Creatively Speaking: Charles Todd
Our Creatively Speaking interview series continues today with not one, but two authors who go by the name Charles Todd. If you're into historical fiction, murder mystery or crime thrillers, you probably already know that Charles Todd is the name for a very successful mother and son writing team: Caroline and Charles Todd. Their historical mysteries revolve around Scotland Yard inspector Ian Rutledge, solving murder cases in England, post-World War I.
Their new novel, A Matter of Justice, was recently released and we'll be giving away two copies of it tomorrow in a contest that will require you to know some answers from their interview below where I ask the duo many question about the collaborative writing process. So enjoy the interview and see you back tomorrow for your chance to score a great, new novel!
DI: How did Ian Rutledge come about?
Charles—We were visiting a battlefield one day—typical history buffs!—and while there Caroline was pointing out a mystery involved in the battle, and she suggested that we write a mystery where we could explore more than just who killed whom. We talked about the whys and whos and wheres for a while, and then there we were, facing Rutledge. We wanted someone who was intuitive, intelligent, and able to solve a murder on his own, without the aid (or confusion) of the young field of forensics. We wanted his world to be accessible to readers—cars, telephones, a recognizable era. And we wanted him to work at the Yard before and after his four years in the trenches, so that we could see the man before and after.
Caroline—At the time, Charles was married, busy with his career, and often sent out as a corporate troubleshooter to places where he was the ax-man. And so he spent a lot of time in hotel rooms far from home, and he missed his family. Casting about for something that might be interesting for him to pursue, I mentioned the writing concept. We never expected the results to be published, much less attract attention, much less turn into such a wonderfully exciting series to work with. What surprised us most was that Rutledge himself was so popular with readers. Whether they met him in the first book, A TEST OF WILLS, or in the 8th or the 12th, they are loyal and interested in his fate.
DI: How much research about the post-WWI period have you done for your novels?
Charles—As the aforementioned history buffs, we knew a lot about wars. And WWI was especially intriguing—it should never have happened, for one thing, and for another, as Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings point out in their respective works on the Twentieth Century, WW1 was pivotal—the aftermath of it and of the Treaty of Versailles is still with us today. Just look at the Middle East—WWII—Africa—the Cold War. But even though we knew many of the facts about the war itself, researching the personal aspects is a never ending task. First person accounts, anything written during the war, letters, newspapers, diaries, talking to families who had relatives in the war, all had to be researched from a different perspective.
Caroline—So many men who come home from war—and it doesn't matter which war—are silent about what they saw and did and suffered. Yet oddly enough, the men who do talk about their experiences seem to share many things. As one said, the fighting tools may be different, but the fear of dying, and the killing are the same. And this we must get right. Easy to know certain dates, harder to understand what a man felt when he was going over the top on an attack from which he probably would never come back. That's often learned by reading between the lines.
DI: I'm no expert, but you seem to have a command of the vernacular of the time and location, yet it still speaks to our present ears. How do you manage that sleight-of-hand?
Charles—It isn't sleight of hand so much as it is listening and understanding why there are differences in speech and outlook and way of life. Then you have to distill it so that it comes out naturally, not as a lesson interjected into the story.
Caroline—That's why we travel to England, spend time in the locale we are interested in using (and sometimes that changes when we arrive in Village A to find it not at all what we expected—and then around the corner is Village B, with wonderful opportunities). There's so much to explore, so much to resurrect from the changes made since 1919, so much to understand about what makes the people in B far more interesting to a writer than those in A.
DI: Part of the new novel, A Matter of Justice, is set in the year 1900, in South Africa. How many times have you been to England to research the environs? And what about South Africa now? Did the novel require a trip?
Charles—Caroline had been to South Africa, and when she came home she told me that one day we might fit what she'd learned and experienced into one of the Rutledge books. This happened to be the right one. But we both get to England as many times as possible. You can't let your feeling for time and place go stale.
