Two ingredients are essential for writing a successful novel: good writing and knowledge of the subject matter. Just as a murder mystery reads better when the detective work and forensics reflect true life, so is it with national security thrillers. These include spy, political and military thrillers.
Verisimilitude: Separating the Plausible from the B.S.
What separates the outstanding national security thrillers from the rest of the pack is verisimilitude: creating characters, situations and plots that closely resemble the real thing. The worst thrillers are the ones where the author simply fabricates how a spy/political actor/soldier operates. That is not to say that the latter don't become bestsellers. They often do. The authors of thrillers lacking in verisimilitude succeed by spinning a good yarn for which readers are willing to suspend big-time disbelief. Ian Fleming's James Bond is a case in point. Wonderful entertainment. Totally divorced from the real world.
I've lost count of how many megabestselling thrillers I've quit reading because I just couldn't buy into the authors' story premise, character, methods or goals. I put down one bestselling thriller author's book after reading that her young protagonist was a CIA superstar agent after being active for only one year and who had an aversion to weapons. This author also refers to the CIA as "The Company," a term that fell out of use by the early '70s. This is isn't bad research; it reflects no research at all. Just pulling a story out of her ear. Likewise, I aborted two other bestsellers by another thriller writer after getting fed up with endless numbers of jaws being kicked in and cars cracked up. The stories are more befitting comic books than novels.
Three living authors whose thrillers excel in large part due to their close adherence to how the real spy world operates are John LeCarre, Daniel Silva and David Ignatius. LeCarre gets it right because he himself was a spy in Her Majesty's service. Silva and Ignatius get it right by developing reliable sources who are or were intelligence officers and by doing careful, methodical research, drawing on their journalistic training. They know their settings intimately, having worked in the countries in which their stories take place. LeCarre is expert at capturing the banality of the spy bureaucracy. Their characters are conflicted operators in a gray world of uncertain morality; no comic book heroes performing fantastical feats on the side of righteousness in bogus settings.
Among the critical praise that I value most highly for my writing is that from a retired CIA officer who wrote of my thriller, Tribe: "I was particularly struck by the verisimilitude of his renditions of the confusing and ambiguous life of the intelligence officer in the field, and the maddening and obtuse ways of intelligence bureaucrats at headquarters…His descriptions are so good I wondered at times how he got them through the government reviewers." (Why I'm Censored)
Getting It Right
So, how do you get it right if you've never worked as a government agent or prize-winning national security correspondent? By doing your research:
- First, constantly read the wealth of nonfiction books about the espionage world to get a good grip on jargon, procedures, tradecraft and bureaucracy. These include as well books by investigative journalists on specific cases: the Walker spy ring, the Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen, Anna Montes, Jonathan Pollard and other cases.
- Second, dive into the news archives on such cases. One recent and rare motherlode of information on so-called "illegals" or "sleeper agents" is the reporting on the ten deep cover Russian spies caught recently in the U.S. posing as American citizens. Books will certainly follow the news reporting.
- Third, try to develop sources among acquaintances, friends and family members who have professional experience in intelligence, diplomacy, law enforcement, etc. Ask them if you could pick their minds on how things are actually done in their respective fields.
- Another often overlooked source of nitty-gritty information is court indictments. Reading the indictments on Hanssen, Ames, Montes and the Russian sleepers is a real eye-opener on spy tradecraft. These can be either googled, or obtained from the websites of the regional U.S. Attorney offices which prosecuted given cases.
When writing your thriller, you can create a structure based on real cases, then fill it in with your fictitious characters and story line. The impact on the reader will be positive. You will be viewed as a writer who knows his/her stuff, a real authority.
The Craft: No Amateurs Need Apply
The flip side of the coin on being a honed national security thriller writer is, of course, talent. You can have worked as a legendary spy for thirty years, but if you haven't the foggiest notion of character, voice, plotting, structure, conflict, pacing, etc., it's best not to waste your time or that of potential readers by trying to slap together something resembling a novel when you lack grounding in the craft of fiction writing. There's the retired intelligence officer whose nonfiction books have been well received, but whose sole novel falls flat because the author lacks any such grounding. His story flops around for three-hundred pages; his protagonist is repulsive; the plot is missing in action. A reviewer said of this author, "he has the hallmarks of someone who has a driver's license, but who has been asked to fly a plane. The result is a dead-on crash, no survivors." The lesson: Know the subject matter. Know the craft. Without both, you'll either fail as a novelist or open yourself to serious criticism for not knowing your subject matter.