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The ingredients for writing a great spy novel

Former BBC journalist, Alex Gerlis, is a master of the spy novel. Recently featured in The Times after selling around 100,000 copies of his two espionage novels, The Best of Our Spies and The Swiss Spy, he knows how to grip readers. To coincide with the release of his latest novel, Vienna Spies, he tells us what it takes to write a great spy story…

A windy cliff over the small French port of Arromanches: the coast wrapped in the particular darkness that descends somewhere between two and three in the morning.  Far below is Gold Beach, where the ghosts of the 50th British Infantry Division still try to wade ashore.

It was 6th June, exactly fifty years after D-Day and I was in Arromanches helping produce the BBC coverage of the 50th Anniversary of the Normandy landings.  In between edits I had taken to the back of a hired Renault Clio (not a simple task at six foot one) in an attempt to get some rest.

A combination of the wind rocking the car and the adrenalin ahead of a live broadcast put paid to any prospect of sleep.  So my mind wandered and it went something like this: everyone knows D-Day and the Battle of Normandy ended in victory for the Allies and was the beginning of the end for the Nazis.  But how many people realise how narrow the victory was and the extent deception played in it?  Maybe that story is best told though a novel?  And that was where The Best of Our Spies began.

It was another 18 years before the book was published.  For most of that time the idea was little more than that.  I did plenty of research and came up with different plots and characters, but I didn’t begin to actually write the book for many years.

The Best of Our Spies was published in 2012, followed by The Swiss Spy in 2015 and Vienna Spies earlier this month.  The books have sold in excess of 95,000 copies and perhaps the question I’m most often asked in relation to them is what the most important ingredient is of a spy novel.  There is not one single ingredient and crucially, I don’t believe that one is more important than the others, which is why I list them here in alphabetical order.


Like marriage, they work best if you are able to live with them for a while before making a serious commitment.  This can only apply to three or four main characters, but by the time I start writing I have developed these to the extent that not only do I have detailed back-stories for them but also feel I know them as people.  They almost become imaginary friends, even if they tend to be people I wouldn’t be friends with.  This is not to say they don’t evolve during the writing, especially as new characters come into play, but for me the main characters have to be formed first.


My novels are set in the Second World War and all are based on real events.  For the first novel it was D-Day; then Operation Barbarossa and now Austria and what was to become of it after the war. I research the history and all the factual elements of the book in great detail.  I visit the key locations and I interview people with first-hand knowledge of the places.  The research invariably opens up great plot lines. In The Swiss Spy I was trying to find out the date when civilian air travel from Croydon Airport ended in 1939.  I discovered civilian air travel actually continued throughout it: such flights could operate if either the destination or point of departure was a neutral country (for example, Bristol to Lisbon) or between countries on the same side (Rome to Berlin).  I managed to obtain copies of original timetables and use these flights throughout the book.


When I start writing I have a plot in mind, but it is, at best, only half formed and I have no idea whatsoever of the ending.  The characters, history and setting give me enough to start on and I like to feel the plot develops naturally, avoiding any unlikely and awkward turns. I’m not downplaying the importance of the plot: books fails miserably without a very good one but for me the cardinal sin of plotting is the highly convenient event that stretches the imagination of the reader beyond credulity.  I find the way to avoid this is to see the plot as something that is flexible and which responds to events and people in a natural way.


This is related to the historical context of the book and also requires a good deal of research.  I write on the assumption that the reader can discern which parts of the book are based on fact and which are pure fiction.  I want them to be aware of this, while at the same time it being seamless in terms of the fluency of the story.  For me, locations and places within them need to be as authentic as possible because otherwise people will spot mistakes which in turn undermine the credibility of the plot.

In The Swiss Spy my main character stayed at both the Excelsior and Kaiserhof hotels in Berlin, both destroyed by Allied bombing.  I assume that some readers will check on Google whether these hotels really existed.  I buy old street maps whenever I can and pore over them.  An original street map of Berlin, published in 1940, has been worth far more than the considerable number of Euros I paid for it: it simply would not do to refer to the road that runs due south at the intersection of the Brandenburg Gates and the Tiergarten by its current name, Ebertstrasse when throughout the war it was Hermann Goring Strasse.

I managed to find facsimile prints of 1944 RAF intelligence street maps of the Ruhr towns, with locations helpfully identified in English (‘police station’, ‘steelworks’ etc).  So good are they that I set some of The Swiss Spy in Essen, as I knew I could write about it with a high degree of accuracy.


About Loretta Milan

Founder and Commissioning Editor of Lightbox Originals. On a mission to get the world writing and finding wellbeing through words. Loves books, tea, travel and art.


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