Sunday, March 30, 2014


SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: My next book, THE PRIME MINISTER'S SECRET AGENT (Maggie Hope #4) is coming out this July. I'm finally, finally, finally done with corrections and it's in ARC form now, with my last edits in. (Whew!)

And so I'm now working on Maggie Hope #5, MRS. ROOSEVELT'S CONFIDANTE. Some of you may remember my post about visiting Washington, D.C. and Alexandria, VA, tracing Winston Churchill's steps as he visited President Roosevelt and the First Lady in December 1941, after Pearl Harbor.

But how to get from there to actually plotting a World War II mystery? 

Research, research, research.

What's fascinating to me is that the UK's "Official Secrets Act" — which cloaked much of what went on behind-the-scenes in World War II has been lifted — giving us access to people and stories we've never heard before.

 One of those stories is told by Helen Fry, in her 2012 book, THE M ROOM: Secret Listeners Who Bugged the Nazis During World War II.  Here's a brief description: 

As seen on pbs and Channel 4 documentary "Spying on Hitler's Army"... This is the story of the German émigrés who fled Hitler’s regime and became secret listeners for British Intelligence during the Second World War. Behind the walls of the M Room (M for 'miked') they bugged the conversations of over 10,000 German PoWs, including 59 German Generals at Trent Park in North London. Providing a detailed, oft humorous, insight into life of the Generals in captivity, the book shows the farcical ‘stage-set’ in which they found themselves. But against this backdrop, the secret listeners eavesdropped on admission of war crimes and terrible atrocities against Russians, Poles and Jews; as well as details of an SS mutiny in a concentration camp in 1936, and Hitler’s human ‘stud farms’. This story places firmly on record just how much British and American Intelligence knew about Hitler's annihilation programme and how early. Why at the end of the war were these files not released for the war crimes trials to bring the perpetrators to justice? Was this one of the darkest secrets of the war? These transcripts, and thousands of others, of some of the most important Nazi secrets remained classified until 1999. During their clandestine work the secret listeners did not set eyes on a single German PoW, yet their work and the intelligence they gained was as significant for winning the war as Bletchley Park and cracking the Enigma Code. For over sixty years the listeners never spoke about their work, not even to their families. Many went to their grave bearing the secrets of the nation which had saved them from certain death.

The story of the M Room was also a documentary, called BUGGING HITLER'S GENERALS, which was first broadcast on PBS in the U.S, in May 2013.

Now, this is where it gets fun, like those children's "follow the dots" games...

The book and documentary talk about how Nazi officers let slip information about the V2 rocket program. That led me to:



and the NOVA documentary on PBS: 3D SPIES OF WORLD WAR II. 


So, we have a secret Nazi rocket-building facility. 

We have RAF Spitfires flying over and taking photos, not really understanding what they're seeing.

We have a round-up of high level Nazis in British held prisoner in a British manor house, with every conversation being secretly recorded.

We have some of the Brits looking at the photos who believe that what they're seeing is the next Nazi mega-weopon.

On the other hand, we have people like Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his advisors not convinced and not willing to pledge manpower to bomb the site....

What they need is a something called a Wild (pronounced "vilt") A5 machine to turn the photographs in to 3D and give them more information....

Britain doesn't have one, so they'll need to — somehow — smuggle one out of Germany.... 

And we now have a ticking clock — can the Brits (and now the Americans) find the Wild A5 and bring it back to England and convince Churchill and the others to bomb the site before the Nazi V2 program is fully operational?

And I think we have the building blocks of a subplot!

(Thank you for playing along at home.)

Reds, how do you get from research to a plot line? 

Readers who are also writers, what do you do?


  1. This was wonderful!

    How fun to see the process at work and hear one writer's manner of "connecting the dots."

    I have always, always, loved research. I was one of those nerdy kids in school that though those dreaded term papers were a bunch of fun simply because of the research. All the many side trips of along the way were fascinating to me.

  2. I'm not a writer but I do follow the dots a lot. One book will lead to another and then another. I remember doing that when I first read NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA. I practically ODd on Russian history.

    The latest time I did this was after reading THE SECRET RESCUE by Cate Lineberry. It's the true story of American nurses and soldiers whose plane is forced to land behind German lines in Albanis in WWII. That lead me to OUT OF ALBANIA, written by one of the soldiers. And so on and so on.

    I enjoy WWII history and Maggie Hope's adventures are great! I loo forward to the newest one. Thank you for doing your research.

  3. Kaye, thank you! I was one of those kids, too....

    Marianne, I'll have to read THE SECRET RESCUE — sounds great. Thank you.

