Sunday, November 17, 2013

Technical Topic -- Where does the Spy Stuff Come From?

Most Excellent Reader Elizabeth asks:

"Could you talk about how you come up with all the various capers and escapades for your spies? 
All the fiddly bits that string together to make up the jobs they pull basically. 

How do you do that? How do figure out the pieces and then put them together?"

Hah!  Bit of a tough question.
Plot devices. I haz them.

One good thing is that the spy stuff is all 'plot device', really.  The stories do not hang on the outcome of any of the spy stuff, except in Forbidden Rose where the actual historical politics are important.
All this running around, doing stuff, is just plot device, That means I can plug one thing or another thing into that spot in the story.  I have something to accomplish and it doesn't much matter which 'device' I choose. 

So, for instance,  I had a spot in Spymaster's Lady where I want my heroine to escape Meeks Street.

I set up an event -- a plot device -- that makes the escape possible.
I need a plot device because it is not like my Meeks Street guys are going to go out one afternoon and leave the door open behind them.
But it could be anything, so long as it opens up Meeks Street so my heroine can escape.

I considered a bunch of possibilities. 

Sorta like this coach
I can have a coach drive by and men shoot out of it, hoping to hit somebody in the house. 
(My heroine escapes because they have loosened the bars on the windows.)

Or I could use a cat playing bagpipes
I could have some bad guy throw a satchel bomb over the side wall.   Or they leave a box of explosives at the front door as a delivery.  Or they park a wagon outside with a bomb in it.
(That would loosen the window bars but good.)

Or maybe somebody drives up a load of cobras and dumps them in the back garden
Cobra, which Adrian could have got hold of
(and everybody has to get out of the house and she escapes in the confusion.)

Or the baddies could steal Congreve rockets or fireworks and set up on the next street and lob some explosive rockets through the air.
(That makes a nice weakened spot in the house wall for the heroine to pull the bricks away and slip through.)

Or somebody could sneak up to the roof and drop a keg of gunpowder down the chimney.  Boom.
(Which blows through the bars they have blocking the chimney and the heroine is up and away through that chimney.)

There are others.

I don't have to stick to one possible caper.  I have a choice of many.
I pick the one that lets my hero and heroine do exciting things together.
And is, like, plausible.
I try out all these possibilities in my mind and toy with them and brainstorm with myself.
Gordon Riots. My answer to folks who think London wasn't violent
I go with the scenario that comes to my mind most clearly and strongly.

Where did I get the ideas for the possibilities I list above?

The coach drive-by comes to my mind from the Gordon Riots and various other riots of the period.

The satchel bomb -- I was in Paris when somebody threw one of these into a building.  Shook the glass in my windows but good. 
Cobras are in an old trunk novel I have under a bed somewhere. 
The rockets came to my mind because I like fireworks.  (I did a Word Wenches blog on period fireworks.) 
The keg of gunpowder is from the 'Infernal Machine', plot to assassinate Napoleon. 
Putting something down the chimney is from the story of how Hawker first entered Meeks Street.   

How do I figure out the details of making the 'spy stuff' happen?

And more research.
(Le sigh.)
Lotsa research.

None of that shows up in the scene, drat it, but my life is just full of finding 1800 stuff out. 

If I want my bad guys to do something as simple as arm up and go shoot into a house,
I can't do that till I ask myself --

What kind of neighborhood 'police protection' would be available at that time. 
(Short answer -- none.  Paris had police.  London didn't. That's why London had muggings and gang rapes in good neighborhoods and periodic riots.) 

Would the available neighborhood protection prevent a shooting or chase down the criminals who did it?
What kind of weapons would be available? 
(I know more than I want to about period guns  Much more.  Ye gods, that is boring research and there is infinite scads of info.)

Would somebody be able to get hold of a bunch of guns? 
(Peace had come.  Much corruption in 1802 in the matter of army weapons.  Lots of weapons lying about in London) 

Would Frenchmen be conspicuous in London?
(It was the Peace of Amiens. Lotsa Englishmen travelling to France. Lots of traffic the other way.  London was full to the gills with Frenchmen.)
This is a metaphor for Research

How fast could they shoot? What would it sound and smell like?
(Y'know, Youtube is just a wealth of research goodness.)

