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Kick-ass Thriller Writers Gone Rogue

By P. J. Bodnar

A journalist who took on a state legislature; a 30-year veteran law enforcement officer; a forensic scientist; a hostage negotiator; a Wall Street lawyer; a martial artist; a globetrotting writer researching her next novel; a Deputy Press Secretary to the U.S. President; a senior director at the National Security Council; an adventure junkie who dives with great white sharks; and a lawyer that got New Jersey to abolish the death penalty.

These may seem like main characters from the latest bestselling thriller novels, but they aren’t—they’re the real lives of the kick-ass women who write them.

Eight of these women belong to a writing collective known as the ROGUE WOMEN WRITERS, and while their books are the primary focus of their collective blog, their diverse real-life experiences are also worth writing about.

Which is why they’ve recently changed their blog tagline to: Kick-ass writers. With lives.

“We want our readers to know that this is a group of thriller writers who’ve had many exciting experiences/jobs/travels that have inspired our novels,” says Karna Small Bodnam, author of the White House National Security Series.

K. J. Howe—whose debut, The Freedom Broker, won an International Thriller Writers (ITW) award last year—concurs, adding that her life experiences add a layer of authenticity that brings the characters and plots of her books to life. Howe hasn’t just researched some of the dangerous stunts in her novels, she’s lived them—and as a self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I call it ‘method writing,’” she says. “[It’s] comparable to ‘method acting,’ where the actor immerses himself in the protagonist’s world.”

A gathering of Rogue Women Writers.

But of course, a passion for adventure is just one ingredient in crafting a successful thriller, and not all authors can skyjump out of a plane.

Jamie Freveletti—also an ITW-award winner—says she loves weaving real facts in with the fiction, and while those experiences certainly inform her stories, there’s more to crafting a compelling tale than just capturing the action.

“The most important part of being a writer, for me as a thriller writer or as a writer for any other literary work, is the ability to imagine the world from the perspective of our characters,” she says. “While having interesting experiences certainly helps inform the details, the heart of what a writer does comes from within.”

That’s especially important to author Lisa Black, who admits her life—by comparison—isn’t all that exciting, even though the action in her thrillers most certainly is.

“If having a kick-ass life is a prerequisite, they’d have to dump me because there’s nothing kick-ass about my life,” she says. “I haven’t worked as a spy or walked the corridors of power like my fellow bloggers. I’ve never been in a fist fight (and I’m super happy about that). So I have to have my character do those things instead.”

It’s a balance that Gayle Lynds, bestselling author—and Rogue founding member—says she’s learned over time.

“In the past when people asked me what my writing schedule was, I used to say that I wrote all of the time. The rest of life—like eating, talking on the phone, going to parties and PTA meetings and doctors’ appointments, and sleeping—were interruptions,” she says. “Now, I’m more integrated and enjoy both life and writing far more. So kick-ass lives and kick-ass books are, to me, the same. I can’t have one without the other.”

While the Rogues have certainly been known to lean on one another for support, advice, or simply to bounce ideas off each other, they’ve spent the past three years also sharing their knowledge and expertise on their blog—where the range of topics is as diverse as the writers themselves.

Be sure to check out their blog archives, but first scroll down to see what they had to say about their kick-ass lives—and their exciting upcoming projects.

GAYLE LYNDS: Was interviewed on CBS Sunday Morning about conspiracy theories. She shattered the glass ceiling at Bouchercon’s all-boys poker games. Publishers Weekly lists her book Masquerade among the Top 10 spy novels of all time.

You co-founded International Thriller Writers with David Morrell, and then Rogue Women Writers. What are the three biggest milestones the Rogues have achieved as you approach the third anniversary of your first blog post?

Perhaps the Rogues’ greatest contribution has been in raising the awareness that women are writing very good thrillers in the field and doing well. For a long time, some publishers were afraid to publish us because they said they don’t know how to market heart-stopping thrillers by women. I’m seeing more and more evidence that this is changing because of the number of new women entering the field in the last couple of years. I’ve waited a long time for this, and it’s gratifying.

Year 1: The Rogues met and worked jointly to visualize, create, and design our blogsite, and our Facebook and Twitter pages.

Year 2: We settled into the rhythm of writing the blog. Some of us, including me, had never written a blog.

Year 3: Analysis! What are we doing right, and what can we do better? That’s the fun part of something that’s already successful—let’s make it even better.

What can we look forward to reading from you next?

I’m working on a new thriller with a friend that is still in the secret stages.  Hope to have a goodly part of it done by the end of the year. It’s an exciting project!

ROBIN BURCELL: A hostage negotiator, forensic artist, and former police officer, she’s an inductee into the Dick Tracy Hall of Fame.

