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Creatively Speaking: Charles Todd

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Our Creatively Speaking interview series continues today with not one, but two authors who go by the name Charles Todd. If you're into historical fiction, murder mystery or crime thrillers, you probably already know that Charles Todd is the name for a very successful mother and son writing team: Caroline and Charles Todd. Their historical mysteries revolve around Scotland Yard inspector Ian Rutledge, solving murder cases in England, post-World War I.
Charles_and_Caroline_Todd.JPGTheir new novel, A Matter of Justice, was recently released and we'll be giving away two copies of it tomorrow in a contest that will require you to know some answers from their interview below where I ask the duo many question about the collaborative writing process. So enjoy the interview and see you back tomorrow for your chance to score a great, new novel!

DI: How did Ian Rutledge come about?

Charles—We were visiting a battlefield one day—typical history buffs!—and while there Caroline was pointing out a mystery involved in the battle, and she suggested that we write a mystery where we could explore more than just who killed whom. We talked about the whys and whos and wheres for a while, and then there we were, facing Rutledge. We wanted someone who was intuitive, intelligent, and able to solve a murder on his own, without the aid (or confusion) of the young field of forensics. We wanted his world to be accessible to readers—cars, telephones, a recognizable era. And we wanted him to work at the Yard before and after his four years in the trenches, so that we could see the man before and after.

Caroline—At the time, Charles was married, busy with his career, and often sent out as a corporate troubleshooter to places where he was the ax-man. And so he spent a lot of time in hotel rooms far from home, and he missed his family. Casting about for something that might be interesting for him to pursue, I mentioned the writing concept. We never expected the results to be published, much less attract attention, much less turn into such a wonderfully exciting series to work with. What surprised us most was that Rutledge himself was so popular with readers. Whether they met him in the first book, A TEST OF WILLS, or in the 8th or the 12th, they are loyal and interested in his fate.

DI: How much research about the post-WWI period have you done for your novels?

Charles—As the aforementioned history buffs, we knew a lot about wars. And WWI was especially intriguing—it should never have happened, for one thing, and for another, as Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings point out in their respective works on the Twentieth Century, WW1 was pivotal—the aftermath of it and of the Treaty of Versailles is still with us today. Just look at the Middle East—WWII—Africa—the Cold War. But even though we knew many of the facts about the war itself, researching the personal aspects is a never ending task. First person accounts, anything written during the war, letters, newspapers, diaries, talking to families who had relatives in the war, all had to be researched from a different perspective.

Caroline—So many men who come home from war—and it doesn't matter which war—are silent about what they saw and did and suffered. Yet oddly enough, the men who do talk about their experiences seem to share many things. As one said, the fighting tools may be different, but the fear of dying, and the killing are the same. And this we must get right. Easy to know certain dates, harder to understand what a man felt when he was going over the top on an attack from which he probably would never come back. That's often learned by reading between the lines.

DI: I'm no expert, but you seem to have a command of the vernacular of the time and location, yet it still speaks to our present ears. How do you manage that sleight-of-hand?

Charles—It isn't sleight of hand so much as it is listening and understanding why there are differences in speech and outlook and way of life. Then you have to distill it so that it comes out naturally, not as a lesson interjected into the story.

Caroline—That's why we travel to England, spend time in the locale we are interested in using (and sometimes that changes when we arrive in Village A to find it not at all what we expected—and then around the corner is Village B, with wonderful opportunities). There's so much to explore, so much to resurrect from the changes made since 1919, so much to understand about what makes the people in B far more interesting to a writer than those in A.

DI: Part of the new novel, A Matter of Justice, is set in the year 1900, in South Africa. How many times have you been to England to research the environs? And what about South Africa now? Did the novel require a trip?

Charles—Caroline had been to South Africa, and when she came home she told me that one day we might fit what she'd learned and experienced into one of the Rutledge books. This happened to be the right one. But we both get to England as many times as possible. You can't let your feeling for time and place go stale.

