DEBORAH CROMBIE: This has been such a fun week for me, with new authors that I've discovered (Jenn McKinlay's Cloche and Dagger) and authors I've loved and whose new books I read with great anticipation, like Marcia Talley, and today, Charles Todd. The mother/son writing team of Charles and Caroline Todd, who write as Charles Todd, began with the wonderful series featuring shell-shocked WWI veteran, Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Ian Rutledge. And then they branched out into a second series with a WWI battlefield nurse called Bess Crawford.
The Bess Crawford books are told in first person, and have such an immediacy that I feel I've been transported into Bess's life and time. They are absolutely addictive, and in A Question of Honor, the 5th Bess novel, we find out some very interesting things about Bess's background. Although set in the latter months of the war, the story goes back to Bess's childhood in India. So of course, I had to ask-- WHY INDIA???
CHARLES TODD: Writing a novel isn’t just starting to type on PAGE ONE. As any of my fellow authors on JUNGLE RED can tell you, there are “stages.” The idea, the development of that idea, the setting and its potential, and a survey of what you’ve done before and what you intend to do in this next outing—they all play a role.
A QUESTION OF HONOR is the 5th Bess Crawford mystery, and throughout the previous four, we’ve said quite a bit about Bess’s intriguing background growing up in India. So we decided it would be interesting to take a look at her life there. And what better way to do this than at a time of crisis—the hunt for a murderer in the ranks of her father’s own regiment? Then the question is, how will this event in the past come back to haunt her years later while serving in France? After all, the series is about the Great War, not India.
Of course that meant more research. Fortunately we have a lot of slides and other material from a month spent in that part of the world. Still, it’s never a walk in the park.
They say that for an actor, nothing is ever wasted. Everything that you see or do adds something to your repertoire of experience. It’s true for a writer also. You play so many roles in every book, remember so many small details that can enrich the setting, and draw on all kinds of odd bits of knowledge you’ve collected, sometimes without realizing it. Then you put them together to make a mystery a page turner.
Of course you can’t go tearing off in a dozen different directions—you always have to keep an eye on the suspense that drives the plot forward. India is a vast place. And every part of it has its history and its own unique quality. But if your story is set in the Northwest Frontier, you can’t bring in sunrise across the Ganges or the cool scent of pines in the far north, along the border with Nepal, or the intense heat in the south where houseboats float on serene lakes. And you have to tailor the new setting to meet the needs of the character. Bess is fourteen. She’ll see things differently from the battlefield nurse in France in 1918.
What was Simon like then? (DEBS: Bess's father was a regimental colonel; the enigmatic Simon was his sergeant major. Simon is just enough older than Bess that she knew him when she was a child, but now, as adults, their relationship has become MUCH more interesting.)
What was his relationship with the Crawfords? How did Bess and her parents interact? What place did her mother hold in the life of the garrison? And how would the Colonel Sahib handle an unexpected, shocking situation? You really come up with surprising and intriguing insights.
When the war ends, will Bess ever go back to India? There are a lot of great plots that could take her there for one book. Who would go with her? Simon? Melinda Crawford? Or is there someone else who will come into her life as the war draws to a close, and end her ties in the East? That’s the beauty of writing a series—you never know what’s around the corner. And that’s what keeps it fresh from book to book.
DEBS: I've been fascinated, through all the Bess books, by how modern Bess seems--and yet she is of her time. I think we (in our time) have developed this idea of Victorian and Edwardian women as fragile and prone to vapors, and yet Bess is anything but. She is courageous in a way that I think most of us "modern women" would be hard-pressed to emulate. Were there women who particularly inspired your idea of Bess?
CHARLES AND CAROLINE: There were people like Florence
Nightingale half a century earlier, who really did so much for nursing, an unheard of thing at that time, and the lives she saved. Clara Barton did much the same here for the Civil War. There was Beryl Markham, the woman pilot from Kenya, after the war. Isak Dinesen too, if you count her time in Kenya growing coffee. And Freya Stark--who, as I remember, drove a Red Cross ambulance in Italy in WW1, at about Bess's age--and after the war explored places where no westerner had ever traveled, male or female, then
wrote about her adventures. Gertrude Bell was an earlier explorer in the Middle East and worked there in WW1. Mary Kingsley explored west Africa.
And there was the famous woman who was the first to be given a medical degree--her name eludes me. And of course Marie Curie. There were so many who never became famous but who explored all sorts of exotic places and were thought rather strange for Victorian women who were supposed to marry and have children and behave themselves as a properly brought up young woman
DEBS: Isak Dinesen is a particular heroine of mine. Running a coffee plantation in Kenya may not sound all that challenging--until you read her account of her life there. (Out of Africa, anyone? And if you've only seen the movie, READ THE BOOK!)
So, readers, are there women of that time that you see as role models? (I've had Beryl Markham's memoir sitting on my to-read shelf for years--MUST GET TO IT.)
Tell us who you admire!
(Charles and Caroline will be giving a copy of A Question of Honor to one of our commenters!)
And a last little comment from me--this has been a week not only of authors who are some of my personal favorites, but of fabulous covers. A Question of Honor is stunning, and a good argument for buying paper rather than digital books, so that you get the most enjoyment from it:-)