by | Oct 3, 2016 | Chris Goff, The Writer's Life | 5 comments

by Chris Goff

One of the hardest tasks in writing an espionage thriller—AFTER you establish the rituals that get you into the chair and writing, learn the rules and conventions so you know when you can break them, develop your characters, plot the story (as I, too am a plotter) and establish pace—is imbuing your story with twists and turns and bigger than life events while making sure the readers BELIEVE it can happen.

Easy? No!

The mark of a great story, as KJ Howe pointed out, is writing so deftly that the readers lose themselves in the story. The key to getting them to suspend their beliefs and go along for the ride is to MAKE IT SEEM REAL.  

Researching Professions

Find out what’s real and what’s not real. You want your character to ring true. Take your average CIA agent. Not many of us have experience. Even Francine, our token Rogue Women CIA agent, wasn’t an operative. She trained to be an operative, as all agents do, but she was assigned as an analyst. As information came in, she read and quantified the value of the Intel. And if she ever did work in the field, she isn’t telling. Analyst or asset defines a majority of CIA agents. These are people whose job is to gather, deliver and analyze Intelligence. So what is the real CIA spook—the field operative–like?

First, there aren’t many, and the ones we have are nothing like James Bond. Your typical spy doesn’t jet around in a Gulfstream, doesn’t always were Armani suits or tuxedos, doesn’t order room service and have beautiful women lining up outside his hotel room door. The female version isn’t always drop-dead gorgeous, drenched in jewels and better at Kung Fu than Jackie Chan.
I recently attended a workshop given by an ex-CIA field operative and here are a few things I learned:

1.      Spies dress just like you and I. The key is to blend in. A spy doesn’t want to be noticed. Imagine how James would stand out if he showed up fly-fishing to get close to Vladimir Putin while wearing his tux.
2.      Whenever possible, spies avoid killing people. Dead bodies tend to draw attention, and—remember—a spy doesn’t want to be noticed.
3.      When bugs are to be planted, most spies call in an “audio team” (so named before video cameras were popular), known to bug an enemy embassy or residence in under fifteen minutes. Fun fact: one of the best places to place a bug is on the back of a refrigerator.  Makes sense! Have you ever thrown a dinner party where no one congregated in the kitchen?
Bottom line, if you get the small details right, your reader will go along with you on the bigger breaches of protocol and your work will carry an air of authenticity.

Researching Locales

photo by Dariusz Sankowski

It’s wonderful to be able to travel to the location of your story, but it’s not always necessary. In today’s world, you can gather a lot of information about foreign cities or countries, the way the people live, the issues the citizens are facing off the internet, in travel guides, in non-fiction books. A lot of writers fabricate the cities and towns, which makes it easier. But, if you use Moscow, you better know enough about Moscow to make it feel real to the readers. If you create a fictional town in Russia, you better get the feel of Russia on the page.

One of the best compliments I received about my debut thriller, DARK WATERS, was how “real” it felt. A friend who had spent time in Tel Aviv, Bethlehem and the West Bank approached me after reading my novel and told me that the book transported her back to her time in Israel. The world came to life for her, which made my job of having her believe my story much easier.

Creating the Action and Establishing Pace

This is where it gets dicier. To keep things tense and fast-paced, thriller authors often must condense the time it takes things for things to happen to an unrealistically short period of time. In real life, very few field operations happen in a couple of days, or even a couple of weeks. Remember, CIA agents mostly gather Intel. It takes time to prepare for a mission. But, in fiction, while the enemy has been preparing for two years to blow up the Hoover Dam, your operative will have all of two days to thwart the attack.

How do you make it plausible? Make sure there’s absolutely no other choice for your hero or heroine. If they don’t act, Paris will burn, the President will be kidnapped and life as we know it will end. Ratcheting up the tension and increasing the urgency are what keeps readers plowing forward and legitimizes the protagonist’s actions. Make sure your heroine has to act, that she’s the only one who can act, and then throw every possible obstacle and problem in her way. Set the ticking clock, up the stakes, make it personal, exhaust all the options, and appeal to your readers’ own fears and phobias. Use every available element of suspense. Your reader will have no choice but to hang on and go along with the action—as long as you keep it REAL.

Bottom Line

Writing is hard work. It’s a lot of “butt in the chair” writing, reading, honing of craft, but there’s nothing more satisfying than spinning a tale that a reader finds thrilling, believable and satisfying in the end.

What makes you lose yourself in a story and just go along for the ride?

This blog ends the series on “Writing Tips.” Next up, Gayle Lynds kicks off the Rogue Women series on “Animals – stories and/or do they impact your writing.” To get your personal subscription to our blog, just click here.

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  1. Karna Bodman

    What a great article, Chris….and how absolutely right-on you are when you say you have to "keep it real." There's a neat word that describes your writing: verisimilitude! And you so correctly point out that an author needs to do the research to get locations right. In some thrillers, authors descriptions of the Situation Room in The White House are way off base. (Obviously, they never even bothered to check out all videos easily accessible on http://www.WhiteHouse.Gov.) You, on the other hand are the expert when it comes to getting it right. Thanks so much for this post!

  2. S. Lee Manning

    You summed up the challenge nicely for writers in this genre. It has to be real enough to earn the reader's trust – even if real spy work is never as thrilling or interesting as our books make it out to be. Good blog.

  3. Gayle Lynds

    Terrific blog full of great information, Chris! Thank you so much. I particularly love the bug on the back of the refrigerator. So very creative!

  4. Chris Goff

    Karna, S. Lee and Gayle, thanks for logging in. Doing the research is really fun, too! Of course, I think it's a given for our genre and all of you do this well. And we all know what happens if you get something wrong!

  5. Jamie Freveletti

    Everything mentioned here is spot on. Even the part about "butt in chair" which is the toughest part.Thanks for the reminder that the words won't get written on their own!