August 27 – September 2: “The Spy Thriller: How do you blend reality with fiction?”

This week join ITW Members Dan Mayland, Andrew Kaplan, John Wayne Falbey, Josie Brown, Joseph Amiel and Seana Graham as they discuss Spy Thrillers and the art of blending reality with fiction. Stay tuned!


Dan Mayland has been detained by soldiers in Soviet Czechoslovakia, trekked to remote monasteries in Bhutan and Nepal, explored mosques in Iran and Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, and gone high-altitude mountaineering in Peru and Bolivia. His articles have appeared in the and his debut spy thriller, THE COLONEL’S MISTAKE, will be released by Thomas & Mercer this August.

Josie Brown’s, latest novel is THE HOUSEWIFE ASSASSIN’S HANDBOOK. Her novel, SECRET LIVES OF HUSBANDS AND WIVES, has been optioned by producer Jerry Bruckheimer as a dramatic television series for NBC-TV.

Andrew Kaplan is the bestselling author of the Scorpion novels. A former journalist and war correspondent, he served in both the U.S. Army and the Israeli Army. His novel, DRAGONFIRE, was a Book of the Month Club main selection and his film writing career includes the James Bond classic, GOLDENEYE. Suspense Magazine declared: “[Kaplan] matches the best of Ludlum, and then surpasses it.” Kirkus called his work “ELECTRIFYING … a searing, ultimately satisfying entertainment” and David Morrell stated: “Andrew Kaplan represents a gold standard for thriller writing.”

Seana Graham is a cross-genre writer who has published work in a variety of anthologies and journals. Her most recent story appears in the ‘fairytale crime’ anthology GRIMM TALES. She blames Barry Eisler for piquing her interest in the psychology of spies, D.S. Kane for teaching her the basics of spycraft, and BURN NOTICE for tipping her over the edge. She has the manuscript of an unpublished spy novel waiting in the wings.

Joseph Amiel is an internationally best-selling author, whose novels include STAR TIME, BIRTHRIGHT, DEEDS, HAWKS and A QUESTION OF PROOF. He has also won awards for screenwriting and for his comedy-mystery web series Ain’t That Life. A graduate of Amherst College and Yale Law School, he is married and lives in New York City.

John Wayne Falbey is a modern Renaissance man: attorney, martial artist, real estate developer, triathlete, university professor, competitive cyclist, lecturer, downhill skier, author, and adventurer. He wrote his first novel in his “spare time” as a student at Vanderbilt University School of Law in order to counter the regimentation of law school. His latest novel, SLEEPING DOGS: THE AWAKENING, a techno-political thriller, is the first of a planned trilogy. His next novel, THE QUIXOTICS, a post-Vietnam tale of three young veterans running guns to anti-Castro insurgents in Cuba, is due out on September 15th.

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  1. How do you blend reality with fiction in the spy thriller? Carefully. To achieve realism, an author necessarily has to look to, and draw from, the real world. This is especially true in two critical areas: characterization and story line. As a former attorney, I’m quite aware that the writer should exercise caution to avoid openly committing libel or callously invading the privacy of a fellow human being. That’s not always as easy as it may seem. Most authors with whom I’ve discussed this topic admit that they have a tendency to base characters on people they know personally or who are active in the public spotlight.

    It’s a good policy, therefore, to build your individual characters from a composite of people – ones you may know well and others whom you may only have observed somewhere or read about. This is the approach I took with the personalities of the six members of the black ops unit in my novel Sleeping Dogs: The Awakening. Interestingly, many people I know think they recognize themselves as one of those characters. That’s probably more of a natural human conceit, even if you’ve carefully constructed each character as a composite from a group of varied individuals.

    There’s something of an exception to the rule, however, and that’s the public figure. Part of the price of fame and glory is the surrendering of a portion of your right to privacy. I wouldn’t suggest you go so far as to use the same name for your character as the person on whom he or she is based. That may be crossing the line; particularly if you cast them in a bad light.

    As for the blending of reality into the story line of the thriller, that’s relatively easy. Read newspapers and magazines, tune in to the news media on radio and television, and follow blogs and online forums. Just be aware of the bias that’s inherent in most of what you see and hear. There’s enough genuine political intrigue in the world today for any serious writer to craft a spy thriller.

  2. Where do I draw the line between fact and fiction? Take a scene from my spy thriller The Colonel’s Mistake: A former CIA station chief stumbles upon a grizzly massacre of his former colleagues at a CIA outpost in Baku, Azerbaijan. What’s real about this scene? Well, the 19th century mansion in which the massacre occurs is modeled after an actual mansion in Baku. The CIA does operate in Baku. A station chief is an actual position in the CIA. The description of the carnage is based in part on a scene of violent death that I was unfortunate enough to stumble upon years ago. And the description of political tensions unique to that part of the world is presented accurately. What’s made up? The incident itself—the CIA never suffered such a hit in Baku. And most importantly, the ex-CIA station chief is entirely a product of my imagination.

