Research for a Cold War Espionage Thriller

I get asked from time to time about doing research for the Nick Temple Files. The books are set in the 1950s and 1960s, so research is necessary to lend an air of verisimilitude to a work that is otherwise fiction. I often combine personal experience as a starting point with research, usually accomplished via the internet and sometimes supplemented with print works. Here are two examples:

Part of the story in Nick Temple File no. 5, The Shadow Chamber, revolves around a piece of signals intelligence (SIGINT as it’s referred to) Researching a Cold War Thrillerthat is captured by the U.S. Army and by East Germany (DDR) at the same time. The SIGINT has both Russian and German in it and it holds an important clue to what the Shadow Chamber is. From my own experience, I know where some DDR and Soviet SIGINT was captured and processed from either inside West Germany (FRG), a fact I had to verify by research, or in West Berlin. What I had to determine was how SIGINT was collected by the East Germans in areas near the border with the FRG during the 1960s. So, I hit the internet. Here is what I learned in fairly short order: During the 1960s, East German military SIGINT (to distinguish it from communication that would have been of interest to either Stasi or KGB operating within East Germany) along the border with the FRG was carried out for the most part by tactical units of the East German National People’s Army (Nationale Volksarmee or NVA), because, as I also learned, a separate overarching NVA intelligence branch wasn’t organized until the early 1970s. I then had to find a credible NVA signals unit operating not far from Wobeck (that location’s relevance is explained in the book) in the FRG in the mid-1960s. After some more digging, I found the 11th Signal Battalion of the NVA’s 11th Motor Rifle Division headquartered in Halle, a city in the DDR about 135 kilometers from Wobeck fit all of my parameters. Technically then, it’s feasible that both the Wobeck site and that signal battalion could have simultaneously intercepted the same communication. So . . . the 11th Signal Battalion of the East German National People’s Army just found its way into Nick Temple File no. 5.

On a less technical level, part of my job as a writer is to establish the physical setting within which any action takes place. Much of Nick Temple no. 5 takes place in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in the state of Bavaria. I travelled to Garmisch a number of times while stationed in Berlin, the reason being that my fiancé was temporarily assigned to the United States Army Russian Institute at Sheridan Barracks just outside of town. From those visits I learned a good deal about the town and the surrounding area. Two particularly interesting features of the town are that it was the site of the 1936 Winter Olympics, and many of the town’s buildings are adorned by hand-painted murals often depicting religious scenes. I needed to flesh both of those items out a bit as I introduced the setting for much of the book. So, once again, I hit the internet. The results of the ensuing searches provided a good deal of detail, the sort of detail that renders the setting unique and, hopefully, interesting enough to provide a credible background for a Cold War espionage thriller.