More Inspiration–Plus Spy Flash 21

I’ve written before about what writers can use as inspiration–a photo, an overheard snippet of conversation, an idea that’s rolled around in your head for years. Some writers are inspired by television programs or popular books and write fan fiction (which some writers then turn into popular, though ill-written, books and make tons of money). Other writers, myself included, get inspiration from actual events and put a fictional twist on them.

This past weekend my Unitarian Universalist fellowship held a used-book sale, and I promised myself I’d be good and not buy any more denizens for my groaning book shelves. Best-laid plans, and all that. A few seconds into browsing, something caught my eye: Intelligence Wars: American Secret History from Hitler to Al-Qaeda by Thomas Powers. Powers’ book is a collection of essays he wrote for various publications on America’s history of spying. At $2.00 for a hardback, how could I, the spy writer, pass that up?

The Table of Contents is a veritable mine of story prompts: “The Conspiracy that Failed,” “Phantom Spies at Los Alamos,” “The Mind of the Assassin,” “Marilyn was the Least of It,” and “The Trouble with the CIA” are just a few examples. Even more than inspiration, this is an excellent reference for delving into the history of the world of intelligence.

However, it wasn’t my new acquisition that inspired me this weekend. Rather, it was a combination of the prompt for Week 21 of the Rory’s Story Cube Challenge and the ghost of executed Romanian Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. For quite some time now, the ghost of Romania past has bugged me to write about his timely end. I’m not going into length here about Ceausescu and his equally ambitious wife, Elena. You can Google them and get a number of reputable references about Romania under their rule (remember the news stories on Romanian orphans) and how the Eastern European anti-Communist uprisings in 1989 had their bloody culmination in Romania.

And don’t get me wrong. If Ceausescu were still around, he wouldn’t like my portrayal of him or his wife in my story, “Judas Goat.” That just goes to show, you can haunt someone to write about you, but payback’s a bitch.

Here is the roll of the cubes for Week 21:

And here is what I saw: l. to r. – knocking on a door; evil; shouting in anger/angry; eating; thought/thinking; magic/magic wand; flower; sheep; sadness/dismay.

The object that stood out for me was the sheep, and you’ll get the connection to the title, when you read the story, of course.

As usual, if you don’t see the link on the story title above, hover your cursor over the Spy Flash tab at the top of the page and select it from the drop-down menu. If you’d like to give the Story Cubes Challenge a try, write a story of any length based on the picture above, then post a link to it here.

Spy Flash – Week 19

At least I’m doing better in posting a story for last week’s prompt before this week’s comes out. Again, I made a couple of false starts, but I decided to go back to an early Spy Flash story, which I left open-ended. Last week was a pre-quel of sorts; this is a sequel, even though it’s still a bit open-ended. I have an idea what I want to happen to the Ambassador in this story, so I’ll save it for another roll of the cubes.

That earlier story was “A Little Romance,” and it dealt with a tried and true piece of tradecraft using a “swallow” for a “honey trap.” You hire a woman (the swallow) to compromise an official you want to obtain information from or whom you want to coerce into doing something and take pictures of the encounter. This was a standard piece of Soviet tradecraft, and though the CIA would deny it would ever stoop to something so morally ambiguous, don’t believe it.

So, what happens after you set and trip the honey trap? That’s what you’ll find out in “Honor.”

Here’s the roll of the cubes for this week–a little blurry, but readable. 

Here’s what I saw: l. to r. – asleep/sleeping; raising a hand/speaking; out on a limb/ climbing a tree; shouting; knocking on a door; scales/balance/justice; scissors/ cutting; bee; headset/earphones/listening.

As usual, if you don’t see the link on the title, “Honor,” above, click on the Spy Flash tab at the top of the page and select it from the drop-down list. And if you want to participate in the challenge, write a story of any length using the objects and actions in the picture above, then post a link to your story on Jennie Coughlin’s blog.

Spy Flash – Week 18

Week 18 was last week, so I’m a little late. I spent the weekend at a writer’s conference (more about that tomorrow) in Winston-Salem, NC, so I’ll use that for an excuse. That and the teepee. (See below.)

Here’s the roll of the cubes for week 18:

Here’s what I saw: l. to r. – bee; the letter L; striking a match; fork in the road; teepee; digging; walking; crying/weeping; house/home.

There, dead center, is what threw me for days. Yes, a teepee.

I’m using these prompts to write espionage flash fiction, so how on earth was I going to connect that to spies?

