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Charles Todd On Being a Mother and Son Writing Duo

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NS: Inspector Ian Rutledge is back in A FATAL LIE. You have been writing the Inspector Ian Rutledge stories for several decades now. What is it like to spend that much time with this character? In what ways has Mr. Rutledge grown or changed over the years that has surprised you—or differed from how you initially envisioned him? 

Charles: Caroline and I see him as a good friend you come to know better with the passing years. The odd thing is, we never expected to write 23 books about him. But the more we learn about that period, the more we find to talk about through his eyes.  And then just when we think we know him well, he surprises us with something new in his character or his perception about his world.  That’s what makes each book such a challenge to write.

Caroline: I think what we initially felt about Rutledge was that we want to explore the Great War and the problem of shell shock. Too many men had suffered with the shame of that, which we know today as PTSD. And so the books are closer together than most when it comes to the timeline. We wanted to follow Rutledge’s battle with Hamish and with himself. Not just wait a year and offer passing refer to how he’d dealt with shell shock for the last twelve months. And while Rutledge is still coming to terms with the voice in his head, it has been real, based on real information. We didn’t want to treat it like a gimmick that served its purpose for a few books and then, miracle of miracle, he was cured. That didn’t happen in real life. What has surprised both of us as we write is that he has so much still to discover. We’ve dealt with loss, with the reality of Fiona—the woman in Hamish’s life–with part of his secret coming out—with decisions that often have ramifications for others—and he must choose how to deal with all that.  As Charles says, it’s always a challenge for us.

NS: This series is filled with twists, turns, and everything in between. With novels that get more and more complex we have to know, where do you get your ideas for Ian Rutledge’s cases?

Caroline and Charles: We do our research on the ground in England, and we often find our ideas in something that had happened in a particular place.  For instance the only village we’d ever visited in England where the people were unfriendly, and we turned that into a secret they’d kept for centuries. Or we see a photograph, like one of the real Black Ascot, and the idea begins to grow from there. We ourselves came down from the mountains above Nice, in France, in a blinding fog, driving down a twisting, perilous road that we were unfamiliar with. The writer’s imagination is an odd thing—you stumble over something that intrigues you, and the next thing you know, you’re asking What if…  And a plot begins to grow. In this book there were two things that led to the twists and turns, one a narrowboat trip and the other a bit of history about the war and Cheshire that was so intriguing we had to use it.

NS: How does A FATAL LIE stand out against the 22 other titles in this series?

Caroline and Charles:  That’s like the old question, which of your children do you like best. But we can tell you two things. Each book still teaches us something new about writing. And each book has something that stays with us, something that stands out, makes it memorable. A TEST OF WILLS of course was the first, and dealing with the trauma that had changed Rutledge was difficult, but so rewarding to find a way to show it best. And then there was O A Manning in WINGS OF FIRE, who was faced with a nightmare she couldn’t change, yet she had the courage to leave the answers for someone else, in this case, Rutledge.  And so on through each title. In A FATAL LIE, it was a man who is dead when the book opens, and yet the more we learned about him, and the lies that others told which led to his death, the more we liked him and respected him, and wanted to see his killer caught. We were invested in that, because he was the one honest, caring person, the one character that should have lived to hear the truth.

NS: Many people may not know that you’re a two-person writing team—a mother and son duo. What are some unique challenges that you face as a writing team?  Who normally does what when writing and plotting? We’d love an insider’s look at what it’s like to work with a family member so closely.

Caroline: As we learned to collaborate, we discovered that both of us had to know everything that was going on. Otherwise, we’d be pulling in different directions. We had to agree on characters, plot, action—even the description of what someone was eating or wearing. So we worked scene by scene rather than chapter by chapter, talking it out, trying some ideas and bits of dialog or action or the like, and slowly build that scene to the satisfaction of both of us. We don’t outline so this is even more exciting!  That’s not to say we don’t disagree. It’s just that we work it out.  We began several states apart, and we’ve stuck with that long-distancing, because we get more done. As for working with Charles, he’d been away from home and on his own for some time, so it was easier to treat him as an equal. The best thing was, we each had very different interests—other than history and mysteries, which we shared a love for—and I think the books were better because of that. I could learn from him, and he could learn from me.

Charles: I think the unique challenge has always been to give each book one voice. It’s Rutledge’s story, not ours.  I have all the books, articles, whatever, that Caroline does, so if we need to look at a map or a photo, it’s easy. We both have a quirky sense of humor and that helps. We don’t see each other every day, and that works too, because we aren’t in each other’s way. This also gives us more to draw on, because we can each contribute something unique. An example—both of us went up in a WW1 type aircraft, and asked the pilot questions as we flew, then compared notes on what we’d learned.  It may sound odd, but there’s Mom, and there’s Caroline. Mom gets the birthday presents, Caroline gets tickets to an exhibit on period firearms.


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