Thursday, October 11, 2018

Q&A With Charles Todd

Charles Todd is a writing duo comprised of Caroline Todd and her son Charles Todd. They continue to entertain readers with not one, but two captivating series set around the time of WWI. Kerry Hammond is a huge fan of both and today she caught up with the two writers to find out about the latest in the Bess Crawford series, A Forgotten Place.

What inspired you to place Bess in such a remote locale in the latest book?

Caroline: It was such a marvelous place, and yet it had a real history that was dark and intriguing. We knew we had to write about it. As we worked with the story about what happens to amputees returning home at war’s end, we could see how the two could be combined, bringing out how Hugh Williams learns to cope and how Bess would fare in a place where she had no one she could really trust.You never know, starting a book, how it will end, but the challenge of getting there is half the fun.

Charles: I like the cover, because Bess is standing where we stood, looking down on that stunning bay. She fits that place so well too. When we’re searching for a setting and a story, it’s important for the two to work together. And we could see Bess out here, we could see Hugh Williams struggling with his crutches, wondering if he was still a man despite his injuries. In the Great War men feared amputation more than they feared death. And Bess is on her own, as Caroline said. We liked that idea, and wanted to explore it.

What kind of documents do you read up on to maintain the historical accuracy of the various scenarios in your books?

Caroline and Charles: When we first began writing about the Great War, we realized that we had two choices. We could use it as accurately as possible, keeping our mysteries well grounded in the period—what might have really happened then. Or we could make the war just a backdrop. We chose to make it real, not just a framework. And so we started looking for everything we could find on the period, mostly what was written and believed and felt at the time, not later material which looked back, using what had been learned about the war in later years. This wasn’t limited to reading. We’ve walked in trenches, been to museums, flown in a WW1 open cockpit biplane, clambered over tanks and handled weapons. These give you first-hand knowledge that can’t come from books.

How much does historical accuracy determine the plotlines you draw for Bess?

Caroline: It’s everything. Every Bess mystery hinges on something that could very well have happened at the time. We’ve been lucky too, in both the Rutledge and the Bess mysteries—we often discover something in the actual setting as we explore it ourselves, that becomes part of the story.  Sometimes we turn it on its head and explore it that way, sometimes we use it to start us off.

Charles: We’ve used the influenza epidemic, we’ve taken a horrific explosion and explored the aftermath, we’ve taken a hero to meet the King and receive a medal—all of these are real events that happened to real people, and could also happen to characters in a book. There was a real story here in Wales, too, and we could see how what happened in the past might have an impact on the present—Bess’s day.  And it worked remarkably well. It’s also very exciting to see how this plays out as we write. When you know you’re on the right track, the story just unrolls, and some of this excitement and enthusiasm reaches the reader too.

How do you manage to come up with plotlines and scenarios to fill two mystery series a year?

Caroline and Charles: That’s why we have to go to England and walk the ground. You can Google places or read about them, yes, that’s true. But when you walk into a little shop and see a photo from 1918, and the shop owner tells you a story about that photograph, your imagination is off and running. Or there’s something in the churchyard or in the stand of trees close by that seems dark and mysterious, or you hear a story of heroism by four young girls, and you know you have a story. What’s more, we can begin to see the characters, the people who might have lived there. That’s precious in putting people into your story line. They are real, not puppets, and they give the story a depth that really works.

Do you take Bess's adventures book by book, or do you have a longer term game plan for where you will take the character and what she might get involved with?

Caroline: We try not to look ahead. One way to keep a series fresh is to view each book as a stand alone.  Of course there are the series characters, there has to be some sort of continuity in the storyline, but if we look at the story as whole in itself, we can see nuances and characterizations that really are exciting and challenging. We aren’t stuck in an overall plan. This is also why you can pick up the series at any book—or start from the beginning if that’s your preference. It’s true of the Rutledge books as well.

Charles: Of course that doesn’t mean that we never have glimpses of the future. We know Bess has to go back to India at some point. Just when or why or how we leave to the Page 1 of that particular book. And yet Bess and Melinda discuss this in one of the books because the issue came up then. There’s Ireland too. We’ve got a great story possibility there that we stumbled over a few years ago, and it fits with something in Bess’s past. But we aren’t obliged to do these on a specific schedule. 

Bess's story is fictional, but the war is very real. Do you ever feel limited in your writing because you have to stay accurate in your depictions of battles and events?

Caroline: Actually the war fits very well into the story line. And because it’s real, it gives substance to the characters and the stories. So far we’ve never been tempted to change anything. There’s also something else. We wanted to make the war the centerpiece. And so it has to be accurate. Sometimes that has funny repercussions. I was in the middle of a scene one day when I had to stop and put a check out for the mail. Without even thinking, I dated the check 1917, rather than 2017, because I was still in the period.

Charles: Caroline is right. That’s one of the reasons why we have acquainted ourselves with the period and the war. We have a sense of where it has been and where it will be going. And that makes it easier to find the right story for the right time. The influenza story had to fit into the historical time line, as did the black powder explosion that Bess is drawn into. And this story A Forgotten Place worked best after the war, just when we were ready for it.  That’s not pre-planning so much as knowing where you are and what’s happening around your character. I love that challenge—it appeals to me.

Come back next week for a review of The Forgotten Place by Charles Todd.

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