If, as frequently happens, something funny—or out of the ordinary—occurs in the Cochrane household, one of my daughters will usually say, “That’s going to end up in one of your books, isn’t it?”
And, because I’m the world’s worst liar (any career as a secret agent would be totally beyond me) I say, “Um. Yes. Probably.”
I can’t help it. I get inspired by little incidents, turns of phrase, quirky things which turn up. They can’t be left buried in the family memory: they need to be shared with the world. So when my eldest daughter’s boyfriend refused to take some medicine he needed, that was always going to end up as a scene in one of the Cambridge Fellows books. He had Orlando’s characteristic reticence and pig headedness down pat!
I guess there are two elements in this, for a magpie type writer like me, who snaps up unconsidered trifles left right and centre. One is the “you couldn’t make this up” aspect, which I’d better explain. I have been known to think of something ridiculous and then do it. Helping on a school trip, I was watching children roll down a grassy bank. “That looks fun,” I thought, so I gave it a go. They might have been having a whale of a time, but I thought I was going to die. Time expanded, so I was able – as I made my Usain Bolt like descent – to imagine the newspaper headlines. “Chair of governors dies on school trip. She was arsing about, says headteacher.”
That sort of incident, the vividness of the emotions I felt, is meat and drink to an author. We don’t have to imagine the feelings of that near death (it seemed like near death at the time) experience. We recall them all too well, so they add veracity to our writing. (Yes, I did use it. Jonty and Orlando roll down a hill and think they’re going to die in Lessons in Desire.) We are told to write what we know (although there are many arguments against that, not least the fact that as soon as you write about anybody other than yourself, you’re writing what you clearly don’t and can’t know). Bringing the emotions and experiences we know into the stories we tell will help to bring them alive.
The second aspect is the old saw that “truth is stranger than fiction”. Some of the coincidences in life could never be put in a story because the reader would find them too farfetched, although we know these sort of things can happen to us every day. But some things are usable. The Cochranes were staying at a country house (actually it was a stately home) hotel and were given a tour by one of the staff. I was fascinated by the bell board for the servants and how each bell had a specific tone so the staff would know where to go. Lovely little fact, and one which immediately sparked a plot point, even before there was a story to include it in. That plot point remained all the way through drafts and edits and into the final release, because the original premise was so fascinating.
My advice to aspiring authors would be to make a note of anything which piques your interest. If it intrigues you, chances are it’ll intrigue other people. And you always need ideas for your scenes and dialogues. Don’t ignore the ones which land in your lap!
An invitation to stay at a friend of the Stewart family’s stately home can only mean one thing for Jonty Stewart and Orlando Coppersmith—a new case for the amateur sleuths! With two apparently unrelated suicides, a double chase is on.
But things never run smoothly for the Cambridge fellows. In an era when their love dare not speak its name, the chance of discovery (and disgrace) is ever present—how do you explain yourself when a servant discovers you doing the midnight run along the corridor?
The chase stops being a game for Orlando when the case brings back memories of his father’s suicide and the search for the identity of his grandfather. And the solution presents them with one of the most difficult moral decisions they’ve had to make…
“Are we content, Dr. Coppersmith?” Jonty, warm from the port and just slightly dishevelled from an encounter with the family’s Irish wolfhound, stood in Orlando’s doorway in the guest corridor to say his goodnights. Although, as usual, the loquacious toad couldn’t just say “see you tomorrow” and have done with it. Not when five hundred words would suffice.
“We are. Two mysteries. What more could a man want?” The man he loved to share his bed with him, obviously, but neither of them would be getting that. They’d managed a bit of room hopping at the Old Manor—where nobody seemed to bat an eyelid—and when they took a two-bedroom suite at a hotel, but neither of them was going to risk a pyjama-clad slink along the corridor at Fyfield.
Maybe Jonty was feeling the same reluctance to part for the night.
“The nature of the cases not worrying you?”
“No!” Orlando said, avoiding Jonty’s gaze but not able to avoid the disapproving sniff. “Sorry, shouldn’t have been so abrupt. No, I’m fine.”
Jonty leaned his head against the doorframe, clearly weighing up whether he was being told the truth and how far to pursue it if he wasn’t. Orlando had seen that determined look before.
“As you wish.” Jonty stifled a yawn. “I shall see you in the morning. Breakfast and then interrogating the chambermaids?”
“Something like that. Sleep well.”
“I will. My head will hit the pillow and then it’ll be morning tea time.” Jonty slipped away to his room, leaving Orlando, unmoving, staring at the door. Sleep wasn’t going to be easy to find, with dormant memories of his father—cruelly awoken more than once today—dogging his thoughts. He was far too used to having Jonty’s cold feet in the small of his back or his gentle snoring in his ear.
Maybe he could lull himself to sleep by dreaming up a plan of campaign to solve what seemed like two impossible problems.