Monday, May 19, 2008

Writing spies

I was thinking about spies, today, and how we represent them in fiction.

My Maggie is fallen among English spies even as I speak.
The more I move into Doyle's head, the more I have to show him as the 'spy' he is.

But it's not as easy to portray spies as you'd think.

One swims uphill, (can one swim uphill ...? maybe I mean crawls ... ) against a general opinion that all spies are James Bond, (or Jane Bond) -- sexually insatiable, with black belts in thirty obscure forms of combat, able to rappel down buildings on a line of dental floss, armed to the back molars, killers without mercy, cold-blooded as a flock of sharks.

Which has nothing whatsoever to do with real spies, of course, in any era.

TV has much to answer for.

Doyle, walking into France in 1794, is on a mission he knows will probably end with him killing somebody.

Now, espionage, 1790 style, was virtually all observation and reporting. What we'd call Humint nowadays. Valuable spies were those who could seek out information, undetectably extract it, and bring it home. Intelligence gathering intelligence, if you will.

Doyle has to do more than oserve, this time out. He's staring at the likelihood he'll have to kill somebody. He doesn't take it lightly.

The problem is, the minute I say -- 'Doyle is a spy' -- some readers are going to lose any sense that murder of an unarmed civilian might be troublesome to Doyle's conscience.
Doyle's dilemma is not merely lost. It becomes a wallbanger.

For some readers it'll be ...
'Real spies act like James Bond. Doyle doesn't. Ergo, he's not a real spy. I watch TV and I know.'
Why folks would assume that nations, now or ever, trusted their spying exclusively to bloodthirsty and athletic sociopaths, I cannot imagine.

The first decision I present Doyle in the story, (Chapter Four,) is whether he will protect his mission or behave decently.

I know how he decides, of course. But when I show his thought processes, none of this is going to be the least JamesBond-like.

I dunnoh how to make folks accept a more intelligent and less sanguinary view of the spy game.


  1. Anonymous1:06 PM

    Can you show him struggling to put the information together--show what he thinks his job is?

  2. Hi Anon --

    I'm doing the second draft of this section right now. That 'sit back and see what'll come to you' thingum.

    Next draft, when I'm more analytic, I'll think about what kind of factoids and backstory might help. You're right that the exact, judiciously-chosen bit of info about his job could make a difference.

    Hard to write a character that shares some aspects of a common stereotype. You have to pussyfoot all over avoiding it.

  3. I plan to write a spy novel set in the Edwardian era and I've run into this wall during my plotting sessions.

    The issue is made even more acute since the romance genre generally encourages its heroes (of all people) to be competent, in control, knowledgeable and always one step ahead of the villain. *g* To shake myself out of tendencies to fall into this trap, I read espionage thrillers and mysteries.

    I haven't read The Spymaster's Lady (shame, shame), and as mentioned above, my experience with spy fiction/suspense is Fleming, le Carr, Sayers, etc, so I'm curious about how you balance suspense with romance.

  4. Hi LBA --

    I don't really write Romantic Suspense. That's an edgier subgenre.

    The germ/the idea/the core of much Romantic Suspense -- I'm talking as a pure outsider and mostly through my hat -- is that somebody helpless is suffering and in trouble. The hero or heroine, or both, have to rescue them.

    Wild oversimplification there.

    But that's your woman-in-peril or child-in-danger plotline that is the center of a lot of RS.

    Makes me nervous to read it, basically.

    Now, in TSL, Annique is threatened. You could call that the 'Romantic Suspense' part of the story.

    But Annique being chased by the ebil Frenchman is not the core of the story. The core is more 'Annique grows up', or 'Annique completes the Hero's Journey.'

    The REAL end of the story is not so much that Annique foils the ebil villain
    as that she 'grows up' and makes a moral choice as an adult and completes her (now self-imposed) mission.


    You got three major differences between spying in the C19 and spying in C20.

    The first is the moral climate of covert operations.

    In 1806, when French monarchists revealed their plot to assassinate Napoleon to Fox -- Fox had them detained in England and wrote a letter to Napoleon, warning him.

    The two countries were, at the time, at war.

    So one problem in 'writing spies' is to convince the reader that a Really Different moral climate prevailed.
    Spies in 1800 Do Not Think Like Spies In 2000.

    (jo broods.)
    I do not seem to be conveying this with great clarity and persuasion.
    I will have to work on it.

    Now a second difference between spying in C19 and in C21 is that C19 spies are going to be doing a lot more information gathering and a lot less 'operations'.

    We have so many routes of access to intelligence these days,
    (I mean, spy satellites ... computer analysis of telephone conversations in Kiev for Pete's sake,)
    that we forget that a lot of utterly vital information was hard to come by in 1800.

    In 1800, the analysts back home couldn't even get Parisian newspapers easily, let alone form an assessment of what the last batch of French army recruits looked like.

    In a realistic sense,
    (can we use an attempt at realism as an excuse here?)
    the spy of 1800 or 1880, was an intelligence gatherer rather than somebody sent out to explode, assassinate, and generally wreck havoc.

    Which leads to the heart of the great 'writing spies' challenge.

    James Bond.

    Or Modesty Blaise or this woman who is on TV ... Alias?

    I think there's always going to be a problem saying 'spy' and then NOT writing about James Bond.
    Because most folks, of course, don't know there's more than one kind of spy.

    It's like trying to write 'Criminal Minds' when the reader keeps doing flashbacks to 'Dirty Harry'.
    It's making Reed or Gideon admired and respected by their colleagues -- but not Dirty Harry.

    And that ... Ohhhh. That seems to be hard.

    Now ... on your Edwardian spy.

    IF he's a bit peaceable and cerebral, and you want to avoid a
    'why doesn't he swing down from the roof and start cutting throats like James Bond'
    expectation ...
    maybe ...
    could you exploit some recognizable not-James-Bond archetype?
    Sherlock Holmes, maybe, with a dash of Poirot?

    Not make the character the same, of course, but just suggest, limn in, whisper the faintest hint of this
    behind your guy.

    Amanda Quick does a series of Romances with Victorian private investigators. Have you seen them? Admirably done.

  5. The REAL end of the story is not so much that Annique foils the ebil villain as that she 'grows up' and makes a moral choice as an adult and completes her (now self-imposed) mission. AHHH. I see. Your novels are less "spy romances" as works of fiction that feature spy protagonists. That's where I get a bit muddled. I get excited about the suspense and then remember that I'm writing a romance. This is a new angle I never thought of.

    Thanks so much

  6. Hi LBA --

    What I'm doing is very simple, traditional, straightforward Romance. Nothing fancy.

    But you CAN give suspense or spy thriller or action-adventure a Strong Romantic Element, if that's the way your story grabs you. You'd be working with a 'love story' or 'boy-meets-girl,' even if it's not a genre Romance.

    You pick what you need out of genre Romance, and then you write the kind of story YOU want to.