To understand how I came to write All Lessons Learned you have to understand how I came to write the Cambridge Fellows series (of which this is the eighth book). I’m a huge fan of the classic detective novel (Agatha Christie and the like) and it’s always frustrated me that there weren’t a pair of gay detectives solving those cosy crimes. After reading Death at the President’s Lodging (which has got one or two really ‘slashy’ scenes) I became inspired to write my own.
I had an era I loved (the Edwardian, when many of my favourite authors like Conan Doyle were writing) and a setting (Cambridge, my university) and the rest just followed. It wasn’t hard to create a couple of contrasting Edwardian gentlemen, both of them bright, handsome and keen to put their brains to solving mysteries. And a single sex, ivy clad Cambridge college was an ideal place for a pair of male lovers to hide their relationship, one which started in “Lessons in Love”.
The series grew, the mysteries multiplied, but at the back of my mind there was always a little warning note. 1914 isn’t far away. And right from the start of publication I had anxious readers asking what would happen to Jonty and Orlando during WWI. I even had a list from my 18 year old daughter of all the ways they could avoid having to fight, such as working in Room 40 with the intelligence services. I had to bite the bullet, shift the story sequence forward a few years and tackle the problem.
That didn’t become any easier as I tackled the research. I get bored with history books, so I go for primary/close secondary sources. Recollections from old soldiers, collections of letters, photographs, poetry from the era; the more I read the more my heart broke at the thought of the waste of young lives. (Don’t get me started on Wilfred Owen or I’ll start blubbing.) Somehow I had to reflect that in All Lessons Learned, without making it so realistic that my readers were horrified or so sad that they felt betrayed.
Writing the book was always a bit of a tightrope act, balancing the needs of the story with the historical background and weighing up just how far I could go and still deliver a happy ending. Even then I had to give a “three hankie” warning to go with the publicity, alongside a reassurance that readers had to trust me.
I felt so relieved when the book was done. Now I can go back and fill in some of the gaps in the Jonty and Orlando timeline, although I haven’t written WWI out of my system. I’ve done a novella and a short story since then, both with a Great War theme and I’m sure I’ll return to it. How could I resist its siren (bugle!) call?
The Great War is over. Freed from a prisoner of war camp and back at St. Bride’s College, Orlando Coppersmith is discovering what those years have cost. All he holds dear—including his beloved Jonty Stewart, lost in combat.
A commission to investigate a young officer’s disappearance gives Orlando new direction…temporarily. The deceptively simple case becomes a maze of conflicting stories—is Daniel McNeil a deserter, or a hero?—taking Orlando into the world of the shell-shocked and broken. And his sense of Jonty’s absence becomes painfully acute. Especially when a brief spark of attraction for a Cambridge historian, instead of offering comfort, triggers overwhelming guilt.
As he hovers on the brink of despair, a chance encounter on the French seafront at Cabourg brings new hope and unexpected joy. But the crushing aftereffects of war could destroy his second chance, leaving him more lost and alone than ever…
Buy link: http://store.samhainpublishing.com/lessons-learned-p-6245.html (e-book February 2011, print January 2012)
Orlando took a final tour around the garden before settling down in his study with the McNeil case. Spring was in full bloom, the late-flowering cherry a mass of sumptuous pink blossoms and the tulips still a mass of colour. The daffodils had gone, no longer standing proudly like trumpeters waiting to give the last post, but one or two late narcissi could still be found if you tried hard enough. He’d not yet got the bulbs planted in Jonty’s patch—that was a job for later this year—but there were plenty of buds on the shrubs. It would be fine, given a bit of time.
Orlando started reading Mrs. McNeil’s notes, a disconnected narrative of Daniel’s service history, interspersed with recollections of how much her son had loved France as a child, but he was unable to concentrate on them. His eye kept straying to the little writing desk, the one which had been his grandmother’s and which had been privy to all her secrets, given her habit of hiding important letters in a concealed drawer. Now it kept all the correspondence he’d had from Jonty when they’d been apart.
They’d always known, of course, from the moment that war was declared that things had changed somehow, even if the early part of the war saw only their relocation to London. They’d lived with the Stewarts and life had been much the same as when they’d been in Cambridge, except for the lack of dunderheads. When they’d put their names down to fight, that change had become more marked, given the increased chance of one of them not returning. From that moment, even though they were still together in training, Jonty had written to him every week.
He opened the little desk and took out the precious contents.
What do they use to make these uniforms? Scouring pads?
Orlando had often tried to figure out how Jonty had managed to get away with some of the comments he’d smuggled past the censors. Some of the letters had evaded other eyes entirely, delivered by hand or left under pillows.
Do you remember how you said you’d have liked to serve under the old King George, fighting Napoleon on land or sea? We have a new King George now and you’re to have your wish.
Their eventual parting had been so painful, preceded as it was by snatched nights of shared passion and tender longeurs—giving and receiving each other’s bodies, lying in one another’s arms without speaking, reacquainting themselves with every inch of each other, lest they be parted. Lest they might then forget. The last meeting, on a crowded railway station, had been almost wordless, from both necessity of discretion and aching in their hearts. They had shaken hands, exchanged notes and gone off into the smoky night. And each note had been almost identical.
I love you. Do not forget me. Love again if I don’t return.
As Charlie Cochrane couldn't be trusted to do any of her jobs of choice—like managing a rugby team—she writes. Her favourite genre is gay fiction, predominantly historical romances/mysteries. She lives near Romsey but has yet to use that as a setting for her stories, choosing to write about Cambridge, Bath, London and the Channel Islands.
A member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, and International Thriller Writers Inc, Charlie's Cambridge Fellows Series, set in Edwardian England, was instrumental in her being named Author of the Year 2009 by the review site Speak Its Name.