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Ellie Marney: On the Unique Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction

New York Times bestselling author Ellie Marney discusses the history behind her new YA murder mystery, The Killing Code.

Ellie Marney is a New York Times bestselling author of crime thrillers. Her titles include the Aurealis-winning None Shall Sleep, White Night, the Every series and the companion novel No Limits, and the Circus Hearts series. Her books are published in 10 countries and have been optioned for television.

She’s spent a lifetime researching in mortuaries, talking to autopsy specialists, and asking former spies about how to make explosives from household items, and now she lives quite sedately in southeastern Australia with her family. Her latest book is The Killing Code, an intense mystery about female codebreakers hunting a serial killer against a backdrop of 1940s wartime Washington DC.

You can find out more about Ellie and her books at elliemarney.com or on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Ellie Marney: On the Unique Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction

Ellie Marney

In this post, Ellie discusses the history behind her new YA murder mystery, The Killing Code, her unique advice for other writers, and more!

Name: Ellie Marney
Literary agent: Josh Adams at Adams Literary
Book title: The Killing Code
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release date: September 20, 2022
Genre/category: YA murder mystery
Previous titles: None Shall Sleep; White Night; No Limits
Elevator pitch for the book: In 1943 during WWII, four codegirls working at a secret U.S. Signal Intelligence facility must join forces to hunt a murderer who targets government girls in wartime Washington, D.C.

Ellie Marney: On the Unique Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction

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What prompted you to write this book?

I’ve always been fascinated by the young women who worked at codebreaking facilities like Bletchley Park in the U.K. and Arlington Hall in the U.S.—they were so deeply dedicated, and only recently received the recognition they deserved. So, when I read Codegirls by Liza Mundy and realized that Arlington Hall was actually a girl’s college before it was acquired by the War Department during WWII, my imagination caught fire.

All my stories are YA crime stories featuring smart girls, so I immediately thought “codegirls against a killer.” It sounded too perfect to pass up!

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?

Oh, this book went through many changes along the way. Initially I was going to set it in England and make my protagonists a boy and a girl. Then I found out about Arlington Hall, and how young the codegirls were (at Bletchley Park, the average age was 19), and how women vastly outnumbered men, of course, because most of the men were at war.

So, the story became much more focused on female friendship, and pitted an all-girl team against one very tenacious and horrible murderer. It took about two and half years to go from “idea in my head” to “finished book on shelf.”

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

Bringing a book to publication is always a learning curve! One of the things that was quite a process was the methodical hunt for permissions for quotes by female codebreakers.

Each chapter begins with a quote, and while some of the codebreakers I’ve quoted are original characters from the story, some of the women—like Ann Caracristi and Wilma Berryman and Agnes Meyer Driscoll—are real people, so it took a lot of time and patience to dig up permissions for those lines.

Ellie Marney: On the Unique Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

Well, it was trickier than it usually is, because I was writing the book at the height of the pandemic, in one of the most locked-down cities in the world (Melbourne, Australia). All my kids were learning from home, and my partner and I were both teaching from home, and it was just an extremely crowded environment in which to write.

I think I became almost as good at mentally compartmentalizing my story-self and my work-self and my home-self as the codegirls did!

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

I try not to have any expectations around what readers will get out of my books—I firmly believe that once a book is out in the world it’s no longer yours, and people are free to react to it in any way they choose.

But there are ideas in The Killing Code about the depth of feeling and support in girls’ friendships, and the life-changing importance of love, as well as thoughts about code-switching, and feeling like an impostor, that I really hope some readers will find and take comfort in. I wrote about Kit and Moya and Violet and Dottie as a way of escaping from the real world for a while; I hope readers find a little escape in my book’s pages.

If you could share one piece of advice with other writers, what would it be?

This is going to sound extremely basic, but—get a good writing chair.

Writing involves hours of sitting at your laptop and if you don’t have a supportive chair, you’ll do terrible damage to your back. Learn from my mistakes! Margaret Atwood said, “Pain is distracting when you’re trying to write,” and she’s not wrong.

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