In an earlier post I talked about the importance of always writing about what you know. Learning a craft takes time and it is important to be clear on your subject matter in order to experiment with style. What happens though, when you have finished your first novel and want to be more adventurous with the theme for your follow up?
Do you have to be a spy in order to write about a spy? The most famous spy character of all was created by, you've guessed it, a former spy. Ian Fleming worked for naval intelligence during the Second World War and it is fair to assume that this is where much of his inspiration for Bond will have come (like his creator, Bond was a former naval commander). Another well known former military man turned author is Andy McNab, who made his name with his account of his time spent in the SAS; Bravo Two Zero. He then went on to write a series of thrillers featuring the character Nick Stone, who shares much in common with his creator.
What about those writers that are not drawing on real life experience? Surely these outnumber the Ian Flemings of the world and they write stories that are just as enthralling. Take David Baldacci, for example. I recently read an interview with the American author, who bases his fictional thrillers around military and secret service characters. Even though he is not a veteran himself, Baldacci has made himself an expert. He has conducted countless interviews with real life secret service personnel and even taken part in military training exercises to find out how it feels to be placed in their shoes. Of course, he is a very successful author and therefore can draw on resources that are hitherto unattainable for the rest of us mere mortals. So where does that leave us?
Well, I am no spy and I have certainly never met one (would I know if I had?), but I like to think that I could still pen a good spy thriller based on my imagination. The internet is the greatest resource there is and can provide all of the technical facts and details. From here I can learn all about military protocol and what kind of equipment that they would use and so forth, but is that enough? The short answer is no. A writer needs to know what his characters are feeling. He needs to know how he would react if he were in their place. Imagination is an essential attribute for a writer, but on its own it is not enough.
When I started to write it was after spending several years travelling around the world. I went to places that I could never have imagined (they never look exactly like the brochure) and met people that I would otherwise never have known. I also turned my hand to quite a few things that James Bond is rather fond of. I have attained an advanced level certificate in scuba diving (there is an underwater segment in my upcoming novel that would have been impossible without this), I have ridden horses, camels and elephants (no plans to incorporate these experiences into my writing at the moment, but you never know), I have been mugged (I have used this experience in two novels), I have been around men who carry guns too many times to mention (the Philippines are so rife with firearms that many business' leave a "gun amnesty" box by the entrance and every Starbucks has an armed guard on the door), I have been kidnapped (okay, that's a lie, but I did think that I was being kidnapped at the time) and I have come close to death on more than one occasion (those mountain roads in New Zealand are pretty to drive around, but boy are they dangerous!). Without all of these experiences I would not be the writer that I am today.
My advice therefore, if you want to write about exotic lands or dangerous situations is to get out there and live. Experience as much of life as you can. Try everything, no matter how gross, stupid or dangerous (within limits obviously). You will be a better writer for it I promise.