Thursday, July 21, 2016

Interview with Lisa Hughey, Author of the Black Cipher Files

When I got the idea for a romantic suspense story (Bulletproof Hearts, which languishes because I'm too busy to schedule promotions), I decided to take a whirlwind tour through the genre in its current form. My search led me to, among others, Lisa Hughey, and her Black Cipher Files trilogy, which grabbed my attention because the books were very similar to what I had in mind. So I bought the box set, and started reading, and didn't come up for air for about a week.

It's been a long time since a spy story really kept me guessing. Thrillers are such a staple of my reading diet that it's easy to become jaded with the formula, and if you're in the same frame of mind, these are the books you need to remind you how exciting thrillers can be. It's a linked trilogy of different protagonists solving the same mystery. That's all I can say without giving too much away, but if you think that's a tough way to tell a story, think the exact opposite instead. Lisa pulls it off with great skill. And the good news is, there will be books in the series (so we can look forward to the fourth and fifth books in the trilogy, hahaha).

I invited Lisa for a chat about the Black Cipher books, her current projects, and more about her career.

Brian Drake: The Black Cipher Files felt like a modern interpretation of a Robert Ludlum book, with the wide scope and roller-coaster ride of "who can you trust?" moments. Have you read a lot of espionage novels, or did you take the plunge following your best judgement?

Lisa Hughey: Brian, first of all, thank you so much for having me here, and comparing (even in just the slightest manner) my work to Ludlum! A long time ago, before I was writing, I read Le Carré and other thriller writers. I love movie thrillers, and the Bourne trilogy is a personal favorite. However, I didn’t really study them, I mostly started with a “what if?” and went from there. I read a fascinating book on the National Security Agency, and besides all the research details, when I read about TICOM (a joint task force between the US and Britain from WWII) and the fact that information about what happened to the code-breakers captured in Germany in 1945 is STILL classified, I was hooked. What happened to all those people captured?

BD: The idea of telling one long story over three books with three separate protagonists is very intriguing. I had to buy the box set to see how you pulled it off, and it was very impressive. Did you chose that avenue because of the expectation that romance novels will have a definitive end? Was it hard to write the books that way?

LH: In romance novels, typically (though not always) there are one set of main characters per full-length book, so I started out with the idea that I would write an over-arching plot through three books. I knew who my main characters were for the first two, and I knew Zeke would be the third hero but I didn’t really start thinking about Sunshine until I was part way through Betrayals. Was it hard? YES! I did know who the villain was at the beginning of Blowback but making sure I tied up all the loose ends and that I continued to weave plot through all three books without irritating readers and leaving too many open-ended questions at the end of Blowback and Betrayals was tough. There were a few points while writing Burned that I wanted to tear my hair out.

BD: You have the first three big Black Cipher novels where we learn the mystery of Department 5491, and now there is a Black Cipher #4 available. Will there be more such adventures or have we reached the end?

LH: So the most current Black Cipher book, featuring Barb the scientist who appears in all three original series books, actually has to do with a mystery from South Korea in 1980. I wanted to continue in the vein of using historical events that impact the future but the Dept 5491 storyline was definitely played out. I absolutely love this story, but it is a little different from the first three. Sort of a Die Hard meets the Black Cipher Files.  We haven’t reached the end. My plan is for a book featuring Bella (who we meet in Blowback), Kat (who we meet in Betrayals), and one with Carson and his wife Antoinette. These will be shorter works, more along the lines of Dangerous Game (#4). I’m still working on story lines for these. I expect Carson’s story will be out in 2017. Bella and Kat are yet to be decided!

BD: You have, of course, written other books. Can you tell us more about Family Stone and the Archangel stories? Of your body of work, so far, which are you most happy with?

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LH: The Family Stone series is a romantic suspense series about a blended family of siblings who all have the same father but different mothers. I wanted to explore family dynamics as well as love stories against a backdrop of danger. These stories are much shorter and less complex plot wise with another over-arching thread that runs through all of the books. The oldest brother, Jack, forms a humanitarian aid company that goes all over the world and does good works but the company is also a cover for their more covert endeavors. I had a lot of fun creating the family and finding just the right love interests for each sibling. The final book in that series, Cold As Stone, came out last October but I am currently working on a spin off series, ALIAS, that features secondary characters we met in the Family Stone series.

