Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Regency Spy Tech

By Lisa Karon Richardson

Inkwell denizens are well aware of my tendency to swoon over a dishy spy. Apparently I’m not the only one either, because our very own CJ has served up just such a delectable hero in her debut novel, Redeeming the Rogue.

Kit De Chambelle spent 10 years making trips to France on behalf of his country. In Redeeming the Rogue, he’s home now, but that doesn’t mean he’s hung up his metaphorical saber. So what were some of the tools of the trade Kit might have employed in furtherance of his duties?

While he wouldn’t have had a watch chock full of handy-dandy lasers, he could have had access to invisible ink. In addition to the homegrown options of milk or lemon that required heat to bring out the lettering there were synthetic brands available at this time. In fact, during the American Revolution, the rebels used a brand called Jay’s Sympathetic Stain.

Of course, just writing a report in invisible ink wouldn’t necessarily guarantee its security, so I’m certain that a hero as cautious as our Kit would also have used a code. Codes have been around for thousands of years. In fact, spies claim to be the second oldest profession. Codes are just about that old too.

Leon Battista Alberti, an Italian painter invented one of the first known mechanical devices for encoding messages in the late 15th century. His device was called a cipher wheel. It was made up of two copper wheels, one slightly larger than the other, with the letters of the alphabet etched randomly along the edges. The smaller wheel was placed on top of the larger, and they were turned until a particular letter on one disk lined up with a different letter on the other. Messages could then be written and decoded with ease by simply substituting the appropriate letter on the other disk. A version of Alberti's cipher wheel was still being used 400 years later during the American Civil War. I’m pretty sure, Kit would have had one of these stashed somewhere in his office.

Steganography is the science of hiding messages. Unlike cryptography, which scrambles a message so that it is readable only by its recipient, steganography hides messages in such a way that others don't even know they're there. A British spy once disguised himself as an entomologist. He traveled to the Balkans where he checked out enemy fortifications. Then he sketched the region’s butterflies, incorporating detailed maps of enemy fortifications into each sketch.

As a well-fitted out spy, I'm pretty sure he also carried a sword cane in addition to his trusty pistol. But no matter the gadgets and tricks at his disposal, a regency spy’s best tool was always his brain. Dashing Kit speaks six languages and is quick on the uptake. His quick wits get him in and out of plenty of trouble. I’d be more specific, but I don’t want to post any spoilers.

Suffice it to say that he’s a hero worth reading about, and Mattie Fraser is a heroine to match him.

Influenced by books like The Secret Garden and The Little Princess, Lisa Karon Richardson’s early books were heavy on boarding schools and creepy houses. Now that she’s (mostly) all grown-up she still loves a healthy dash of adventure and excitement in any story she creates, even her real-life story. She’s been a missionary to the Seychelles and Gabon and now that she and her husband are back in America, they are tackling a brand new adventure, starting a daughter-work church in a new city. Her first novella, Impressed by Love, part of the Colonial Courtships collection, is coming in May, 2012.


  1. Sweet!!!
    I'm missing Kit this morning, as I just finished Redeeming the Rogue last night. CJ did an excellent job and, as much as I like the quick read of a Love Inspired Historical, I could have used a lot more pages on these two. Can you imagine all the spy background, Lisa??

    Kudos for CJ!

    I especially love the plot (you know me) and how she had me guessing about the villain(s).

    Thanks Lisa!

  2. I thought CJ took some risks that really paid off in the story. It's definitely one of the most original LIHs I've read.

  3. I've been learning all about this spy stuff since one of my crit partners is working on a revolutionary spy novel. Very fun.

  4. Deb, I'll have to send you the long version. When I sold to LIH, I had to cut 7,000 words. My big fear was that I'd cut a thread early in the book and then miss it later, leaving readers to wonder, "How'd he/she know about that?"

  5. Okay, leave it to you, lisa, to fill my head with intriguing images. A spy who encrypted maps in butterfly drawings? How absolutely fascinating. Where do you learn all this great stuff, Lisa?

