Why Writers Make Great Spies

Why Writers Make Great Spies

Writers naturally make great secret agents. Would you like to know which of your talents are needed in the intelligence business? Then this blog is for you. It will even introduce you to some writers who really were spies.

Literary Intelligence

Why Writers Make Great Spies

 Writers and spies alike are smart, genuinely interested in people, and always on the lookout for the next scheme. They’re good at languages, detect nuances easily, and can read between the lines. They must always be on their toes. The next story might just be around the corner, right?

The mindset and the talents needed to be a good writer could also turn you into a great spy. This blog will explore why, and even give you some examples of writers who really were spies.

6 Things Writers And Spies Have In Common

  1. Fake Identity

This is an absolute prerequisite. You don’t embark on a writing career introducing yourself as a full-time writer. Most of us need a day job as a cashier at the supermarket, or a teacher. It doesn’t really matter because your secret identity, your vocation, lies in being a writer. It’s a bit schizophrenic, but essential to make it all work.

You will need to construct your writer persona as a fake identity at first. Do it like James Bond. Your name stays, and the fact that you’re a writer. But you must project the confidence of an accomplished master scribe. Otherwise, you won’t ever have the courage to pitch anything to agents or publishers. Fake it until you make it! At least until you have a few real literary merits to brag about. Then your identity as a writer becomes more believable to others, and to yourself.

  1. Collecting Intelligence

To get inspiration, authors are like spy satellites. Their antennas are always collecting data. Writers eavesdrop and observe. All the time. We listen to other people talk, no matter if they’re family or strangers on a bus. We watch people as they buy a coffee or ride a bike. We take mental notes as the lady next door has a fight with her husband. Or the kids get into a brawl on the playground. Writers listen and watch with great attention and take notes.

  1. Deception, Camouflage, & Cryptography

Most writers do use their immediate surroundings as raw material for their stories. Not every family member is happy about that! Some are angry if they don’t get mentioned at all. Either way, writers need to disguise characters, events, and long-kept family secrets to keep the peace. They need to communicate with great subtlety. That means a lot of lying, and camouflaging, too.

You need to see your book as one big cryptographic message. No matter how much you build a character after someone you know in real life, never ever use the real name. Better yet, camouflage the identity as much as you can. The same goes for companies or institutions. If you can imagine someone getting upset, then be sure that someone will. You can avoid all that hassle (and legal problems!). Just hide the truth with fake names, settings, descriptions, and timelines. Write your own code that no one else can crack.

  1. Going Undercover

Writers live undercover all the time. It’s their go-to method to collect inspiration! They need to learn all about a certain job and adopt other people’s behaviourisms, beliefs, and gestures. Writers need the ability to walk around in someone else’s shoes. How else will you write stories that feel so real to your readers? It’s how writers acquire a certain authenticity for their stories.

  1. Interrogation Technique

Don’t worry, authors don’t torture. But we do need to get information from unlikely places. We need to be able to listen attentively. We need to ask the right questions without raising suspicion. The person you chat to in a café doesn’t need to know he’ll be in your next book.

It only works if you’re genuinely interested in people. You need to have empathy for their plights and their pleasures. If you don’t, then they won’t share their stories with you. You’ll miss out on a great source of inspiration.

  1. Passing On Intelligence

Once writers have all the bits and bobs, they piece the puzzle together for their readers. Spies do the same, right before contacting their superiors. Both professions need to have the ability to imagine schemes and plots. They need to distinguish between villains and heroes, main actors, and hired hands. A deep understanding of subtleties, and nuances, is essential for success. 

Now that you have your spy mindset, let’s look at some writers who really were spies, too.

Literary Intelligence

There’s no official history of the writer-spy. In this line of business, how could there be? But the lineage of the writer-spy goes back a long way. Here are some examples.

It is safe to say that among the first writer-spies are the Elizabethan playwrights Anthony Munday and Christopher Marlowe. Both writers belonged to a whole group of scribes recruited to infiltrate Catholic conspiracies geared at assassinating Queen Elizabeth I.

Aphra Behn was recruited as a spy for the English government in 1666. But being rather unsuccessful, her income did not cover her travel expenses. Behn turned to writing to cover for her debts. Most people know her as the author of Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave.

Graham Greene’s extensive travels led to being recruited to MI6 by his sister Elizabeth, who also worked for the service. The places he visited and the people he met as a spy would then be woven into his novels. His detailed knowledge of the intelligence business even led to a parody, in Our Man in Havana. If you’d like to write like Graham Greene, here are some details about his writing process.

Ian Fleming started his career as a journalist in the 1930s. He had already written a few stories. His experience as a spy in the British Naval Intelligence Division during the Second World War made him come up with his iconic character. ‘James Bond’ was born in 1952, in Fleming’s novel Casino Royale. Here are Five Writing Secrets From Ian Fleming

John Le Carré is the pseudonym of David John Moore Cornwall who worked for MI5 and MI6 in the 1960s. Le Carré is a good example of how writing novels and intelligence work can go side by side. He was recruited to the service by Lord Clanmorris, otherwise known as the novelist John Bingham. Please read this article if you’d like to know more about John Le Carré.

Ernest Hemingway is an American example of a writer-spy. As a war reporter, he participated in the Spanish Civil War. It had always been known that Hemingway had a soft spot for the communist cause. Biographers have revealed that Hemingway was also an unsuccessful Soviet spy. In the 1940s, he offered to the FBI to travel the coast of Cuba in his boat to search for German submarines. There’s even a public CIA document detailing his spy career. Please read this article if you’d like to write like Hemingway.

Stella Rimington was a former Director General of the British MI5 in the 1990s. She served as the role model for Judi Dench as M in the movie Goldeneye. She’s also the author of almost a dozen crime novels – about spies, of course.

The Last Word

Writers as spies and spies as writers – these two professions go well together. And they make great books! So, the next time you feel bad about attending your day job, when you’d rather be writing, see it this way: you’re an undercover writer-spy, researching for your next book! I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog.

Susanne Bennett

By Susanne Bennett. Susanne  is a German-American writer who is a journalist by trade and a writer by heart. After years of working at German public radio and an online news portal, she has decided to accept challenges by Deadlines for Writers. Currently she is writing her first novel with them. She is known for overweight purses and carrying a novel everywhere. Follow her on Facebook.

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Posted on: 7th August 2023

2 thoughts on “Why Writers Make Great Spies”

  1. Colin McDonough

    Thank you Susanne for that insight into writing. It was quite ingenious and will aide me to get through my working days, regards Colin.

    1. Susanne Bennett

      Thanks for commenting, Colin. I‘m glad you found my post helpful. Hope your undercover day job will provide you with lots of people to spy on and many secrets to uncover! Happy writing! Susanne Bennett

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