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Mother and son writing team win accolades

By Mary Thurman Yuhas

 

From the time Charles Todd was a boy, he and his mother, Caroline Todd, loved mysteries. “She read Sherlock Holmes to me,” he says. After Charles grew up, he moved away and became a successful businessman. The summer of 1993 after a family visit to Kings Mountain Military Park in Blacksburg, SC, Caroline suggested they write a mystery together, and the two started writing.

Thinking their completed first book needed some professional input, they sent it to Ruth Cavin, an acquaintance and editor at St. Martin’s Press to see how they could improve it. Three months later, they received “the call” that every author dreams of receiving.  Not only was she interested in their first book, A TEST OF WILLS, she wanted a sequel and within days, she requested two more in the series.

Test of WillsA TEST OF WILLS went on to win the Barry Award for Best First Novel and was nominated for the Dilys Award and the Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author.

Since that fateful day in 1996, the pair have written over 30 books in the Bess Crawford Mystery series and the Inspector Ian Rutledge Mystery series. Both series take place in post WWI. Additionally, they write short stories.

Caroline lives in Delaware and Charles lives in South Florida with his significant other, Dianna Collier. The writing duo travels to England frequently to further enrich their books.

 LitVote: How do you and your mother collaborate when writing a book?

Caroline and Charles:  We had no idea how to collaborate. So we began by doing everything together, one scene at a time. Get that right, then consider how the story might evolve from there. Work on that scene, then on to the next. We’d read mysteries all our lives, and so we had some idea of how a mystery is structured.  Putting that into practice was another matter. It took two years to write the first book, A TEST OF WILLS, learning as we went. We don’t outline, which means we don’t know who did it. That comes out of the characters and the story, narrowing the search for the murderer until we see where the chapters have led us. We discovered early on that the right setting matters tremendously, and that if you don’t listen to your characters, you’re going to miss nuances and insights. Turn them into puppets doing your bidding, and you have only your own insights to work from. We settle any arguments by determining what’s best for the book or the character or the action, no matter what we might prefer. So far this has worked for us. It might not for someone else.  We text, talk, email—but we can’t work in the same room. Too tempting to get off the subject.

LitVote: You’ve written 30 books and your fans keep coming back for more. What is it that your readers love so much about your books?

Caroline:   I expect it’s Rutledge. We truly care about him, and maybe that comes across to readers. He seems to appeal to men and to women, but in different ways. He was just at the start of a successful career at Scotland Yard when the Great War began, and he spent four years in the trenches. That changed every man who fought there, and Rutledge is no exception. He’s determined to carry on at the Yard, if only to save his own sanity. He himself has killed, ordered men to their deaths in the next charge, and that has left him with a sense of guilt that shows itself in nightmares and the voice of a dead man in his head. He’s learned compassion and he cares about justice.  Even when he understands why murder was done and would like to turn away, he knows why he can’t.  He can take care of himself physically, and women seem to like that strength, while men find it something they can relate to. But there’s more, something that I can’t define but know is there. A quality that is somehow haunting.

Charles: For Bess fans (many are Rutledge fans) the main ingredient is her grit and determination to see the right thing is done. Often this comes at Bess’s own peril. Bess embodies the new modern British women who came to the forefront during and after WWI. Bess feels a strong sense of duty and service derived not only as the daughter of a retired British Army Colonel but as a young lady of a certain social class taught by her mother to embody grace and caring for all peoples. Weather caring for the wounded and dying in the casualty aid station as a nurse or resolving injustice Bess faces her own doubts and fears as she preservers.

LitVote: How do you find ideas for your new mysteries?

Caroline:  If we find the right setting, the ideas seem to flow. In one book it was a red door that started it all. In another, it was a shadowy tithe barn that left us wondering why it seemed so sinister in the moonlight. A town that was cold to strangers made us question why, and in another village, it was the fact that all the windows facing inside were large while all those facing the surrounding fields were small, narrow, as if people were fearful of what might be lurking out there. We never know. In a short story we wrote for Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, it was a hotel in Wales with a scarred trophy of a stag’s head stashed away in a dark corner. Sometimes it’s the mood that strikes us. Once it was a circle in the floor of a museum that mentioned an attack on the town in WW1 we hadn’t known about.  Little things—odd things that set the imagination afire.

