Scotland Yard’s Ian Rutledge goes out for a drive after his sister’s wedding and before he knows it, it is the middle of the night and he is halfway across Britain and staring at a woman with bloody hands over a dead body in the middle of the road.
The man has been shot through the heart by someone the woman claims simply stood in the road, shot the man, and then walked away. There seems to be no sense in the killing. Rutledge is a witness to the scene, but also maneuvers to become the lead detective as he tries to unravel the life of a most unlikely murder victim.
This is book number twenty in the Rutledge series and just as fresh as the first one. It’s a powerful whodunit, painstakingly plotted, and the reader will be hard-pressed to discover the killer before Rutledge. With such well-developed characters within an equally believable plot, I personally hated for it to come to an end. Thankfully, the writing team of Charles and Caroline Todd allowed me to ask a few questions on behalf of both writers and readers of Killer Nashville.
An Interview with Charles & Caroline Todd
by Clay Stafford
KN: Charles and Caroline, you’ve been with him through twenty books now. What initially attracted you to Scotland Yard’s Ian Rutledge?
Caroline: We were looking for a character to carry A TEST OF WILLS, the first as it happened in a series. But we didn’t know that, of course. So our needs were specific. We wanted a strong male figure—because we were going to be dealing with war. We wanted an intelligent, capable, compassionate man who could see both sides—and solve a crime on his own. That also meant in 1914 an educated man of good family, enough money to be his own man but not wealthy. His late father was a prominent solicitor who wanted him to join the family firm. His mother was a fine pianist, obviously had a strong influence on the family in her own quiet way. She died with her husband in a ferry accident well before the book begins, leaving Rutledge with a younger sister, Frances, and a close family friend, Melinda Crawford. Ideas on the page, but as we worked with these and rounded them into a person, we really liked what we saw. He could be a bright newcomer at the Yard, and he could also be a good officer in the war.
Charles: We’ve both been history buffs. TEST was built on something we cared about—exploring the Great War in a mystery form. We liked the idea of a professional policeman with the authority to do what had to be done and the experience to carry out his duties. We had modern conveniences—telephone and motorcars and so on, just coming into use—so the book would have a modern flavor. And the Greek concept of an antagonist worthy of a protagonist was important. We weren’t after a hero so much as a man who could look beyond the obvious and catch sight of what was important in a case. He could think through to the killer’s mind. What we didn’t realize was that we had a series character forming, but Ruth Cavin saw that and we set out on this long run.
KN: How in the world do you go about outlining a book as intricately plotted as “The Gate Keeper”? Could you be very specific? Killer Nashville readers really like to have the curtain pulled away and see how real writers work.
Caroline: There are so many ways to write a book. We had read mysteries forever, but that’s not the same as sitting down and doing it yourself! The first thing we discovered was that outlining was out. I find it so stifling that it cuts off the flow of ideas. Charles was slow to come around to this, because of his business background, and it took a year to find our way. We’ve used the same system in 20/21 Rutledges now. The opening scene is all important. Get that right and you have a platform on which to build the next scene, whatever direction you think it ought to take. The opening scene for THE GATE KEEPER was Rutledge driving, his mind tangled in the wedding he’d just left, his PTSD breaking out. When he comes on the motorcar in the middle of the road, he isn’t sure if he heard the shot—but he is there at the scene now—and his training kicks in. There is the structure. But where did the rest come from? The characters. As we got to know them, as they told their stories, we listened. And what we heard led to the tale we had to tell. Sounds easy? No. Each character has a role to play. But you must find that role, not tell that character what he or she is hiding or why he or she is disrupting the inquiry, why he or she is going to sidetrack or further the plot.
Charles: Terrific writers outline. It’s a very strong tool. But I could see that getting the outline together was disruptive for Caroline, so I tried her system. And that’s how we found our way of collaborating. Each scene we talk through, all the possibilities, what it does for the plot or the characters, where it ought to come from, where it ought to be pointing. Even an author on his own has to do this, but with two people it’s a little more tumbling. Then we sort through what we’ve said and find the thread of the story forward. One of us might write a para or a page—or nothing. It might just be capturing that initial enthusiasm and forming it up right there, on the phone. We write down what we have and then exchange and edit it to one voice. But it’s in these discussions that we look at the characters and find out why they are there. Something in each person’s life will shape the story forward in some fashion. Good or bad. Or they wouldn’t be in the book. I don’t know if this helps—but writing is creating. And you must think about that, whether you are outlining or not. You have to be objective, you have to be honest with your view of your story. It’s more that objectivity and honesty that leads to intricate plotting than the tools you use to get there.
KN: How much of an advance story bible do you have for a series such as this?
