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Signing a contract with Avon HarperCollins for my new series: The Bletchley Park Girls, meant I had to get down to some serious research. I would be pushing my brain to the limit because I was sure Bletchley Park would never have chosen me for any code-breaking!
I’d already made three visits to Bletchley Park and even read several books on the subject, but at the time I had no idea I’d be writing novels about such a top-secret operation during the Second World War. And now Covid had restricted travel, it would be difficult to reimmerse myself in the atmosphere. Thankfully, on-line retailers came to the rescue with a flurry of non-fiction books.
My first visit to Bletchley Park was 15 years ago on Polish Day when they held a Battle of Britain fly-past. We stood, necks cricked, and shed tears. Afterwards, I wandered over to a Hut incorporating an exhibition room showing women in various roles. It was empty, save for a tall, older woman peering at the black-and-white photographs and their captions. We nodded and smiled at each other. Eventually, I couldn’t help asking, ‘Did you by any chance work here during the war?’ ‘Yes,’ she said. My spine tingled. ‘Now I take people on tours to show them our achievements.’ I felt humbled in her presence, but she was delighted to describe her work on the decoding Bombe machines.
In my novels I aim to promote women’s roles in the war as often they have been underplayed or worse, not even mentioned. And at Bletchley Park three-quarters of the 10,000 people working there were women, mainly Wrens. Bright young women excelling at mathematics, crosswords, or chess, and fluent in one or more languages, were the people Bletchley Park wanted to recruit. Influential fathers would recommend daughters for Station X (as it was known) if they weren’t already in the forces. Debutantes were snapped up as they were considered trustworthy. Security was paramount. One woman described in her memoir how she was interviewed by an officer whose pistol lay casually on the desk as he warned her of dire punishments if she blabbed!
Last year I managed to visit Bletchley Park again and this time took my notebook. The corridors seemed much narrower than I remembered, which led me to alter a scene where my heroine passes two naval officers. There wouldn’t have been room for three people abreast so now she presses herself against the wall to let them pass – nicely adding to the drama. In the Watch Room it was thrilling to see the actual notebooks of the cryptographers and their pencilled decoding notes. With mugs and half-filled ashtrays, their long table was left as though the team had just nipped over to the canteen for lunch.
These details bring a place to life. I wouldn’t have got it from books – I needed to be there. The trouble is, I adore research, but the time comes when I must sit down and write the story!