Since one of the characters I write about was originally born in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, I even researched whether the Scythians, a tribe from the east that conquered most of what became Ukraine, had used yurts (large, well-furnished, collapsible tents moved from campsite to campsite), but I couldn’t confirm it to my satisfaction. (Turns out the Scythians may have been the origin of the Finnish sauna, but that’s another story.)

Then, after an unsuccessful attempt on Monday, I decided that wasn’t a teepee, but a tent. Hey, it’s all about how each person interprets the cubes after all.

The lesson here is sometimes we writers get hung up on a scene, a sentence, a word, which blocks everything else. Once we let go of the hang-up, creativity has room to grow.

This story, “Patience,” is a prequel of sorts to an earlier story, “Here, There be Dragons.”

If you don’t see the link on either title, click on the Spy Flash tab above and select them from the drop-down list. If you want to take the Rory’s Story Cube Challenge, use the photo above and write a story of any length, then post a link to it on Jennie Coughlin’s blog.


Spy Flash – Week 17

The roll of the cubes this week inspired a topic I’ve been wanting to write a story about for a long time. As the result of my research into a still-unpublished novel about political murders in Milosevic’s Yugoslavia, I came across the Russian and Serbian Mafiya’s ties to human trafficking, usually of Russian women tricked into thinking they were going to Belgrade or other European cities as nannies or models.

Several years later I learned, as if the human trafficking of adult women (and men) weren’t horrific enough, of a “sub-culture” in human trafficking, that of very young girls. Even more shocking to me was that certain contractors the U.S. Government hired to do work soldiers don’t do anymore, once they were in Kosovo bought women and girls as sex slaves–using government money. Lest you think this is another of my liberal rants, Google it. Or read a detailed new book by Rachel Maddow, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military PowerThe chapter where she described this, and worse, behavior angered me and must have stayed with me, because I wrote this story to show the human trafficking of children, of anyone, has to stop.

Here’s this week’s roll of the cubes:

This is what I saw: l. to r.–flashlight; reaching/out of reach; keyhole; falling; right turn; counting money; beetle; castle/rook; scales/balance/justice.

And the story I wrote is entitled “Angel of Death.” Be warned, it contains a section of dialogue toward the end that may offend some, but it’s not prurient or gratuitous. This one is definitely not for children, and it may not be for some adults.

This story is dedicated to the men and women who fight human trafficking around the world, and, of course, to the victims. There are too many of them.

If you want to participate in the Rory’s Story Cube Challenge, use the picture above and write a story of any length, using each object or action shown. Then, post a link to your story on Jenny Coughlin’s blog.

If you don’t see the link on the story title above, hover your cursor over the Spy Flash tab at the top of the page and select the story from the drop-down list.

Spy Flash – Week 16

Four months already, and I’m still amazed that I’ve kept up with this. The key thing is that the Rory’s Story Cube Challenge forces me to write something new every week. Hmm, it’s almost as if writer friend Jennie Coughlin knew I needed a kick in the butt when she came up with the challenge. I consider my butt kicked, and thankfully so.

Several regular readers (Squeee! I have regular readers!) of the series have asked if I’m going to compile the Spy Flash stories into a book, and the answer is, indeed I am. I’m going to wait until I have twenty-six stories (half a year) and publish a volume entitled, big surprise, “Spy Flash,” as an e-book for Kindle. And maybe a paperback. We’ll see.

What I saw: l. to r. – break/broken; raising hand/speaking; keyhole; crying/weeping; a die; sadness; romance/hand-in-hand/holding hands; sheep; scales/balance/justice

This week’s roll of the cubes featured a set of scales, which for me means justice. I majored in Russian history, and one of my Spy Flash characters is Russian, so something came to mind almost immediately. I did a little research to confirm my recollection of what I’d studied decades ago, and the result is this week’s story, “Prizraki.” That’s a Russian word, and I’ve defined it in an end note of the story that also provides some additional detail on the history discussed.

If you don’t see the link in the title “Prizraki” above, then hover your cursor over the Spy Flash tab at the top of this page and select the story from the drop-down menu. If you’d like to give the Story Cubes Challenge a try, write a story of any length then post a link to it at Jennie Coughlin’s blog.


Spy Flash – Week 15

When you develop characters who appear in more than one work, as a writer you know they have to have back story. This is true of Mai Fisher and Alexei Bukharin. I know their back story quite well. I should. I made it up. Some of it I wrote down; some of it has been rattling around in my head for a long time.

That was the reason I decided to use these two characters for writing stories for Jennie Coughlin’s Rory’s Story Cubes Challenge. Some of the back story is exactly what I had in my head, and, interestingly, some of it changed. Let’s be clear. I didn’t change it to make it fit whatever cubes were rolled for the week. The change was always there and needed to be made; rather, the cubes revealed it. Funny how it works that way.