    My hope is that readers will know all or most of this when they read the scene, that from page one I’ve sent a consistent signal that I’m going to give them an accurate sense of place, realistic insights into the way the CIA works, and that my characters won’t do things that wouldn’t at least be theoretically possible in real life. But if I’ve done my job well, I’ve also signaled that that the actual characters are made up, as are the crucial elements of the plot. The key, I think, is that wherever one draws the line between fact and fiction, that one should draw it clearly and then respect that line throughout the novel.

  3. Generally, spy thrillers tend to fall into one of two categories: the more reality-based (think Tom Clancy or Brad Thor and his counter-terrorism teams) and the more fantastical (think cabal led by megalomanical billionaires or ancient artifacts driving a secret conspiracy). Anyone familiar with my books knows that they are tightly grounded in reality. For example, my latest, SCORPION WINTER, touches on a failed CIA mission in Yemen that is so specific you can feel the sand in the air in Mar’ib and a political assassination in Ukraine that causes a major European crisis and threat to NATO (while not an official member of NATO, Ukraine is a member of the NATO Membership Action Pact and an ally who has supported the U.S. in Afghanistan. A threat to Ukraine would involve the U.S.)

    So what do I make real and what isn’t? Simple. The plot and characters are invented. However, the plot has to be based in reality in the sense that it’s not far-fetched; it not only could happen, but in some cases is very likely or even inevitable. And the characters, while invented, have to feel real; three-dimensional. In other words, like real people, not caricatures. So what is reality-based? Everything else. The setting, down to descriptions of locations, physical attributes, the smell and feel of a place. Also, the technology and tradecraft. My work has received praise from ex-CIA agents, for example, for how realistic it is. Such an approach requires both experience and a ton of research, but I believe that the net result for the reader is well worth it.

  4. Although I’ve never written a spy thriller, I love reading them and what fascinates me most is that spy novelists take to an extreme what any thriller writer does: keep the reader guessing until the climax. In the spy novel the lack of information and the uncertainty about a character’s motives or even what is actually happening are often at the heart of the book: No one can be trusted; peril lurks behind every door. The successful spy-thriller novelist builds his/her plots within the context of actual events or dramatic conflicts: the Cold War being a staple of the latter until the crumbling of the Soviet Union. The fate of the world – or some significant part of it – depends on the protagonist’s success. It is almost as if the novelist has discovered a fascinating and vital story that occurred during those dangerous times that he/she is bringing to light.
    But just as thrillers differ in their settings and styles, so do spy novels. Rudyard Kipling’s Kim provided a matrix: the unlikely amateur who must make his way through an exotic setting to bring the essential information to light. Eric Ambler refined the genre, pitting amateur protagonists out of their depths against professional spies and killers, again in exotic, often unfamiliar settings, Istanbul being a favorite (one of his novels formed the plot for Jules Dassin’s classic heist film Topkapi). John Le Carre burst on the scene with his amoral view of the espionage game in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold; the good guys differ from the bad guys only in that they are our guys, all of them playing the so-called “great game” almost for its own sake. David Da Silva puts morality back into the genre with his Israeli spy pitted against extremists intent on destroying his country.
    You may differ in my view of this truncated history of the spy thriller, but all would have to agree that what usually hooks us is fear about the protagonists’ fates amid a big picture we and they do not understand. That key element is at the heart of every thriller, no matter the genre.

  5. I love John Wayne Falby’s comment, “To achieve realism, an author necessarily has to look to, and draw from, the real world…” is spot on.

    Every day I come across some story in a magazine or a newspaper, and immediately I’ll think, “I can use that in a plot…”

    Case in point: My September release, THE HOUSEWIFE ASSASSIN’S GUIDE TO GRACIOUS KILLING, opens in one of the San Diego nightclubs that was a regular party hang for Prince Harry, during his two-month military training course on the Apache helicopter, and yes: he’s a character in that very first chapter, in which something goes terribly wrong. Considering his recent Vegas exploits, my only regret is that the book wasn’t released last week. Ah, well.

    Another example: magazines such as WIRED and POPULAR SCIENCE are always up on the latest and greatest in gadgetry, or things now being concepted or tested, giving credence to some of the spy toys I put in my protagonists’ hands.

    I also love Andrew Kaplan’s answer to the question, “What is reality-based? Everything else. The setting, down to descriptions of locations, physical attributes, the smell and feel of a place….”

    This is where the true legwork comes in: onsite research, or secondary research based on first-hand accounts. I’ve pulled architectural plans of hotels and palaces, or tech manuals on weaponry, in order to get the right feel in a scene.

