A Zoom Talk: How I Write a Spy Novel

[Author’s note: These are the notes I used to give a 30-minute talk via Zoom to the McMinnville, Oregon Lions Club on 9/2/20. I was invited to give the talk by Sam Justice, a fellow soldier I first met at the Defense Language Institute in 1981. We are still friends after all of these years. The notes have been modified to eliminate personal references, and edited for clarity.]

I’ve been asked to talk to you today about how to write a spy novel. I’m flattered by the invitation. I’ve thought about this issue before, but never in a coherent and comprehensive way, so the invitation has been useful for my own thinking on how I go about writing a spy novel. A few basics are absolutely necessary, in my view, and the rest probably is a matter of personal predilection. A little background, then the basics, and then a few preferences.

SOME BACKGROUND: When I joined the Army in 1981 I was sent after basic training to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, where I spent the next 18 months learning Russian. From Monterey I did another six months of classified training at Goodfellow AFB in Texas, and at the National Security Agency in Maryland. I was stationed at Field Station Berlin once my training was complete. I was what was called an intercept operator, and then I served as a transcriber.

NSA Intercept Site on Teufelsberg, Berlin, 1985
Teufelsberg, Berlin, 1985
It was while in Berlin that I developed the character Nick Temple. At our intercept site on Teufelsberg, the highest point in Berlin, we all used a common LAN computer system. Each person on each shift had a “page” on the system for their use. Generally, these pages were used to provide daily traffic updates, blurbs from the analysts, and general information about how the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany was operating. I used mine to write Nick Temple action paragraphs. They were really parodies of spy stories at that point, but they actually became pretty popular at Field Station Berlin. I even had fellow soldiers asking me, “You’re Nick Temple?” It was fun, but that was it. It wasn’t until years later that I picked the Nick Temple thread up again. More of that later.

EDUCATION: I rely a good deal on my education, both formal and informal, and my experience when writing. My undergraduate degree is in Government, with an emphasis on Eastern European governments, in particular the Soviet Union. I other words, I studied a bunch of governments, and even some countries, that no longer exist, but they existed during the Cold War. I studied Russian language and culture in Monterey for 18 months, and much of my non-government course work as a student was in Eastern European history. I rely on my formal education to guide me through historic and structural issues. It’s been many years since I took any of those courses, so I still need to do research to fine tune my recollection. However, without that formal background, I would hardly know where to begin when I write about the Cold War.

My informal education consists primarily of reading on my own. I was once advised to “Read, read, and read until you can’t read anymore, and then read some more.” My reading list over the years has had its share of thrillers, histories, and biographies. However, reading a broad spectrum of genres has helped me to consider various ways to tell a story, to get through a scene, to develop a character or a plot, and much more. My understand is that Tom Clancy, the master of the techno-military thriller, was almost entirely self-taught when it comes to the genre, which demonstrates that informal education can make up for a lack of both formal education and experience.

EXPERIENCE: My experience is rooted in five years I spent in the Army back during the first half of the 1980s. I still draw heavily on that experience primarily as a guide. I have a basic, dated familiarity with light weapons, and light weapon systems, and a similar familiarity with military culture and protocol, none of which I would have had I not served. Additionally, three years of active duty in military intelligence (obvious jokes notwithstanding) in Berlin during the Cold War provided me with a much deeper background and broader foundation than I could have gained from my education. I do have to be a bit careful when writing anything based on that experience as some of it is undoubtedly still classified. However, as noted, my experience is a guide rather than a set of specific stories to be retold.

So much for the basics; now on to my preferences. These may be widely shared by other writers, but I don’t like to pretend that how I approach writing is in any way superior to any other approach. It is my approach; take from it what you will.

STORY: First, and this may seem obvious, I have to have a story, a plot. Those have come to me in different ways. I undertook my first attempt at a spy thriller, Switchback, when my wife suggested I return to some writing I’d done in Berlin and the character, Nick Temple, I created there. She thought it would be fun for me to flesh that out, and she was right. But I needed a story. What I came up with, although I didn’t realize it at the time, was similar to the Hitchcock movie “Torn Curtain.” It’s a Cold War Berlin story deeply informed by my education and experience. My next four Cold War spy novels have at their heart some truism about the relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States or some historic event around which I craft a fictional tale. And, it may go without saying, all of that is informed by my education and experience.