The minor character introduced in this story, Roisin O’Saidh, is part of Mai’s Irish side. Mai’s Irish family, the Maitlands, have had an intricate–and perhaps intimate–relationship with the O’Saidh’s (pronounced O’Shay) for several centuries. The O’Saidh’s make the money the Maitland’s live on, but which of them has imbued the altruistic streak is unsure, at least for now. I’m sure there’s a story in me about that. One thing is clear, Roisin O’Saidh thinks of Mai as the daughter she never had, and, as with parents and children, no man would ever be good enough for Mai Fisher in O’Saidh’s eyes. Most parents, however, don’t have large sums of money available to buy off suitors or husbands.

Here is this week’s roll of the cubes: 

Here is what I saw: l. to r. – arrow; building/brick wall; blindfolded; near-miss; spying; credit card; counting money; moon; and flashlight.

The arrow and the flashlight were the two hardest items to include in the story, but I managed.

The story is “Another Brick in the Wall,” my shout-out to my favorite Pink Floyd song. If you don’t see the link on the title, hover your cursor over the Spy Flash tab above and select “Another Brick in the Wall” from the drop-down list.

If you’d like to take the challenge, write a story of any length using the objects and actions depicted above, then post a link to your story here.

Story Cubes Challenge – Weeks 12 and 13

A trip to see some family in New England precluded writing a story for Week 12 of the Story Cubes Challenge, then along came the prompt for Week 13 in the midst of a lot of  house- and car-related issues. The result is you get a backwards two-fer–one story from two prompts.

I’ve written stories about the beginning of both Mai Fisher’s and Alexei Bukharin’s careers, so here’s a story about the end. The story is based on the actual arrest of Serbian General Ratko Mladic, who’d been hiding in plain sight in Serbia for more than fifteen years after his indictment as a war criminal for the massacre of Bosnian Muslim men and boys near the U.N. Safe Area of Srebrenica in July 1995. Several stories in my collection, Blood Vengeance, deal with this event, the largest incident of genocide in Europe since World War II.

The character Vojislav Ranovesic is from an unpublished novel of mine entitled Self-Inflicted Wounds. It’s also based on actual events in the late 1990’s and 2000 surrounding the murder of dozens of associates of and government officials for Slobodan Milosevic. Mai and Alexei go in to try and find out who is behind the murders, and Ranovesic is the “one good cop left in Yugoslavia” whose help they enlist.

Here are the two rolls of the cubes:

Week 12

Week 13

And here’s what I saw:

Week 12 l. to r. –  scales/justice; baseball/hit out of the park; up against a wall/pushing; eating; key; dancing; falling down the stairs; keyhole/lock; hand-in-hand/romance.

Week 13 l. to r. –  crying; thinking/thought; question/inquiry; present/giving a present; tree; carrying/burden; kicking a ball/soccer; laughing/happy; lightning/lightning bolt.

The story is “26 May 2011,” and if you don’t see the link in the title, hover your cursor over the Spy Flash tab above and select it from the drop-down menu.

If you’d like to try the Story Cubes Challenge, pick a prompt from the left, write a story of any length, and post a link to it on Jennie Coughlin’s blog.

Story Cubes Challenge – Week 9

Moving into the third month of writing flash fiction for Jennie Coughlin’s Story Cube Challenge, I’m seeing the potential in this exercise. Not only am I exploring aspects of characters I thought I knew pretty well, I’m accumulating material for what I think will be a good collection of espionage flash fiction. I’m calling it Spy Flash. Well, I thought it was clever.

As with last week, where I looked a little more into a secondary character, I decided to bring in another character who goes from being primary to secondary and back again a great deal in Mai and Alexei’s professional and personal lives.

Edwin “Snake” Terrell, Jr., is a former Green Beret who is now a CIA field operative. The CIA and the fictional Directorate have a long history of working together, and Terrell, Alexei, and Nelson have shared missions–and other things and people–quite often. He is an interesting character, at least I think so. An inveterate boozer and womanizer, he is a philosopher at heart and has the degrees to prove it. And, as you’ll see, he and Mai have, shall we say, history.

Here’s what I saw this week: (l. to r.) bee; building; dragon; hanging on for dear life; carrying; falling down the stairs; clock/time/0400; magnifying glass/scrutiny; parachute/parachuting/ parachutist

Because it’s not as quotidian as the other items/actions this week, I picked the dragon to center the story around.

You may wonder why in “Here, There Be Dragons” Terrell and Mai are parachuting in the dark into Romania–that’s another story for another time.

