The spy in all of us. Have you ever caught yourself paying excessive attention to the way your neighbor cuts the grass? Or following his every move as he changes a tire? Have you often heard the word “observant” used to describe you?
If the answer to any of the above questions is yes, then cool, keep reading because this may interest you, or at least make your eyebrow shot up.
Having a keen power of observation comes with the territory to be a writer. It must because we, regardless of genre, write about life. Even in a sci-fi or fantasy the life of the characters must have some sort of connection, let’s say a resonance, with the reader. We observe, we file away, and then, we channel those bits through the appropriate place. We may not purportedly write a character based on somebody we met, but we may add some traits to make them three-dimensional.
Even before my first novel was published I acquired the personal tradition of writing to the author whose book I just finished. Over the years I’ve gotten returned mails, heartfelt thank-yous, and some times even tips or advice for my own writing career. One time after reading a non-fiction book about kidnap cases in my country (obligatory disclaimer: during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s Honduras was plagued with ransom cases, but things had gotten better since then) I wrote to the author. It turned out he lived in my hometown anyway, and within 72 hours he wrote back inviting me to meet for drinks. Before publishing he had a 10-15 career in the Honduran intelligence services, so prior to meeting him I became anxious. He probably knew how much money I made, how much I owed, and even my clinical records, and my speeding tickets. Paranoid on my part, I know. After the second drink I confessed my misgivings to him. He laughed, and then said, “Well, I could have gotten than info of course, I just didn’t this time.” Then he winked at me.
Circling back to the powers of observation, the operatives of the early spy novels had two simple functions: observe and report. The gadgets they used were also humble: a wireless radio and some book to encode the message. Needless to say, they had to be brave. A coward would never risk incarceration or death penalty over some information. There was a time at the height of the Cold War where the paranoids thought everybody was a spy. I’m sure there were more than some, but hey, you never knew. Of course, the movies have marred that version of spies and we now think of them as dashing action heroes with a license to kill.
With the advent of camera phones, now everybody can record and report news. We’ve become spies for the news channels. Granted we don’t do it in secret, and thus we get the dubious label of “contributors.” Going further, social media sites like Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter where some people post some amazing pictures, others take the time to sign in at every venue as they step in, or share their most inner thoughts. All this overload of information makes me feel like there are no secrets left! We want to see what a person thinks, just read their feed and bam, you’re done.
Which brings the question, what do spies do these days?
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