Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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July 2, 2014

Writing Spies: Truths of Spycraft You Don't See in Fiction

Piper Bayard

We don't often discuss thrillers and spies here at Writers In The Storm because none of us has any experience writing them. We jumped at the chance to have Piper Bayard visit us. If you've ever been to the Bayard & Holmes blog, you'll know that she's well qualified to write on the topic.

James Bond vs. "The Spook"
by Piper Bayard

You could say I work with Bond. James Bond. The real one. But that wouldn’t be quite right. I work with a spook.

Please don’t ask me how a small town author/belly dancer/recovering attorney grew up to be the writing partner of a seasoned covert operative, because that is a story I can never tell. But I can tell you this . . . It’s nothing like fiction.

Piper Bayard

Not Holmes. Holmes avoids wearing suits. (Photo from Canstock)

His name is Holmes. Jay Holmes. And unlike James Bond, that’s not his real name. That’s because when covert operatives reveal their identities – even decades after they are out of deep cover – people can die. Assets and loved ones alike can become targets.

So when a celebrity author shows up in an “I’m a Spook” T-shirt flaunting a “covert” career, it’s a dead giveaway that though she may have done some great and necessary work with an intelligence agency, she has never been a covert operative in the field. Covert operatives must forever keep a Chinese wall around their true identities.

So what’s this real covert spook writing partner of mine like? First off, Holmes and his ilk are “spooks,” not spies. As Holmes says, “Spying is seamy. It’s what the Russians do.”

Spooks refer to each other lightheartedly as “spooks.” That’s also what military personnel call them when military and intelligence operations overlap. For example, if an intelligence team is working in a secured area of a ship, the crew refers to them as “the spooks.”

There is no official Dictionary of Spook Terminology, but the proper terms for spooks are “intelligence operatives” and “intelligence agents.” By habit, “operative” is used by CIA personnel when they are talking among themselves or reviewing an operation, and “agent” refers to someone – usually a foreigner – who is collecting information in a foreign country. Intelligence personnel are the “operatives” who are managing the foreign “agents."

Comparing "James Bond" with a Real-Life Spook:

All of those wild car chases that happen in books and movies? Sure, they happen now and then in real life. Holmes has personally driven down the Spanish Steps and gone the wrong way up a narrow one-way street to get his man. But what you almost never see in fiction is that spooks wear seatbelts. Religiously. “Because you can’t finish the mission if you’re dead.”

There are also many things fictional spooks do that real spooks never do—or at least few live to tell if they do. How many times in fiction does a spook duck into a doorway and peek out of it to spy on someone he’s following? That’s a good way to get dead in real life.

One of the first things spooks must learn about following people is to not be followed themselves. It’s common for bad guys to have their own people tailing them to pick up any newcomers, so spooks can’t only focus on who’s in front of them. They have to be acutely aware of who is behind them, too.

That means that if a spook wants to watch someone from a doorway, she has to take her eyes off the target, go all the way inside a building, and only turn around once she’s out of sight of the street. Then she can come back out and stop in the doorway under some other pretense than watching someone. It also gives her the chance to handle the bad guy’s trailing entourage.

Another thing fiction almost invariably gets wrong is the spook’s relationship to room service. How many times has Bond ordered room service? And how has that worked out for him? You’d think he would have learned after Rosa Klebb’s stunt in From Russia with Love that this is a seriously bad idea. Even the spooks in the otherwise realistic movie Act of Valor ordered take out and paid the price.

This isn’t only because of the opportunity for an enemy to poison them, it’s also because it’s generally bad juju for spooks to invite strangers into their space when they are on a mission. In fact, Holmes won’t even have a pizza delivered to his home. The only food he actually enjoys is his own, his wife’s, or mine if it includes chocolate, and only then if he is eating at home or at the home of a trusted friend.

So back to my original question – what’s this real life spook like?

Unlike fiction, Holmes is incredibly mundane. While he has an incredibly charming boyish smile, he doesn’t look a thing like James Bond, Jason Bourne, or Jack Reacher. In fact, real spooks come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and abilities.

When they aren’t on a job, they might be working as Wal-Mart managers, secretaries, teachers, insurance salesmen, or corporate CEOs. And their days at home can look like anyone else’s, filled with gardening, grocery shopping, cleaning, and following behind their children turning off lights.

