Archive for May 7, 2019

writing life

Origins and Influences: Spy and War Novels

Picking up on the discussion of my origins and influences as a writer … I have one category that doesn’t really fit in with most of the others, though I suppose you could see it as an extension of the girl sleuth thing: spy and war novels.

I went through a big phase in 7th and 8th grades of being really into spy/adventure/war stories. I was particularly into World War II. I still am, from a history perspective, though I don’t read as many novels about it. I think a lot of it stemmed from the summer vacation we took between sixth and seventh grade. We were living in Germany, and we visited the American military recreation center that was in Berchtesgaden. The hotel was on the Obersalzburg mountain, and it turned out that it actually had been the Nazi VIP headquarters when Hitler had his home there. We were in the middle of what had been the Nazi compound. We took a tour of the bunker system during our stay and learned where all the main buildings had been. I was already somewhat aware of the war. There were visible bomb craters near our home, and I’d heard about how the place we’d lived previously had more or less been wiped off the map by the RAF, but this really brought it home. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around how anyone could have let it happen. This was in the late 70s and early 80s, so most of the adults around us had been alive during the war, and I couldn’t imagine the ones I’d met being so cruel as to support Hitler and putting people in concentration camps.

So, I started studying the subject to try to understand it. I’m still studying it, and I still don’t have a good answer. But I think I did find some comfort in the stories of people who did make the right choices, who were brave and self-sacrificing. Reading novels about that made it make a lot more sense. I wasn’t so interested in the military side of things, all the battles and strategy. I’m more interested in things on the individual scale, which meant I read a lot of spy novels about individuals doing their thing even if no one would ever know their contributions. I read authors like Jack Higgins (and his alter ego, Harry Patterson) and Alistair Maclean and many others I don’t remember and don’t still have on my bookshelf. In seventh grade, we shared a library with the high school, so they had adult books, and they were all mixed in on the shelves with the teen books, so that was how I started discovering authors from the adult side of the regular library.

Some of my earliest attempts at actually writing a novel — typing out “chapter one” and an opening scene — were actually spy novels. I had a tendency to make up scenarios starring whatever actor I had a crush on at the time, casting him as my hero. I don’t think I ever got beyond the opening scene of any of these stories because I hadn’t really learned to plot yet. I just knew the situation, so I had the briefing scene in which the spy was given his mission (which may not even have needed to be in the book), but I had no idea where to take it from there. The main thing I learned was how to type. We had a manual typewriter that I found when we moved back to the States and got our stuff out of storage, and I taught myself to type on it as I wrote out these attempts at novels.

I don’t read a lot of those kind of thrillers these days, and I have zero desire to write one, but the idea of spies and secret missions still manages to make its way into my stories. And I do still love war movies and documentaries.