Mastodon The Writing Desk: Special Guest Post by Louise Morrish, Author of Operation Moonlight

5 May 2024

Special Guest Post by Louise Morrish, Author of Operation Moonlight

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US 

Wartime France, 1944: Trust absolutely no one. This is the only advice newly recruited SOE agent Elisabeth Shepherd is given when faced with the impossible. Her mission: to enter Nazi-occupied France and monitor the Germans' deadly long-range missiles.

Guildford, 2018: Betty is celebrating her 100th birthday when she receives an invite from the Century Society to reminisce on the past.  She remains mysteriously tight-lipped about her past, however. And then her carer, Tali, discovers a box full of maps, letters and a gun . . .

My passion is discovering historical women, forgotten women, secret women, who achieved incredible things in the past but whom no one now remembers. I've been reimagining their lives in my fiction for many years, but it wasn't until 2019 that I got my break into publishing when my debut novel Operation Moonlight won the Penguin Random House First Novel competition. At last, I could share these incredible stories of inspirational women from history with the world.
Operation Moonlight was inspired in part by an article I read in a newspaper archive back in 2018, about a reclusive woman who'd been hiding a secret past. When Eileen Nearne died, alone in Torquay, no friends or family could initially be found, so the council was tasked with clearing out her flat. They discovered letters and medals from the war, and it transpired that Eileen had once been a secret agent with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during World War 2.
As I researched Eileen’s story, I became fascinated by the tales I discovered of other female secret agents. These women then undertook extraordinarily brave missions in enemy occupied countries during the war, but their stories have mostly been lost to the mists of time.
Operation Moonlight tells the story of Betty Shepherd - named after my own maternal grandmother, a huge inspiration to me when I was growing up. Betty is a reclusive centenarian hiding a huge secret. She once worked as a secret agent for the SOE, but she's never told anyone about her tragic past. But her secrets threaten to emerge when her carer, Tali, discovers a suitcase in the cellar containing letters from the War Office and a gun.

Research is one of my favourite parts of writing a novel, and I undertook a lot of it for Operation Moonlight. As a librarian, I know my way around the shelves, and I read over 200 books on all aspects of the war, spies, occupied France, and much more. 

I visited museums such as Beaulieu, Bletchley Park and Tangmere Air Museum. I even travelled 800 miles by train from my home to the far northwest of Scotland, to experience the place where many of the special agents underwent paramilitary training. 

I do practical research for my novels, as much as possible. So, I hired a self defence expert to teach me the SOE skills of unarmed combat and ‘silent killing’, I practised navigation in the countryside, and I even parachuted out of a plane. Never, ever again! Operation Moonlight was published in 2022, and my new novel, Women of War, comes out later this year.

Women of War is set in the First World War, and was inspired by more forgotten women in history. In the summer of 2012, I came across the fascinating memoir of a young Edwardian woman called Dorothy Lawrence. Born illegitimately in 1896, Dorothy longed to be a journalist, but her sex, background and lack of education held her back. 

She wasn’t going to relinquish her dream easily, though. So, in 1915 she travelled to France and managed to disguise herself as a male soldier in the British Army. Her aim was to become the first female journalist to report the truth from the battlefields.
She fought alongside the Royal Engineers for ten days, until an injury brought her identity to light. Arrested on suspicion of being an enemy spy, Dorothy was court martialled, and finally sent home under strict orders never to return or write about her experiences.
I couldn't get Dorothy out of my mind. What sort of woman had the courage to travel to an enemy occupied country in the middle of a war, disguise herself as a man, and risk her life in battle? A fascinating woman, and one who deserved to be remembered.
So, I began to reimagine Dorothy’s story. At the same time, I came across the incredible achievements of two female doctors. Louisa Garrett Anderson (1873 – 1943) was a surgeon, a suffragette, and the daughter of the first female doctor to qualify in Britain, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. Flora Murray (1869 – 1923) was a Scottish anaesthetist, a suffragette, and the life partner of Louisa.

When war broke out in 1914, Louisa and Flora founded the Women's Hospital Corps (WHC), and offered their services as doctors to the War Office. They were rejected, told that women were not capable of performing military surgery. So instead, Louisa and Flora and their all-female team appealed to the French Red Cross, who gratefully accepted their offer of help.

The WHC established two military hospitals, the first in Paris, the second in Wimereux near Boulogne on the French coast. Casualties from the battlefields flooded in, filling the wards with traumatized men suffering horrific injuries, the likes of which the medical establishment had never faced before. 
But the women rose to the challenge, and soon their success came to the attention of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC). By providing exceptional care to wounded soldiers, Louisa and Flora and their team demonstrated that they were equal to their male counterparts.
Women of War is a work of fiction, the characters created from my imagination, but strongly inspired by Dorothy, Louisa and Flora. The locations that feature in my novel – the hotel in Paris, the chateau in Wimereux, the War Office in London - and the challenges my characters face are all taken from real places and events.

Louise Morrish
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About the Author

Louise Morrish is a historical fiction writer and librarian from Hampshire. She writes stories inspired by the lives of women in the past, who achieved extraordinary things, but whom history has forgotten. Her debut novel Operation Moonlight was published by Penguin in 2022. She is currently writing two more historical novels for Penguin. Women of War is available for pre-order, and the sequel will be out in 2025. Find out more at Louise's website and find her on Facebook and Twitter @LouiseMorrish1

Operation Moonlight Audiobook preview: 

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