Caroline—I didn't have the time constraints that Charles, still gainfully employed, had to work with. Most of his free time went to convention travel and promotional tours. So I had the opportunity to travel more. And some of it rubs off. The South East Asian collection in the little museum in SEARCH THE DARK, the stone from Egypt that provided the title for WATCHERS OF TIME, the collection of birds from Central America in A PALE HORSE, and here in A MATTER OF JUSTICE, the Boer War. The British were great travelers and explorers, so what we add from our own experiences fits the period. I have lost count of the number of slides and CD's Charles has watched, to catch up with me on the feel of a place or event.

DI: When most authors write, like me, for instance, we do so in solitude. What's it like collaborating? What's your writing process like? Do you work together in one room? Online?

Charles—Of necessity, we began writing from a distance. And we got used to that. You still create on your own, making suggestions about how you view a scene or a character or a situation. Then we e-mail or instant message the passage to the other. Since we don't outline, and instead look into the characters and setting to give us direction, we must listen to each other and to the characters in order to go forward. What collaboration gives is a sounding board that helps define what goes into the final manuscript. And even when we disagree, what is best for Rutledge and the book is the ultimate decision. My words, Caroline's words, it doesn't matter.

Caroline—We begin each book with a concept. And we strive to make the opening pages capture what we want to say, even though we don't know what comes next or who did it or why. And once that's done, we build on it. We can't work together in the same room—we got so accustomed to writing in different places that even if we are in the same house, we work in different rooms and mostly different floors. We didn't really understand collaboration when we started the series, so we developed our own system. So far—so good!

DI: Do you divvy up the work, say one person handles narrative while another dialogue or do you both get your hands dirty with both?

Hands dirty! And that way we both understand where we are heading and why. The narrative and the dialogue and the descriptive bits have to blend seamlessly.

Caroline—That's one of our goals, to make it seem like one person. Otherwise the reader is distracted trying to assess which of us is speaking. And—this way we have fewer revisions overall, because of the care taken with each scene.

DI: There's a tradition in the mystery and crime genres of authors using pen names. Why did you guys do it?

Charles—it isn't really a pen name as such. It comes from my mother's side of the family, sort of a salute to them. My father's name (German/Norwegian) is not as easily remembered, and that's death for fans looking to find you.

Caroline—I'm truly Caroline, so it doesn't worry me. People ask though why only Charles is on the jacket. If you look at the space available for an author's name, Charles and Caroline Todd would have to be so small it would be hard to pick out on a shelf. And since Caroline and Charles have the same Latin root, it doesn't really matter. Besides, I sign Charles Todd, never Caroline.

DI: Your novels all take place in the same year or so. Is this on purpose? Can we expect that the 24th mystery, should there be one, will still be set in and around 1920, or?

Charles—We began the series in June of 1919—when Rutledge left the clinic where he was being treated for shell shock—and have moved along about a month each novel. The reason is two-fold. We'd be up to WWII before long, at the rate of each novel moving ahead a year. And most importantly, watching how Rutledge heals—or doesn't progress—is part of his story. If you jumped ahead each year, it would be lip service to that. And the war is a character, in a way, and we want to capture the changes that it brought in its wake.

Caroline—I think the next Rutledge, THE RED DOOR, begins in June of 1920, a year after Rutledge left the Clinic, and is the 12th book in the series. Fans seem to understand that and they want to know about him as a man, not just a new crime to solve. Some mysteries work best leaping a year, others seem to be more solid if the pace is slower. We decided in the beginning to go more slowly, and we haven't regretted it so far. Besides—the Depression is depressing. We're just coming into the Twenties. And they will bring new directions.

DI: Who are some of your influences? What other writers do you like?

Charles—Caroline read to us when we were children. Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson, Conan-Doyle and poetry and whatever else she thought we'd like. And I think that was a tremendous influence for me. I was the child who loved words, so it was a short step from that to reading voraciously on my own.

Caroline—Another influence is the southern tradition of sitting on the porch in the cool of a summer's evening and talk about any and everything. I grew up listening from the shadows, and of course my father read to us in the winter. So the story-telling concept put down early roots. I loved reading as a result, and passed that on to both my son and my daughter. Even my husband liked to sit in on the story-telling hour just before bedtime.

