We are so pleased to share with you a brilliant blog post from author, Alison Weatherby, about the research she undertook for her book, The Secrets Act.
When I started writing THE SECRETS ACT, my YA historical mystery set in WW2-era Bletchley Park, I knew I had an immense amount of research in my future. As an American living in Dublin, Ireland, I devoured every book on Bletchley Park I could find and spent countless hours plugged into online audio interviews of Bletchley employees. I had a solid foundation – the plot and characters were in place and I had basic details of the era in the book – but it wasn’t enough. I needed my characters to sound like they were from that era, but more than that, I needed to feel what they were feeling.
Until the pandemic hit in 2020, I didn’t have a solid idea of what it might be like to live under an anxious cloud of uncertainty like my main characters, Ellen and Pearl. While I could gather a sense of some of that from the audio histories, I knew a plane trip was in order. After completing a wobbly first draft, I hopped on a plane for an appointment at the Imperial War Museum’s (IWM) research rooms.
Before arriving, I scoured through the IWM’s archives and filled out a request to visit, noting all the personal papers, diaries, letters, and maps I wanted to see. After a series of planes, trains, and subways, I arrived at the rather imposing old building. Stepping inside, I craned my neck to marvel at the airplanes suspended from the high ceiling, noting all the sections of the museum I wanted to explore when my appointment time was finished. I found my way upstairs to the research room in the corner of the building. I was directed to a place at a long table next to tall, bright windows and given a stack of papers and envelopes taller than my computer.
Nothing prepared me for how magical it was to have original correspondence and journals from actual wartime workers, to read their handwriting and feel the thin paper. I was instantly transported into their world, feeling their hunger pangs, the chill of Bletchley’s huts, the fear of what was next in the terrible war. But also, these personal accounts opened my eyes to the thrill of unchartered territory for these young women, who were sent to places far away to do things they’d never dreamed were possible. While the threat of war was real and always hanging over them like a layer of fog, these women were excited by the opportunity to help with the war effort, to really contribute in a way that had not previously been available to them. You could feel the sense of importance in their words, as they realized their true capabilities, often for the first time. And while I didn’t directly “borrow” anything from the materials I read that afternoon, I finally understood how my main characters could both fear the war and want desperately for it to continue so they could have more opportunities decrypting codes.
I was able to see, in the handwritten papers in front of me, the contrasting emotions these girls must’ve felt – knowing what a tremendous opportunity this war was giving them at the same time as it threatened the lives of their brothers, husbands, and families. It was more than listening to an interview. In these personal letters and diary entries, I gained access to a more intimate view of the women who worked at Bletchley. Those hours in the Imperial War Museum research rooms gave me an invaluable roundness to my research, adding a depth and understanding to THE SECRETS ACT I could not have gained otherwise.
The Secrets Act by Alison Weatherby is out now in paperback (£7.99, Chicken House)