Saturday, June 2, 2012

Drawing on Personal History

by Charles Todd
(Charles and Caroline Todd)
(Photo by Sandra Parshall)
We’ve just come back from England.  There are banners and bunting everywhere for the Queen’s Jubilee.  And in all the shops are commemorative cups and plates, tablecloths, balloons and even pillows with crowns and gilt carriages and ER II embroidered on them. Block parties are being planned, and special dinners in restaurants are being advertised. Gardens abound with floral tributes, from a huge crown at Bateman’s, Rudyard Kipling’s house, to borders laid out in the colors of the flag in smaller front gardens. The newspapers are full of royal history, photographs of the Queen at various stages of her life, coverage of the important political events of her reign, and even postcards one can send to friends. Michael Wood is doing a series on TV about the history of Britain. All very exciting and festive. 
We’d have liked to stay for the celebration, but the new Bess Crawford mystery, An Unmarked Grave, comes out on the 5th of June, and we wanted very much to be here for that. 

This book reflects a bit of family history. The Spanish Flu epidemic that raged through Europe in 1918-1919 isn’t just a page in a history book. It’s personal. On both sides of the family accounts have been passed down by those who lived through it. Stories of a young mother who nearly lost her life, of a child who didn’t survive, of the uncertainty of an illness with no treatment and no cure, waiting for the crisis that meant the difference between life and death for a father, a sister, a beloved aunt. This is captured so well in Downton Abbey, as Lavinia loses her struggle, but Cora lives. In England, where so many families had already suffered the loss of a loved one on the battlefield, they now faced fresh losses at home. Like a Biblical plague, influenza swept the world, and millions died. 

And so An Unmarked Grave opens with Bess facing the epidemic as best she can, running short of sleep, barely remembering to eat or stop for a cup of tea. There are wounded, as well as the flu victims, to nurse.  She hasn’t heard from her parents or Simon, she doesn’t know if they have fallen ill or if letters have been delayed.  Mrs. Hennessey hasn’t written. Is this silence because the men who must read and censor the post are dying at their desks and there is no one to take their place? What news there is from England is bad, soldiers being notified of the deaths of wives, parents, children. In the midst of this nightmare, Bess is shown a body that hadn’t died of wounds or the influenza. Where did he come from? And why was he murdered? Before she can even report what she’s seen, she herself collapses and lies at death’s door.

Bess tries to regain her strength and piece together what she remembers of that last night before she herself is struck down. But long before she can identify a killer, he strikes again—and again.  What is driving him? Vengeance? Love? Or just plain hate?

Researching this fourth mystery in the Bess Crawford series meant learning more about the flu epidemic, more about the aid stations and hospitals in England and in France. There’s an American in the story, and we went to Mackinac Island in Michigan to find out about him.  In England, we traced a killer’s race toward his final target. We traveled to Cheddar Gorge to learn more about Private Wilson, and to Somerset to a clinic and thence to Bess’s own home. Each step of the way, we followed in Bess’s footsteps. As we always do, whether it’s Bess or Rutledge. To see the things they see, to see the world they knew, to find out what’s real about a place and what it must have been like during the war years. The fascinating part of research is discovering something unexpected, something that adds to the story or a character’s background. Something that makes the action more exciting.

What did we discover this last trip to England? You’ll have to read next year’s Bess or next year’s Rutledge to find out. We have over twelve hundred photographs, our own memories, our thoughts as we walked the ground, and the kernel of a plot. But the first page hasn’t been written yet, the first scene hasn’t taken shape on the page. The first characters haven’t spoken. Or lied. After all, we’ve only just unpacked our suitcases! By the end of June there will be a beginning, and by the end of September, Bess will be ready to hand over to our editor. A few weeks later, it will be Rutledge’s turn.  

This is why writing our books is so enjoyable—it’s like setting out on Safari into the unknown, and bringing back a mystery that will keep readers enthralled from start to finish.  That’s why we love what we do so much---we ourselves get caught up in the story-telling, just as the reader does.  So stick around until next year.  Meanwhile, find out just who is in that Unmarked Grave. And why.
The mother and son team of Caroline and Charles Todd write the Ian Rutledge mysteries and the Bess Crawford mysteries. Visit their website at to learn more about their books and their writing partnership.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

And the most amazing thing about it is that Charles does all this with his MOTHER. I can barely get my son to make a date so I can see the grandchildren. ;)

G.M. Malliet said...

My grandmother died in the flu epidemic, leaving 4 small children behind, one of them my mother. So it will be hard to read your book, Charles and Caroline, although I plan to!

On a lighter note, I will definitely be watching the Jubilee on TV tomorrow. Probably that is the best way to watch, with crowds as big as they're expected to be.

God save the Queen!

Sandra Parshall said...

I'm always grumbling that we shouldn't have royalty in this day and age, but do I watch royal weddings? Oh yes. Will I watch any of the Jubilee celebration? I will.

Barb Goffman said...

Inspiring post.

Coco Ihle said...

Oh, goodie, Charles and Caroline, another wonderful book to look forward to! Wish I could have been a little mouse along with you in England! I wish you tremendous success with AN UNMARKED GRAVE and all your projects.