Monday, December 28, 2009

Partners in Crime: Charles Todd

Partners in Crime: Authors who Write in partnership. Today I welcome Charles Todd, the mother/son writing team made up of Charles and Caroline Todd. They are the best selling authors of the post-WWI historical Inspector Ian Rutledge series (the latest is The Red Door) and A Duty to the Dead, a new series featuring Bess Crawford, set in 1916. Watch the Video for this novel. Charles and Caroline Todd are on tour for their latest mystery, The Red Door. They will be at my home in Berkeley for a Literary Salon on January 14, 2-4 p.m. Please email me if you'd like to attend.



I don’t know if I could collaborate with someone other than Charles. For one thing, I’m spoiled, and for another, I’m comfortable.

This wasn’t what I’d expected when we began to write together. It was, in the beginning, just an interesting challenge. Could we or couldn’t we write something worth reading? Charles was on the road and missed his family, I was bored with painting, and it was summer, hot and humid outside. Our first effort was A TEST OF WILLS, and it worked because we had no preconceived notions about how to collaborate, we just created a system that suited us. Of course it helped that Charles and I knew each other well—and the other half of the success lay in genetics. One side of the family was numbers/math oriented. My daughter for instance, learned German by working out her own mathematical formula for sentence structures. My husband could remember chemical formulae and football scores for years running. Charles was the only other wordsmith/history buff, and it was natural that he liked what I liked in terms of films and books and going to visit historical sites.

We use consensus. Well, we didn’t know any better when we started. It sounded like a lot more fun not to divide everything up. So we’ve worked out each scene with the players and the plot in mind, until we have a good grasp of where it fits, where it is leading, and who should appear in it After that, working out the characterizations and the dialog generally goes smoothly. If it doesn’t, we’re back to talking it through. Since we don’t outline this is essentially living with the book and the characters every step of the way. If we don’t know who the murderer is, we don’t force a character to take on that role. We compete with Rutledge in solving the crime.
That’s the comfort part. The spoiled part is that the system seems to work for the new series featuring Bess Crawford, just as well as it does with the long-standing Ian Rutledge mysteries. That’s an “If it ain’t broke” philosophy, but I don’t believe in breaking up a good system just for the fun of it. That would be the equivalent of changing jobs just to see if you can.

However, there’s a lurking snake in this Eden. What would it be like to work with, say, Ken Bruen on a very different kind of story? Where would the parameters be different? And how would the two authors challenge each other in outlook and background, if they came together for a single book but had no other connection?

Don’t read more into this than intended. Rutledge and Bess Crawford are exhilarating to write and we have enough places and ideas to fill dozens of books. That’s the plus of having someone to talk to as we work. But here’s the odd thing about sharing. We can’t write in the same room. Even if we happen to be in the same house, we work on different floors. We each need that space. And the time it allows. We connect by e-mail or instant messenger or a phone call, then mull over suggestions and drafts and ideas.

Charles and I write short stories in the same way we write novels. When you are used to novel length, 3,000 to 7,000 words can be quite a challenge. It tests your ability as a story-teller, and we like that.

Would I recommend collaborating to others? A qualified yes. A good many authors have tried it and have been tremendously successful. The qualified has to do with choosing a partner. There has to be explicit trust, a small ego, more or less equal abilities, and the same skill at using language. Otherwise the team falls apart or the reader can begin to pick out who wrote what. Seamlessness is the goal for great collaborations.

I ought to add that you must come to some arrangement about money and rights before you begin. Then if success knocks, there’s already a protocol in place to deal smoothly with what’s starting to happen. So far no one appears to have murdered his/her collaborator, and that’s probably why.


I don’t know if I would want to collaborate with someone else. As Caroline says, it’s comfortable knowing your fellow writer and not having to tip toe around personality differences or quirks. I’d already lived with her quirks for years before we began Charles Todd! No, just kidding. We’re both fairly easy-going. But it is very nice to approach a scene and know that as we discuss it, both of us are committed to Rutledge (or Bess) and want what is going to work best in a given situation. Yes, we argue, we’ve even been known to yell. But that’s the creative process and no hard feelings afterward. The fascinating thing is, we each bring a very different approach and outlook to the table—not just the male/female aspect, but life experiences and hang-ups and dreams. Rutledge is the beneficiary of two fully realized lives. And Bess Crawford is fitting into that picture very well indeed.

A word about research. We do that together as well. But we also branch out and bring back new concepts that might not have been considered before. Even walking a village, we split up, then confer later. We may see the same church or lane or field in very different ways. Then we both go back for a second look. Finding places to leave a body can be interesting. (You don’t want to alarm the local constabulary while trying.)

If I didn’t want to collaborate with someone else, would I consider writing on my own? I sometimes think about it, but we’re busy and happy at the moment. I would like to try to see how all I’ve learned as a collaborator comes to the surface if I were doing it all alone. I expect it is normal to wonder. In airports and hotel rooms, I have played around with an idea or two, trying to see where they might go. It’s actually invigorating, and I tend to come back to Bess or Rutledge with a fresh approach.

Caroline talked about working in totally different spaces. There’s also the time factor. We don’t write on the same schedule. She may be working at midnight, and I may find myself working early in the morning. So far that seems to have no impact of what we do together. Like the Senate and the House working through a bill for the final version, when we come to the point of comparing thoughts and notes, we’re both ready to talk.

What would I say to someone considering collaboration? Patience is a great virtue whether you are working on a book with someone or just changing wall paper. It pays to listen to the other person even when you think your own ideas are right. Since collaborating isn’t common, I expect the problem is finding the right person, one you trust and respect. I’ve learned a lot about the woman who is my mother—and she’s learned a lot about the man who happens to be her son—and the more we both learn, the more the books seem to grow and prosper. That’s our partnership in crime.

Thanks, Charles and Caroline. I look forward to hosting you at the Literary Salon in Berkeley, CA, on January 14.

Past Partners in Crime posts: Bill Crider, Charlotte Elkins, Mark Zubro


Anonymous said...

Great interview. Whatever and however you two do it, it works. I've been a major supporter of the Rutledge series since the beginning and it appears I will follow that route with the Bess series. A happy new you to you two and to Janet for the interview
Oline Cogdill

Unknown said...

As you say, it is necessary to be clear about the working relationship and it seems like you have it nailed. I write individually and also have created the Silver Sisters Mysteries with my sister Phyllice Bradner I've also worked with others on collaboration, and like writing both ways. To me, the most important thing is something you touched on: Listening to the other person and considering their input. In other words, check your ego at the door! My wishes for continued success.


Janet Rudolph said...

Morgan, maybe you and/or your sister would care to write a guest blog for our Partners in Crime series?