By definition, it’s not always easy to find out how the world of espionage works, so how does a writer create it? At least one reviewer of my Nadia Laksheva spy series believes I may actually be a spy (former, she hopes). So, here are some tricks of the trade (writing, not espionage).
Before getting started, it has to be said that most people are not spies either, so won’t know if what I write is realistic or not. However, those people do have an idea, whether from the papers, movies, or documentaries. Usually the world of espionage stays where it belongs –out of sight and below our radar. But sometimes it peaks above, such as the current affair of the poisoning of an ex-Russian agent, which almost feels too James Bond to be reality. Most of the time, a reader’s judgement works, so they can tell when spy fiction doesn’t ring true.
So, first thing I focus on is the trappings – cloth maketh the man (or woman), you might say. In 88 North, Nadia is working sometimes against, and sometimes with, Russian spy-masters in the military. So I had to research everything from military uniforms and insignia of various ranks from General downwards, depending on which service (army, navy, air force, special forces like Spetsnaz) they belonged to. In37 Hours there is a dashing submarine captain complete with polar neck sweater, long leather coat and ushanka hat – all black of course –but his insignia is not standard, marking him out as a maverick even inside the Russian military machine. Nadia’s own father was in Spetsnaz, so she knows these things.
Next is hardware. You only need to mention Smith & Wesson to identify a Bond book or movie. Russian hardware is more complex, because you have to get the era right, as some is out of date, some old but still in use, due to many political upheavals. Nadia’s occasional sparring partner through much of 37 Hours and 88 North is called the Colonel, and he carries an old-style pistol that used to only belong to high ranking generals, as was his father.
Hardware extends to larger items such as submarines helicopters and fighter jets, and in the case of 88 North, knowing their range and plotting how far they could intercept another aircraft they were chasing outside Russian airspace. In 37 Hours I had to do a lot of research on the Russian sub in question, and ended up contacting a friend who used to work in the defense sector to try to get some inside information.
Then there is the spy playbook. This is key. What tactics do spies use? Because there is a code. Killing someone may be an objective, but the how and the where matter. Gunning someone down in broad daylight may work in some countries, but not on the streets of Moscow, for example. And these days there is an increasing need for deniability, so contractors are used more and more, people who can be cut loose at any time. Having spies go ‘off-book’ is also a well-used play, and happens in 88 North when one of Nadia’s few remaining allies, Greaves, goes off-book for her, knowing that if he is caught, the British government will deny he was working for them, and hang him out to dry.
So, where do we research the spy playbook? To be honest, most of it comes from other fiction and historical accounts. As a writer, It is necessary to soak up the genre. But history can lead to useful details. Towards the end of 88 North, Nadia goes to meet with one of the ‘Marshalls’, the few key men, usually retired generals, who pull the strings of the official Russian machinery.
Last there is the culture. I only decided to write the series after I was in close contact with some Russians whilst on holiday. Overall I find Russian culture, and their people fascinating, and there is a moving scene in 88 North where Nadia is driven through the streets of Moscow, and she knows she will never see them again, and is so proud of her people (though not its political leaders). Now, I don’t know how much I should say, but I began to realise that at least two of the people I met were, let me say, connected. This type of research is the hardest, to meet the real people and look them in the eye. They are usually not larger than life, and look ordinary, and yet are not.
Last there is the tech, the gadgets we sometimes like to see in spy books and movies. I’ve worked in very technological domains such as nuclear and aviation, and so am aware of the latest tech from drones and remote aircraft, to advanced lie detection using psycho-physiological measures. Actually, I’ve used such measures, but that’s another story. Maybe that reviewer was right after all…