James Holden: Some thoughts on the joys of tradecraft

Last month I took a story about a hitman to a meeting of the Asylum for feedback. As ever, people were helpful, and left with me a sense that the story was worth investing some more work in.

One thing that I was rightly picked up on was a number of issues with the tradecraft practised by the hitman. I must confess, that I’m not that familiar with the process of engaging a hitman, and maybe should have done a little more research – perhaps there’s a hitman discussion board on the internet (or not, as my daughter would say). In the draft I showed the group, the hitman is hired via a message left in a PO Box and his appointment is confirmed at a subsequent meeting. It was pointed out to me that it would be more likely that he would be hired via an email dead drop, and that he would never meet his clients.

In fact, one Asylum member raised so many points that we were nervously asking how he knew so much about hitmen and their practices. But there is a very important point here about the importance that getting details right can bring to a story. One aspect of this is to stop pedants carping about inaccuracies. There is always going to be someone that will pick a hole in in some error within a story. I’ve done it myself – with the fundamental rewriting of Churchill’s role in the Abdication Crisis as depicted in The King’s Speech still driving me into a rage five years after I saw it in the cinema.

As a writer there is always a point at which you are allowed to use dramatic license. Some details are worth getting right because it shows you care about your characters and story.

But getting the language associated with tradecraft not only makes a story more accurate, it can also help to make a piece more exciting. As a writer it opens up a whole range of words and terms that I personally found invigorating – “dead drop” being a great example. Because it’s not a term that features in everyday conversation it adds an undoubted ring of authenticity that also helps to power the piece. “Dead drop” is a great word, as it opens up a whole sense of conspiracy and espionage. Getting the tradecraft right has not only made it more accurate – it’s also made it a much better, rounded piece of writing.


About James Holden

Brought up in Yorkshire, James has washed up on the shores of London. He spends his days working as a political geek. His short stories have previously been read by the Liars League.
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