Skip to main content

5 Tips for Writing a Spy Thriller Novel

Novelist and former senior intelligence analyst Alma Katsu shares her wisdom for creating a realistic and gripping spy thriller novel.

Writing a spy thriller is harder than it appears. Even though I was working in intelligence when I sold my first book, The Taker, it was not a spy novel. All five of my books have a combination of historical fiction and horror or fantasy. Nary a secret agent in sight. It would take me ten years to crack the code and write my first spy thriller, Red Widow, which comes out March 23.

(Alma Katsu: On Where to Put the Big Reveal in a Thriller)

If you’ve got your heart set on being the next Ian Fleming or John le Carré, the following five tips should give you food for thought.

5 Tips for Writing a Spy Thriller Novel

5 Tips for Writing a Spy Thriller Novel

Character Is King

Spy thrillers are, first and foremost, stories, and that means your characters are going to carry the day. Readers fall in love with characters, so take no shortcuts here. Make sure your protagonist is interesting and complex, not just an amalgam of stereotypes. Give him or her a rich backstory, a flaw or two, and the two most important attributes you can have in the spy business: a conscience and a moral compass.

In Red Widow, the main characters’ moral compasses are severely tested. Lyndsey Duncan is a case officer at CIA tasked with finding the mole who is handing over the Agency’s best assets to Russia. Theresa Warner is the Red Widow, wife of a CIA officer who died during an operation inside Russia. The two officers’ lives become entwined over the mole hunt, ultimately causing both women to question what it means to work at CIA, what you owe to your country, and what you owe to yourself.

Be aware that the Intelligence Community (IC) has made great efforts in the past couple of decades to diversify its workforce. This wasn’t to be politically correct: it’s because a diverse workforce is a stronger, smarter, and more resilient workforce. Let your imagination run wild as you build your characters.

Red Widow by Alma Katsu

Red Widow by Alma Katsu

IndieBound | Bookshop | Amazon
[WD uses affiliate links.]

Political Science Should Take a Backseat

You might think what differentiates spy thrillers from their mystery, crime, or suspense thriller brethren is the political angle and while that’s true, it’s important to remember not to go crazy with it. Don’t think you have to impress everyone with your knowledge of Soviet-era history or use everything you learned while earning your doctorate in Chinese military strategy. As with other types of exposition, a little bit (judiciously placed) goes a long way.

The exception here is a novel that’s completely immersed in a foreign country. You truly must be an expert in another country or region and have deep knowledge of the culture, language, and history to be able to pull this off. The “Inspector O” novels, set in North Korea, are an outstanding example of this type of novel. Written by James Church, the pseudonym of a former career North Korea intelligence analyst, these novels perfectly balance subject matter expertise with plot, character development, and everything else it takes to make a story.

Timing Is Tricky

In real life, political situations change quickly and if your novel is tied to a specific political sub-movement or breaking cult figure, the moment could be over before your book gets to the printers. Better to pick something evergreen—the Russians embrace of propaganda as a means of state power, say—and then riff on an aspect of this for your plot. Spy thrillers, possibly more than other genres of commercial fiction, are vulnerable to the news cycle. It might be hard to get publishers or agents interest in a story based on a political or military conflict that took place even as recently as 10 years ago unless it’s got a killer, evergreen hook to it, or is clearly meant as historical fiction.

(7 Tips for Writing Police Procedurals That Readers Love)

Know How the Intelligence Community Works

There’s no excuse to base your knowledge of intelligence work on TV, movies, and other novels when there is such a wealth of research materials, a lot of it coming straight from the horse’s mouth. CIA’s own website (cia.gov) offers a treasure trove. Next, visit the Center for the Study of Intelligence (https://www.cia.gov/resources/csi/), the Intelligence Community’s own think tank. It can point you to great research, papers, and monographs that can provide both broad information on tradecraft (that’s how the spy business is done) and specific historical events.

And while we’re at it, CIA is not the only spy agency in the U.S.—there are now 18 federal agencies in the IC (its newest member, the U.S. Space Force, joined in January 2021). Learn more about the IC at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and maybe you’ll be inspired to place your protagonist at one of the lesser-known but vital agencies that also protect American citizens and interests.

Working in the Field Is Not Necessarily a Prerequisite

I’m often asked if you must have worked as a spy to write a good spy novel. The answer, in my opinion, is that while having worked in the field gives you a big leg up in terms of tradecraft, it’s not the be-all-end-all. You know how the work is done and you’re familiar with all the foibles of the business, that’s true. But affiliation with the IC is a double-edged sword.

There are two drawbacks. First, you can fall into groupthink on a topic or target very quickly, which makes it hard to come up with the fresh ideas you need to write a book. Secondly, when you get a security clearance you take on a life-long obligation to let the IC review anything you write that has to do with your intelligence work before it’s published. It’s called pre-publication review and the IC takes it very seriously, and if you’re not diligent in your writing process you can trip yourself up by straying too close to classified information.

Writer's Digest March/April 2021 Cover featuring Carmen Maria Machado

Every issue of Writer’s Digest is devoted to helping writers develop their craft and offering expert advice on how to get published. This magazine is full of pertinent tips on writing queries, writers' rights, new markets, submission guidelines, and competitions. Subscribe today!

Click to continue.

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Submitting Your Work

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Submitting Your Work

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake is not submitting your work.

Making Your Fiction a Place You Want To Be

Making Your Fiction a Place You Want To Be

Author Janet Key shares the feeling of not wanting to revisit the world she was creating and the tools she used to help make her fiction a place she wanted to be.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Backstory Change

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Backstory Change

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have a character's backstory change.

Writer’s Digest Official Book Club Selection: Portrait of a Thief

Writer’s Digest Official Book Club Selection: Portrait of a Thief

The editors of Writer’s Digest are proud to bring you the first book club pick, Portrait of a Thief, to read along with us.

6 Ways To Fight Your Inner Critics

6 Ways To Fight Your Inner Critics

For many writers, self-critique gets in the way of making much progress. Here, author Julia Crouch shares 6 ways to fight your inner critics.

Writing Allegory: A Convenient Place to Hide

Writing Allegory: A Convenient Place to Hide

Where realistic fiction felt both too restrictive and too revealing for author Susan Speranza’s transition from poetry to fiction, she turned to allegory. Here, she shares examples of famous allegories throughout history and how allegorical writing helped shape her novel, Ice Out.

Instagram: An Underutilized Tool for the Freelance Writer

Instagram: An Underutilized Tool for the Freelance Writer

In this post, author C. Hope Clark shares tips on how freelance writers can use Instagram as a tool to find more freelance writing connections, assignments, and overall success.

Jane Porter: On the Joy of Writing Mature Characters

Jane Porter: On the Joy of Writing Mature Characters

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Jane Porter discusses celebrating the nature of getting older in her new romance novel, Flirting With Fifty.

Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 610

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a "different way of seeing the world" poem.