If you don’t see the link in the title, hover your cursor over the Story Cubes Challenge tab above and select “Here, There Be Dragons” from the drop-down list. If you want to give this a try yourself, use the picture above, write a story based on the items/actions you see, then post a link to your story in a comment to Jenny Coughlin’s blog post.

Story Cubes Challenge – Week 8

When I was writing my novels back in the 1990’s and 2000’s I never had a community of writers, either in person or on-line. I had the deluded notion that associating with other writers just meant someone would steal your work–that happened to me in the 1980’s. And, yes, it was deluded because writers are incredibly supportive of each other’s work. I mean, where else are you going to find someone who understands when you talk of your characters as real people or about the world you’ve created as reality?

Writers can also inspire you, and not just in the way you’re inspired when you read something by your favorite author. Writer friends encourage you, support you, critique you, and challenge you. From Madison Woods’ Friday Fictioneers, I’m accumulating my 100-word stories into a manuscript (titled Extinction Level Event) I want to submit for a chapbook contest. From Jennie Coughlin’s Story Cubes Challenge, I’m collecting my espionage vignettes into a manuscript I’ve tentatively titled Spy Flash (because the pieces are short enough to be flash fiction).

This is writing I wouldn’t have done if not for these two writers, and if not for these two writers, I wouldn’t have met other writers on-line and in person to inspire and encourage me.

One particular item in today’s Story Cubes Challenge picture led me right to the character I wanted to highlight in a short piece. It’s Nelson, the one-named head of the fictional intelligence organization called The Directorate. He was Alexei Bukharin’s partner until a near-fatal injury put him behind a desk, from where he eventually became director. Because of his injury he uses a cane, and since one of the cubes showed a cane, you get a little glimpse into the history of this man so involved with his secret organization he never leaves its premises.

This is what I saw, from left to right:  headphones/listening; evil side; fire/burning; cane; tree; earth/globe/ world; key; arrow; eating.

And here’s “The One Who Got Away.” (If you don’t see the link highlighted, hover your cursor over the Story Cubes Challenge tab above and select the title from the drop-down list.)

If you want to participate in the Story Cubes Challenge, use the picture to the left and write a story of any length using those items and actions. Then, post a link to your story on Jenny Coughlin’s blog for the rest of us to read.

Story Cubes Challenge – Week 7

Several people have asked me why I write espionage fiction, and the truthful answer is, it just happened. When I was in high school I was a big fan of the old television show, “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” which got me intrigued about the world of espionage (and good-looking Russian men). But I was a bigger fan of John le Carre who wrote spy stories that were authentic. No car chases, no missile-equipped Astin Martins, no unlikely gadgets. Oh, there are women, but they aren’t Bond girls.

My favorite le Carre novel is The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and it has thriller aspects, but it’s a deep psychological study of espionage tradecraft and the people who employ it. I find this type of espionage writing very engaging, and when I figured out I wasn’t going to write cute little mysteries involving a smart, young, female FAA inspector, I decided I wanted my stories to be an homage of sorts to le Carre.

In the 1990’s I discovered the spy novels of Alan Furst. Furst writes the “historical spy novel,” meaning he immerses himself in the time and place where he sets his novels, and his spies are the unlikeliest of people, which is most always the case. Being an historian myself, I love his series of novels set before and during World War II. They’re a “behind the scenes” look at the tangled web espionage can be. Again, his novels, like le Carre’s, are the antithesis of the cinematic James Bond. (Ian Fleming’s first several Bond novels were straightforward, gritty stories of just how dirty and amoral espionage can be, but crass commercialism, alas, is crass commercialism.)

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not comparing myself to either le Carre or Furst. I have a healthy ego, yes, but I also know I could only be imitative of two masters of true to life spy novels. I try, but how well I’ve done remains to be seen.

That little bit of background in place, here is the picture for this week’s Story Cube Challenge:

This is what I saw, left to right: break/broken; pushing/up against a wall; hand in hand/holding hands; hanging/hanging on; flower; reaching/out of reach; reading; book; lab accident (It looks like a lab flask to me!).

Again, I have to say that when Jennie Coughlin rolls these dice, the result is chance but also challenging. This week was probably the most challenging yet. Once again, there were repeats, so coming up with something that didn’t echo a previous story took me some time.

This week’s story, “A Beautiful Day,” involves some of that old-fashioned tradecraft, but I threw in an explosion for you action lovers. It also shows that espionage and spies are necessarily deceptive, sometimes even to the people they trust.

If you’re interested in giving Story Cubes Challenge a try, use the picture above, write a story, then go to Jennie Coughlin’s blog and post a link to your story. Did you see the same things I did?