CT—As for other writers—we've been reading Val McDermid's latest, also Lee Child, Nelson DeMille, Julia Spencer-Fleming—mostly what we like best is mystery/suspense and psychological suspense. Which is why we write what we like. There's Judy Clemens, Robin Hathaway, people we happen to know, and sometimes we go back to Frederick Forsyth and Jack Higgins, or read Reed Coleman Farrell and Michael Connelly, James Lee Burke, Linda Fairstein, P. D. James, Peter Lovesey—oh, and Stuart Kaminsky has a new one out that's on our list.

DI: What about outside the genre? Who else do you read?

Charles: I'm interested in Constitutional Law, the Civil War, World War II, economics. And so I read in those categories when I have time. Sadly writers, who love reading, find their time is circumscribed. But in my library, you'll find a wide range of interests.

Caroline—In mine as well. I like traveling, and so the travels of other people interest me. I enjoy Elizabethan English history. Stuart history. American Revolutionary War history. The Johnstown Flood. I currently need a new floor for my collection of books. Archeology is a favorite field—I once wanted to be an archeologist. Cold War history. The list goes on. We've discovered that the more widely you read, the more breadth you bring to your writing.

DI: You turn out about a book a year. What's the hardest part about maintaining the series?

Charles—I don't think we've found a hard part. The books seem to flow. What's confusing is January. This year for instance. We're talking about the latest, A MATTER OF JUSTICE just out in hard cover, and of course last year's hard cover, A PALE HORSE, which this January came out in trade paperback. And we're finishing the next Rutledge per our deadline—this year, it's THE RED DOOR—and beginning to have inklings about the proposal for the next book. I can remember someone asking me a question about a certain character—and my mind went blank. It took several seconds to remember WHICH book she came from!

Caroline—The hard part is leaving the book when we write THE END. We are fond of certain characters, interested in their futures, and just getting to know their pasts—and we must walk away. A scant few appear again, people like Rutledge's sister and Hamish and the poet O.A. Manning, but for the most part, it's like moving away and leaving behind friends.

DI: I'm sure we have some aspiring novelists out there. What advice would you give those just putting the finishing touches on their first drafts?

Charles—My advice is to look at your draft objectively. That's hard to do, but if you are honest, you'll find places that could be better written or realized, or that are overblown where you got carried away. That's a sure sign of a first novel. And look at the subtext, because a lot of beginning writers forget that or skip over it. Subtext is the little detail or touch that makes a book interesting and draws in the reader. I just read a manuscript where all the men are handsome and all the women are beautiful beyond words. I couldn't keep them apart because they had no individuality. Get to know your characters and make them real.

Caroline—Three suggestions: 1) Writing is a craft. Learn the rules that can make you successful. 2) Read a lot of books in the style you're interested in—look at how they get people in and out of a room, how they build suspense, how the plotting furthers the plot, and why you like or dislike the characters. Not to copy, but to understand. 3) And learn how to make a submission manuscript look professional. That's essential if you want an agent to consider your work.

DI: What else is on your mind today?

Charles—Readers may be interested in knowing that we've also been writing short stories most of which feature Rutledge and bring in Hamish, still alive at that stage. You get to know more about him and also see Rutledge in a war setting but still a man who is a trained policeman. THE STRAND MAGAZINE carries most of them.

Caroline—The last time we were in Kent, we were exploring places we'd visited before, and we noticed a story was taking shape! Not about Rutledge, the professional, certainly. Enter Bess Crawford—and she wouldn't be put off!—who debuts on August 25th in A DUTY TO THE DEAD. This series will run concurrently with Rutledge, summer for Bess, winter for him. Her father is a retired colonel. The family has served King and Country for generations, and Bess herself was brought up in India rather than sent home to be schooled. Her life is quite different from most young Englishwomen of good background—she knows something about weapons, different cultures, and human nature. She's also more independent. And she's been exciting to get to know. In DUTY, set in England in 1916, she finds herself facing a moral obligation which puts her judgment at risk and tests her mettle as her father's daughter.

