Two ingredients are essential for writing a successful novel: good writing and knowledge of the subject matter. Just as a murder mystery reads better when the detective work and forensics reflect true life, so is it with national security thrillers. These include spy, political and military thrillers.
Verisimilitude: Separating the Plausible from the B.S.
What separates the outstanding national security thrillers from the rest of the pack is verisimilitude: creating characters, situations and plots that closely resemble the real thing. The worst thrillers are the ones where the author simply fabricates how a spy/political actor/soldier operates. That is not to say that the latter don’t become bestsellers. They often do. The authors of thrillers lacking in verisimilitude succeed by spinning a good yarn for which readers are willing to suspend big-time disbelief. Ian Fleming’s James Bond is a case in point. Wonderful entertainment. Totally divorced from the real world.
I’ve lost count of how many megabestselling thrillers I’ve quit reading because I just couldn’t buy into the authors’ story premise, character, methods or goals. I put down one bestselling thriller author’s book after reading that her young protagonist was a CIA superstar agent after being active for only one year and who had an aversion to weapons. This author also refers to the CIA as “The Company,” a term that fell out of use by the early ’70s. This isn’t bad research; it reflects no research at all. Just pulling a story out of her ear. Likewise, I aborted two other bestsellers by another thriller writer after getting fed up with endless numbers of jaws being kicked in and cars cracked up. The stories are more befitting comic books than novels.
Three living authors whose thrillers excel in large part due to their close adherence to how the real spy world operates are John LeCarre, Daniel Silva and David Ignatius. LeCarre gets it right because he himself was a spy in Her Majesty’s service. Silva and Ignatius get it right by developing reliable sources who are or were intelligence officers and by doing careful, methodical research, drawing on their journalistic training. They know their settings intimately, having worked in the countries in which their stories take place. LeCarre is expert at capturing the banality of the spy bureaucracy. Their characters are conflicted operators in a gray world of uncertain morality; no comic book heroes performing fantastical feats on the side of righteousness in bogus settings.
Among the critical praise that I value most highly for my writing is that from a retired CIA officer who wrote of my thriller, Tribe: “I was particularly struck by the verisimilitude of his renditions of the confusing and ambiguous life of the intelligence officer in the field, and the maddening and obtuse ways of intelligence bureaucrats at headquarters…His descriptions are so good I wondered at times how he got them through the government reviewers.” (Why I’m Censored)
Getting It Right
So, how do you get it right if you’ve never worked as a government agent or prize-winning national security correspondent? By doing your research:
• First, constantly read the wealth of nonfiction books about the espionage world to get a good grip on jargon, procedures, tradecraft and bureaucracy. These include as well books by investigative journalists on specific cases: the Walker spy ring, the Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen, Anna Montes, Jonathan Pollard and other cases.
• Second, dive into the news archives on such cases. One recent and rare motherlode of information on so-called “illegals” or “sleeper agents” is the reporting on the ten deep cover Russian spies caught recently in the U.S. posing as American citizens. Books will certainly follow the news reporting.
• Third, try to develop sources among acquaintances, friends and family members who have professional experience in intelligence, diplomacy, law enforcement, etc. Ask them if you could pick their minds on how things are actually done in their respective fields.
• Another often overlooked source of nitty-gritty information is court indictments. Reading the indictments on Hanssen, Ames, Montes and the Russian sleepers is a real eye-opener on spy tradecraft. These can be either googled, or obtained from the websites of the regional U.S. Attorney offices which prosecuted given cases.
When writing your thriller, you can create a structure based on real cases, then fill it in with your fictitious characters and story line. The impact on the reader will be positive. You will be viewed as a writer who knows his/her stuff, a real authority.
The Craft: No Amateurs Need Apply
The flip side of the coin on being a honed national security thriller writer is, of course, talent. You can have worked as a legendary spy for thirty years, but if you haven’t the foggiest notion of character, voice, plotting, structure, conflict, pacing, etc., it’s best not to waste your time or that of potential readers by trying to slap together something resembling a novel when you lack grounding in the craft of fiction writing. There’s the retired intelligence officer whose nonfiction books have been well received, but whose sole novel falls flat because the author lacks any such grounding. His story flops around for three-hundred pages; his protagonist is repulsive; the plot is missing in action. A reviewer said of this author, “he has the hallmarks of someone who has a driver’s license, but who has been asked to fly a plane. The result is a dead-on crash, no survivors.” The lesson: Know the subject matter. Know the craft. Without both, you’ll either fail as a novelist or open yourself to serious criticism for not knowing your subject matter.
James Bruno is the author of three bestselling political thrillers. He has been featured on NBC’s Today Show, in the Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Huffington Post, regional NPR and other national and international media. His spy-mob thriller PERMANENT INTERESTS and CHASM, a thriller about war criminals, have landed simultaneously on Amazon Kindle Bestseller lists, including #1 in Political Fiction and Spy Tales. TRIBE, his latest political thriller, centered on Afghanistan, has also been an Amazon bestseller and is available in ebook and print form through all major book retailers. You can learn more about James and his books on his website and at Amazon.com.[subscribe2]
10 thoughts on “Writing the National Security Thriller: Verisimilitude by James Bruno”
I sense there may be clamourings for a series. Verisimilitude happens to be one of my all-time favourite words…:-)
This is actually Part I of a three-part series. You can read the other two at my blog:
Oooh, thank you. 🙂
I love that word, too. It rolls off the tongue so well. 🙂
Actually verisimilitude is important even in fantasy, which I write. The world has to 'make sense'. If I describe an old world herbal remedy it needs to fit that society and be verifiable in our known history (unless it is a completely
'made up' which I find off-putting). And it stretches credulity to have electronics in a bronze age society. The rules may not be a stringent but they still exist. If the reader is asked to suspend disbelief beyond the plausible the work won't succeed.
Seriously, one of the best posts ever on IU. Excellent breakdown of the genre and a call out to get it right.
Thanks for the kind words, Jim. It encourages me to try to write more about writing.
Yes, James Bruno's got the real stuff… and he looks very cool in those spy shades! Congrats on all your deserved success.
(And just thinking… have you ever been tempted to say, "The name's Bruno. James Bruno." ??
author of the bestselling Kindle political thriller RUNNING
And congrats on RUNNING. When's the next one coming out?
I can say, "My name's Bruno. . ." but I'd have to follow it up with "A lemonade, shaken, not stirred."
Hmmm… yes, lemonade is delicious, but doesn't have quite that same edge of danger, does it? Well, maybe if the lemons are bitter…
I'm working on two books now. One is the first of a cozy mystery series starring a singing lawyer and her psychic sidekick. About halfway through. It's going to be short, perhaps 60K.
The other one is a thriller with romantic elements. I know what I'm trying to do, I just have to get the right jumping off point!
How about you? Writing the next one?
I'm winding up HAVANA QUEEN, a spy thriller (100k words) set in Cuba where I've also served. I need to get it cleared by the feds first, a process that takes about 6 months.
I followed your marketing strategy in Let's Get Digital. Very gutsy and inspirational. Keep it up!
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