Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Charles Todd: Writing About War

I decided to post some of the author essays from the recent Mystery Readers Journal: Murder in Wartime issue. This author essay is by Charles Todd. Charles Todd is the mother-son writing team of Charles and Caroline Todd. Together they write the bestselling Inspector Ian Rutledge mysteries, the Bess Crawford mysteries. They have also written two stand-alone novels. 

The latest issue of Mystery Readers Journal (33:2) focuses on Murder in Wartime is available in hardcopy or as a downloadable PDF.

Charles Todd: 
Writing About War

You don’t study the past in any depth without coming to the conclusion that war is one of the main threads running through human history. Look at Egyptian monuments, where stone armies race across the front of great gates, and enemies are trampled beneath the Pharaoh’s chariot wheels. Warriors have always gotten great press. Hannibal. King Arthur. Attila the Hun. Genghiz Khan. Spend any time in Peru or Mexico, and you can’t miss the story of Spanish conquests. The Bayeux Tapestry is a colorful account of the Battle of Hastings—from the view point of William the Conqueror. Or look at the American West, where battles between cavalry and Indians made great film material.

And murder isn’t very far behind. Cain and Abel. The story of Horus in Egyptian mythology. Even King David sent his rival into the forefront of battle, so that he could have Bathsheba.

When we were casting about for a war to write about, we naturally looked at our favorite periods. Charles knows the American Civil War inside out. I’d specialized in European and Asian History. We had both learned a great deal about World War II because our parents and grandparents had talked about it.

The problem was, many great mysteries have been set in WWII. Spies were all the rage too. We were both reading Alastair Maclean, John Le Carre, Frederick Forsyth, Jack Higgins. Then there was World War I. Often in the Golden Age of Mystery, it had been a recurrent theme because readers at that time had just experienced the war. It would have seemed odd not to mention it. And so we had Lord Peter Wimsey and his butler/batman Bunter and Captain Hastings, while Poirot was a Belgian refugee.

But no one had been writing about The Great War recently—this was 1994—and the centennial was still ten years away. It also offered us something that we liked. Forensics was in its infancy. To solve a case, a detective still had to rely on his wits, his experience, and his knowledge of people. That appealed to both of us. In their dramas, the Greeks had always felt that a strong protagonist must face an equally strong villain, or the struggle was uneven. Sherlock Holmes had also demonstrated that. The excitement in a good mystery lay in the chase, in the game of wits. And this meant that the writing would prove to be more of a challenge, more intriguing to work out.

Now we had our war, and a detective who must rely on his wits in the grand tradition of mystery. But where did this new detective of ours live? If we were to set our first Great War mystery in the US, we’d have very little war to play with as a backdrop. The US didn’t declare war on Germany until April 1917. And the number of US casualties could be absorbed by the larger, more widespread population here. One might know a veteran of that war, but he didn’t stand begging on every street corner. Hmmm. If we chose England as our backdrop, there were all kinds of intriguing possibilities. After all, the British and the Commonwealth fought for four long bloody years, and they lost a generation of young men.

Still, this presented a few problems. We were American. In addition to learning all about the period, we’d have to see it mostly through British eyes. The war as well. Were we up to that?

The answer was that two naïve people starting out with great enthusiasm thought we just might be able to bring it off. But it added a whole new dimension to our research.

Next question. Should Rutledge work at the Yard during the war? After all, crime didn’t stop just because the world had gone mad and everyone had enlisted. But wouldn’t it seem odd that a perfectly healthy young man didn’t fight? On the other hand, if he was serving, he couldn’t very well solve murders at home too. After the war, though, hindsight was available. And if he’d come home from four bloody years, Rutledge would know all about that, would know how the war had ended, and he would be drawn into the terrible aftermath of the trenches too. (We quickly learned, researching the period, how much of the war we couldn’t put into a book—how much was too horrible to describe.) Another plus? There were still trenches we could walk in, and even today bits of the fighting were being turned up in plowed fields and new roadways.