In your first blog post with the ROGUE WOMEN WRITERS, you mention that your writer’s brain turns everything into a plot line. How does your experience as a police officer magnify this?

Back in the day, when I was on patrol, it was easy pickings, driving around, getting a call, spinning it into a plot. Fatal Truth came about from one such call, where a senior citizen was reporting that one of the political parties was spying on her, because they’d infiltrated her mailbox with dozens of political flyers. The plot for The Last Good Place came about from a newspaper article—and reading between the lines of what was printed and what I knew the cops had to have done as part of the investigation.

But what seems like a blessing can also be a curse. Because I know how the police operate, it makes it difficult to separate the realities of police procedure from my writing—and sometimes that can get in the way. For example, in Pirate, the first book that Clive Cussler and I co-wrote, I had come up with a good action scene, where Sam and Remi Fargo were attempting to rescue a kidnap victim. All very legal, should it ever end up in court—I didn’t want the Fargos breaking the law. Clive took that scene, rewrote it, and had Sam shooting the guy in the head the moment he stepped out the door. As I tried to explain that Sam can’t just kill someone who walks out of a building without knowing if there were weapons, if anyone was in danger, etc., Clive gave me what I call the look. I tried not to let my police background get in the way of good storytelling. (On our next outing together, The Romanov Ransom, Clive was happy to see that I’d written a scene where Sam Fargo shoots the guy in the head first time out.)

What can we look forward to reading from you next?

Look for The Oracle this June, another Sam and Remi Fargo thriller co-written with Clive Cussler.

S. LEE MANNING: A recovering attorney, she has won awards for literary short stories and was instrumental in the abolition of the death penalty in New Jersey.

In your first blog for the Rogues, you talk about spy thrillers being not black and white, but more gray and tan. Is it important in a spy thriller for readers to understand the motivations of the antagonist? How do you know when your protagonist has reached their moral limits? 

I think it’s very important for the reader to understand the motivation of the antagonist. It’s important to remember that especially in the context of international thrillers, the antagonist doesn’t see himself as a villain—he sees himself as a hero. That’s also true historically. The most evil, reprehensible leaders who have ever existed—Hitler, Stalin—thought they were the heroes of the story, and it’s important to understand them, even while we root for their defeat. The question then becomes how do we fight them without becoming too much like them? I find that an interesting question—and it has to be answered within the context of a situation. If you have a Hitler-like character who will kill thousands or millions of people, do you bomb a theater filled with otherwise innocent people to kill him? But then, you have to live with the fact that you killed innocent people. And at what point is it okay to trade a few hundred lives for the possibility of saving other lives? How certain do you have to be of the risk? Are there potential unforeseen consequences that could be even worse? There’s no easy answer—and I like that there are no easy answers.

What can we look forward to reading from you next?

Right now, I’m writing the first of two books involving my favorite spy, Kolya Petrov. It’s an origin story: two best friends in an abusive Russian boys’ school take very different paths in the early 2000s, after Kolya is adopted by an American cousin, and Dmitri is drawn into the Russian underworld. When they meet up again in New York in their 20s, Kolya decides between the pull of an old friendship and his loyalty to the country that has become his new home—and helps put Dmitri in prison. In the second novel, which I hope to start next summer, Kolya, now a member of an elite intelligence agency, gets Dmitri out of prison to help to foil an elaborate plot by the Russian President—but is Dmitri working with Kolya or against him?

K. J. HOWE: Has raced camels in Jordan and ziplined in a Costa Rican jungle. Her novel, The Freedom Broker, won the ITW Thriller Award for Best Debut.

You grew up living in many different cultures. Your protagonist is a hostage recovery expert. In one of your recent blogs, you discuss the benefit of having a protagonist negotiate her way out of trouble instead of shooting her way out. How do these tactics differ from culture to culture?

Excellent question. I’m all for Thea Paris using her negotiation skills and intelligence to solve problems, if at all possible. Of course, a little action does spice things up from time to time. That said, readers love the psychological stimulation of witnessing how characters manage to free themselves from being boxed in on all sides. Because Thea is an elite kidnap negotiator who traverses the globe, she must analyze the cultural differences of each country and follow their customs. There are ways to do things in each locale, and a smart negotiator knows these trade secrets.

What can we look forward to reading from you next?

In the next Thea Paris novel, a group of journalists has been kidnapped on the Jordan/Syrian border and Thea’s ex is the security consultant taken with the news team. The title is Black September.

LISA BLACK: A forensic specialist, she is still catching criminals in Florida. Her novel, Perish, is a nominee for the Sue Grafton Memorial Award.

You once wrote that your happy childhood robbed you of the types of trauma from which many protagonists suffer. In your other life as a CSI, you are surrounded by this type of trauma on a daily basis. Do you pull from these experiences for your writing? 