Holmes would say that spooks are ordinary people with a bit more than average commitment and dedication to their work.

Spy Cleaning

This is more like Holmes. Never too special for the dirty work. (Photo from Canstock)

Notice I said that Holmes would say that. He strongly objects to the notion that he and other covert operatives are special in any way.

However, speaking as a small town author/belly dancer/recovering attorney with a home in “normalville” and a window into the shadow world, I would suggest that from most people’s perspective, there is one thing fiction definitely gets right.

These folks are anything but ordinary.

 *  *  *  *  *

Do you ever write about spies? Who is your favorite spy in film or in fiction? Are there any questions you'd like to ask Bayard or Holmes about "spycraft?"


About Piper

Piper Bayard is an author and a recovering attorney with a college degree or two. She’s also a belly dancer from way back and a former hospice volunteer. She is currently the managing editor of Social In Worldwide, Inc., and she pens post-apocalyptic science fiction and spy thrillers. Her dystopian thriller, FIRELANDS, is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo.

Her spy thriller writing partner, Jay Holmes, is a veteran of field intelligence with experience spanning from the Cold War to the present Global War on Terror. He is still an anonymous senior member of the intelligence community and unwilling to admit to much more than that. Piper is the public face of their partnership.

Bayard and Holmes

To follow Bayard & Holmes, sign up for the Bayard & Holmes Newsletter, or find them at their site, Bayard & Holmes. You may contact with them in blog comments at their site, on Twitter at @piperbayard, on Facebook at Bayard & Holmes, or by email at BH@bayardandholmes.com.

31 comments on “Writing Spies: Truths of Spycraft You Don't See in Fiction”

  1. Piper, this is a real treat for a WITS fan who is a mystery lover and also writes mysteries ... not thrillers mind you.

    I love spooks and thrillers and more spooks and lots of mysteries in all of their sub-genres. I can never choose my favorite. However, since you speak of reality vs fiction ... in real life homicide detectives do more research than breaking down doors and rarely do car chases or get into gun battles with suspects 🙂

    Where you a lover of mysteries and all things thrilling before you met Holmes? And what do you read for "pleasure." Thanks for a great post 🙂

    1. I was a Bond fan from birth. Meeting Holmes was fate, and we were good friends for decades before I really got the jist of the nature of his work. Trust comes last with him, and rightfully so. So yes, I loved thrilling things before I met Holmes, and he is a thrilling person to work with and know.

      As for what I read for pleasure, I must confess that my favorite fun read is historical fiction and YA fantasy. I guess that's because I write about what I know (and what Holmes knows) so I like to read about things I don't know or things that revolve around creative worlds.

      Thank you for your comment. Nice to meet you. 🙂

  2. Thanks, Piper! I love your stuff. My books are humorous spy novels, but I try really hard to get the tradecraft (at least kinda) right. My character likes to make fun of people's perceptions of spies based on Hollywood. She's EXTREMELY paranoid about things like her food (restaurants are not her favorite) and not being followed (even when she's not working).

    But the research has spoiled me--now I can't spend money on any novel about a "CIA agent"! (Because if the author gets that wrong, they're sure to be using lots of other Hollywood-standard "research.")

    Thanks again!

    1. Nice to meet you, Jordan. I love it that your character is paranoid about food and being followed. And I know what you mean about the research spoiling you for "CIA agent" novels. I start my classes in Spycraft Truth and Fiction by saying that knowing Holmes ruined an entire genre of fiction for me, and that I'm there to share that disillusionment. 🙂

      Thank you for your comment.

  3. Thanks for sharing a little of the real world of the everyday spook, Piper. I look forward to more fun!

    1. I'll let Holmes speak for himself on that one. He'll drop by a bit later.

      Thank you for your question. Nice to meet you, Diana. 🙂

    2. Hello Diana. At this point in my life I read a lot of non-fiction. I enjoy history. When living overseas I mostly read books published in that country or that are published elsewhere but popular in that country.

      Though living in the USA now I find myself curious about Portuguese classics so I am compiling a list and will order some in their original text.

      When I was a child my family gave me copies of the Greek classics (English translations). I was amazed at how similar modern people and modern story lines are to those ancient works. When I was twelve an uncle that had been a member of the OSS during WW2 gave me copies of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Kim. I recommend them to anyone interested in the world of spooks.

