How to Write Convincing Spy Fiction About Highly Classified Subjects

How to Write Convincing Spy Fiction About Highly Classified Subjects


Some spy writers have intelligence backgrounds – Frederick Forsyth, John le Carré, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, and Jason Matthews come to mind – but for the rest of us, writing about the world of covert intelligence takes audacity. Every author knows the indispensable value of research. But how do you penetrate a subject that is by definition classified?

Of course, it’s impossible to know what these authors left unsaid, and how much artistic license they took. (Fleming’s Bond seems to offer more vicarious wish fulfillment than realistic tradecraft; le Carré tends to skew heavily in the other direction.) Perhaps the outsider actually has a sort of advantage. Not having learned state secrets and pledged confidentiality, he retains carte blanche to follow his instincts and publish his best guesses.

A popular apocryphal story has the FBI visiting Tom Clancy – then a humble insurance salesman – soon after he published his debut The Hunt for Red October. Demanding he reveal his sources, the Bureau was taken aback to learn that his facts had been gleaned from publicly-available technical manuals and naval guides. (After Clancy’s death, a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by the Baltimore Sun revealed that the FBI had indeed investigated the author … but not until 1989, five years after publication of Red October, when he was considered for inclusion on the White House Space Council.) There are in fact a wealth of sources to which the aspiring espionage author can turn: technical manuals and guides, declassified documents, and many decades of excellent investigative nonfiction.

Real spies might also be willing to lend a hand. They won’t give away any state secrets, and FOIA requests will redact any information considered critical. But canny intelligence professionals, sensing a PR opportunity, may nevertheless lay down trails of breadcrumbs worth following. One source told me, when I was researching a recent novel, about a technology that reconstructs soundwaves in a closed room via visual analysis of the tiny vibrations of a houseplant’s leaves. (Videos demonstrating the tech are available on YouTube, so they weren’t giving anything away.) They then remarked on the remarkable resolution of today’s space-based telescopes. Left to me was the task of connecting the dots to conjecture a spy satellite aimed at earth, using the soundwave reconstruction technology to eavesdrop on a conversation in a closed room beyond audio surveillance range.

People with official expertise slightly to one side of the author’s goal can also provide guidance. Not long ago, a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy gave me detailed insight into cutting-edge missile interception technology. When I expressed gratified surprise that he could share such things, he smiled and said, “None of this is classified, and because it’s not my official field I can talk freely.” His expertise was in a field closely related to my questions. He knew which articles to recommend, how to parse the technical details, and where to go for further research … and best of all, he was free to tell me.

Experts who may be hired by the government in the future (read: grad students) offer another angle of attack. Get to them first and they have no obligation to keep secret anything they know or can guess. Alternately, talk to people the government has already courted but failed to land. Some people would rather lend their expertise to an author than to the military-industrial complex or a tech giant.

Other fiction can also lend helpful cues. Our aforementioned spies-turned-authors earned exceptional understandings of their field; anything they manage to get past government censors, I consider fair game. And David Ignatius doesn’t only write spy novels, but is a columnist and editor for The Washington Post. And Daniel Silva was UPI’s Middle East correspondent and worked for CNN’s Washington Bureau. And Tom Clancy lunched frequently with Pentagon officials who cooperated with him in order to help control the narrative. Those of us who can only dream of such access can turn to their fiction for insight.

Even works of dubious provenance, like Vengeance by George Jonas, can have something to offer. Many question that author’s claim of taking part in a historic Mossad operation. But his tradecraft was good enough for Steven Spielberg, who adapted the book in 2005 as (the entirely convincing) Munich.

Once you’re on the right track, extrapolate. Follow the demands of plausibility and of the story you want to tell. Shortly after 9/11, I wrote a novel centering on the interrogation of a high-ranking Al Qaeda operative. A former CIA officer, impressed by the book’s accuracy, asked about my sources. In fact, I’d tracked down a manual of official World War II-era interrogation tactics. After apprehending the basic approach, I applied educated guesswork to update the methodology. Later revelations about Al Ghraib, Guantanamo, and ‘enhanced interrogation’ confirmed that I had gotten near the mark.

Another approach is to suggest that you do know a highly classified fact but, for reasons of legal liability/state security/moral imperative, cannot reveal it. This might be considered ‘lampshading’, defined by the Urban Dictionary as a storytelling technique in which ‘the concerns, criticisms and arguments of the audience are answered in the text itself to assuage any disbelief … By underlining points of possible contention, usually humorously, the suspension of disbelief is maintained’.

Or maybe you really do know more than you can tell. Consider this passage from Ronen Bergman’s non-fiction Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations. “If I knew the answer to the question of what killed Yasser Arafat,” Bergman writes, “I wouldn’t be able to write it here in this book, or even be able to write that I know the answer. The military censor in Israel forbids me from discussing this subject. One can say with certainty that Sharon wanted to get rid of Arafat … If Sharon indeed ordered Arafat’s liquidation, it was done in utmost secrecy … Sharon himself defined the goal of such an operation, without admitting it … Without acknowledging direct involvement in Arafat’s death, all of the senior echelon during that period agreed that the removal of Arafat improved Israel’s security.”

When all else fails, make it up. Use roleplaying and common sense. Put yourself in the place of the undercover operative who needs to recruit an asset to your cause, access a locked drawer or safe or computer, escape a country undetected, change disguises on the fly, seduce or extort or assassinate. As Stephen King said: “Give me just enough information so that I can lie convincingly.”



John Altman lives in Princeton, New Jersey with his wife and children. A graduate of Harvard University, he is the author of seven previous spy thrillers. His books have sold more than a quarter-million copies in the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, Japan, Poland, and the Netherlands. His latest, FALSE FLAG, is available in a paperback edition for the first time in January. His next, THE KOREAN WOMAN, will be published in hardcover, audio and e-book in April.


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