One question people often ask me when looking at my books’ subject matter is, “Were you a spy?”
Sometimes, I joke and reply, “If I were, I couldn’t tell you.” Most of the time I tell the truth. No, I’m not nor ever have been a spy. I merely write about them.
The reaction to that is usually, “Well, then, how do you know what to write about?” or “How do you know you’ve gotten it right?”
I don’t know that one hundred percent. What I do know is with a background as an historian, I’m a great researcher, and I work as hard as I possibly can to “get it right.”
What if I Don’t Get it Right?
That plagues me. I’ve written a novel about two spies who struggle to balance their personal lives with their work. That part is real. The mechanics of espionage is what I don’t have personal experience with beyond cheesy novels and B-movies. For myself, I like real world espionage, as found in John Le Carre or Alan Furst’s novels, over James Bond and Jason Bourne.
I’ve read nonfiction works on the history of espionage and tradecraft, the memoirs of Soviet defectors, and declassified reports of actual operations. I borrow from that for my fiction, but I keep it as authentic as I can. What helps is having acquaintances from a certain counterintelligence agency who’ll take a look at what I’ve written and tell me honestly what’s authentic and what’s not. Even then, I take some dramatic license.
Was I ready for a real spy to read A War of Deception?
Nope. Never. No way.
Almost Like a Covert Op
A couple of weeks ago, I was at an outdoor book festival in central Virginia, hawking books and making a couple of sales. At a break in the activity I look up and who should be standing there but one of those acquaintances mentioned above.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“I’m buying one of your books,” was the reply.
I had to bite my lips to keep myself from talking the buyer out of it. Money was exchanged–man, I wish it could have been a dead drop.
“Would you like for me to sign it and make it out to you?” I asked.
“Make it out to [opposite gender name],” was the reply.
“Who is that?” I asked.
“A retired spy I think will like this.”
Once again, I reminded myself a sale is a sale and what said acquaintance does with a purchased book is no concern of mine. I wrote the transcription.
And said acquaintance’s departure was as quiet and unobtrusive as the arrival. I rather felt as if this had all been some version of a covert op, but, then, I do have an overactive imagination. Help, I’m a writer.
Then, it hit me.
Oh, s**t, a real spy was going to read my book about spies. Here comes a bad review, or at the least a list of what I got wrong. Because I’m me, I braced myself for the worst.
I’d put the incident completely out of mind, though yesterday when I noticed A War of Deception had a new review on Amazon, I had a momentary hesitation before I looked at it. Whew, it was posted by my niece.
Then, I got a message on my Facebook Author Page from said acquaintance who’d bought a copy. Here it is, I thought, the list of what I got wrong.
Instead, I read:
“This weekend I brought A War of Deception to my friend who retired from the Intelligence Community (where she actually DID espionage-related activities for many years). She just wrote to me saying that she couldn’t put the book down. High praise, indeed, for a thrilling tale.”
After about the fifth time I read it, I believed it. A real spy liked my book.
At first, I couldn’t describe what that meant to me. One, it meant my research skills are undiminished. Two, I’d done a good job of making the characters, whom I’ve worked on for decades, believable. Three, I got it right.
And not only was this a real (retired) spy, but it was a woman–just like one of my protagonists.
I got it right. And. That. Feels. Good.