The Archangel stories are a bit of a departure from my regular thriller/suspense work. These are paranormal stories about the seven archangels who inhabit the Angelic Realm and are tasked as guardians to earth and the Human Realm. Each archangel falls in love with a human which is strictly forbidden. There is a suspense plot in each one (of course!) that drives the romantic relationship but these books too deal a little bit more with family dynamics and there is an over-arching enemy because I seem to be incapable of writing books that are not interconnected.

BD: How did you start writing?

LH: I started writing while I rode to work on the train into San Francisco. I had read a few books in a row where I was dissatisfied with the endings and I found myself re-writing the ending in my head. I thought, I can do better than that! Of course, that was just the beginning because writing is hard work. It took a long time to learn my craft and let my voice come out instead of trying to sound like someone else.

BD: What is something, other than reading great books, that fuels your imagination for your own stories?

LH: I absolutely LOVE research. I read a lot of nonfiction espionage books. I’ve read books on the CIA, the NSA, the FBI HRT guys, snipers, former SEALs, former case officers, old US/Russian espionage lines. I read papers by research institutes and think tanks. I try not to get super technical but if I have an interesting plot device or trick or trap in my stories, typically it is something I found in my research and is based on something that really happened. Most of my plots and story lines spring from “what if?” scenarios that pop into my head while I’m reading the research.

BD: Writing for the Kindle and e-reader audience can be pretty daunting. How do you keep up on the demands of both writing and promotion and chasing the constant carrot that is ebook success?

LH: Promotion is my nemesis. I would rather write ten books than promote but it is necessary in our current climate. I’m still searching for ways to market and promote that I’m comfortable with and that won’t take up too much time. Writing is my happy place so I try to spend the bulk of my time playing around with plot and characters. The positive of the explosion of ebooks is that it has allowed more writers a voice for their work, especially if you write books that straddle more than one genre. And because we have cut out middlemen we can give the reader a less expensive book. The negative is that there are so many voices out there. I do believe that if you put your head down and stay true to your process and to your stories that eventually your audience will find you. This isn’t to say that you can sit back and do no promotion, but I also think that it’s a slow build so I advertise my free books, I do Facebook parties (I love interacting with readers), I network with other writers and cross promote their work, and I keep writing.

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BD: What drew you to romance and romantic suspense in particular? Was that what you liked to read or is that where the money was? If you weren't writing romance, which subject matter do you think you'd tackle?

LH: I started reading romance when I was a teenager. Mary Stewart, Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels, Nora Roberts were and are some of my all-time favorite writers. I also read thrillers and some science fiction but my favorite books are ones that have a central romance. I love the double satisfaction of the triumph of good over evil and the girl gets the boy.

I think if you write for the money, it shows. Writing is intensely personal, and if you are following a trend that’s when readers can sense that your heart isn’t really in it.

If I wasn’t writing romance, I think I’d write in a futuristic post-apocalyptic world after a massive disaster resets the human race. I have no plans to write in that world right now but I do play around with ideas every now and again.

BD: What upcoming books can you tell us about?

LH: The current series I’ve been working on is The Nostradamus Prophecies based on the premise that Nostradamus really was able to see the future, but that it isn’t set in stone. He creates a family book of companion quatrains that is passed down from generation to generation. The current descendant has to decipher the quatrains and stop them from coming true to prevent WWIII. While she is crucial to the stories, she is not the heroine in the first two books. The series features a group of psychic warriors in the CIA’s Project Specter. They use remote viewing for surveillance and intelligence gathering. This is based on a program that actually existed in the CIA in the 1970s. This series combines espionage and paranormal elements. The second book in the series, Never Say Never, released on July 14th. Here’s the blurb:

A very special team of operatives goes deep into Mexican cartel territory … but their point man would rather go deep with the cartel boss's daughter.

This hero doesn't do guns, gangs or crying women … Kelvin Jackson has had a lifetime's worth of all three.  But thanks to his remote viewing of the inside of a remote cartel compound in Mexico, he's in for a lot more. He spots the Russian-made weapons his team is after, and a beautiful woman in mortal danger. His mission--stop the weapons from being distributed by the cartel. Can he do this and save the woman?

She needs a man who'll stop at nothing to save her … Eva Pacheco has watched her father kill everyone who mattered--except her younger brother. Now he uses her bruja powers for profit. She's getting ready to flee with her brother. But the huge, battle-scarred American her father just hired steps square in the middle of her escape route.