Browse through past Creatively Speaking posts here >>

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Creatively Speaking: MeetingBoy
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Read on to win a new Meeting Boy wall calendar!

We have a nice interview/contest today with someone you need to know about if you don't already. PC World named him one of the 10 Funniest People On Twitter. Like Racer X, no one really knows who MeetingBoy is, but whoever is behind this madness is one hilarious, talented fella. Tweeting out quips and one-liners, he's amassed close to 80,000 followers on Twitter as @MeetingBoy. I first got to know him (well, as much as you can know a masked-man) after he re-tweeted a Twaggie (illustrated tweet) we did off one of his tweets over on my start-up,

Then one day, MeetingBoy asked me if I'd like to give away one of his new MeetingBoy wall calendars in a contest. I said sure, under one condition: he do the following interview. So read the interview and follow the contest rules at the bottom of this post. We'll pick one tweet/comment at random and send you the calendar in time for Christmas! Good luck!

DI: First of all, where do you take your meetings? Tell us about your day job.

MB: I work in a glass & steel high rise in New York with lots of lazy idiots. The managers spout buzzwords to impress each other, and my boss is a clueless, bullying hypocrite more concerned with covering his own ass than getting things done. Does that narrow it down?

I am stuck in 3-5 meetings a day, so if there’s a way to waste someone’s time, I’ve seen it. And I’m sick of it. I must have really bad karma to deserve this. I must have been something truly awful in a former life, like maybe a manager or CEO.

@MeetingBoy: 125 PowerPoint slides? Well, I hope you're not presenting a case for how efficient our department is.

@MeetingBoy: Definition of insanity: holding the same meeting with the same people every week and expecting different results.

@MeetingBoy: Four meetings today. And then later, no doubt, a meeting with my boss about how I'm not getting anything done.

@MeetingBoy: I'm confused by this article about Bernie Madoff. I thought "white collar prison" was just a euphemism for my office.

@MeetingBoy: 7 hour conference call, though my lawyer says I'll be paroled in 6 with good behavior.

DI: How’d all this Meeting Boy stuff get started? Walk us through the early days.

MB: Since my biggest pet peeve in meetings is people who ramble on and on, Twitter was the right place for me to vent. The forced brevity was just right. If only I could force the people who write PowerPoint presentations to stick to 140 characters instead of 140 slides!

I’d been on Twitter before, but mentions of work had become a problem once people knew I was tweeting and started following me in the office. After I got a new boss last year, I created the MeetingBoy account so I would stop hearing about it. Since then I only tweet under my own name after hours.

@MeetingBoy: I'm married to my job. I don't love it. It was a shotgun wedding; I had knocked up my credit cards with all sorts of debt.

Early on as MeetingBoy, I was getting positive responses. People identified with my complaints-- in fact the most common response to MeetingBoy is “do you work at my company?”

Of course I hate buzzwords, and so many of my rants result from sitting through an hour of them. The word I hate the most is “robust”:

@MeetingBoy: At the end of the day I think we can all agree how tired the phrase "at the end of the day" is.

@MeetingBoy: When the revolution comes, I'm shooting everyone who says "robust". Well, except the coffee roasters.

DI: When did your first little break happen?

MB: Last October, PC World named me as one of the 10 Funniest People On Twitter. My following increased dramatically as a result. This was a huge surprise to me. I had no idea I had broken out of the Favstar community of internet jokers. After that my friends who weren’t on Twitter insisted I start cross-posting my material to Facebook and so they could follow along too.

DI: And then your big break?

MB: Earlier this year someone at Twitter added me to their Suggested Users - Funny list. I was pretty excited; after all, as my friend said, “It sure beats being on the Suggested Users - Not Funny list.”

Though some people would say my “big break” was when I got a boss that didn’t get my sense of humor, forcing me to put more of it on the internet. Speaking of my boss:

@MeetingBoy: We have high expectations for him - he got his MBA in business jargon from Wharton.