I do see a lot of trauma in my job. However, I’m not spending a lot of time with the victims because that’s the job of the detective, prosecutor, victim advocate. I tend to see the same kind of trauma over and over: grief at a loss, annoyance at a major inconvenience, weaseling/aggression of guilty parties, and anger at the disruption and damage to their lives. The varieties are endless, and I do mean endless. And much of this trauma gets translated and filtered into many of my characters.

What can we look forward to reading from you next?

My next book, Let Justice Descend, will be released October 29. In it, Maggie and Jack investigate a bizarre murder in the midst of a desperate political campaign.

JAMIE FREVELETTI: Has a black belt in Aikido and is a recovering lawyer. Her novel, Running from the Devil, won the Barry Award for Best Thriller. 

You are a former trial attorney with a degree in international studies, who is also a distance runner and martial artist. This seems like an excellent character description for a Rogue novel.  In your blogs, you’ve discussed the importance of locale in international spy thrillers. Which is more important, depth of character or location? 

Depth of character, for sure. If someone doesn’t care about the character, you’re not going to care about the location. Location can really add to the story, though. As a writer of international thrillers with a twist of action-adventure, I always think about the location that may add excitement or interest to the story. Usually that means, for my thrillers, that the characters are often in failing countries or war zones. I spend a lot of time researching history, current events, and using Google Earth and interviews of journalists that have traveled to the more dangerous countries to get a flavor of what it’s like. Then I let my imagination kick in.

What can we look forward to reading from you next?

In December I had a short story published featuring Sherlock Holmes in the anthology For the Sake of the Game. I placed Holmes in present day in Chicago. And I just finished a thriller manuscript set in the Gold Rush era and am quite excited about it.

KARNA SMALL BODMAN: Was the first woman to serve as a top exec in the White House West Wing. Her books regularly hit Amazon’s #1 in Thrillers. 

You spent six years working with the President of the United States.  You have flown on Air Force One and worked in the Situation Room. How did living the plot of a political and international thriller shape your own work in the same genre?

I know that anyone can check daily headlines and see a veritable “Petri dish” of possible plot points. But I figured out that “being there” is even better. So yes, I have incorporated many of the events, the tension we felt, the settings where we had meetings and meals (Situation Room, Oval Office, State Dining Room, White House Mess as well as the Pentagon and CIA), as well as some of the personalities I encountered in my thrillers.  For example, President Reagan’s announcement of his Strategic Defense Initiative—missile defense program—was the inspiration for my first novel Checkmate, and I used the shooting down of a Korean jetliner with a Congressman on board as part of the inspiration for my thriller Gambit. Finally, my fascination with Russia came from attending Arms Control Talks and Summit Meetings with the Soviets…which led me to write my new thriller, Trust but Verify.

What can we look forward to reading from you next?

I’ve already outlined my next novel.  It’s a contemporary thriller—it was inspired by a trip I took to South America. I was sent there by the White House to meet with governments, businesses, and student groups to explain some of President Reagan’s policies. I spent most of my time in Brazil—in Rio de Janeiro and the capital, Brasilia—so the story is centered there. It continues the same characters featured in Trust but Verify, a White House staffer and FBI Special Agent, sent there on a dual assignment.

CHRIS GOFF: An intrepid world traveler, she was once trapped with her daughter in a dangerous enclave in the Middle East. 

You began your career as a journalist and writing non-fiction before moving into mysteries and international thrillers. You been called an intrepid traveler by the Rogues. Have you always had the travel bug, or did you begin traveling to do research for your novels? What is the most unique trip you’ve taken?

I was born with the travel bug. As an only child growing up, I was able to go along when my parents traveled. At 15, I studied French for a summer in Talence, France, a suburb of Bordeaux. At 19, I took a “gap” year and backpacked Europe with a friend. We visited 13 countries and had lots of great adventures. That was a time before cell phones, when telegrams from Western Union and letters that arrived three weeks later were the main form of communication. To date, the most unique trip was a research trip to Ukraine, Poland, and Germany. My youngest daughter joined me, and we spent a little more than two weeks exploring Kiev, L’Viv, Krakow, Gdańsk, and Berlin. Having a chance to talk to people who had grown up as communists and are now in a war with Russia was illuminating. Seeing first-hand the economic distress of Ukraine, the rolling blackouts, the unemployment. A lot of those impressions made it into the pages of Red Sky, though certainly not all. I think a good writer can only use about 10 percent of the research they do, if that. The story is the story. The research is often the backstory.

What can we look forward to reading from you next?

Lincoln Square Books will be re-releasing all six of my Birdwatchers Mystery Series this fall, and I’m working on a new thriller set in my home state of Colorado.


P. J. Bodnar
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