Blame it on the Swedish meatballs

Early in my CIA career, I was having lunch in the cafeteria of the Original Headquarters Building (back when it was the only Headquarters building.) My friend Willa was apparently feeling daring that day. She ordered the Swedish meatballs.

After a few minutes at the table, I asked Willa how were her Swedish meatballs.

“Glutinous but not unflavorful,” she replied.

FYI, Willa went to Yale.

I did not.

Wordsmiths

“Glutinous but not unflavorful.”

Translation: My lunch looks like crap but tastes okay.

But “crap” and “okay” aren’t as precise as the words Willa used.

At the CIA, we were all wordsmiths in addition to whatever other skills and jobs we had. There is a certain discipline, flow, and format required by intelligence work. Mastering it was not easy, but it helped to be surrounded by people like Willa who were very cogent and precise in their thinking and expression.

When it comes to intelligence writing, descriptive precision is imperative. Conclusions and key judgements always come first, followed by the evidence to back them up. Modifiers are often used (“almost certainly,” “probably,” etc.) so that the prose does not mislead or assume a context not supported by the evidence.

Transferable skills

I spent my first 7 out of 30 years at the CIA as an analyst. Every subsequent position I held, as intelligence collector or other role, required the same understanding of how to use words to present information, clarify complex issues, and support conclusions.  Accuracy and objectivity were paramount.

Now retired, I’m comfortable reading non-fiction that delivers the same pace and detail as intelligence reporting. I love a crisp descriptive detail, a context that allows me to see the issue or event more clearly, and things in chronological order.

This is great for research, especially as I curate background details for the GALLIANO CLUB historical thriller series.

But transferring my CIA writing skills to the world of fiction takes effort.

The prose can’t be glutinous. It has to be flavorful.

1 Comment

  1. Lina Papadopoulou

    Carmen,
    I believe “a crisp descriptive detail, a context that allows me to see the issue or event more clearly, and things in chronological order” played a big role in my enjoyment of the prose in your books.
    Reading them, I have always been able to find myself in your chosen locales and follow the characters and the story, always beautifully coming to life.
    I look forward to the next series.
    All the best,

    Reply

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

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