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Charlie Cochrane: What Ends Up in a Book
Friday, October 4th, 2013

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.

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12 comments to “Charlie Cochrane: What Ends Up in a Book”

  1. Charlie Cochrane
    · October 4th, 2013 at 8:17 am · Link

    Thanks for hosting me, Delilah. Always a pleasure to be your guest.

  2. Tam
    · October 4th, 2013 at 8:32 am · Link

    Not to much from my own personal life, except for locations usually, but stuff I read about or see on YouTube shows up ALL the time. I think my own personal life is too boring. 😐 But really, the phrase “you can’t make that shit up” is too true sometimes, especially if you are looking for something a bit farcical or odd.

    I saw a video where someone was trying to reach on top of a set of kitchen cabinets to reach a cat and fell off. I wrote that in for a medical story I did as yet another excuse for the guy to meet up with a doctor because of a broken wrist. And the doctor’s love of all things Star Trek, well, that was me. 🙂

  3. Charlie Cochrane
    · October 4th, 2013 at 8:47 am · Link

    I never knew you were a trekkie, Tam. We could have gone to Southampton airport and played at transporters (my children tell me off for it, but they have these blue floor lights which are just perfect…)

    Love the cat story, BTW.

  4. Tam
    · October 4th, 2013 at 9:38 am · Link

    Next time. 🙂 Yes, I love my Trek.

  5. Kitty Gamble
    · October 4th, 2013 at 12:30 pm · Link

    This is so true. I had to go to a recruitment day recently, and though I was dreading it the author in me was already thinking ‘that would be a great premise for a story.’ Team building exercises, awkward meetings, people bonding in shared situations… It’s definitely on my list of future projects.

  6. Stevie Carroll
    · October 4th, 2013 at 1:33 pm · Link

    I’m always using stuff in stories, especially from photos I’ve taken like the pictures of all the junk stacked in bedrooms at Calke Abbey.

  7. Charlie Cochrane
    · October 4th, 2013 at 3:46 pm · Link

    Love that idea, Kitty. I’ve seen similar tensions at school governor training that have made me think, “Hm…I wonder…”

  8. Charlie Cochrane
    · October 4th, 2013 at 3:50 pm · Link

    Your photos are always interesting, Stevie. Very atmospheric.

  9. ELF
    · October 4th, 2013 at 10:09 pm · Link

    Great advice…it’s that ability to take commonplace things and make them interesting that gives depth to the stories. Thanks for sharing, enjoyed the excerpt.

  10. Charlie Cochrane
    · October 5th, 2013 at 6:23 am · Link

    My pleasure, ELF. I think I/we have always made up stories. No better way to entertain children while waiting at the airport or wherever than to imagine what people are doing and where they’re going!

  11. HJ
    · October 6th, 2013 at 7:52 am · Link

    Of course, you don’t mention the skill required to make the real-life incidents appear to be entirely natural to the characters you’re writing about… Needless to say, you have it, but I think authors generally should beware of shoe-horning something funny or sad into a book because it’s caught their fancy, without considering carefully who it should happen to and how.
    You allude to this when you say: “He had Orlando’s characteristic reticence and pig headedness down pat!”; it probably wouldn’t have worked if it had been Jonty refusing his medicine.

  12. Charlie Cochrane
    · October 6th, 2013 at 3:33 pm · Link

    Thanks, HJ. You’ve made a cracking point. You do have to make sure you use a light touch, and suit the action/words to the character.

    I have a real bee in my bonnet about characters in a series who suddenly act in an unconvincing way, just to further the plot or drum up some new twist. To thine own self be true and all that.

Comments are closed.