Caroline and Charles: We hardly know who the killer is in any one book, much less see a theme for the future. But at the end of a book, we see where Rutledge is, and where he might be going. Each book works on its own storyline—which is why you can start the series anywhere. In GATE KEEPER we wanted to try the idea that Rutledge is on the scene from the moment of the murder. It usually takes him a day to arrive at the crime scene, and the scene is cold. What difference would it have made it he got to it while the blood was still warm, so to speak? Would it change how he might perceive the crime, would it give him a different insight? The tobacco by the hayricks might not have been there the next day. A revolver might have lain out of sight in the tall grass and never found. And he saw Miss MacRae while she was still traumatized by the event. These made a very different start to the story.
KN: For those who don’t know, “Charles Todd” is actually a mother-and-son writing team. How does the process for that collaboration work? Is it all electronic? Are you even in the same city?
Caroline and Charles: We can’t work in the same room. We talk too much about everything else and get sidetracked. We do use phones and computers and texts. Depends on which is most useful at the moment we need to get something done. The first thing is research. We go to England to find the right setting, the right backdrop to the story and the past that is going in someway to affect the present. Murder in small villages isn’t common. But there are times when something happens to a person that drives him or her to kill to protect what has happened. We find the characters and the setting, we see how that particular village works, and we come home talking about that, sharing pictures, etc. We’re building toward that first scene. And when it is written, we’re off on the chase. Here’s something else: not knowing who did it, finding it out with Rutledge and the reader, really adds to the excitement we feel while working. WE want to know, we aren’t working toward a goal, we’re working toward the truth. And that really does make the suspense in each book.
KN: How did the partnership between son and mother come about? Were you just sitting around one day and one of you said, hey, want to write a book?
Caroline: I think we mentioned that we were history buffs forever. And if you talk about history, you talk about war. Growing up in the south, with Civil War and Revolutionary War battlefields all over the map, we’d visited a good many of them, knew something about how they were fought and why. And both of us had been to England and Europe, expanding that range of history. His dad and I were visiting him one weekend and we decided to go to a battlefield we hadn’t had a chance to explore. And afterward, on the way home, we talked about a small mystery there. I said to Charles, “As much as we know about these things, we ought to write a mystery like that. Only a bit more modern.” I wasn’t so much serious as intrigued.
Charles: I was polite. She was Mom. But I wasn’t really enthusiastic. Then my job description changed and I was traveling as a corporate troubleshooter. Not the most popular guy to arrive in a facility with problems. I spent the evenings in my room, bored and looking for something to do after the reports were written. I had a computer, Caroline had a computer, and one night I called her and said, “Were you serious? It will at least keep me busy.” That was 1994. Two years later, August 1996, A TEST OF WILLS came out. And Ruth Cavin wanted more. But when I called her I was looking for something to do—neither of us expected it to be anything more than just a temporary exercise to see what made a mystery tick and how you set it up. What happened was, we met Rutledge. And our whole view of what we were doing changed for good.
KN: After twenty books in this series, do you still find yourself doing research or do you now have the characters and the sense of place so ingrained?
Caroline: Of course by now we know a lot more about the period and the countryside and the war than we did at the start. We know when we are on safe ground. But that’s just the beginning. We’ve written about various aspects of the war with both series, and that means new research covering those areas. We need to find our next village in England, so back we go. It’s really never-ending. And the more you learn in research, the wider net you can cast with a story. The more different characters and motives and plots you can construct. Research keeps the books alive and current. There’s no resting on laurels. We just did something ourselves that will figure in a book soon—we went up individually in a WW1 open cockpit bi-plane. Now we know what the pilot sees and how he flies. We can write about it.
Charles: We were ten books into Rutledge before we felt safe enough to branch out. We had to be sure he was safe and well on his way first. But we’d also been talking about the fact that we had ideas that would fit a different kind of series, one where we could explore the woman’s side of the war. And that seemed to be a very good connection with Rutledge in the sense that we had two different people with two different worlds and outlooks, telling different sides of the war story. That’s how Bess Crawford started, the battlefield nurse. She’s a sleuth, in a sense, but she doesn’t go looking for trouble. It comes to her in various ways related to her work and life. Rutledge is a professional. She’s a nurse. He’s an officer. She’s first person, he’s third. She sees murder from inside, he sees it outside. They complement each other without getting into each other’s way. We learn things researching Bess that might work with Rutledge in a different setting. Or vice versa. But they stay separate in our minds and in our views of their purpose as books. This is how continued research and work on the period and people expands for a writer.
KN: How have you seen Rutledge grow over the past 22 years the series has been alive? It started with “A Test of Wills” in 1996 and here we are in 2018.