Caroline—I didn't have the time constraints that Charles, still gainfully employed, had to work with. Most of his free time went to convention travel and promotional tours. So I had the opportunity to travel more. And some of it rubs off. The South East Asian collection in the little museum in SEARCH THE DARK, the stone from Egypt that provided the title for WATCHERS OF TIME, the collection of birds from Central America in A PALE HORSE, and here in A MATTER OF JUSTICE, the Boer War. The British were great travelers and explorers, so what we add from our own experiences fits the period. I have lost count of the number of slides and CD's Charles has watched, to catch up with me on the feel of a place or event.
DI: When most authors write, like me, for instance, we do so in solitude. What's it like collaborating? What's your writing process like? Do you work together in one room? Online?
Charles—Of necessity, we began writing from a distance. And we got used to that. You still create on your own, making suggestions about how you view a scene or a character or a situation. Then we e-mail or instant message the passage to the other. Since we don't outline, and instead look into the characters and setting to give us direction, we must listen to each other and to the characters in order to go forward. What collaboration gives is a sounding board that helps define what goes into the final manuscript. And even when we disagree, what is best for Rutledge and the book is the ultimate decision. My words, Caroline's words, it doesn't matter.
Caroline—We begin each book with a concept. And we strive to make the opening pages capture what we want to say, even though we don't know what comes next or who did it or why. And once that's done, we build on it. We can't work together in the same room—we got so accustomed to writing in different places that even if we are in the same house, we work in different rooms and mostly different floors. We didn't really understand collaboration when we started the series, so we developed our own system. So far—so good!
DI: Do you divvy up the work, say one person handles narrative while another dialogue or do you both get your hands dirty with both?
Charles—Hands dirty! And that way we both understand where we are heading and why. The narrative and the dialogue and the descriptive bits have to blend seamlessly.
Caroline—That's one of our goals, to make it seem like one person. Otherwise the reader is distracted trying to assess which of us is speaking. And—this way we have fewer revisions overall, because of the care taken with each scene.
DI: There's a tradition in the mystery and crime genres of authors using pen names. Why did you guys do it?
Charles—it isn't really a pen name as such. It comes from my mother's side of the family, sort of a salute to them. My father's name (German/Norwegian) is not as easily remembered, and that's death for fans looking to find you.
Caroline—I'm truly Caroline, so it doesn't worry me. People ask though why only Charles is on the jacket. If you look at the space available for an author's name, Charles and Caroline Todd would have to be so small it would be hard to pick out on a shelf. And since Caroline and Charles have the same Latin root, it doesn't really matter. Besides, I sign Charles Todd, never Caroline.
DI: Your novels all take place in the same year or so. Is this on purpose? Can we expect that the 24th mystery, should there be one, will still be set in and around 1920, or?
Charles—We began the series in June of 1919—when Rutledge left the clinic where he was being treated for shell shock—and have moved along about a month each novel. The reason is two-fold. We'd be up to WWII before long, at the rate of each novel moving ahead a year. And most importantly, watching how Rutledge heals—or doesn't progress—is part of his story. If you jumped ahead each year, it would be lip service to that. And the war is a character, in a way, and we want to capture the changes that it brought in its wake.
Caroline—I think the next Rutledge, THE RED DOOR, begins in June of 1920, a year after Rutledge left the Clinic, and is the 12th book in the series. Fans seem to understand that and they want to know about him as a man, not just a new crime to solve. Some mysteries work best leaping a year, others seem to be more solid if the pace is slower. We decided in the beginning to go more slowly, and we haven't regretted it so far. Besides—the Depression is depressing. We're just coming into the Twenties. And they will bring new directions.
DI: Who are some of your influences? What other writers do you like?
Charles—Caroline read to us when we were children. Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson, Conan-Doyle and poetry and whatever else she thought we'd like. And I think that was a tremendous influence for me. I was the child who loved words, so it was a short step from that to reading voraciously on my own.
Caroline—Another influence is the southern tradition of sitting on the porch in the cool of a summer's evening and talk about any and everything. I grew up listening from the shadows, and of course my father read to us in the winter. So the story-telling concept put down early roots. I loved reading as a result, and passed that on to both my son and my daughter. Even my husband liked to sit in on the story-telling hour just before bedtime.