@MeetingBoy: You're right. It was wrong of me to question how another layer of paperwork would speed up the process. I apologize.

@MeetingBoy: Hey, everybody! My boss is running a special on poorly thought out, unworkable ideas today. The discount code is YESSIR.

@MeetingBoy: "Dumb it down. Remember, you're presenting it to management."

@MeetingBoy: "I didn't read the executive summary you sent. Can you just put the idea in a few quick sentences and send it to me? Thanks."

@MeetingBoy: New line on my job description: "maintain high morale". Told HR I could do it, but not if my boss keeps trying to motivate me.

@MeetingBoy: My boss is very susceptible to food poisoning. Apparently this occurs when he stays out late drinking.

@MeetingBoy: The boss sent an email at 11:30 "reminding" everyone that he's working from home today. He sent it from his Blackberry.

DI: Did you set out to achieve Internet fame or did the idea sort of take over by itself?

MB: I set out to vent about work in an amusing way, in part because I was so annoyed at how people in the office reacted to my being on Twitter. I certainly had no idea how to get people to write about me or who at Twitter to sweet-talk to get them to recommend me.

Being famous and anonymous is a little odd though. None of the benefits of fame have come my way. I’m not getting a better table at Sparks or celebrity gift bags at the Oscars. And no matter how many followers I have, I’m still stuck in the same meetings every day.

I would like to see a MeetingBoy calendar make an appearance on The Office. Seems like something Jim Halpert would have (though since he gave up his office, I’m not sure where he’d put it). Or maybe Michael Scott because he’s a “cool boss” and none of it applies to him..

DI: Talk about the tweets themselves. Mostly they are things you think up in these meetings every day?

MB: They are responses to things that happen in meetings. Or things I wish I could say. In a few cases I’ve actually said these things. Of course the names have been removed to protect the boring, the rude, the jargon-spewing types, the lazy, the bullies, and the people with “bad grammer”.

@MeetingBoy: I know, I know, but if your idea is so good, why hasn't some VP passed it off as their own yet?

@MeetingBoy: Sorry, I have to leave your meeting. I have something I need to do. I need to not be bored to death.

@MeetingBoy: This PowerPoint needs an art director? Wow! I never thought I'd say this to you, lady, but you're overthinking this.

@MeetingBoy: That email you claim I never sent you? Here it is. Along with your REPLY TO IT.

@MeetingBoy: No, I wasn't playing Devil's Advocate. I really think your idea is stupid.

@MeetingBoy: You are mean, incompetent, and ignorant. Life did not hand you lemons; life handed you CONSEQUENCES.

DI: But other times I see you attributing the tweets to other authors/publishers. How does that work?

MB: Sometimes I see a tweet that I wish I wrote. Other times my followers send me one I missed. Either way, if it’s something I think my audience would appreciate, I share it. After all, I don’t want to be like that guy in my office who thinks the only good ideas are the ones he thinks of.

For example, some of my favorite tweets that someone else wrote are:

@swimparallel: I've recovered from my death sickness. Now I'm back in the office. It feels like a lateral move.

@summersumz: Evaluating data, making conclusions. LIVING THE DREAM!

@kerissmithJA: Your cc list doesn’t scare me. I still refuse to respond to your email.

DI: So now you have this cool wall calendar. How’d that come about?

MB: A friend makes up a calendar with photos of his family, which I dutifully hang in my cube. I thought it would be cool to have a MeetingBoy calendar. I’d hoped to make a 365-page-a-day calendar, which I think would really work for my short quips, but I couldn’t find a way to publish it. So I went with a wall calendar, and asked for illustrators among my followers.

Of course once I had printed the calendar, I realized I couldn’t possibly put the calendar on my desk. I can’t have my boss or coworkers know that I’m MeetingBoy, and it’s probably better if they don’t even know he exists. Clearly I hadn’t thought this through.

I think the calendar makes a great Secret Santa gift. I think coworkers across the English-speaking world would love to get one.

