In my first installment on writing the national security thriller, I stressed the importance of verisimilitude in one's story. The thrillers which exert the greatest hold on the reader's imagination are those that mimic real life, but are nonetheless bigger than life. The "Die Hard" movie series starring Bruce Willis is so successful because of this, as well as Willis's everyman character, John McClane. Contrast this with the Terminator series, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, also hugely successful. But the latter is a science fiction thriller; its verisimilitude is not tied so much to current-day real life and requires a greater suspension of disbelief, which is part and parcel of the science fiction genre. If you're writing political, spy or military thrillers, it's best to stick to getting your facts right as you weave them into your tale of fictitious persons and events.
People: Composite or Wholecloth?
For my latest political thriller, Tribe, I wanted to populate the story with bigger-than-life, memorable characters whom the reader would either love or loathe. So, I chose genuine political actors, real folks who cast a big shadow during their days in the sun of political power. These people, some of whom I had known personally, were better material than I could dream up in my own fertile imagination. Big egos, big appetites, big mouths, big influence. I simply couldn't make them up and I wanted them in my story. Truth indeed is stranger than fiction. But then, as with most things in life, we run up against the lawyers: any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. Remember libel, slander? Oh yeah. That. Well. Let's just change the names and a few other details, then slap on that legalese boilerplate to keep us out of court-induced penury or the hoosegow.
So, my "Robert Norfolk," an egomaniacal, loudmouthed power player and inveterate womanizer, blithely wrecks careers and countries in his clamber to the top. My socialite "Camilla Loomis" uses people and discards them in her own quest up the D.C. power ladder. An assortment of Afghan jihadis and warlords bear an uncanny resemblance to people you may have read about in books or newspapers. Senior CIA officers in Tribe may remind some government officials of people they actually know. Hmm. One reviewer described my characters as "the most believable Washington political villains you've ever witnessed dissembling on the news talk shows." The upshot: some characters are less composite than others.
I read tomes of biographies and took copious notes. I watched old news clips of the people I was researching. I consulted individuals who had worked for or known them. It wasn't long that they took up a life of their own in my imagination. As I stated in my post, Inspired Insomniac: Voices in the Dark, "These characters get under my skin, go to bed with me, and keep talking to me throughout the day. After the sun goes down and the world falls silent, I then record their tales."
The key thing about fashioning characters after real life actors is that the latters' lives in politics, espionage, military, law enforcement, what-have-you are recorded in detail. So, Camilla Loomis's real life doppelganger's Georgetown house, her parties, her horse farm, her way of getting what she wanted are all there in her biographies and news coverage. Same goes for Robert Norfolk's self-centered machinations or that CIA Director's covering his ass. Crib liberally from real life players. Change some details. Slap on your character's name -- and don't forget to top it off with that any resemblance to actual persons caveat at the beginning of your book. There's nothing like drawing on the lives of real people to create verisimilitude in your story.
Places: What Does Sanaa Smell Like?
Many thriller writers may have some international travel under their belts, but probably not in Kandahar, Kinshasa or Kaliningrad. As a diplomat, I can draw on a host of exotic locales I've been to, but I haven't been everywhere. I was fortunate to be able to write in three-dimensional detail about the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas where I've served. But for the climactic scene where my protagonist rescues his daughter from Islamist kidnappers in Yemen, I was lost. Never been there. So, I researched everything I could about present-day Yemen from online and other sources, including guidebooks. But it wasn't enough. I didn't have the fingerspitzgefuhl I always demand when describing a place. What does Sanaa sound and smell like? How do people carry out their daily lives? What is sold in the markets? What arms are sold in Yemen's Wild East gun bazaars? What are some common Yemeni expressions? What's the national narcotic-chaw, qat, taste like? etc., etc.
I consulted some good travelog websites. They were exceedingly valuable. One travel blog by a young British student who was studying Arabic in Yemen particularly caught my eye. The writer was acerbic, funny and detail-focused. So, I emailed him, explained I was a novelist and could use his insights for my latest thriller. He was delighted to help out. He answered all of my questions and offered more descriptions of Yemen and Yemenis, detailed info I wasn't getting from elsewhere. As a result, I was able to place my characters in a Yemen that the reader can find highly credible, thus enhancing the verisimilitude of place. A New York Times bestselling author who reviewed Tribe commented, "The action in exotic locales like Central Asia and the Arabian Peninsula has an eyewitness feel to it." This is what a thriller writer lives for (after high sales volume, of course). I mentioned the student's name in my Acknowledgements section and sent him a free copy of the book.
I draw on my service in Cuba and at Guantanamo Naval Base heavily in my thriller, Havana Queen, due out next year. But I left Cuba in the late '90s and haven't been back. I needed to be up-to-date. I read a pile of recent books and travel articles. But I needed more. I hadn't realized that Cuba has a very active blogosphere, the most interesting being those of political dissidents and human rights activists. The most informative and entertaining is that of prominent dissident-blogger Yoani Sanchez. With wit and irony, she describes life of Cubans inside their own country with great insight. What kinds of permits are needed to travel, to open a restaurant? How do people spread word about events, domestic and foreign, which the Communist party deems verboten? How does one scrape together groceries each day in a country saddled with shortages of just about everything, including tropical fruit, of all things? Yoani fills in the gaps and then some, as do her fellow bloggers. Fascinating stuff, and great input for the novelist.
But, if you've never been to Cuba, or GTMO, how do you describe them? Ahh! Another miracle of the internet age: Google Earth. When I worked in government pre-internet, one required a top secret clearance to view satellite photos of other countries. Now, I can zoom into downtown Havana, or Santiago or GTMO with the flick of a finger in my armchair at home. Wanna know what "The Line" -- Cuba's Checkpoint Charlie where I used to meet with Cuban military officers -- looks like? Click here: Northeast Gate - GTMO. Amazing! The only serious limitation to the thriller writer's utilizing these tools is his/her own descriptive skills.
A vignette: I had a tussle with CIA censors when getting Tribe security reviewed. In chapter six, I described a place containing a widely known government facility. CIA nixed it. I then faxed them extracts from published books -- plus links to Google Earth showing it in great detail. So, what's the fuss, I asked? They stood their ground and I lost that battle anyway (Why I'm Censored). Win some, lose some.
So, with due diligence, anyone can get granular detail on virtually every square inch of this planet. All it takes is honed research skills.
Things: AK-47 or AK-74?
How many thrillers have you read in which an assassin or the hero just shoots bad guys? Was he using a Glock or a blunderbuss? Who knows? For this reader, lack of detail detracts from the credibility of the story. And, if gunning down terrorists, which is better: the AK-47 or the AK-74? (No, this is not a typo.) It's useful to know which. In the case of the AK's, the former uses a bigger round than the latter. A bigger round cuts clean through a body, while a smaller caliber bullet wreaks bloody havoc to a human corpus. How about close-in assassination? And what if your killer came from the former East Bloc? You can give him a Colt-45, but many of your cognoscenti-readers will be groaning. Many of my readers are current or former military and intelligence people. They love verisimilitude. So, I make sure my ex-East German Stasi assassin in CHASM, Horst Fechtmann, whacks his targets with weapons he grew up with professionally: Makarov or Glock pistols, and the Dragunov sniper rifle. How do I know this? I researched it in Jane's Military Review and other obscure tomes of forgotten lore. There are also plenty of online resources. And don't forget the Military Channel on cable TV; it's a wealth of very useful visual information.
BTW, Sanaa smells like spices, diesel exhaust and cat piss.
Part III in this series will cover spy tradecraft - sources and methods.
Writing the National Security Thriller, Part I: People, Places & Things