What were security bars made of, how did bars get set in the windows; did London houses have bars; would a shotgun blast loosen a bar; how widely were they spaced; how much space does somebody need to climb between bars
(Endless research.  Endless.)
And yes I really did work all the stuff out.  All the details of the 'spy stuff'.

So the long answer is above.
And the short answer is, "I dream up what should happen.  I picture it.  I spin it out of all my experience.  I blue sky it.
Then I research the details
to see if it could really happen."


  1. Fascinating, as always. I always find it odd that London (and England) had so little in the way of law enforcement in the early 1800s.

    1. England had a very real fear that a police force would be used to spy upon the populace and enforce unpopular governmental controls and generally stomp on freedom.

      European states generally DID have uniformed beat cops. They also had secret police, informers and internal spies of all kinds. Those states also had an unfortunate tendency to throw folks in jail for being dissatisfied with the status quo.

      England at this time was doing its internal spying out of the Home Office and being very quiet about it and doing less of it than, for instance, the French.

  2. Waiting for your book "Rogue Spy" Amazon says should have been released Nov. 4. But still not there. Any idea when it will be released?

  3. Just realized it says Nov. 4, 2014...........Noooooooooooo. A whole year!!!

    1. I'm sorry. Just one of those In Real Life problems that have delayed the book. My editor has been so kind and reasonable about this.

  4. Where do the Bow Street Runners place in Bristish history? Weren't they around for part of the 19th Century?

  5. These guys -- the Runners -- were under the charge of the Magistrate at Bow Street and received government pay. They served writs and arrested folks, making a living largely through the rewards offered when stolen goods were returned. They didn't patrol or 'keep the peace' so much as act as a sort of bounty hunter.

    The Bow Street Runners were disbanded after 1829 with the establishment of a Metropolitan Police Force.

    I wrote about this in the comment train of another blog.
    I said:

    So, who were the Regency police?

    Police enforcement was a bit of a grab bag, what with different groups each doing their own thing.

    (London was not like Paris that had professional police from the Eighteenth Century onwards.)

    In London, what you had --

    Well, you had watchmen. From the mid Eighteenth Century, the Watch Acts allowed individual parishes to hire paid watchmen to patrol the streets. In addition -- this was after folks got nervous because of the Gordon Riots -- the City of London created city-wide patrols.
    And some of the wealthier neighborhoods hired their own private watchmen in addition.

    The parish watchmen were supervised by constables.
    Constables are complicated. Just don't ask about constables, okay?

    Or if you're really interested in constables and their sidekicks, the beadles, see

    which is good to see anyway because the whole site is interesting.

    Anyhow . . who else?
    We don't hear much about them in Regency Romances, maybe because they lack a properly heroic name, but the most effective force of the Regency may have been the Thames River Police, (West India Merchants Company Marine Police). They were founded in 1798 -- 50 of them, increased to 88 in 1800. These guys were well trained and armed.
    And they had BOATS.
    They got folded into the London police with the Metropolitan Police Act.

    The reason the Thames River Police don't show up on the Regency Romance radar is they were out there protecting shipping on the Thames. Our heroes and heroines do not encounter them unless they are (a) shippers or (b) marine thieves. Or, y'know, (c) drowning or something.

    Not everyone has a heroine who runs a shipping company.

    What we DO hear about are the Bow Street Runners.

    Thief takers -- folks who locate stolen merchandise and probably even the thief who stole it . . . for a fee -- had been around for a good long time. Remember Peachum in Beggar's Opera (1728)?

    What made the Bow Street Runners different was they weren't freelance. They were supervised by the Bow Street Magistrate's Office. In 1749 this was pretty close to being 'real' police.

    [DIGRESSION} When I worked in London, I sometimes had dealings with the Magistrate's Court in Bow Street that grew out of the old Bow Street Court. Cool Huh?
    It was up the street from where Fielding held court, though. Not the same building. [/DIGRESSION]

    Henry Fielding -- yes, The 'Tom Jones' Henry Fielding -- was the magistrate who set up the Bow Street Runners with 'eight reliable constables'. By 1791, this had become 88 mounted and foot patrol officers.

    Those early Runners . . they were called, 'Mr. Fielding's People'.
    I love that.

    The runners were founded in 1749 by the magistrate Henry Fielding, (the author, in case you were wondering what authors did in their spare time in the middle of the Georgian era.)