If they don't work together, the next deaths will be their own … Eva is irresistibly drawn to the warrior who saves her from a brutal attack, and shields her from her father. But she can't let their sizzling attraction interfere with the plan she's already put in play. Kel soon realizes a different woman lives under her glamorous façade. But her explosive secrets place his entire op in danger--because someone else has a deadly plan for the cache of weapons, and for Eva.

Also, if your readers are interested, the first book, View To A Kill is on sale for $0.99 right now.

BD: I better get out the credit card!

LH: Thank you so much!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Scott Stiletto Returns!

Now that the Steve Dane series is pretty much done (Dane #4 is in the can and coming soon) I've decided to finally continue with CIA agent Scott Stiletto, who originally appeared in The Termination Protocol a couple of years ago. That was meant as a one-shot, but some friends said they liked the character, so why not give a series a try? This required some rewriting of the original story to actually set it up as a series, and writing Stiletto #2 was a quick project (well, a month or two), and now I'm plotting Stiletto #3. Meanwhile, I had some kick-ass covers made by my buddy James at GoOnWrite.Com.

Here they are. I hope you'll like the series as much I like writing it. I'm going all-out with this one, writing something I would have submitted to Gold Eagle back in the '80s, and actually very much wanted to, but when you're 14 who's going to take you seriously? Even I laugh at my old manuscripts now. Sure learned a lot, though.


 Anyway the first three books feature Stiletto as a rough-and-tough CIA operative; after book three, things take a different course, and he becomes a free-lance operative so as to better take on threats that the CIA / US wouldn't handle. If this does well, I have at least ten stories in the pipeline with more to come.

And that's not all. I also have a plan to bring back Mr. Wolf, the vigilante hero I wrote about under the Dean Breckenridge pen name. I want to do several novels with him; my ideas include an origin story that will knock your socks off, literally one of those stories I've been working on for years but never quite knew what to do with.

Enjoy the covers. More updates soon!

Friday, June 3, 2016

The Sushi Bar at the Edge of Forever

Did you hear the one about the haunted toilet?

The Sushi Bar at the Edge of Forever by Calvin McMillin is a collection of short stories that will not only satisfy your need for a good scare but also provide genuinely good entertainment.

Calvin comes to writing with a very diverse background and a talent for crisp, economical writing that should delight those of us who are always looking for that one true sentence.

And he wrote a story about a haunted bathroom. Stephen King has never thought of that!

Here's Calvin to tell us more. . . .

Brian Drake: Tell us a bit about your background, Calvin.

Calvin McMillin: I was born in Singapore and spent my formative years in a little town called Rush Springs, Oklahoma. After graduating high school, I went on to Oklahoma State University, where I received bachelors’ degrees in English and Secondary Education. I taught in the public school system for a bit and then left the mainland behind to get my master’s degree in English from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. After I completed my master's degree, I attended the University of California, Santa Cruz, where I pursued—and eventually earned—a PhD in literature. So, it’s safe to say that I’ve spent a lot of time in school, either as a student or a teacher!

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BD: How did your collection take shape?

CM: The first iteration of The Sushi Bar at the Edge of Forever emerged out of a creative writing course with Professor Albert Wendt at the University of Hawai‘i. It was actually the first creative writing class I’d ever taken, and I really relished the opportunity. Fiction writing was always something that I had to squeeze in during my downtime—after work when I was a teacher or between homework assignments when I was an undergraduate—so, to have writing actually be the homework assignment was a wonderful change of pace.

If I’m remembering correctly, the final assignment called for a portfolio of the student's best work, and somewhere along the way I had this idea of writing a collection where all the stories would all be connected in some way. Plot-wise, each of them would work as a standalone tale; however, when read together, they would form a subtly interlinked experience for the reader. Characters, settings, and themes would recur with a cumulative significance. “The Sushi Bar at the Edge of Forever” and “Model Behavior” were two of the first stories I wrote, and the rest sort of fell into place after that.

BD: How did your professor and fellow students react to your subject matter?

CM: I remember it being a supportive environment, and Professor Wendt was very encouraging.

In fact, when I picked up my final project, I was blown away when I saw that he had written such complimentary things about my writing. To receive that kind of feedback from an award-winning writer—well, it was nothing less than inspiring. Granted, he might have written the same thing on the projects of all my classmates, but let’s not destroy my illusions just yet!

BD: Your stories offer such a unique twist on the typical horror tale. How long did it take to develop your own direction, rather than following standard horror convention?