    There's no doubt Kit is a great hero. CJ's debut is fabulous, and I'll be reviewing it here on Saturday.

  6. Lisa, I just realized I may have a chance to incorporate some of this stuff in my next book. And it just gave me a little bit of inspiration for the hero in the book I hope follows that one.

    Thanks for the ideas! I've got to go jot down some notes.

  7. Dina, when I was a kid, I read a middle grades mystery where the kids found some encrypted letters from General Washington in an old house. Of course, I didn't stop to think back when I read it (in the dark ages when dinosaurs roamed the earth) that if a couple of 12 year old kids could break the code, it probably wasn't too secure from the British.

    Does anyone else have scenes from the movie National Treasure playing in their minds?

  8. Great post, Lisa. Fascinating info about Steganography and the British spy who once disguised himself as an entomologist.

    Cryptography was part of my training and duties while in the CAF. Because I've been sworn to secrecy, I can't tell you any of the details. Heh.

    It was an exciting part of my job. I used to wear a mood ring back in my training days and the standing joke was that the only way to make my ring turn purple - for passion - was to put me in a crypto room. And it was true - just one look at those crypto machines would instantly change my mood ring to a deep blue/indigo.

    Anita Mae.

  9. Way cool post, Lisa. I'm not all that familiar with the history of espionage, but loving thinking about this. And count me in as one of those who would love to hear about Kit's early (or later adventures).

  10. Sorry I've been absent today ladies. Whole family has strep, just got back from a trip to the doctor's and then the pharmacy. Work antibiotics, work!

    So, I turned on looney tunes for the kids, the first one to come on is Daffy Duck as the Scarlet Pumpernickel. Be still my heart.

  11. Dina, I can't wait to read Roseanna's novel!

  12. Suzie, the picture I showed is actually pretty amateurish, not one of his. They were really detailed, and I don't know that anyone would have spotted them as anything suspicious. When I first read of them I thought of Edgar Allan Poe's story where the culprit hided the evidence in plain sight.

  13. CJ, I'm so glad I was able to inspire you a little bit!

  14. Anita, I think I'd have been the same way with access to actual cryptographic equipment!

    The spy I referenced in my post was Lord Baden Powell. (the same guy who founded the boy scouts!) He was a bit later than regency, but it was a technique that was around then.

  15. Steganography is a new one to me... and it's giving me all sorts of fun tattoo ideas. : )
    Great post, Lisa, I love our history posts!

  16. Now, Niki's got me curious. What secret message would someone hide in a tattoo? Will I forever be looking at the world as if it's a Highlights for children puzzle?

  17. Okay, that's THE coolest thing I've read so far today.

    I would also like to know more about the deleted scenes of Kit's adventures.

    If I can get through the next two weeks on schedule, I'm going to take a reading break. This is TOO interesting.

    Great article, Lisa!

  18. That is so cool! I really like the story about the butterfly drawings! Thanks!

  19. I'm with you, DeAnna. CJ, if you haven't already, those deleted scenes would be great content for your website!

  20. Faye, thanks for stopping by. The butterfly story was the most interesting to me too. I've been working on some ideas for future stories with a steganographic.

  21. Haven't taken time to read the comments, so perhaps someone ahs mentioned the Spy Museum in Washington, DC. An absolute must see for anyone writing about spies. I didn't are go into the gift shop, but our forefathers and mothers were quite inventive.

    I love spy books.

    Of course, spies weren't respected until much later in history. They were considered kind of sleezy by their contemporaries. But in World War II the British tended to use the upper classes as spies because they trusted them more, figured their ownership of land made them more invested in England and therefore less likely to turn.

  22. Good point, Laurie Alice. There certainly weren't a fraction as many aristocratic spies running around England and France as popular literature might make out.

    But it's awfully fun to pretend!

    It is one of my most closely held ambitions to make it to the International Spy Museum in DC. I'll make it some day!


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