never read a bad review hits a writer where it hurts. We’re all pretty sensitive creatures anyway, and we know better than anyone words do hurt. So, if you can’t give the gift of constructive criticism, cross me off your list.
We love it when our friends and family give us space to write, when they put aside their demands on our time and don’t make us feel guilty about taking the time we need to write. I recently told someone the sexiest thing my ex ever said to me was, “I know your writing is important to you, so I’ll just go row around the lake for a couple of hours.” That was a gift whose significance missed me at the time. Now, when I have different interests conflicting for my time, I wish others were as understanding that sometimes I need to retreat to my room, wherever that is, and write.
We love it as well when family and friends, even perfect strangers, give us fodder for our fiction. Some people don’t understand why writers live for the family get-togethers others dread. Easy. We know we’ll come away with a half-dozen new ideas for stories and/or snippets of killer dialogue. So, thanks. Really.
There you have it. Some great suggestions for the writer in your life. Oh, wait. I missed one. A great gift for a writer is to just say to them, “I’m proud of what you do.”
Seasonal Affective Disorder–the “winter blues,” “winter depression”–whatever name it goes by, it’s a motivation killer. In years past, I had only twinges of it, just a day here and there, but lately, it’s become an issue with my writing.
When I was a federal flunky, there were times in deep December and January when I went to work in the dark, sat in my windowless office or in meetings in windowless conference rooms all day, then went home in the dark. That’s when the winter blues were the worst for me.
Science has shown SAD (apt acronym) is real and has everything to do with the changing amounts of light when falls winds down into winter. Spending the daylight hours outdoors and having bright light while you’re inside helps. What doesn’t help is having a solid week of gloomy, overcast, rainy days in the first half of fall, which is how it’s been here in my part of the Shenandoah Valley. The desire to write is there, but the desire to act on it isn’t.
Yesterday, I sat through a marathon of the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, six hours by the way, with an open laptop on my lap, and managed maybe a couple hundred words on a story I started before the gloom descended. You might say that watching the work of Jane Austen was daunting, but I usually find Ms. Austen inspiring. No, I couldn’t get the house bright enough, even with every light available on–Dominion Virginia Power will be happy, though. Though I’d had just over eight hours of sleep the night before, I took a two-hour nap late in the afternoon and woke feeling underwhelmed.
I’m sure today when I go back and look at the little bit I wrote yesterday, I’ll likely hit delete a lot. Given how scrambled my brain was, I doubt any of it is worth keeping.
Somewhat like this blog post, I suspect.
I’m seeing the sky brightening a bit, I have a luncheon engagement to get me out of the house, but, frankly, I’m too SAD to be enthused about any of it. As I posted on Facebook yesterday, “If the sun doesn’t shine soon, I’m going to curl up in a fetal position and gibber.”
This past weekend I spent a brief time in a place where I used to spend a lot of time–eastern Connecticut. My ex, before he was my ex, and I spent as many weekends and holidays as we could on a small lake that spanned the Connecticut/Rhode Island border. The lake is called Beach Pond, and up until a few years ago it had a small beach on the Rhode Island side; hence, the name. Our lake house on the Connecticut side had a small lakeside yard and dock, a large deck, and a great view, which looked across the lake onto the Acadia State Park in Rhode Island.
On the drive from Providence Airport to Preston, CT, where I stayed at my ex in-laws, I have to pass by Beach Pond. I’ve only done this three times since I was last there in 2005 before the ex became the ex. For some reason, last Friday on the third time, I recalled that I wrote most of the rough draft of what’s now a four-book series at the little gray house on the lake.
Now, I’m not much of a water person. I’m a pool swimmer, and bodies of water with fauna in it make me a bit nervous, but sitting beneath some good-sized oak trees with a beer at hand, and notebook or laptop with me, I was in writer heaven. On the weekends, the place was very active in the afternoons–water skiers, JetSki-ers, canoers, kayakers–but in the mornings, the place was quiet and still.
My ex had, as one of his many good qualities, an ability to understand what writing meant to me. He knew it went far beyond the fact I did technical writing for a living. He knew what I wanted to do with my writing, and he encouraged it. He never once complained about the fact a notebook accompanied every vacation we went on and that some part of the day had to have writing in it.
At Beach Pond, he would hop into a small row boat and explore all the various nooks and crannies of Beach Pond, and I would write–pages and pages, sometimes by hand, sometimes on a monstrosity of a laptop (This started in the late nineties.) After two years of these getaways, I had a complete rough (very, very rough) draft of a novel.
I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of that until last Friday as I passed by Beach Pond and felt nostalgia for the happy times I’d had there, but the feeling was something like remembering where you had your first kiss or the first time you made love to someone. The place has an unending significance. This is where I wrote my first, real novel. This is the place whose quiet beauty helped inspire me to do that.
Now, inextricably, that place will always be associated with that particular manuscript. Someday, I’ll turn the pages of the books it has become, and I’ll hear the lap of wavelets against the bulkhead, the rhythmic splash of the oars on the row boat as my ex explored a place he’d known since he was a child all to give me the time to create.
Place, or setting, within a novel is often crucial to its plot, but don’t forget the place where you wrote it. That could be just as crucial–and special.