The biggest dilemma we faced—well, the one we recognized at the start of the book—was how we could demonstrate to the reader what men like Rutledge went through in the trenches, and how this had taken a toll of their families. First of all, if Rutledge had seen the kind of fighting that took place on the Somme, it was likely that he’d been severely wounded. And if he was, he couldn’t return to his position at the Yard. But if he came home without some evidence of what he’d gone through, if the war hadn’t touched him, how could he possibly relate to the men who had? That’s when shellshock and Hamish MacLeod entered the picture—and that complicated our lives even more. Just how do you handle PTSD without making it sound like a gimmick you planned to ditch in a book or two? It was a life and death matter for too many soldiers, and we had to address it as such.

It took us two years to write the first Rutledge. Fortunately we both knew a little about England to start with—but far from enough. That meant going back numerous times to get it right. Still, we persevered. How would they say that in Britain—what would a woman wear in the rain—what food shortages were there--how do you shift a 1914 motorcar—the list went on. The language, the times, the war, characters, the setting, the plot had to be carefully researched. But in the end, we had something we hoped might pass muster. We hadn’t even thought as far as a series. Then, while we were waiting to see if anyone at St. Martin’s wanted to read A TEST OF WILLS, the ideas started fizzing around in our heads, leading to WINGS OF FIRE. Rutledge was here to stay—we hadn’t said all there was to say about this man.

From the start, we’d toyed with looking at the women’s role in the war, but we had our hands full with Rutledge. It wasn’t until about ten books into the series that we felt confident enough in our research and our plot ideas for Rutledge that we could even talk about a book featuring Bess Crawford. Once we got to know her and the world she lived in, we were hooked. They were so different, Bess and Rutledge. And plots that weren’t suitable for one of them often worked a treat with the other.

An unexpected bonus was the fact that we could use some rather sophisticated plot ideas in both series. War creates upheaval in a society that wasn’t used to change on such a large scale. People who hadn’t traveled ten miles from the place where they were born were suddenly thrust into situations they had no experience of. Men who had never owned a weapon were taught to kill. The women waiting at home faced unexpected challenges. Villages that hadn’t seen a murder in a decade suddenly had to deal with a killer in their midst. And that allowed us to explore why normal people might turn to murder as a solution to their problems. It was, in a sense, the personal version of war. A breakdown in human relations where war is a breakdown in relations between nations. No drug kingpins or street gangs or terrorists for us—too predictable! Instead, it was far more frightening to delve into people and their secrets, the pressures and fears and love or hate that turn them to murder. And the settings, those fascinating, seemingly bucolic villages, feel the pull of the past even in the present.

The most important discovery in many ways was that pressing need to go to England—you learn more and faster on the ground, looking for pitfalls and potential. We needed to visit the military museums, to travel to France where the war was fought. You can make up a good many things if you’re an accomplished writer, but a reader somewhere is sure to find you out. Our personal libraries overflowed, looking for first -hand accounts of the war. Bookcases mushroomed in whatever odd space they could be squeezed into. Ceilings groaned. We’ve brought suitcases full of books back from England.

We introduced a third character a few years back. Lady Elspeth, who was in Paris when the Germans crossed the frontier and marched south toward the city. Then she got caught up in a battle as she struggled to get back to England, and had two very good reasons for wanting to fight back. That was more a Christmas tale, heavy on the love story, with only a little crime in it. But it had something to say about people in a time of war, and how personal loss could change the direction of their lives. She wasn’t intended to be a series, but we’d like to write about her again, this time in a more involving mystery.

All in all, war has done well by us. We hope we’ve done well by it. There are still a lot of stories to tell about it. War is a powerful backdrop for murder. And it has changed us as well. We hadn’t expected that.

This is a look at how two writers chose and used war in their mysteries, and some of the decisions we had to make along the way. It’s not the only method, of course, but it’s one that has worked for more than a few books

1 comment:

Toby said...

Thank You Caroline and Charles for your edifying account of placing Ian Rutledge as a WW1 survivor. As you know, I am a strong supporter of your series and hope to have more novels coming soon!