I was still living in Seattle, Washington when my family and I visited Bletchley Park as tourists. I was, I thought, taking a break from writing after breaking up with my US agent and tabling a YA mystery that had briefly gone out on submission. They say inspiration always strikes when you least expect it and it sure did, right in the first exhibit of the museum. Sure, I knew of Alan Turing and a bit about Enigma code, but I had no idea 75% of the workers at Bletchley were young girls. Nor did I realize what these young girls did – the ciphers they cracked, the hours they kept, the secrets they kept for decades. Their accomplishments were inspirational, and I wanted girls like mine to know their stories. I wanted them to not be afraid of hard things and to know they were capable to tackling the biggest, most complicated puzzles, just like the young women of Bletchley.
Part of the reason I write for this age group is because I remember being a 12-year-old lover of mystery novels and not having a lot of choose from aside from Agatha Christie and The Westing Game, a book I still consider one of the best. But, I’d never written historical before and putting The Secrets Act together for a teen audience was a challenge. I needed to strike the correct balance between the dry, often complicated research I’d done and the fictional, edge-of-your-seat mystery novel I had plotted in my head. Also, during WW2, Bletchley was very siloed to ensure complete secrecy – girls didn’t know what their friends did, nor did they know how their specific assignment fit into the larger war effort. I figured, though, that a novel with two completely clueless girls would make for a rather boring mystery. That’s part of the reason why I chose to make Pearl a messenger, and a nosy one at that. Her character was inspired by the youngest girl working at Bletchley, also a messenger. Giving one of my protagonists that role allowed me to share more information about daily occurrences at Bletchley than the average girl would’ve known.
At its core, The Secrets Act is a friendship book. I wanted it to be more than a “whodunnit,” and loved the idea of two girls coming together from completely different worlds and finding life-long friendship. Bletchley had surprisingly rich social activities, with girls taking part in theater groups, dances, and day trips into London, and many finding lasting friendships. Even love! I wasn’t sure I wanted to muddle things up with romance (though I later did – it was too tempting), I watched the teens I knew struggle with friendships as they grew and always told them, ‘You have to find your people.’ Ellen and Pearl had the same problem – they hadn’t found the person(s) they could laugh with and lean on and who truly understood them. And that’s the second spark that fueled The Secrets Act.
Ellen and Pearl grew from that idea – two lonely misfits coming together in the fascinating, stressful, and high-stakes world of Bletchley Park. I then began the rather difficult task of balancing history and fiction. As my editor later told me, “This book is fiction. You have to remember that.” But having never written historical fiction before, I had all of those imposter feelings about getting things right. I had visions of some tweed-coated researcher calling me out as a phony who hadn’t done her homework. It was paralyzing for a while until I drew that line in the sand, defining what I was okay changing and what facts I would absolutely retain. (Little did I know, even some facts I said I’d fight to the death for ended up changing for the story.)
When I started writing The Secrets Act, I had my audience pegged as YA, but it wasn’t until I began working with Chicken House that I was able to really focus on the specific age range for the book. And that put a lot of my more complicated historical facts on the chopping block. I had to make the story work for 12+ teens, kids who had been introduced to WW2 that year or a few years prior. These kids might understand the basics, but might not completely understand why countries who claimed to be allies would spy on other allies. In many cases, I combed through my research again, looking for a solution that would work both for the story and for my audience. Other times, I had to look at the plot point or scene again and reimagine something different. Honestly, I don’t think my editing process would’ve been different in a contemporary novel or fantasy – if a scene didn’t work, it had to change. My goal has always been to educate young kids about Bletchley and the amazing workers there. I was not going to do that if the rigid historical accounts alienated teens.
I’ve learned a lot in writing my first historical novel for teens, mostly that I need to up my organizational game (which I’m trying to do for the next book). While I still write historical as I do contemporary – putting the characters and their motivations first – I’ve learned how to add the third player, history, into the mix without muddling the story. In some aspects, historical fiction is easier – you have so much inspiration. However, it’s imperative you always keep your audience in mind as you write, which will help guide the story, characters, and ultimately, make this a better more satisfying read for the people who matter most – your readers.
(c) Alison Weatherby
About The Secrets Act:
Codebreaker. Friend. Spy?
A thrilling, nail-biting YA mystery with themes of friendship, loyalty, secrets, and a dash of romance.
Pearl and Ellen work at top-secret codebreaking HQ,
Pearl is the youngest. A messenger at sixteen, she’s untidy, lively, bright, and half in love with the wrong boy, Richard. Her circle of friends overlaps with his – the dashing young men on their motorcycles who courier the secrets that Bletchley deciphers.
Ellen is a codebreaker. Reserved, analytical and beautiful. She never expected to get close to a girl like Pearl – or fall for a chap like Dennis.
But when tragedy strikes, their logical world is upended, with both friends caught in a spy plot that rocks the very heart of the war effort. Who can they turn to now? Who can they trust? And above all, can they unmask the traitor in their midst before it’s too late?
Order your copy online here.