CT—As for other writers—we've been reading Val McDermid's latest, also Lee Child, Nelson DeMille, Julia Spencer-Fleming—mostly what we like best is mystery/suspense and psychological suspense. Which is why we write what we like. There's Judy Clemens, Robin Hathaway, people we happen to know, and sometimes we go back to Frederick Forsyth and Jack Higgins, or read Reed Coleman Farrell and Michael Connelly, James Lee Burke, Linda Fairstein, P. D. James, Peter Lovesey—oh, and Stuart Kaminsky has a new one out that's on our list.
DI: What about outside the genre? Who else do you read?
Charles: I'm interested in Constitutional Law, the Civil War, World War II, economics. And so I read in those categories when I have time. Sadly writers, who love reading, find their time is circumscribed. But in my library, you'll find a wide range of interests.
Caroline—In mine as well. I like traveling, and so the travels of other people interest me. I enjoy Elizabethan English history. Stuart history. American Revolutionary War history. The Johnstown Flood. I currently need a new floor for my collection of books. Archeology is a favorite field—I once wanted to be an archeologist. Cold War history. The list goes on. We've discovered that the more widely you read, the more breadth you bring to your writing.
DI: You turn out about a book a year. What's the hardest part about maintaining the series?
Charles—I don't think we've found a hard part. The books seem to flow. What's confusing is January. This year for instance. We're talking about the latest, A MATTER OF JUSTICE just out in hard cover, and of course last year's hard cover, A PALE HORSE, which this January came out in trade paperback. And we're finishing the next Rutledge per our deadline—this year, it's THE RED DOOR—and beginning to have inklings about the proposal for the next book. I can remember someone asking me a question about a certain character—and my mind went blank. It took several seconds to remember WHICH book she came from!
Caroline—The hard part is leaving the book when we write THE END. We are fond of certain characters, interested in their futures, and just getting to know their pasts—and we must walk away. A scant few appear again, people like Rutledge's sister and Hamish and the poet O.A. Manning, but for the most part, it's like moving away and leaving behind friends.
DI: I'm sure we have some aspiring novelists out there. What advice would you give those just putting the finishing touches on their first drafts?
Charles—My advice is to look at your draft objectively. That's hard to do, but if you are honest, you'll find places that could be better written or realized, or that are overblown where you got carried away. That's a sure sign of a first novel. And look at the subtext, because a lot of beginning writers forget that or skip over it. Subtext is the little detail or touch that makes a book interesting and draws in the reader. I just read a manuscript where all the men are handsome and all the women are beautiful beyond words. I couldn't keep them apart because they had no individuality. Get to know your characters and make them real.
Caroline—Three suggestions: 1) Writing is a craft. Learn the rules that can make you successful. 2) Read a lot of books in the style you're interested in—look at how they get people in and out of a room, how they build suspense, how the plotting furthers the plot, and why you like or dislike the characters. Not to copy, but to understand. 3) And learn how to make a submission manuscript look professional. That's essential if you want an agent to consider your work.
DI: What else is on your mind today?
Charles—Readers may be interested in knowing that we've also been writing short stories most of which feature Rutledge and bring in Hamish, still alive at that stage. You get to know more about him and also see Rutledge in a war setting but still a man who is a trained policeman. THE STRAND MAGAZINE carries most of them.
Caroline—The last time we were in Kent, we were exploring places we'd visited before, and we noticed a story was taking shape! Not about Rutledge, the professional, certainly. Enter Bess Crawford—and she wouldn't be put off!—who debuts on August 25th in A DUTY TO THE DEAD. This series will run concurrently with Rutledge, summer for Bess, winter for him. Her father is a retired colonel. The family has served King and Country for generations, and Bess herself was brought up in India rather than sent home to be schooled. Her life is quite different from most young Englishwomen of good background—she knows something about weapons, different cultures, and human nature. She's also more independent. And she's been exciting to get to know. In DUTY, set in England in 1916, she finds herself facing a moral obligation which puts her judgment at risk and tests her mettle as her father's daughter.
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