Susan Elia MacNeal ’91 is the very contemporary author of the bestselling Maggie Hope mystery series. But beginning with Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, she has immersed herself in London during World War II, in books replete with evocative period detail. A fourth Maggie Hope adventure, The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent, came out this past summer, a fifth is due out next year, and MacNeal is under contract for a sixth.
How did you decide on the World War II era as the setting for your novels?
Elizabeth Layton Nel, who worked for Winston Churchill during the war, inspired me to write about this period when I heard an actress reading from her memoir on my first visit to the Churchill War Rooms in London. Suddenly, I could imagine being there in 1940 with bombs falling and typists typing. Afterwards, I read Mrs. Nel’s memoir, and then wrote to her about my experience. She wrote me back, and we continued to correspond. I have read her book, Winston Churchill by His Personal Secretary: Recollections of the Great Man by a Woman Who Worked for Him, many times.
How much research did you do before beginning to write the first book?
I read tons of incredibly helpful books, especially Five Days in London: May 1940, by John Lucas. I visited Bletchley Park [and] Arisaig in Scotland where agents were trained for overseas missions. In such places, one is acutely aware of being on historical ground. I talked to people of that generation and asked them real-life social and cultural questions about the period. For example, did women swear? The answer: not in public, but among people of their own age and sex, they swore like sailors.
I did a lot of research, because I felt I had to pay my dues. Then on 9/11 in New York City I lived through the experience of having my own city attacked, people injured and dying, smoke filling the air—which made me feel finally that I had permission to write.
How did you make sure your descriptions were accurate?
I would send pages to Mrs. Nel, and she would answer that the office details were “all well and good,” except that secretaries “did not have time for mysteries and romance. We were lucky to sleep!”
What advice you would give someone who wants to write about a particular historical period?
Smell vintage perfume, look at the clothing to see how well it is sewn, and if possible walk in the same footsteps as your characters.