Monday, April 25, 2011

Novels study history, war

Originally printed on September 2, 2010

"Both Charles and I are history buffs," Caroline Todd said in a phone interview Wednesday. "And when you study history, you also study war. War makes history."

Todd is the mother half of the mother-son writing team that goes by the name Charles Todd -- a team that is responsible for the publication of 14 mystery novels set in World War I-era England. Twelve of those novels tell the story of detective Ian Rutledge. Two -- including the most recent, "An Impartial Witness" -- focus on the battlefield nurse Bess Crawford.

Todd said it has been more than 16 years since she and her son decided to collaborate on a novel set in what they consider the most pivotal decade of the 20th century. As Americans, they originally intended to set the action in the United States. But their research kept turning up far more interesting material from a shattered England coming to terms with "The War (that utterly failed) to End All Wars."

"America never suffered the way that Britain and Germany and France did," Todd said. "We had a larger population that could better absorb the dead and wounded. Plus we came in very late in the conflict."

Without any models to follow -- "There isn't any 'Collaboration for Dummies' out there" Todd said -- the mother-son team eventually fell into their own rhythm for writing each scene by consensus. After extensive discussions, they would each start writing and keep whatever passages worked best.

When the pair sent the manuscript for their first novel to a New York publisher, Todd said they were just hoping for confirmation that they were moving in the right direction. Instead, the agent loved the book and publishers eventually gave them multiple book contracts for the Rutledge and Crawford series.

Because the plots move throughout various English villages, Todd said each new novel in the series requires a similar amount of plot brainstorming and pre-writing research. The co-authors still have plans (and a contract) for more Rutledge novels -- Todd said the characters still has "much more to say" -- but some of their ideas for storylines seemed inappropriate for a professional detective. That's when they turned to a new lead character for a new perspective.

"The main thing we are after is to make the research so much a part of us that it doesn't sound as if we're showing off what we know or that we're lecturing people on the period," Todd said. "You have to get so comfortable with how things were that the story just comes out of what each character is doing."

And mystery readers have enjoyed the result. The pair's first Bess Crawford novel, "A Duty to the Dead," was just nominated for a Macavity Award for historical mysteries.

"I like the vision of small town England," said Paul Ingram, a book buyer for Prairie Lights who has read all 14 of the Charles Todd novels. "It's not just women drinking cups of tea and doing basically what amounts to logic problems. These are very human-oriented, very person-oriented stories. The characters are everything."

Todd will read at 7 tonight in Prairie Lights.

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

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