CM: I drew inspiration from the many ghost stories and urban legends I’d heard during my numerous visits to Singapore over the years. While supernatural tales—particularly films—from Japan, China, Korea, and Thailand have gained differing amounts of exposure in the West, Singaporean horror, which is based heavily on Chinese and Malay folklore, remains relatively unknown outside of Southeast Asia. I felt that this might make it more frightening—or at the very least, more interesting—to American readers who have perhaps grown tired of the same old thing. Whether that's true or not, the Singapore setting was more way interesting to me, along with crafting stories that focused primarily on Asian and Asian American characters.

BD: The Singapore setting was indeed outstanding and it was really neat to get a glimpse into that side of the world. Can we expect more stories from you also set in that area, touching on the background you mentioned (which sounds fascinating--I like reading about how other cultures' folklore and how it's different/similar to ours in the U.S.), or is this the only opus you see yourself doing?

CM: I don’t have anything planned at the moment, but I imagine that Singapore will always be a part of my work. For example, in the novel I’m currently writing, some of the characters hail from Singapore, and what happened to them there figures largely into the plot.

BD: Two of my favorite stories in the book are “The Ghost Writer” and “Model Behavior”. Can you tell us a little about them, and I’ll leave you to whether or not to spoil anything.

CM: The Ghost Writer was especially fun to write. The story focuses on Ridley Lang, a popular Singaporean writer who seemingly has it all—a bestselling book series, a nice salary, and the adoration of fans all across the country. As wonderful as all that may sound, there’s one problem: he’s totally anonymous. As part of a publicity gimmick, his publisher decided at the very beginning to cloak Ridley’s identity in secrecy. It’s an arrangement that Ridley was more than happy to accept at first, but after churning out book after book over the years, he suddenly decides he’s had enough. Not only does he want to go public, but he wants to write a “serious” novel. He's tired of being chained to this franchise. Unfortunately, Ridley takes some short cuts along the way that have dire consequences.

For this story, I was able to draw on a lot of things for inspiration. In Singapore, there actually is a long-running anthology of “true” horror stories that has been pretty successful since the late 1980s. It’s up to volume 24 the last time I checked.  Anyway, all of the stories in each volume are purported to be compiled by the same author. However, nobody has ever seen the guy in person. And when he makes public appearances, he’s dressed head-to-toe in black—and that includes a mask.

When I heard that he was rumored to be a white guy, I realized this could be a short story. The idea of being anonymous is bad enough for anyone who craves even just a little bit of fame, but the idea of ethnic impersonation really appealed to me. Funnily enough, long after I'd completed the story, in September of 2015, there was a controversy here in the U.S. when a white guy named Michael Derrick Hudson was revealed to have posed as a Chinese poet named Yi-Fen Chou—after his poem was chosen for inclusion inThe Best American Poetry anthology. And if you consider all the things going on lately regarding Asian and Asian American representation in the media—the Scarlett Johannson/Ghost in the Shell controversy, for example—I think my story has taken on an added currency. The Ghost Writer was also a way for me to explore the issue of plagiarism, something I have been a victim of on more than one occasion. If something can't be resolved in real life, there's always fiction!

If I remember correctly, Model Behavior was the second one I wrote, immediately after completing the title story. It focuses on Ashley Wu, a Singaporean citizen who relocated to California as a child, but who’s just returned to her home country for the first time in a decade. Over the years, you hear all sorts of stories about celebrities who hadn’t previously thought of pursuing a career in acting or modeling, but suddenly find themselves discovered by a producer or an agent. I wanted to play with that idea in that story. So while Ashley is browsing Orchard Road, which is a big shopping district in Singapore, she bumps into a representative of a world-class modeling agency. She’s asked to come in for an audition, and that really sets her imagination afire. Maybe she could become a model. Maybe she could be an actress. Her head is swirling with possibilities. As the story progresses, however, she starts to question whether this seemingly chance encounter was truly a coincidence, destiny, or something else entirely.

The funny thing is that this story is based on a real-life incident. Aside from Ashley herself and some of the other fictive elements I added, the basic story up until she enters the modeling agency actually happened to me. I think I actually entertained this idea that I'd be an American who suddenly gets famous overseas. Like David Hasselhoff is to Germany or something. It’s all pretty embarrassing! In any event, I can’t actually say for sure that there was a supernatural reason for what occurred, but it certainly was an eerie experience. It's become my go-to story when it comes to campfire tales.

BD: All I can say is that no horror collection is complete without The Sushi Bar at the Edge of Forever on your shelf or e-reader. I cannot express enough about how much I enjoyed the stories; as I said, I’m not horror fan, but I could not stop reading Calvin’s work and I think you will enjoy it too.

