Reality is Cooler than Fiction

So, a little while ago I read a biography of Thomas, Lord Cochrane:

And a fine biography it is too (a little light on analysis, perhaps, but I’m reading it mostly for the inspiration). Its blurb, jacket quote, and reviews all say one thing: this man’s life was the basis for Hornblower and Aubrey, and you had better have your fill of fiction before you read the reality.

They aren’t wrong. Decades ahead of his time, Cochrane vocally (if somewhat bluntly) led the charge in Parliament to reform the ‘top to bottom’ corruption of the Admiralty and the government as a whole, as well as being one of the finest tactical minds to ever put to sea (by all accounts, not least the one I’m reading). He achieved victories that should have been impossible both on land and sea, and in his later years commanded the fleets of revolutionary governments in South America and Greece (the biography’s foreword states that Cochrane freed more territory than Napoleon conquered, which may be true in the strictest geographical sense, if not in military reality).

His exploits have been stolen for the pages of fiction for years, along with countless other men and women. And, should the Fates be kind, I will also shamelessly (though with credit given) pinch liberally from the history books to drum up thrilling tales for my own characters. I might even have him make a cameo, or perhaps something larger, in The War of Nations, since its struggles for national identity and self-government would fit him like a glove.

Real-life inspiration is an interesting thing. I’ve read every Sharpe novel Bernard Cornwell has written, I’ve sampled Aubrey and Maturin (too slow and dry for my liking, unfortunately – so authentic in its language, it was difficult to read), and I’ve been meaning to turn up some Hornblower. But to go back to the source and reading the achievements of real men (and women – his wife was quite something, and I wouldn’t mind reading a biography of Lady Cochrane) is a different but still exciting pleasure.

To find out that in so many cases events that most writers would dismiss as straining the suspension of disbelief to breaking point actually happened is pleasing, at least to me. Don’t ask me why – maybe because in our world of fallible politicians and fame-grabbing ‘celebrities’ the fact that larger-than-life figures really did live, and really did do more than we even allow our fictional heroes to achieve. It makes me look forward to doing more research, and ultimately to getting some of my own characters into the situations real people found themselves.