STORY’S ARC: Once I have a basic story, I have to figure out the story’s arc. When does it start? It can start with a small bit of information that seems innocuous at first, or with some dramatic event signaling some deep movement in Cold War politics. For instance, the story in The Heraklion Gambit starts with some mundane declarations by Nikita Khrushchev in Pravda. A CIA analyst picks up on the declarations and sees the possibility of a new, more aggressive posture by the Soviet Union. The pieces of information start to dribble in, and over time the picture of a Soviet push into the Eastern Mediterranean emerges. On the other hand, both Switchback and The Flemish Coil start with the murder of spies, always an ominous moment in a Cold War story. From those murders, the rest of the story flows. But the arc can’t be uninterrupted. The characters have to resolve any number of conflicts to achieve whatever goal I’ve set out for them. And my preference is to have at least some of those conflicts be self-created. Misjudgments, impetuosity, a desire for revenge, infidelity, or any number of other human frailties can act as barriers the characters have to overcome. Another device is misdirection. Just as events seem to be pointing to one resolution, they take a plausible but unforeseen turn. This is something I really have to be careful about. I can’t just have some ridiculous shift that has no basis in what has gone before save the day for the good guys, for instance. If I’m going to use such a device, I have to set up its credibility earlier in the book, so that when it happens, it’s a surprise, but it’s not out of character. It’s unforeseen, but not unforeseeable.

RESEARCH: I want to get as many of the historical details right as I can. For the kind of books that I write, this can mean details in terms of weapons systems, communication devices, automobiles, accessories like watches, wine varietals, clothing labels, hotels, office locations, restaurants, and a whole host of other details. One of the last scenes in Silent Vector is a shoot-out on the streets of Atlanta. The year is 1962, so I needed a reliable map of Atlanta from 1962. I was able to find one on the internet, where I do most of my research. The difficulty lies in confirming the information I find. As a routine matter, I look for at least two and preferably three different sources that are telling me the same thing. At the end of the day, the books I write are fiction, so it’s okay to make up some stuff! But getting the details right for the era really adds to a book’s context and feel.

ACTION: Some of the action in my books is frankly graphic violence. I don’t shy away from it, but I don’t go out of my way to describe resulting gore. And a device I use to enhance the action is to write in the present tense. The idea is to put the reader in the middle of the action rather than having the reader in the middle of a report about something that’s already happened. Action has to move quickly, or it’s inaction, right? But it is also important to build anticipation, to not give the game away all at once. Most of my books are loaded with action, particularly in the last third to quarter of the book. At that point, most of the plot points have been resolved and all point to one major task involving the two sides in the book. Spoiler alert: the good guys always win. But the key is how do they win, and what do they have to overcome to win. That’s where the concluding action kicks in, although there is quite a bit of action along the way. As Switchback draws to a conclusion, it looks as if Nick is in the clear as he and his team are about to enter the US military headquarters in Berlin, known while I was there as Clay Headquarters. Book’s over, good guy wins, right? Nope, because a sniper is sitting in an apartment complex then under construction across the street from Clay headquarters waiting to take Nick out. All of that has been set up earlier in the book, and now it’s time to spring the sniper on Nick and his team. After surviving the sniper’s attack, book’s over, good guy wins, right? Nope! Nick has one more hurdle to overcome once inside the building, an armed traitor desperate to save himself at this point. Once he’s eliminated, book’s over, good guy wins, right? Nope! Wrong again. Nick now has to save his girlfriend from the KGB’s revenge. You’ll have to read the book to find out how that goes.

SOME OTHER DETAILS: Character names. For the American characters, I often rely on names of people I know or have known, particularly people I met in the Army. As to characters with foreign names, they’re a little trickier. I have used the names, at least the last names, of Russian teachers and some other professors. But there are names I have to look up as well. For example, one of the main characters in The Shadow Chamber is a Serb. To find a credible Serbian surname, I had to go to the internet. There’s the research end. For his first name I used the first name of the man who assassinated Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 thus sparking the first world war. There’s the education end.

Okay, so that’s it, at least for a 30-minute presentattion. Remember, if you want to write a spy novel or any other book, the words are all there, you just have to choose the right ones and put them in the right order. And when you do, you’ve got yourself a spy novel!