Charles: We are always thinking about ideas for our books. I believe all authors are that way. What is there about a certain place that makes it so unique? The landscape, the local accents, the historical background, these and many more characteristics define the plot. You cannot tell a seafaring story well in Derby. A seafaring story in Cornwall would be different than one in East Anglia. Each area of England has its own stories to tell.

LitVote:  Are your characters modeled after real people or your imagination or both?

Caroline: For me they come mostly from the setting. When you’ve spent time in a place, getting to know its atmosphere and history and architecture, learning about what social or economic forces made it what it was in 1914 or 1919, you begin to see people there—and they step out of the shadows into the story. It’s awkward using “real” people for our characters, because they already have their own lives and seem real me.  I miss them when a book is finished and I know we won’t be seeing them again.  Some of them remain vivid in my memory, long afterward. Others are like people I’ve known who moved away and the story of our lives went off in different directions.

Charles: Even when we are doing the most mundane chores our minds are considering our characters, places and how things we have observed in our lives are beneficial to our books. I am a people watcher. I am not interesting in prying into the lives of others. What fascinates me is how people interact, their conversations, how they present themselves to others. If our characters are going to “come alive” to us and our readers they must be real.

LitVote: Why is your pen name Charles Todd instead of Caroline and Charles Todd?

Charles and Caroline ToddCaroline and Charles:  That was a marketing decision. If you look at the back of the book, there’s only so much space available, and you must put both the title and the author’s name there.  “Charles” is shorter than Caroline, and so it fit better. If you’re in a bookshop or a library, scanning the titles on the shelves, you can see CHARLES TODD very clearly. Even on the front of the cover, space matters. And the shorter version works there as well, without cluttering up the jacket art.  Because of the way we work together, it becomes “one person,” anyway. All this means that we both sign as Charles Todd. How does Caroline feel about that?  She’s not worried.

LitVote: Your books have all of the elements found in PBS mysteries including the era. Has PBS ever approached you?

Caroline and Charles:  We agree! We’ve had offers from other venues, but we don’t want to lose the characters we’ve worked so hard to create to a scriptwriter who sees them differently.  I think PBS would be ideal for Rutledge.  But more importantly, I think our many fans want to find the Rutledge they’ve imagined for twenty books (and counting) shown as they see him, not changed into someone else. This matters to us—and it matters to them. Every time we speak, someone asks about PBS, and the audience responds. The market is there. Think about it. Twenty books mean a lot of successful seasons.  Now if someone will just whisper in the ear of someone…

LitVote: What recommendations do you have for authors writing their first book?

Caroline: First word of advice? Not every idea equals a book. It has to expand from a few words to hundreds of pages. Make certain yours has staying power, and if it doesn’t, feel free to change it and move on.  Second word?  Watch the middle. It’s easy to come up with a great beginning and a great ending. It’s the middle where inspiration lags and the story sags.  You need a terrific middle too. Finally, be objective in your revisions. No prose is sacred. Pretend it isn’t your book, and look for what went wrong.  Don’t leave those patches for an agent or editor to find for you!

Charles: Caroline is right. What may sound like a great book idea may not turn out to be one. We believe a few basic things. Writing is a craft. Do your apprenticeship and read. Read books like what you want to write. Learn how other authors tackle their ideas. Then have the perseverance and determination to finish your book. We have heard thousands of great ideas, read hundreds of first pages. I don’t care if you write the worst book in history. The lessons you learn finishing a book are invaluable! Don’t be afraid to tear up pages. A wrong turn requires backing up not trying to steer back on track! Last but not least. Write on! When you finish that book write another one. I have met so many authors who wrote one book and spent years tweaking it to get it sold. But, my main focus is WRITE ON!!

www.charlestodd.com

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IMG_2388Mary Thurman Yuhas has written for the Sun-Sentinel, USA Today, China Daily USA, the Washington Times, the Palm Beach Media Group, Boca Observer magazine, and the Gulfstream Media Group and others. She also writes web content. On the fun side, she did investigative reporting for US Weekly magazine. Mary loves Corgis, is a mac and cheese connoisseur and is looking for a literary agent for her memoir, JUST LIKE MY MOTHER.

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