Calendar available for sale online at

DI: Have you learned any profound lessons going through the self-publishing process?

MB: I’ve learned that self-publishing isn’t very profitable. I’ve been very happy with all the illustrations I got, though paying for them before I sell the calendar has made money tight.

I was going to try to sell them directly myself over the internet, but I couldn’t be sure that my secret identity would be safe. Luckily one of the illustrators owns a comic shop and they agreed to carry it for internet sales.

And I’d still like to make a 365-page-a-day calendar if anyone knows how to go about that.

DI: What’s next for you and what’s your ultimate goal?

MB: Next up I’m starting to do regular illustrated tweets on Of course I can’t draw, so I’m using some of the same illustrators from the calendar, and any new ones I pick up along the way.

My ultimate goal is to be the boss on The Office after Steve Carrell leaves at the end of this season. Though I would also accept President Obama declaring my birthday, June 23rd, to be a national holiday, maybe National Out-of-the-Office Day. Write your congressman to make it happen.

DI: Will you always hide your true identity Meeting Boy? Or will we one day find out you’re actually Racer X’s older brother?

MB: I can’t reveal my identity without losing my job and potentially risking never working again. After all, who would hire MeetingBoy? A surly, sarcastic person who will mock your every shortcoming on the internet to tens of thousands of people. Even I might balk at hiring that guy. He kind of sounds like a loose cannon.

Okay, contest time! Of all the tweets mentioned in this post, by MeetingBoy or someone else, which would you like to see illustrated on RT it with the hashtag #twaggies and we'll pick one of you at random to get the calender. If you're not on Twitter, leave your vote in the comments below. The tweet with the most RTs will also get twagged on twaggies, too!

For my interviews with Jason Alexander, Monty Hall, Mitch Albom, xkcd and more, browse through past Creatively Speaking archives here >>

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A chat with Jeff Garlin
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Jeff Garlin co-stars and executive produces the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm. The unique comedy, which is one of the rare television shows to become part of the national zeitgeist, stars Seinfeld creator Larry David, with Garlin portraying his loyal manager. Born and raised in Chicago and then South Florida, Garlin studied filmmaking and began performing stand-up comedy while at the University of Miami. He has toured the country as a stand-up comedian, is an alumnus of Chicago's Second City Theatre, and has written and starred in three critically acclaimed solo shows. I was fortunate enough to get this interview with him when he spoke at an event a charity I work with produced.

DI: Which do you prefer: writing, directing, or producing?

JG: I prefer to direct what I write.

DI: If you were to retire, what would you do with your time?

JG: Nap and eat puddin'.

DI: What's your favorite food?

JG: Puddin'.

DI: Of all the comedians and actors you've worked with over the years, who has been the most enjoyable.

JG: Larry David.

DI: Is Larry David as obnoxious in real life as he is on the show?

JG: See my answer above.

DI: What's the biggest difference between Chicago and L.A.?

JG: Human contact. In Chicago you get it on a regular basis.

DI: What's one of your favorite films?

JG: Sullivan's Travels by Preston Sturges.

DI: If you could have lunch with anyone deceased, who would it be?

JG: My grandfather Harold.

DI: Who's your idol?

JG: My wife.

DI: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

JG: A comedian.

DI: Where do you like to go to unwind when you're not working?

JG: Wherever my wife tells me.

DI: If you could change one thing about Hollywood, what would it be?

JG: The street names.

DI: Shakespeare wrote: "Brevity is the soul of wit." What do you think the essence of comedy is?

JG: A plate of fresh cornbread.

DI: I heard you studied law in college and almost graduated before deciding to pursue a career in comedy. Do you think you would have been a good lawyer?

JG: That's on and it's not true. I studied film.

DI: What's more difficult: performing stand-up comedy before a live audience or performing on camera?

JG: Actually, my personal life is harder.

DI: Do you own an iPod? If so, what's the most unusual music you've got on it?

JG: Chin Ho soundbites from Hawaii Five-0.

DI: Who is the funniest comedian of all-time?

JG: Jack Benny.


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