by Avery St. Pierre, Junior Editor for Drama jaBlog!
Avery St. Pierre, jaBlog!‘s editor of dramatic fiction, had the exciting opportunity to interview one of our presenters for the UK Junior Authors Writers Conference, Charlie Cochrane. The interview looks into Charlie’s life and work as a writer, the topic she’ll be presenting at the conference, and a couple juicy tidbits for budding young writers.
Welcome, Charlie! Care to tell us a little about yourself?
I’d describe myself as a mad, middle-aged mother of three lovely girls, who desperately wanted to do biochemical research but discovered at university that she was far too clumsy to attempt it so had to find another place to apply her brains. At present, that outlet is writing, along with some freelance training of school governors. When I’m not doing either of those things, I like watching sports, eating out, going to the theatre, or visiting places of historic interest. Poor Mr. Cochrane gets dragged along, too!
When did you start writing? When did you know that you had to be an author?
I guess I’ve always made up stories and scenarios, either to entertain me or—latterly—to entertain my girls when they were younger. I also wrote when I was a teenager. Please don’t ask about it. The stories were appalling. It was only as the girls grew up and I found some free time that I could get some of those story ideas onto paper. Or, to be more accurate, into a word document.
If you could pin down a moment in your life that really told you “Wow, I can do this,” when would that moment have been?
That goes back to fan fiction days. I was still cutting my writing teeth when somebody—who’s now a great pal—e-mailed me to ask whether I was a professional writer playing around in Hornblower fan fiction. I was truly gobsmacked. I suspect that was the point where I thought, “Yes. I could take this seriously.”
Do you prefer writing with pen and paper or a keyboard?
A keyboard, as I can go back and change things as my story develops. However, I always keep a notepad in my handbag as sometimes ideas come at the most unexpected moments and, given that my memory is like a sieve, I have to jot them down. I also find that switching to writing longhand is a good way to clear writers’ block.
What is your favourite part of working as a writer? What is the best thing it’s ever let you do?
It’s hard to pin down a favourite bit, as I like so much of it—except promotion, of course. I’m a Brit, and we’re very uncomfortable blowing our own trumpets.
One of the best things it’s let me do happened this February, when the Deadly Dames—a group of cosy mystery writers which I’m part of—got invited to run a panel at Purbeck Literary Festival. It’s been a wet and horrible winter over here, so I hadn’t anticipated what a beautiful day it would turn out to be nor how stunning the venue, Durlston castle, was. I kept looking out of the window at the sunshine glinting on the sea and thinking, “I do this as part of my job!”
You write a lot of mysteries. What do you think that aspiring writers can learn about the craft of writing that they can’t from other types of literature?
You can’t cheat your readers because they’ll never forgive you for it. There are expectations about what they’re getting with a book in this genre—that the killer will be identified, that the plot will hold together without gaping holes in it, that they’ll get enough clues as they go along to enable them to have a guess at solving the mystery, that the author will play fair. I recently read a mystery in which one of the killers didn’t appear on the page until almost the end. I was livid.
The concept of “playing fair” with the reader can be applied to other genres. What expectations will people reading your genre have? Will you annoy them if you fail to meet those needs? Is your plot watertight, or do you have important things which are never explained? Do people act out of character just to make something happen that’s key to the plotline?
What was the first novel you ever wrote? Was that story ever published? What compelled you to tell its story?
Lessons in Love, which is the first of the Cambridge Fellows mysteries. It was published first in 2008 by a little American publisher who subsequently got taken over by a bigger American publisher, which was a real step up the ladder. Six years later, the series of which it’s the first is still going strong.
What compelled me to tell the story were the two main characters, Jonty and Orlando. The idea for them—two detectives, based in a Cambridge college in Edwardian times—came from the most brilliant mystery I’ve ever read, Death at the President’s Lodging. Since then, they’ve never stopped chirping in my brain, insisting I write about them. I think I understand them more than I understand any other of my characters, although readers keep telling me things about the pair which I’d never realized, like Orlando probably being on the Asperger’s spectrum.
Have you ever written something that was never published? How was that experience for you? Do you ever think about taking it off the back burner and rewriting it?
I haven’t got any stories which have been serially rejected, but I do have maybe three works-in-progress in various stages of completion that I get out, play around with, and put away again in favour of writing other stuff, which does get completed.
For one of them, I’ve managed to identify what the issue is. I had a main strand of the story based around one of the characters working for MI5. That bit never seemed sufficiently authentic. I’ve seen how to re-do the story with no “Thames House” connection, so all I need is some writing time—2015 looks good—to work it to completion. In the other two cases, I’ve failed to identify what’s holding the things up. I’m confident that I will, at some point, and then it’ll be full steam ahead. I hope.
Your workshop is going to talk about unruly characters who come alive on the page and do their own thing. Does this happen to you often?
All the blooming time, which is why I have so many strategies for coping with it. My two detectives, Jonty and Orlando, seem to make it a habit to vex me by refusing to do what they’re supposed to at times or by having a sudden thought, which is great but complicates matters by introducing a whole other story strand. That’s when I end up having to go back over the mess and change stuff left, right and center. But if it makes the story sharper, more plausible, and a more enjoyable read, that’s all worthwhile.
What do you do when you don’t know where the story is supposed to be going? Many young people have a problem with this and tend to give up. What do you do to keep going?
Whatever works. Sometimes you just have to keep writing, maybe trying out lots of different little scenes and then figuring out which of these will take the story on. Sometimes you just have to step away and do something else—cleaning the kitchen floor is good—and let your sub-conscious do the work for you. Many inventors have been doing an activity which was physical and mindless when they’ve had their “Eureka!” moment. Identifying which particular thing helps to unblock your ideas flow can be really productive. I have a road—the A3057—which I drive along. No jokes. You have no idea how many plot points I’ve sorted out going up there, muttering to myself. Other drivers must think I’m loopy.
What can young people expect to learn from your workshop, and how is it going to help them make their writing even better?
I’m intending to share a range of strategies that will help them cope with the specific problem of the clashes between a rigid story structure and a set of developing characters with minds of their own. One size rarely fits all, so amongst all the things I’ll suggest, they should each be able to find one or two which will work for them. And some of the strategies are quite generic and can be applied to all sorts of writing problems, such as writers’ block. I’d hasten to add they’re not all ideas I’ve come up with myself. I’ve been lucky enough to learn from lots of people and am passing some of that received wisdom on.
Avery St.Pierre, 16, Canada. Avery says, “Writing is a beautiful thing that has shown me light even when I thought I’d lost it. I hope to share that light with the world because, heck, who doesn’t need a little sunshine?”