  4. Great stuff! THANK YOU. I write historical spies - but hey always nice to see what they're really like. This was a wonderful post. I will tweet it.

  5. Oh wow, I love this blog. I've always wondered about "spooks" even though I don't write them. Thanks, this is so interesting!

  6. I totally dig this post, Piper!!

    Here's what I want to know and I know it's broad, so pick an example for me, say from your Apex Predator series: How do spooks get ready for a mission? What do they study? Is a disguise every required? Are they required to know multiple languages?

    1. Thanks, Jenny, and thank you so much for having us here today. It's an honor to post with Writers in the Storm.

      As for your questions, while I could answer them based on things I've learned from Holmes, I'm going to ask The Man Himself stop by and answer you. 🙂

    2. Hi Jenny. How one prepares for a mission depends on the time available and the nature of the mission. In the Leopard of Cairo there is next to no time for preparation so they rely on their past training and experience. For a trip to Pakistan John is given a "legend" (an identity) that he has used in the past. That helps him prepare quickly.

      On the other end of the spectrum of possible missions Soviet deep cover agents were raised in a constructed American town inside the Soviet Union. Some of them were raised there and never learned Russian. They lived in a completely "American" environment that included food, literature, and recreation that was modeled after the USA. Of course they simultaneously had to be kept on a heavy diet of anti-American propaganda to prepare them for deep cover roles in the USA.

      "What do they study?" :

      Depending on the preparation time available and type of mission they study a current intelligence report that is prepared for the mission. When more time is available they study broader information.

      "Are they required to know multiple languages?":

      Foreign language knowledge often helps but if an operative is assuming the identity of a local then it is very important that he or she be very fluent in that language. In my case speaking French has been useful at times but I would never have been able to assume the identity of a French national.

      "Is a disguise every required?":

      In some cases a disguise is useful. If a disguise is required then the simpler the better. If for example an operative is going to wear a plumbers uniform from XYZ Plumbing Inc. then he might wear it prior to the mission so that it does not look out-of-the box new. If time does not allow for this then simple methods are used to give the clothing a semi-worn look. A plumbing crew showing up in pristine uniforms would be a dead give away to any alert observer. In any disguise it's important for the wearer to feel and act comfortable. Even the simplest disguise sticks out like a giant red flag if the wearer is not comfortable.

  7. I find this stuff so fascinating. I love watching spy movies and TV and reading spy books (or, excuse me, "spook" books--which sound even more cool). It does seem like the operatives in movies stick out like sore thumbs, when I'd expect that blending in would be the goal in many missions.

    Being happily married myself, I do wonder how much spooks get to share with their spouses. Personally, I wouldn't feel the need to know all the details of a mission, but I'd at least like to know where my hubby's going and how dangerous things might be. Thoughts on that topic?

  8. Very different post…found it fascinating. I did not know there was a difference between 'operative', 'spook', and 'agent' (in fact, I thought spook was a kind of derogative term, like calling Mulder 'spooky' on X-Files), but then, everything I 'know' about the 'intelligence' world comes from what I learned from tv and movies….glad to hear a little reality.

  9. Hi Julie. How much a spook can say depends on the type of job they are doing. Lots of spouses know that their mate works for the CIA, NSA etc. and not much more. Most of the jobs in the intelligence community are not overly dangerous but those doing riskier jobs or handling information about agents at risk are best served by saying nothing about their work to anyone not directly involved with their work.

    That can be very hard on relationships. Not all spouses can put up with knowing so little about what their mate does. Cover stories such as "I work for an import company" don't stand up for long in a marriage. I don't have stats on divorce rates for spooks but I suspect that those stats are no worse for people in intelligence. It might be that some of us are even more cautious in our decisions about relationships. It would be interesting to know the numbers as compared to the rest of the population.

  10. This is fascinating subject matter and I thank you for sharing. The closest I've been to "the real deal" is when my parents consented to be a drop site for overseas packages on behalf of my CIA-affiliated uncle in the 60's.

  11. Thankyou so much for the post. I did want to clarify that the name spook does have a derogatory history for African Americans. It is used as a racial epithet so take caution when using it. Knowing your reader is critical. However I am very happy with these posts because I am in the throes of a MG spy series. And I don't want to be cliche or read as a Hollywood newbie so I'm anxious for any spy info I can get without infiltrating the NSA

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