    Or as Dan Mayland commented above, “…my characters won’t do things that wouldn’t at least be theoretically possible in real life…”

    Well put.

  6. So far, all of my fellow roundtable panelists seem to be in agreement on the need to base the spy thriller on real events, places, and characters. Joseph Amiel said: “The successful spy-thriller novelist builds his/her plots within the context of actual events…”. Josie Brown added: “I’ve pulled architectural plans of hotels and palaces, or tech manuals on weaponry, in order to get the right feel in a scene.”

    In my novel “Sleeping Dogs: The Awakening” there is a scene in Washington, D.C. where an attempt is made to assassinate the President of the United States. It occurs on the east steps of the Capitol Building. The problem involved how to get a sniper close enough to have a decent shot at his target. Security around the Capitol Building is very tight on any given day, but especially so when POTUS is present.

    I’ve spent considerable time in Washington on business, but at the time I wrote this particular scene I was in in Naples, Florida. I wasn’t willing to drop everything and fly to Washington to prowl the area of the Capitol looking for the most appropriate site for this scene. I spent hours on Google Earth scouting the area around the Capitol for up to three blocks in every direction. Beyond the two and a half to three block range an unobstructed view of the east steps of the Capitol is all but non-existent. In addition, distance makes the chances for success geometrically more difficult.

    My research turned up a row of townhouses about two and a half blocks due east of the Capitol Building. Here’s where fiction played a role. As a real estate developer, I’ve rehabbed and converted properties. The conversion of a cluster of residential properties into use for hospitality purposes isn’t a novel concept. So, I imagined these townhouses as having been converted into a boutique hotel and placed my marksman in a top floor room with a corner window.

    Could that event really happen? I’m sure the Secret Service and Washington’s Metropolitan Police would say that it couldn’t. But, if they were that omniscient, how (in real life) did Lee Harvey Oswald succeed in nesting in that window of the Dallas Book Depository?

  7. Agreed, John Wayne Falbey: we are tremendously lucky to live in an age when the Internet puts so much secondary research at our fingertips!

    I have to add: I enjoyed Joseph Amiel’s thumbnail breakdown on some of the most celebrated thriller novelists and the ongoing similarities of their protagonists (amateur vs. pro spy, etc.)

    Whereas well-researched and torn-from-the-headlines plots make thrillers real to readers, I love it when I find authors in our genre who write prose with a poetic nuance. Two authors whose books are (at least, to me) as much literature as they are “thriller” are those of Martin Cruz Smith and John Le Carre. Their intricately woven plots make for deliciously dense wordcakes, but their sentence structure is the icing. I highly recommend both to readers.

  8. Sorry to come a bit late to the party–as luck would have it, this is the week my computer decided to have connectivity problems. But maybe that brings up an important point about certain kinds of thriller fiction, where extremely complicated events need to be pulled off–and always are. “Reality” includes not just the settings and cultural feel, it includes the technological world where mishaps occur even with all the best preparation in the world. This may be even more true in a computerized world than in the past. Computers crash, phones don’t have receptivity where they should and so on. It would be nice to see a bit more of this inadvertent disaster in spy fiction than I usually do-and see the protagonists overcome it.

  9. For writers who, like me, write techno-political thrillers, there is no time like the present: vicious partisanship, election year rhetoric and campaigning, heightened public awareness of all things political, etc.

    My current novel, Sleeping Dogs: The Awakening, has two underlying themes. One is technological: it deals with genetics. The other is purely political. To make the storyline and characters as real as possible, I borrowed liberally from current players and agendas inside the Beltway.

    Readers’ reactions to this theme in the book clearly have evidenced their recognition, at least subliminally, of the realism inherent in the story and characters. In their reviews and comments to me, readers clearly are revealing their own respective positions along the political spectrum. As a writer, I’m delighted that my efforts at achieving realism in the story have resulted in its being read on “both sides of the aisle”.

  10. I appreciated Joseph Amiel’s short history of the spy thriller, and It made me realize that I had never read Kim, which I intend to make up for soon. Kim is exactly the kind of forerunner that I need as a model for my character in my spy story, as my protagonist is definitely stumbling around in areas she never would have dreamed of. I love reading novels where the protagonist has a lot of expertise, but I hope the genre has room for some characters who get drawn into the shadowy world of espionage without knowing all that much about what they are getting into.

    I do think the public that reads spy fiction nowadays is pretty sophisticated, and if they doubt the authenticity of something, it’s not all that hard for them to look it up. It’s a bit intimidating, but I suppose that means that you have to triple-check your research. I don’t know how others here see this, but I’m aiming more for plausibility than reportage on the state of the art spy world.

    I don’t know if it helps or hurts writers of spy fiction that what’s going on in the real world of intelligence and counter-intelligence is so much more incredible and ‘out there’ than most of us can even imagine.

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