Writing a Cold War Spy Novel

The following isn’t meant to be advice. It’s more in the way of description. I’ve written three Cold War spy novels, and a fourth one is slowly in the works. One device the books all have in common is that I use the present tense to tell the stories. The hope is to put readers in the middle of events unfolding as they read rather than trying to engage them with a story about something in the distant past. While each book's plot stands alone, there is a certain amount of overlap regarding characters and settings.

On the issue of plot, I’ve turned to a few Cold War standards and taken it from there. For instance, Switchback revolves around the sudden assassination of a number of CIA operatives, full-time and otherwise, in Europe. In The Heraklion Gambit, I call on the historic Russian and then Soviet search for a warm water port to drive the action. In Silent Vector, I make liberal use of the Cuban Missile Crisis, portraying it as a diversion so that the Soviets, with the help of an ex-Nazi scientist (sound familiar?) can achieve their actual goal of waging biological warfare on the U.S. mainland. And finally, in The Flemish Coil, the work noted as still in progress, the action kicks off with the assassination of two spies being exchanged on Berlin’s Glienicke Bridge (written well before the current Spielberg/Hanks effort), and I manage to work the escalating Vietnam War into the mix. See what I mean? Some fairly standard 1950s and 1960s U.S. versus U.S.S.R. themes.

That the books share some of the same characters is attributable to the fact that the books are a series. The central character, Nick Temple, is surrounded by a more or less steady cast of supporting characters. The villains come and go; some stick around for more than one book, others meet their fate before the book in which they first appear closes. Love interests likewise come and go. Nick’s fellow agents have been pretty steady throughout. Add in a sprinkling of minor characters from the military branches from both sides of the Iron Curtain, some Spetsnaz and Special Forces units, an NSA specialist or two, some KGB types, an ex-Nazi here and there, a host of local nationals, and more ex-pats than you can count, and voilá, the character list is nearly complete!

As to settings, the more the merrier, I’ve concluded. Switchback bounces around from Berlin to Istanbul to D.C. to Vienna to Prague to Copenhagen to Frankfurt and back to Berlin, and probably a few more places I’ve forgotten to mention. The Heraklion Gambit takes the reader, at a minimum, to Athens and Crete, from the Black Sea to Morozovsk, to Berlin, Paris, and D.C., and even Pasadena, California. Silent Vector is all over the place: Mombasa, Nairobi, Cairo, St. Thomas, Cuba, Leipzig, Ukraine, Moscow, D.C., Berlin, Miami, and Atlanta, Georgia. And so far, The Flemish Coil includes action in Honolulu, South Vietnam, Berlin, D.C., Moscow, San Francisco, and Miami.

Throw all of the above together and what have you got? Nothing, unless you know more than a little bit about the Cold War. Constant references to the era’s events, particularly those that straddle the line between well-known and obscure, coupled with the kind of cultural details one expects to see in any work of fiction, bring the books to life. And as that happens, as the research and prior knowledge blend together and support each other, as the historic details push the characters this way or the plot that way, as a lifetime spent reading about, living, and understanding the Cold War all start to produce another espionage thriller, then I’m in a sweet spot that pulls me in and doesn’t let go until a manuscript finally emerges.