24 June 2015

How I wrote a successful spy novel

by Alex Gerlis Writing Tips

Who better to talk about the process of putting together a novel than someone who’s just published one? Author Alex Gerlis, whose debut The Best of Our Spies was an Amazon bestseller, has been working on his second book The Swiss Spy over the past few months with Curtis Brown Creative’s Rufus Purdy (who also runs Curtis Brown’s digital-publishing arm Studio 28), and the title was launched at the end of May. Here Alex provides a valuable insight into the genesis of a successful espionage thriller.

If you’re not one of the 26,000+ people who read my first novel, The Best of Our Spies, I promise I’m not about to spoil the ending. Suffice to say, though, the book didn’t provide much scope for a sequel, so when it came to writing my second novel the question was whether to stick with the Second World War espionage-fiction genre or try something different.

I did try something different. In fact I tried a number of different themes and genres, but nothing felt as natural and as interesting to write about as the Second World War. It is hard to explain why I feel more comfortable and enthusiastic in writing about a period some 75 years ago than one I have personal experience of. Perhaps it is the sheer scale of the story, a drama that works at both a human and a global level. Maybe it is the fact that it is a finite story, one that began in the 1930s and then ended in 1945, thereby ensuring ample sources for a writer.

So I decided to stick with Second World War espionage fiction. The plot of The Best of Our Spies is built around a major event in the Second World War, the Allied landings in Normandy in June 1944, otherwise known as D-Day. This leant itself to an espionage thriller because of the intelligence operation surrounding it: the Allies’ efforts to keep the details secret and trick the Germans into thinking the landings would be elsewhere in France; the Germans attempts to find out what they could about the plans.

For The Swiss Spy, I used another major event, namely the German plans to invade the Soviet Union. The facts of this event also provided an ideal framework around which to craft a thriller. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had entered into an unlikely non-aggression pact in August 1939, just before the outbreak of the war. But for Hitler at least this was just a device to buy time while he concentrated on the blitzkrieg in Western Europe. By July 1940 the decision had been to start planning the invasion of the Soviet Union. That month there was a meet at the Bavarian spa resort of Bad Reichenhall to plan the invasion, which was spelt out in detail in a Directive that Hitler issued in December 1940. Operation Barbarossa, as it was called, finally took place on the night of 21st-22nd June 1941, a good month after it should have started if the Germans were not to be caught out by the Russian winter.

Throughout 1940 and up to the invasion in June 1941 the Soviet Union had ample warnings about the invasion, all of which were dismissed by Stalin who believed that they were attempts by the British to provoke him into breaking the pact with the Germans. This, then, is at the heart of the plot of The Swiss Spy.

Next comes the characters, who I spend some time developing. This development takes place first in my mind, and is a lengthy process by the end of which they feel to me like real people, who I know and can predict how they will behave as the story develops. I also plan the characters on paper, so they have back stories I can refer to so their biographies make sense.

The final part of the framework around which I work are the locations. For me it is very important that the story feels as authentic as possible. I am not under any illusions: I know I am writing fiction and I don’t pretend it is anything other than that. But having said that, my background as a journalist means I enjoy the research, the challenge of ensuring that locations and other factual detail in the story (such as travel, military ranks, etc) are as accurate as possible. This has another advantage in that this research opens up whole areas of dramatic potential that one may otherwise have been unaware of.

For example, in the first chapter of The Swiss Spy, my central character Henry Hunter travels from Croydon Airport to Switzerland in August 1939, just before the outbreak of the war. I wanted to check which airline he may have flown on. The research opened up the whole world of civil aviation that continued in Europe throughout the Second World War. As a result of this by chance discovery, a whole new area of the book opened up for me. I knew it needed to be right because I know I – as a reader – would have been sceptical about the idea of spies flying around Europe on civil flights if I’d come across it in a book. As with other facts in novels, I always assume that someone like myself will seek to verify them.

Once the plot, the characters and the locations are in place, I begin to write the book. I have only the vaguest sense of the ending when I start. I know it will emerge as the plot adapts and changes, as the characters take on a life of their own and as the locations come to life.

This is the very process I am going through now as I write my third novel, which will be a sequel to The Swiss Spy. Without giving too much away (not least because there is much about it that I don’t yet know myself), it is set primarily in Austria, mostly in the period 1944-1945. At the same time I am planning the fourth novel because there is a chance that could be linked with the third one – and that means characters being in the right place and not being unhelpfully killed off.

The Swiss Spy by Alex Gerlis is published by Studio 28. To buy a copy, click here.

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