Monday, May 2, 2016

New Malko Novel--Lord of the Swallows

There's a new Gerard de Villiers novel on the shelves, Lord of the Swallows, yet another in the long-running Malko Linge series.

Of course I bought it. I've written of de Villiers before and I think I'm developing a real love-hate relationship with the late author.

Here's what you can expect in a Malko novel: thin writing, thin plot, thin characterization, lots of sex, a little action, and endings that fizzle like a sparkler running out of gas.

But, dammit, I read every single word.

Those of us in the States who don't read French are only getting translations, but they're very consistent, so I have to assume his natural style is somehow coming through. I may have to learn French so I can read the other books, actually.

I've just started Lord of the Swallows, which deals with Russian sleeper agents in the U.S., and find myself scratching my head. Why am I reading this? What happens next???? Somehow, it works. Somehow, de Villiers keeps you turning the pages. I'm going to stop wondering why and just enjoy the ride.

By the way, if you're a real glutton for punishment, go over to YouTube and find the trailers and clips for the Malko movies, which look even trashier than the books!

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Ian Fleming: The Man with the Golden Typewriter

I just picked up a must-have book not only for fans of James Bond, but anybody interested in a good biography as well.

The Man with the Golden Typewriter reprints Fleming's correspondence to editors, friends and fans, and his letters pertaining to Bond are terrific. It's a much livelier bio than previous editions, as good as those are (I re-read the 1996 Lycett bio often).

But it's a sad book, too. You're basically reading somebody else's mail, getting caught up in their life and gossip, only to find the very last letter in which his secretary must inform a friend that Fleming is in the hospital and not doing well. You can tell by the date of the letter that he died shortly after, and you can't help but feeling bad. In these letters Fleming is alive again as sure as he was when he walked the earth, and I must admit it was a bit of a shock to get to the end. Sure, you know how and when he died, but here is news coming in "real time" so to speak, and, anyway, it ads weight to the proceedings that doesn't exist in similar letters of Chandler and Hammett

I can't recommend it enough.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Thank You to All Who Voted

Well the Kindle Scout campaign for my spicy romantic suspense novel has ended and Amazon decided not to publish it, which I suppose is fine, because I published it myself over the weekend, and we're actually getting off (is that a bad pun?) to a decent start.

I want to thank all of you for voting. The book jumped in and out of the Hot & Trending category for the whole thirty days, which was great to see. That meant a lot, and it couldn't have gotten there without your help.

If you'd like a closer look at the book and to read the sample, here you go.

Or just click the cover photo on the right.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Welcome Brianna Cain!

It's one of those times where you hope you haven't embarrassed yourself. . . .

Recently a friend suggested I write a romantic suspense story. Nina Talikova, the female co-protagonist in my Steve Dane stories, is very popular. Basically, my friend wanted to know what a story with just Nina might be like, so I did some research, read a few books, and saw how well books in the romantic suspense category (or, rather, R/S, but only if you're with the cool kids) sell. I said, what the heck, worst case I end up with a stand-alone story under my own name.

So I set aside two months to write the manuscript. Came up with a smashing idea, I think, of a young CIA agent trying to discover if her father is a traitor, and in the process she must mend fences with her ex-boyfriend and that's where all the steamy romancy heaving and thrusting happens (spoilers).

I spent another month on editing, had some friends read it, and when they didn't laugh, but instead gave me a hard time for not having more sex in it (who knew I had such a perverted group of friends--male and female!), I thought I might have something worthwhile after all.

A man can't write romantic suspense under his real name, I thought, so I created a feminized version of my first name with a different surname. Fun fact: I once worked under the name Brian Cain, so that's where it came from. (Huge Paul Cain fan, don't you know.) What goes around and all that.

You can see the book on the Kindle Scout program website. Kindle Scout is what I'm describing as Amazon's version of American Idol--if you're popular enough, they'll publish the story. I would be very grateful if you'd give it a click and a nomination. If you have an Amazon account, use your username and password to get in. The first three chapters are available to read, so you can base your decision to click or not on that. If you don't like it, that's OK.

Here is the link, and you can see the cover on the right:

https://kindlescout.amazon.com/p/1OBZ14SUD847R

By the way, if you're looking for a new subject matter to try, for sure try romantic suspense. They're fun, the romance indie community has a great "ground game", and I really enjoyed writing the book. I have two more planned, but don't tell anybody.