The story-writing journey begins with a single word step


I’ve a huge interest in the war poets of WWI, and the soldiers who fought in France and Belgium between 1914 and 1918. I get bored by books giving details of battles, the chronology and geography of the fighting, but I love biographies of poets like Sassoon and am fascinated by the “Voices from…” series by Max Arthur, where people involved in the conflict describe their experiences. By turns amusing, frightening and profoundly moving, those real life stories – and the poems written by men like Wilfred Owen – create a vibrant picture of life back then. How could I fail to be inspired?

That inspiration has come out before, in a book set in 1919 and as the background to a short story, but the era hadn’t been written out of my system. So, in typical Charlie fashion, I opened up a new word document and started to write. No plot, no characters, “no nuffink”. Just one word and then another, until I had:

First light. A distant sound of something heavy being moved. A thin curtain of rain—the sort of misty, drizzly rain that soaked us through to the skin. Prospect of something for breakfast that might just pretend to be bacon and bread.

Good morning, France. An identical morning to yesterday and bound to be the same tomorrow.  Tomorrow and tomorrow, world without end, amen. 

And that has survived from first draft through edits to finished story, a story which has been really well received by reviewers, some of whom don’t routinely read m/m romances, which is what Promises Made Under Fire became, once it had characters and plot. Those books I’d read about Owen and Sassoon began to manifest themselves in a narrator, Tom, who was himself gay and – as was normal at the time – deeply closeted. The first hand accounts from officers and soldiers were woven into Tom’s story, almost without me having to consciously think about it, those unseen voices whispering in my ear as I wrote.

Tom gained a fellow officer – Foden, named after a rugby player as so many of my characters are – and, eventually, an unexpected love interest. All of a sudden I had a real, proper story arc, which I kept developing, one word and then another.

So, tell me – how do you craft a story? Are you a plotter, a pantser or a ‘word by word’er?


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France, 1915: Lieutenant Tom Donald envies everything about fellow officer Frank Foden – his confidence, his easy manner with the men in the trenches, the affectionate letters from his wife. Frank shares these letters happily, drawing Tom into a vicarious friendship with a woman he’s never met. Although the bonds of friendship forged under fire are strong, Tom can’t be so open with Frank – he’s attracted to men and could never confess that to anyone.

When Frank is killed in no-man’s-land, he leaves behind a mysterious request for Tom: to deliver a sealed letter to a man named Palmer. Tom undertakes the commission while on leave – and discovers that almost everything he thought he knew about Frank is a lie.

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8 thoughts on “The story-writing journey begins with a single word step”

  1. Tam says:

    Pantser here. Just talked to my daughter about this 5 min. ago. She’s also a pantser. Neither of us have the patience for plot outlines. I tried it once. Once. By page 10 it was off track so I tossed it. The general overview continued but the actual “X would happen and he’d react like this, and then B and then person 2 would show up”, that kind of detail went sailing out the window. Sometimes I really have no clue what will happen, it just sort of happens. I’m not sure that’s a good way to write or not, but it seems to work for me. :-)

  2. C J Baty says:

    I like to think I have a plot, a real story arc, a design for the stories I create but the truth is I start with a character who needs development. I add additional characters in settings that help the main character change…morph into the person he/she should have been all along. Like Charlie, one word or sentence or scene at a time the story moves along.

  3. Angel says:

    Raising my pantser hand. That’s me. I have an overall idea of the story, but whenever I try to plot it out, it only ends up frustrating me and I’ll lose my motivation to get to the creative writing. If I try to do scene by scene it starts out neat and clean, but by the time I begin writing, many things have to be moved around, deleted, and forgotten and I end up confusing myself. What’s ideal for me is to just get the bare bones of the story down, and fill in the details later. The best part is the a-ha! moment I get when I’m writing and an idea just sparks of what should come next, no plotting necessary. Neither is sanity when it comes to writing. ;)

  4. HJ says:

    I’ve just read Promises Made Under Fire, and I loved it. Very evocative of the period, and a beautiful slow reveal of Frank Foden – and of Tom, who grows in awareness and maturity. Wholeheartedly recommended!

  5. Charlie_Cochrane says:

    @ Tam See, I always knew that you were a girl after my own heart and there you are. I understand entirely everything you’ve said there. Have no clue what will happen? Me at the start of every tale I write!

  6. Charlie_Cochrane says:

    @ CJ Starting with a character and watching them develop is so satisfying, isn’t it? Rather than shoe-horning them into what they’re “supposed” to be/do.

  7. Charlie_Cochrane says:

    @ HJ Thank you so much. It was a tale which really grew in the telling (and benefitted hugely from my editor’s input). Best of all, for me, it was really enjoyable to write. *mwah*

  8. Charlie_Cochrane says:

    @ Angel I think both are entirely sane. I know that being too prescriptive can knock my creativity for six.

    And yes, “Aha” moments are the best. I usually get mine while doing something mundane like cleaning the kitchen floor. “Oh, so that’s how to tie the end up” and I have to scribble it down before I forget my cunning plan. :)

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