Caroline and Charles: He decided he’d come home from the war with PTSD—shell shock. He couldn’t have returned to the Yard if he’d had more visible or extensive injuries. So that gave us an insight into what war does to people. We are two years away from the end of the war, but it has changed England dramatically, people and places, and we’ve shown that through Rutledge’s eyes. He’s working out his relationship with Hamish slowly, which is what actually happens to such men. He’s having troubles with his personal relationships because he can hardly tell a woman he’s interested in that he’s got another man in his head and doesn’t know how to get him out without killing Hamish all over again. Which he can’t do, because keeping Hamish alive is his coping mechanism. It’s a quandary, but he has to work this out. We can’t just throw him a loving helpmate to make it all better. It doesn’t happen to men who ARE suffering from PTSD, and we can’t let them down. We undertook to show what it was really like, we didn’t just create it as a plot gimmick. When we wrote A FINE SUMMER’S DAY, going back to1914, to see Rutledge as a whole man with his future bright and secure, it turned out to be such a difficult book to write. We knew what was coming. And yet we knew the whole man too. And we saw in him, in DAY, what we had only glimpsed in TEST, where he was fighting madness. We saw that somehow we must have had the insight to give him the strength and tools to keep fighting, long after the war was over.
KN: Did you ever think that you would be writing episode twenty in this series?
Caroline: We have been sooooo fortunate! Rutledge struck a chord with readers and reviewers and editors. Our editors over the series have been unbelievable, and their faith in Rutledge and us had been awe-inspiring. They let us run, they let us think for ourselves, and they give such clear guidance in the edits. Reviewers have picked up on what we are trying to do. Fans have responded to the books. Booksellers know we support them. I look back over these twenty books and I think, how on earth could we possibly been so lucky? And then we start the next Rutledge, and I know we owe it all to him.
Charles: If you’d told me in 1994 where we’d be in 2004, much less 2018, I’d have asked what you were drinking! It was two people who read a lot wondering if they could write as well. It took two years to find out we could, and then Rutledge to do the rest. But this is something I think is important to put out there for those who are trying to write. You aren’t going to sit down and write a best-seller just because you want to write. There’s a lot of discovery and research and work involved getting to know your book and you. This is a craft, it’s got to be worked at. I have read a lot of first novels. And the secret of the successful ones is that they are willing to listen and work out problems, and throw out bad writing and invest in their characters. If you aren’t ready to do this, you may not be ready to start writing. The other side of this coin is, if the first try is not up to par, then learn why and start again. If you don’t learn why, you’ll be repeating the same mistakes.
KN: Caroline, you have a BA in English literature and history and a Masters in International relations. Charles, you have a BA in Communications with an emphasis on business management and a culinary arts degree! How do you draw on these in writing your series?
Caroline: Everything you do in live informs you as a person. Lit and history made me a reader. International relations and subsequent travel broadened my world. Growing up in the south then moving north gave me two cultures to look at. Here’s the thing. The narrower your own world, the narrower the world of your characters. Research can expand that. But you must be interested in that research and learn how to use it in the best possible sense. It’s not just data, stuff, it’s part of what makes your setting and your characters and your story grow and live. If I meet someone with a different outlook on the world, I want to know more about what makes that world interesting to him or her. If I see a book on a subject I don’t know much about, I will pick it up and try to see what that offers. Life teaches you too, every day. But if you aren’t open to new and interesting and unknown and fascinating stuff, your characters won’t be either, and they will stay narrow and maybe even boring. Remember, there are all kinds of readers out there, and you want to find as many of them as you can. Broaden your world to find them.
Charles: Caroline is right. Taking it to my own perspective, business has helped me with contracts and other aspects of writing, which is very very important. You have an agent, but you need to know what that contract means too. Business has helped me meet a wide range of people. I enjoy cooking as much as I love sports. Communications means knowing how to talk and deal with people. All of which makes broader and more interesting characters. We’ve had land owners and business men and shopkeepers. They have problems of their own, financially. I can better understand what these problems are. Importing Madeira wines? New methods of agriculture? Bookselling? These aren’t just jobs for a character, they can lead to murder. Nothing you learn is wasted. Caroline has traveled more than I have, but I can back up a spread sheet and tell you something about drainage and motorcars. Together we make a very wide-ranging team.
KN: Can you give us any teasers for what we should expect in Ian Rutledge’s book number twenty-one?
Caroline and Charles: Ah! That would be telling. But let’s just say this. What happens when a killer has escaped, his crime is a cold case now but still open, and then a very small, unreliable bit of information comes to light? What do you do with that unreliable bit? What can you do with it? And what about those who were affected years ago, when murder was done? How has it changed their views and their willingness to reopen very painful wounds? Wouldn’t it be easier to declare the killer dead, and just let everyone get on with whatever they’ve patched up in their lives? And if someone starts poking around, if the pain begins to return, what can you do about it? Short of a murder no one wants to commit?
Caroline and Charles, thanks for taking the time to talk with Killer Nashville. Here’s a toast to success for both of you. Congratulations on your two series. I’m personally looking forward to the next book even as you write.
– Clay Stafford
Founder of Killer Nashville