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.

Balancing Reading and Writing

Most any writing instructor worth his or her salt will tell you, “If you want to learn how to write, read, read, read.” In particular, read within the genre you want to write. That’s excellent advice; however, none of them manage to impart how to find the time to do that, especially when you have your own writing in the mix.

Like most writers who love to read, I have a literal stack of TBR (to be read) books and a virtual one on my eBook reader as well. I participate in book-reading contests, i.e., set a number of books to be read in a year. Last year I blew right past the goal I set for myself. This year? Not so much. No matter what I do, I’m consistently four books behind my goal, and the about of time remaining in the year is quickly shrinking.

I can, however, pinpoint the cause. I spent most of the summer rewriting and revising a novel manuscript I had a (self-imposed) deadline for, so reading was one of the necessities I put aside. Now, I’m scrambling to catch up so I won’t perceive myself as a failure for not reading an arbitrary number of books in a year.

There’s an offshoot issue of this. When I go to read books in the genre I write, I find them, well, unhelpful. First, they’re mostly, almost exclusively written by men, and the female characters are stereotypical, again for the most part. So, I rarely read thrillers. I substitute non-cozy mysteries by the likes of Sara Paretsky, or speculative fiction by Margaret Atwood.

Now, it’s not that I won’t read thrillers by the late Vince Flynn or Lee Child. I do because within them is how to structure a good thriller, but I go elsewhere to learn characterization. Even though I write what will likely be considered “commercial” fiction, I want to approach it from a literary fiction standpoint, so I read a lot of literary fiction, also, contemporary as well as classic.

And the ultimate thriller writer for me is Stephen King. Yes, his work often falls into the horror/paranormal category, but the man can write; he can develop amazing characters; he concocts intricate plots; he has the most amazing sense of setting; and he eschews those dreaded -ly adverbs. His books also meet the accepted definition of a thriller, and, along with his great tutorial book, On Writing, his body of work is a writing course in and of itself.

Even after all the positives of reading to aid in writing, I still feel guilty when I devote a day to reading–I should be writing. I also feel guilty when I devote an entire day to writing–I should be making a dent in that TBR stack. To put in contemporary social media terms: I have a #firstworldproblem.

For every writer friend I have who gets the fact you have to read to understand how to write, I run across someone who declares he or she has no time for reading, “I just want to write.” One of the writers I follow on Facebook is Anne Rice, probably an icon for a successful writer. She is always posting about the books she has read and what about writing she has learned from them. So, I think you can balance her approach against the “writer” who doesn’t see the need to read and gauge which one is a writer, not a scribbler.

So, I’ve been writing long enough. Off to do some reading–Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, by the way.

Plot Versus Character

During the Q&A session for the “Thrilling Me Softly” panel at Virginia Festival of the Book last week, the dreaded question came up almost immediately: Which is more important–plot or character? What ensued reminded me of debates between seasoned flight instructors: when you’re coming in to land, which is more important, power or pitch? (Turns out, it’s a balance, and you have to manage both well, especially if the engine quits.)

“Plot or character?” is a question in the league of “When did you stop beating your spouse?” In other words, there’s no good answer.

The members of the panel gave it a try, though it ended up being three to one, character to plot. One author, who shall remain nameless, disdained the notion that characters take over. “My characters do exactly what I tell them to do,” he declared, and he believed an intricate, well-wrought plot is more important. One panelist countered by saying she gets an idea for the plot, but she has to have the characters fleshed-out before she can bring them together.

I looked over several of the plot proponent’s titles at the book fair and scanned some pages of each. They are well-executed thrillers, with, indeed, intricate, well-wrought plots. Though I didn’t read much of each book, I could see his main character, however, was the stereotype of an unyielding federal law enforcement officer and probably not very complex.

I’m not dissing thrillers. I read a lot of them because they’re great escapist fun, though they seemed to be of a distinct right-wing bent. That alone means I’ve usually forgotten them a day later. A book or short story speaks to me and stays with me if there are multi-layered characters, people I can “see” on the street or in my life. I’m not a big Hemingway fan, but the old man from The Old Man and the Sea has stayed with me for forty years. The plot of a Vince Flynn pot-boiler–nope, can’t remember a thing.

The “thrillers” I have liked are those by John Le Carre or Alan Furst, where the world of espionage is populated by rich, realistic characters you come to know and worry about, and they are involved in a convoluted plot with multiple threads to be tied up at the end. They combine the best aspects of plot and character and are more literary than genre works.

I think, like a well-executed landing, a memorable work of fiction has the perfect balance of character and plot. Weigh in–what do you think? Plot? Character? Or both?


Virginia Festival of the Book – Fourth and Final Day

It seems like yesterday when I attended my first panel at the 18th Virginia Festival of the Book, but here I am done at last and eager for next year.

Today was “Pub Day,” with panels focused on all aspects of publishing from eBooks to agents. Running concurrently were “Crime Wave” panels, featuring authors and publishers of crime fiction, mysteries, and thrillers. I picked some from each.

My first disappointment in a panel for the entire festival was “Pub Day: eBooks,” so I won’t list the panelists. When the first question from the moderator to the panel is “What is an eBook?” and the answer from a panelist is, “It’s a book without pages where the text flows,” you know it’s a waste of your time. I’m certain the vast majority of attendees at the Festival were aware of what an eBook is, given the number of Kindles and Nooks I saw about. Add in the fact that the opening panelist hemmed and hawed and even asked the audience for the word she sought, I decided to leave and prowl the Book Fair.

“Pub Day: Making the Breakout Book” was an interesting offering. On the panel you had Robert Goolrick (A Reliable Wife); his agent Lynn Nesbit; his editor and publisher Chuck Adams of Algonquin Books; and his publicist Kelly Bowan, also of Algonquin Books. This was an in-depth glimpse to the entire process of querying a book, having your agent sell it, editing and revising it, then having it marketed.

I broke away from Pub Day to go to “Crime Wave: Thrilling Me Softly,” which featured four authors of successful suspense, mystery, or thriller books. Jane Bradley (You Believers) based her novel on a true story–after a visit from the dead victim in a dream. John Milliken Thompson found the idea for The Reservoir while researching Richmond, VA’s Civil War history. Gary Kessler also drew on a real event and some local Charlottesville history for What the Spider Saw. John Gilstrap writes a series of books featuring a hostage rescue team, the latest of which is Threat Warning. All four had lots of good tips about pacing, and though there was a difference of opinion about the importance of characters versus plot, each had good suggestions for doing your best on both.

It was back to Pub Day for “Agents Roundtable.” Three agents–Erin Cox of Rob Weisbach Agency, Byrd Leavell of Waxman Agency, and Deborah Grosvenor of Grosvenor Lit–gave a frank and detailed talk about how to approach an agent, how to query them personally, and to “match” your work to a specific agent. The most interesting aspect of this was none of them indicated they would be deterred by a query from someone who had self-published. Each of them stated that with the publishing industry in such turmoil right now,  they couldn’t ignore a prospect from any source. That was more open-minded than I had expected.

And, the day was done for me. It’s hard to believe that this year’s Virginia Festival of the Book was over so quickly. Even though it’s not particularly craft-focused, I got a wealth of helpful information in bits and pieces. I’m glad my Commonwealth supports creativity in this way. I’m already looking forward to next year.

As each of the moderators said, the Festival is free but it’s not free to produce. Please consider going to the Web site and contributing to a great way to bring writers together.