1. Jed
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    Jed New Member

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    Do I need to be a spy to write bout a spy?

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by Jed, Feb 16, 2010.

    After looking at a lot of author bios most spy novels are written by ex-spies, ex-military personnel, or people with a lot of experience traveling abroad. I am American and a college student and I don't have the money at the moment to go to all of the places I want to include in my story.

    Will research be enough or do I need to follow the phrase "write what you know"?
     
  2. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Research is your friend. With the right research, you can write pretty much any convincing character. Just as an example, lots of male writers write very convincing female characters, and vice versa.
     
  3. Wavanova
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    Wavanova Member

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    You're writing for an audience that are mostly not ex-spies or ex-military personnel. If you do some research on the topic, you'll be able to make a good story without having been in the action yourself. Most people who will be reading it will be looking for something fairly believable to entertain them, not an incredibly realistic recap of your life in the military.
     
  4. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    In my view, fiction is one part reality, three parts cream, frosting and candles. If I wanted total realism, I'd read non-fiction...and even that is rarely very realistic.
     
  5. TWErvin2
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    TWErvin2 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Jed,

    While what the others have said, basically that you can research and that the readers are there to be entertained, what you indicated--that many of the works of fiction are by those who have been in and/or around the spy business and traveled a lot would be of some concern. Unless your audience is going to be a different one, they're going to have certain expectations, and will compare your work to others in the field.

    That doesn't mean you can't do it. It means a lot of extra work on your part to get it right. Also, if your focus isn't on the technical aspects and the precise methodology/procedures, I think you'd do better.

    For example, I watch the television show Burn Notice. There is a lot of action, and there is interaction between the primary characters that makes the episodes interesting, which I as a writer, I think I could do. But the technical aspects (the little aside comments made about how to accomplish something and why) and adding that bit of realism, I would struggle with--having to do a lot of research.

    It's important to get it right. It will immediately turn off some readers, often the hard core ones--but ones that would spread by word of mouth about a good novel/author they came across. That is important to a novel's success. Bad reviews can also slow the momentum of a novel's sales. And honestly, sales (either potential--what the publisher believes will happen so they accept a novel or the success of a novel which will weigh heavily on whether an author's next novel is picked up) are important.

    Let me come at it another way. If you're writing a romance novel where one of the primary characters is a spy, but the focus is on the romance, that's one thing. If you're focusing in on a spy thriller taking place in Europe, say from the heart of France to Monaco and then Moscow, and not only the lay of the land, but the cultures and subcultures are important, it may be hard to get right (not impossible--but very very difficult).

    I know I rambled a bit. I am sure that others have different views, but I thought I'd toss in my two cents.

    Terry
     
  6. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    jed...
    in my 'old' writing-for-money life, i knew robert ludlum, who was a fellow westporter, and bob was never a spy... yet he was one of the most successful writers of spy and international intrigue novels in history...

    what was he?... he was only a theatrical actor and producer, before becoming a world-renowned author of believable [enough] novels about people very unlike himself...

    how did he do it?... the hard way... research, research, and more research... and with an imagination that knew no bounds... he admitted unashamedly to me one time, that he thought of most of his work as 'pancake' novels... all he had to do, he said, was change the hero's name and pick a new series of exotic locations for the action... the rest was pretty much a standard formula...
     
  7. HeinleinFan
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    HeinleinFan Banned

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    It is possible. Not easy, perhaps, but possible and do-able.

    When I think of "spy" situations, I think of two things: role-playing game stories and library research -- Julia Child, the folks who cracked the cyphers in WWII, etc.

    RPG stories are not always well told, not always realistic, not always useful. But I've heard a few that were incredible. (The MIT larping group, the Assassins' Guild, has been around for a while, and their ten-day-long games frequently have very intricate spy or traitor plots.) If you happen to be in the Boston area, PM me and I can give you the names of a few people to talk to about spywork. Some of it is bull, but some of it is useful... and given that you're a college student and the greater Boston area has a quarter million college students, it's reasonable to make the offer.

    Google and Wikipedia are also useful. Use them. I haven't done hardcore research in this area, only casual research in it for a larp I was writing at MIT last summer. (And hoorah for Heist II: Theft of the One Word Place Name, may it live forever.) But Wikipedia really is neat, and history websites can be similarly useful.
     