  4. I'll read THAT book!

    Hmmm... from research to plot. For me more often it goes the other way. Start with characters and a story and then figure out what I need to research.

    Then it becomes iterative... research leads to plot and plot to more research. For instance, I had no idea that a B-25 bomber had crashed into the Empire State Building in 1945 until I went looking to replace a plot element that wasn't working. Then, come to find out that an elevator fell 85 stories in that disaster... led to a subplot.

    The Circle of Write.

  5. Love this! Susan, as always, this sounds wonderful. And it's fun to trace back how we got there.

    Let's see--I usually start with one cool thing, some sort of event or crime that feels cool or unusual.

    And, because my books are contemporary and realistic, that often starts with taking a common or familiar situation--and twisting to be unexpectedly something else.

    WOuld there be a reason someone would be the other woman--that might be a GOOD one?

    What if an adoption agency were reuniting birth parents with the wrong children?

    It's interesting (to me...) my job as a reporter is necessary because I am always looking for how the the system DOESN'T work. And that's what I do for my plots, too.

  6. Oh, character-driven arcs are an entirely different post, yes... I do think for historical fiction, you need to know what's going on in your specific time period — for this novel, December 1941 to February 1942 (but don't hold me to it).

  7. Susan, I find it astonishing how much you jam into a few weeks in your books. I finish them thinking half the war is over, and it's only been six weeks! -- evay

  8. Susan, reading about your process in connecting the dots is like reading a mini-book full of adventure in itself. Such an interesting journey! I have been trying to set aside a time when I can read your Maggie series straight through, but I may just have to go ahead and plunge no matter what else is swirling around me. WWII is a favorite period of history about which I read, and I know your books are going to be a great addition to my library.

    One aspect of that time period you bring up is how early the people in charge knew about the Nazi atrocities. I've always thought the feigned ignorance and subsequent ignoring of these horrific activities was such an enormous shame on the leaders of the Allies. One of the most shameful acts by our country concerning the Jews was the turning away of the ship the St. Louis, full of Jewish refugees, who were sent back from our shore to Europe to face the Nazi's final solution for them.

    One of the reasons I love to read historical fiction, including historical mystery fiction, is to then find links, books and other, to the subject as I read it and afterward, too. "Connecting the dots" is something I used to talk about to students concerning reading and research. It's always been a thrilling adventure for me. Research is definitely a positive experience for me.

    Susan, your mention of the Official Secrets Act and Bletchley Park reminded me of the PBS series Bletchley Circle, which I have only seen the first one and need to finish watching. It was fascinating to me. The book you referenced about the work just as important as the code breaking, The M Room, is now on my TBR list, too.

    So, my next activity is to go to Amazon and order at least the first three of the Maggie Hope novels and The M Room.

  9. Such fun to read this post Susan! Yes, historical novels are a different beast. I do more wandering around Key West and reading the papers and talking to people in town...and then finding little sparks of inspiration. More on that Thursday:)

  10. I am always amazed at how plot can emerge organically from research; the dots seem to connect themselves!

  11. Kathy, what's really important about the book THE M ROOM is confirmation about how much the German military knew about the Holocaust. The British made the decision not to include the transcripts at the Nuremberg Trials. It's not something I can include in my novel, because of the time frame. But if you read THE M ROOM, you'll see that as the war goes on, and more Nazis are brought in the from Eastern front, just what the "average" German officer (not an SS officer) knew. Chilling.

  12. Susan, I love your books and can't wait to read this one.

    I've always loved research, but I have to do it Hallie's way. Mostly because I tend to fall down the rabbit hole and could research forever. I have several historical novels I'm researching in spare time. Sometime I'd love to get a grant or contract that would allow me to dive headlong into the research and write one. But I suspect I'll do it over the years part-time until I'm finally able to write it.

  13. I now have a new list of books I want to read! Your books are always so well done. As a librarian I recommend them to readers who like historical thrillers. It was fun seeing your thought process at work. Thank you for sharing.
    Beth Bell

  14. I am often introduced to previously unknown elements of history through novels like these. Fascinating! And we are lucky these days that further research simply takes a trip into the internet.

    I remember taking a Bibliography class in grad school! It was wonderful exploring the stacks, but I am much happier searching the web.

    Thank you for a great post.

  15. History is absolutely fascinating, filled with all sorts of “who knew?” tidbits just waiting to be discovered.
    I’m looking forward to the next Maggie Hope story . . . .

  16. Susan, I noticed that Maggie Hope was like a math genius. I wondered if you came from an engineering background or if you majored in Calculus at University?