A Quest for Clemency – the background

Although my latest novel is rather frivolous compared to the real world setting it attempts to depict, I thought some of my readers might be interested to know where I looked for information about the background.

I usually go online first these days to see if I can find any sources that seem both relevant and reliable. Much to my delight, I found some official Cambridge University pages about the history of the Mathematical Laboratory (later known as the Computer Laboratory) and the 50th anniversary of EDSAC 1, the computer I allowed my fictional characters to monkey around with. My favourite page, from a novelist’s point of view, was this one, which includes personal reminiscences:

http://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/events/EDSAC99/reminiscences/

As well as the content on this page there are links to other sites with images of the Laboratory and the computers – and some of the people – that inhabited it over the years.

My own programming days were a little later than the time of the EDSACs, but there were still some LEO computers in operation in the organisation I worked for, and I remember paper tape, although our own machine accepted input on punched cards. It seems almost unbelievable that we often punched up our own programs on ancient Hollerith card punches that didn’t have proper keyboards, and that the computer that occupied almost a whole floor of the building was much less powerful than a modern laptop – possibly even less powerful than my Kindle Fire, for all I know.

One of my characters, Andrew, has a background in code-breaking that is so secret that he can’t divulge anything about it, so naturally I had to read about Bletchley Park, where the Enigma codes were broken during the war. I chose a very readable book which focussed on the people involved: The Secret Life of Bletchley Park by Sinclair McKay. I am sure there are many more technical books about how the computers worked and exactly how the codes were broken, but this one told me some of the things I always want to know when writing about past events – i.e. where did the code-breakers live, what was their working life like, and what did they do in their spare time. This was all deep background as far as my novels are concerned – I can’t let Andrew say anything about his past, perhaps for years!

I also re-read a novel I already knew, to refresh my memory about the Playfair Cipher: Have His Carcase by Dorothy L. Sayers – still an excellent mystery today. I haven’t explained the cipher half as well as Dorothy Sayers did, so if you want to know the details, read this book.

To find out something about Cambridge in the 1950s, I read another book that focussed on people as opposed to events with wider significance: The Shop Girls by Ellee Seymour. This isn’t great literature and is a light, easy read, but I certainly learned a lot of detail about where people shopped, what sort of places they lived in, where the parks and green spaces were, and what they did in their spare time in 1950s Cambridge. I tried not to put it all in the novel!

XIIf you’ve read this far down the page, you are entitled to know that I haven’t been frittering away my time writing blog posts since publishing the above-mentioned novel. Oh, no. I’ve got out my ‘lucky’ notebook again and the image that goes with this post should give you a clue to what’s happening.

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