  8. soujiroseta
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    soujiroseta Senior Member Contributor

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    I'm currently having a similar problem in that a character in one of my stories is a US Military General. While the military part is recognized his role is more about his presence and his interactions than his prowess on the battlefield.

    Irregardless of this i went about finding out everything i could about how one becomes general, what his duties are and even read a few biographies about generals. While i dont plan on getting technical knowing as much as my brain and time will allow would probably be better than knowing nothing.:)
     
  9. Operaghost
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    Operaghost Contributing Member

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    research is the best way to go about it, and whilst it is true that there are certain aspects of a spys life which may be difficult to research, this is where the fiction part works, after all, your readers are probably not going to be spies themselves so they aren’t going to know how believable things are, and even if they are removed form the everyday reality of a spy this doesn’t mean that this is a bad thing. In the uk we have a series called spooks (it is available in the US as MI5) which is about MI5 officers and is very successful although bears little relation to the job in question, however it is watched by many officers in the Security services, and has even proved an effective recruitment tool for them as applications go up dramatically each year when it is broadcast, all down to careful research and a bit of artistic licence.
     
  10. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    A great deal of what is in spy novels is pure fiction. Real espionage is tedious and boring, performed by people who are uninteresting on the surface. Being unremarkable is an asset. It's not the stuff that makes great reading.

    Your average antisocial Internet hacker is probably the most interesting kind of spy. Many are working electronic espionage to pay their debt to society. Your tech-savvy friends may be among your best resources for what is possible.
     
  11. writewizard
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    writewizard Contributing Member

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    You can write about a spy without ever being a spy. One of my main characters in my novel is a drug addict who sells drugs. I do not sell drugs, condone the sell of drugs, or use drugs; nor do I live where he lives. Yet, with research, with talking to friends who have lived on the street, lived in bad neighborhoods, and doing research on drugs, I can do the same things. You do not have to be a spy to write about a spy; your method will be the same as mine, researching, interviewing, writing.

    Think of it this way: If the author of the Hardy Boy series actually did any of the things in his book, he wuold have been arrested a long, long time ago. :)
     
  12. JTheGreat
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    JTheGreat Contributing Member

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    We've seen from the Alex Rider books that being a spy isn't necessary. Anthony Horowitz isn't working for MI6. ...Or is he?

    I usually use the guess-and-check method. The writing version is much easier than the math. I just write how I please, and then check for accuracy later.
     
  13. Jed
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    Jed New Member

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    Thank you everyone. I will definitely not let a lot of research deter me. All of your advice was very helpful. Thanks again.

    Jed
     
  14. Spuddfluff
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    Well if you do write about a foreign country do not fall into any common (unfortunately American) mistakes.

    Spies like James bond can be fantasy and most of the ex-military and covert investigations people spice things up, in reality Spying is investigative journalism that is not published.

    One massive note about writing about foreign countries, MAKE SURE IT IS SOMEWHERE YOU HAVE BEEN. The amount of times I have read a book which features England and have wanted to kick the writers head in is innumerable.

    This may sound a bit anti-American, but you do tend to make other countries seem to worship America. You need to remember that western Europe and places like Singapore and Japan are far more liberal, and the states is viewed as lacking in the political department.

    To appeal to an audience you have to know them, if all you know is teenage America, then unfortunately that is almost all you will appeal to.

    However if you absolutely have to write about a foreign country, read travel books (Bill Bryson is a great example) and remember the rest of the world population are just like you, in Tunisia the only difference from England was, it was sandy, it looked a bit run down and the cars where a little old. Everything else was the same.
     
  15. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    silly mistakes about other countries are not exclusive to american writers, spud!

    i mentor writers in and from all parts of the globe and can attest to the fact that anyone in any country, who hasn't been to, or lived in the places they're writing about can be prone to making them, if they haven't done their homework and spent enough time on the requisite research...
     
  16. zaphod
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    zaphod Member

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    What is a spy anyways? I don't want to ask a banal question here. Is espionage just of the badass military kind hollywood loves, the domain of ex-special forces, elite Yale graduates, genius computer hackers, or peace corp types who find themselves in the "hot zone"?

    Hypothetically, any civilian who becomes an informant might technically be a spy as well. Their occupation could be something ordinary but maybe unlikely events are occurring and it gives them access to something, and they get drafted for the cause.
     
  17. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    it's all of the above... and some things you haven't mentioned... such as those involved in 'industrial espionage'... or the political equivalent!
     

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