Hello everybody! Today, I am thrilled to be part of another blog tour, this time for Alison Weatherby’s debut the Secrets Act, with both a guest post from the author and a review from me. Onto the post!
I’ve been so looking forward to reading this since it came onto my radar, and if anything, the actual book exceeded my expectations. It’s Alison’s debut YA novel and it focuses on two girls, Pearl and Ellen, working at Bletchley Park in 1941, and what happens when a suspicious death happens and they must work out who the killer is, especially as all the evidence points to the murderer being a spy and traitor to the war effort.
I promise I’m not just saying this because Alison’s written about it in her post, but the Bletchley setting was absolutely phenomenal and I loved learning more about the work that was done there during the war. I knew the basic gist, of course, but this book brings it to life and gives much more or an idea of what it was really like than other books I’ve read about it. It also felt very authentic to the time period in terms of dialogue etc, and the atmosphere and tension kept me turning pages at a very rapid rate because I just had to know what was going on!
The other massive strength in this book for me was the characters and their relationship with one another. Ellen is not explicitly described as autistic in the text itself, until the author’s note at the end, but she definitely very much reads as neurodiverse and I loved reading about her. She is so clever and analytical and brilliant, and it was really lovely to see an autistic character in a historical setting who wasn’t treated like some sort of outcast because of it. I just loved everything about her. I also adored Pearl, who is a bit more impulsive and headstrong, but also extremely clever and steadfastly loyal to her friends. My heart genuinely just about broke for her at a couple of points in the story, because there was just a really vulnerable quality to her sometimes! There were parts of both girls that I found incredibly relatable, and the friendship between them is the most gorgeous part of the book for me, more so than any of the romantic relationships.
Now, I have to admit I did guess the identity of the murderer/their accomplice, but I think that’s just because I’ve read so many murder mysteries and also it was partly wishful thinking because I thought they would be the cleverest options. Which is a very rambly way of saying I think this is a very well plotted mystery with great twists, as well as my aforementioned obsession with both the characters and the setting.
I’d also just like to add a wee postscript here to mention that the flash forward ending made me both laugh AND cry, and if you’re a fan of the Murder Most Unladylike series who’s bereft while waiting on the Ministry of Unladylike Activity, this is the book you need. And if you know how much those books mean to me, you’ll know that’s basically the highest praise I can bestow on a book!
And now, after my rambling review, over to Alison for her guest post!
Writing THE SECRETS ACT or How I Learned to Research and Write Historical Fiction
Having never written historical fiction before THE SECRETS ACT, I fell into research a bit like one falls out of a tree – quickly, with no real direction, and grabbing at everything I saw along the way. I was unsure where to begin, unorganized, and intimidated. I’ve definitely learned some things along the way, which I’m grateful to have as I dive into my second historical mystery WIP. First, make sure you have a solid plot, characters, and, if possible, a draft of your book. It’s fine to do some high-level research at the drafting stage, but I found the “research as you write” approach was dangerous. I spent hours researching what particular sandwich Ant was eating in the first pub scene. Was that necessary? Likely not. Similarly, I had many hours lost to Pinterest and vintage hair styles, dresses, shoes – you name it. It was a slippery slope for me and so for my next book, I read what I needed to get a sense of my place in history. Then, I approached the first draft. Every time I had a question about food, clothing, and more, I’d put that in comments or brackets to address later.
Once that bit is done and you have an idea of both the story, characters and their motivations, as well as other essential parts of the story (in my case, who was the killer and why), the detailed research can begin. With THE SECRETS ACT, this was the stage during which I contacted the experts, in my case, the research department at Bletchley Park and the librarians at the Imperial War Museum. Don’t be afraid to ask the experts for help. It’s their job, after all, and they’re usually pretty passionate about what they do and excited to help.
When I reached the final draft (or so I thought) before submitting to agents (and, in my case, Chicken House), I put in as many world-building details as I could. You want to focus on smells, sounds, tastes as well as unusual visuals that might help set your story in a period with just that detail. At this stage, I also revisited Bletchley Park itself, which a lot of historical writers might not have the ability to do with their subject or time period. Getting a feel for the huts, the mansion, and the surrounding area during the season in which the novel was set was extremely helpful.
Finally, my editor reminded me time and time again – your novel is fiction. Not everything has to be perfectly accurate and it won’t be. I had to move hut locations at Bletchley Park in order to make Ellen and Pearl’s promotion work. It wasn’t ideal, but I knew readers and even history buffs would understand. There will be details you have to create in order to make your story work and that’s ok. Work with the history to make your story the best it can be. And try not to spend three hours researching Spam sandwiches like someone I know…
THE SECRETS ACT by Alison Weatherby is out now in paperback (£7.99, Chicken House)
Follow Alison on twitter @aliwea
Thank you so much for reading! Are you planning to pick this book up? If you’ve read it already, what did you think? I’d love to chat with you in the comments!