Like Mother, Like Son: The Charles Todd team on writing bestselling novels
You just never know what to expect when you go into business with a relative. There are horror tales about the plumber, the lawyer, the ironmonger, where plain Jones has become Jones and Son, or even in some cases, Jones and Daughter. It never occurred to us when we began our collaboration to worry about the details. Things like legal contracts or definition of partnership or even how the income was to be divided. The main reason was, we never expected to see any income. And if there’s no money to quarrel about, where’s the point of quarreling anyway? We wrote the first Rutledge mystery—A Test of Wills (1996)—just to find out if we could write. A test of us.
And we nearly didn’t finish it. We couldn’t see that anyone in the 1990s would be interested in a novel about World War I. You don’t always recognize when you’re in the forefront of a trend. We’d gone in that direction because we knew something about World War I. We liked the period. And we thought it would be easier to write about something in a past that was enough like the present that readers wouldn’t be turned off by it. It was John, husband of Caroline, father of Charles, who said one day, “What ever happened to that mystery you were working on? I liked it. I want to see how it completed.” As he had been proofreader, adjunct photographer, and general chauffeur through the English countryside, he had a right to complain. We’d used his services shamelessly on more than one occasion—without remuneration, mind you—and we owed him something. Like an ending. So we finished it for John.What happened then happened so fast we never had time to catch our collective breaths. Rave reviews, nominations for top awards, demands for the Rutledge story to go forward—even dollars and pounds and, yes, yen came pouring in. It seemed an awful lot to us. We were grateful to recoup the cost of writing, like flights and hotels and rented cars and books, books, books. Caroline had to buy a new bookcase. Charles had to buy a new copier.
The question we faced then was just as simple as it had been back when we hadn’t anything in print. Could we go forward with Rutledge? Was there enough material about the war, about England, about him, that we could write three, five, seven more books? More importantly, did we want him to go forward? By the time we’d worked out the future—not the plots or the story, mind you, but the fact that we two could see collaboration as a workable relationship—we decided to give it a try. That was sixteen Rutledges ago, the last one already in production for 2014. And five Bess Crawfords. And two stand-alones and God knows how many short stories. And we still don’t have any formal treaties defining partnership or income-sharing or who does what in the course of writing.
We aren’t sure whether that would have worked with any other relationship but mother and son. We happen to like each other, but we also aren’t afraid to doubt each other and find a better way. Most particularly, we don’t seem to have ego issues. We think we share a unique bond. And that bond is mostly built not on blood but on Rutledge and Bess and Francesca and Lady Elspeth. We’re so involved in the characters we’ve created, each in his/her own way, that we’ve never seen the need to define anything. We just start the next book and get on with it. It’s almost based on a bit of superstition too, that if we mess with what we’re doing, we’ll lose it. If we tinker with it and describe it and set it out in terms, you do this and I do that, we’ll be seen as ungrateful. It’s just not done. It’s challenging fate.
How do other writers feel about their creations? We’ve no idea. But we have already decided not to ask ourselves how the hell we got this far. We haven’t even hung out our shingle—Todd and Son—because we don’t even share a house. We just share a fascinating window into something we love, and that’s enough for now. For both of us. We won’t ask the Seal Woman questions or follow the leprechauns back to their hollows. They’re safe from us.
Caroline and Charles Todd comprise the mother-and-son writing team Charles Todd. Their latest Inspector Ian Rutledge mystery, Proof of Guilt, was published by William Morrow in January 2013.