From the Archives
Note: This author interview was originally published in 2013 on another site that is no longer live.
The combination of talent and persistence can’t be beat. To witness the personification of these two personality traits, you need look no further than Peg Cochran, author of the Gourmet De-Lite mystery series, featuring Gigi Fitzgerald, as well as the author of other cozy mysteries (more about those throughout the interview!).
When Peg was seven, she discovered a series that has delighted young readers for generations, featuring the daring sleuth Nancy Drew. From that point on, Peg knew that, when she grew up, she would write mysteries.
Peg’s Gourmet De-Lite series now consists of two books, Allergic to Death (Berkley, 2012) and Steamed to Death, just released this week by Berkley. In this series, the protagonist delivers low-calorie but tasty meals to clients as the main service of her gourmet catering business. Gigi loves her work, but doesn’t love when her clients drop over dead. When they do, she investigates why – and then gets into serious trouble before solving the mystery.
Is Gigi Really Peg?
Peg sees “bits and pieces” of herself in Gigi, including her Catholic school education in elementary school; her trouble with parallel parking (something she hasn’t done since she “passed my road test for my license”); and her love of cooking and of healthy, delicious food. “It’s hard to say how Gigi was created,” she admits, adding that it was “bit by bit. I don’t do lengthy character charts or things like that. I just ask myself ‘what kind of a person is this character?’ And then I listen to the answers that the character gives me.”
While the character of Gigi was created in bits and pieces, the protagonist/amateur detective in her e-book, Confession is Murder, came to her virtually all at once. Her name is Lucille Mazzarella and she is a true blue Jersey girl, through and through. “I’ve known a lot of people like her,” Peg says, “with a fierce love of family, a trait we share; unselfishness when it comes to their own needs, always putting others first; and a strong sense of right and wrong. I wanted her to be a tribute to every good mom and wife out there who is struggling to keep their heads above water. Of course I wanted her to be funny, too, so she sometimes does some crazy things!”
Fascinating as characters are, though, it’s what they do and what happens to them and because of them that keeps readers turning pages. If you ask a dozen writers how they plot, of course, you’ll get at least thirteen different answers. If you ask them if characterization or plot comes first, you’ll probably get both answers. Here is what Peg does: “The ‘hook,’” she says, “comes first. In the case of Gourmet De-Lite, it was a business creating healthy gourmet diet food. In my Sweet Nothings Lingerie series, written as Meg London, it was vintage lingerie. Then I create my amateur sleuth and then I create the victim. The victim is always at the center of the story. I ask myself, ‘who were they? What’s their history? Why did someone want to kill them? Who did they anger? Were they nice or mean?’ That eventually that leads to the plot.”
Peg also shares specifics of how she plots, focusing on the murderer, asking herself:
- What is he/she doing behind the scenes?
- What has he/she done to throw suspicion on someone else?
And, what’s a good cozy mystery – or any mystery for that matter – without a few carefully crafted and oh-so-misleading clues? “Red herrings,” Peg shares, “come about because almost everyone surrounding the victim has a secret, although the secret is not necessarily relevant to the murder investigation. For example, the reason Mr. Cheater can’t reveal his alibi for the time of the crime is because he was having an affair with Mrs. No-good. Red herrings throw your sleuth off the scent and lead down blind alleys.”
Writing a sequel comes with its own unique plotting challenges, ones that Peg recently had to tackle with the writing of Steamed to Death. “The hardest part of a sequel,” she says, “is deciding how much you need to put in about your characters/town/situation so that people who are reading your series for the first time aren’t lost, and the ones who have read the first book aren’t bored.”
What Peg finds fun: creating the victim and the villain.
What gives Peg headaches: making sure the plot holds together; that the murder could be committed the way described; and that the timing of the scenes makes sense.
What Peg needs to remind herself about: to put in descriptions
What few people know about Peg:
- She was a twin, a fact discovered by her mother and the doctors alike on the day she was born.
- She spent her first month in the hospital and the nurses used her as a model to teach new mothers how to give a bath. They cried when Peg went home (but she must have been REALLY clean).
- She had an imaginary friend when she was about four years old: a turtle named Happy Snappers.
- She absolutely hates oatmeal or any other hot cereal like cream of wheat.
- She visited Hungary in 1966, when it was still behind the Iron Curtain.
- She and her girlfriend started a literary magazine in high school named, “rather pretentiously,” Bagatelle.
- She refused to participate in high school gymnastics because she is terrified of heights AND of being upside down.
- She can’t sing. Nope. Not even Happy Birthday.
What didn’t come quickly for Peg: getting an agent
The interview of Peg Cochran began this way: The combination of talent and persistence can’t be beat. To witness the personification of those two personality traits, you need look no further than Peg Cochran . . . and, she definitely deserves an award for persistence because she received 400 (to clarify, that is four HUNDRED) rejections (on three manuscripts in just two short years!) before an agent recognized what a gem of a writer she is. “I backed into my agent in that I ‘auditioned’ for a work for hire for Berkley Prime Crime,” she says. “An editor had an idea for a book, and wanted to hire a writer to write it. In this instance, it was my agent who was in touch with the editor. I then became her client.”
So, not surprisingly, Peg offers this advice to aspiring writers: “Don’t quit!” Other advice includes:
- Write a lot. You get better at it with each manuscript.
- If you can find a good critique group, it can be invaluable (a bad one is worse than worthless).
- I never had the money to go to conferences, but I wish I had.
- If you can network with agents in person, it’s a lot easier to get a read of your manuscript.
- One of the biggest mistakes to make is thinking that your first manuscript will or should sell. Almost every author whose “first” book is coming out has a good half dozen languishing on his or her hard drive.
- Write what you like to read . . . what you get excited about writing.
- If an agent says “I really like this and your writing, but the ending is (fill in the blank) or the middle is (fill in the blank.), always write to thank the agent and ask if he or she will look at a rewrite.