Undercover agent – are writers the new spies? by Amy Bird
We’ve heard about spies and undercover police officers forming relationships and living whole false lives in order to infiltrate, or research, particular groups. What about a writer becoming friends with a particular type of person, or having a particular love affair, in the name of research, without disclosing their author identity? Would that be ethical? And how many writers actually do that?
In Three Steps Behind You, my latest psychological thriller, the protagonist is a crime writer who believes he needs to experience everything in order to write about it. That includes sexual relationships – and much darker activities. Many writers would find repugnant the idea of starting a relationship on this basis. Readers may find their support of authors called into question on the basis of morality.
And yet, any author who goes to an event or talks to someone in the name of research, or considers using a pseudonym, makes a choice about the use of their identity. There can be many reasons why you might not want to disclose you are an author in such a scenario – perhaps you would not receive honest answers to questions, perhaps it would make the topic of your new novel obvious before you are ready to reveal it. Say you meet somebody at the event when you haven’t disclosed your ‘real’ identity – when do you come clean? Do you go one step further and create a whole new ‘legend’ or false story for yourself?
It is in the idea of the ‘legend’ that writers can learn the most from the spy or undercover officer. Last week I was watching Spy, the 2004 BBC series that showed contestants progressing through ‘Spy school.’ The students were drilled to create and memorise intricate details about their invented identities. Where did they meet their partner? Was their partner wearing glasses or contacted lenses at the time? How did they get each other’s attention? Was the meeting place crowded or empty? And so on, and so forth. The details had to be consistent or else authenticity would be questioned. For a writer creating believable characters, the same rules apply – the details of all characters and their relationships must be interrogated. Further, the spy students were told not to volunteer excessive details, or give overly factual answers. Sharing too much information too soon can arouse suspicion. Readers of thrillers and crime novels will see the clear parallel here; if the writer reveals for no apparent reason that a character only ever wears glasses, suspicion will immediately be aroused that on that fateful night, they had donned a pair of contact lenses. And to keep trust in your ability to create suspense, the information must only be drip-fed. It’s no good giving everything away on the first page in a fit of nerves.
I was actually once in the lucky position of being a spy and a writer. No, this is not a disclosure of working for the intelligence services. Rather, on a creative writing course I once attended, students were told to go out and ‘Kidnap a character’ i.e. pick a member of the public, follow them without being detected, and observe and write down all that they do, to try to work out their wider motivations. A classic surveillance operation. Had I been a real spy, I would have been ‘burnt’ – I got far too close to the person I was watching. I had not thought up a legend, I didn’t have a cover-story. I just pretended I was an avid texter, whilst secretly writing notes on my mobile phone about the person I was following. Some fellow students actually introduced themselves to the people they were following and explained the task, after enough notes had been taken. I chose not to. That was partly through fear that the people I was following would get agitated. But largely because part of the fun of the exercise was to get as close as I could while remaining undercover, secret. I also wanted to be free to make my own deductions about the person, rather than have those affirmed or denied if I asked for verification. It was, I suppose, also a moral choice not to disclose my author identity. My protagonist in Three Steps Behind You also makes this choice – but with much more chilling results, and very different motivations.
So although I don’t think being a writer equips me to join MI5 tomorrow (and I wouldn’t tell you even if I did), some of those undercover techniques are clearly at a writer’s disposal. In one way, a writer is always undercover in a novel as their protagonist, trying to get the reader to buy-in to the story they’ve created. Ultimately, thought, it is the reader who is the ultimate spy; it is you who must decode the messages authors use, look out for false trails, and always be asking ‘is that legend authentic’? Only when you are totally taken in by the twists and turns of a novel has the author accomplished their mission.
Amy Bird’s psychological thrillers, debut ‘Yours is Mine’ and her second novel ‘Three Steps Behind You’ (published by Carina UK, the digital imprint of Harlequin), are available now from Amazon (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Three-Steps-Behind-You-Bird-ebook/dp/B00IG9Q2EA; http://www.amazon.co.uk/Yours-Mine-Amy-Bird-ebook/dp/B00DP220YY) and other good e-retailers. You can find more details at http://www.amybirdwrites.comand also keep Amy under surveillance on twitter @london_writer