How Mystery Masters Plot Their Craft
Thanks to that plucky governess Maria, we all know that when you read you begin with A, B, C. When you sing you begin with do, re, mi. And when you write, you begin with...?Skip to next paragraph
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"Hmmm, I don't know."
"Oh, dear, let me think."
Which proves either that life's more interesting when Rodgers and Hammerstein write your dialogue, or that even famous writers have problems articulating their inspiration.
When pressed a little, however, several mystery authors were able to more fully answer this query: Where do you get your ideas for a new book? When do you know you have a novel?
Reached at her home in London, P.D. James was as gracious as one would expect from someone among whose other titles is Baroness James of Holland Park OBE. That honor is just one of many that Phyllis Dorothy White has accrued since the 1962 debut of her moody British detective Adam Dalgliesh in "Cover Her Face."
Ms. James is widely acknowledged not only as the best mystery novelist writing today, but as one of the best novelists, period. Her novels are masterpieces of structure and mood; she excels at putting together a diverse group of people within a certain institution (be it a publishing house or hospital) and then having her poetry-writing Dalgliesh sort out the inevitable mayhem.
A former senior civil servant in Britain's Home Office, James didn't begin writing until middle age.
"I knew I wanted to be a writer as soon as I could read," she said in an earlier interview. "The surprise to me is that I started so late." Now working on her newest novel, "A Certain Justice" (out this December from Knopf), James did take time to explain her motivation.
"For me a new novel invariably begins with the setting. I have a strong response to place, particularly to atmosphere, and I can visit a lonely stretch of beach, an ancient house with a bloodstained history, or a community of people and feel strongly that this is where I would like to set my next book. After the setting comes the characters, and lastly the working out of the details of the plot.
And one strong response evokes another; as soon as a new P.D. James appears, the response of readers is to put it on bestseller lists worldwide.
When you hear the story of how Dick Francis got the idea for his newest book, you'll be jealous, but just remember - this is the British grand master's 36th novel. Francis is the former jockey whose stellar career ended when the horse he was riding (the Queen Mother's horse, that is) collapsed during the 1956 Grand National. No longer able to ride horses, he started writing about them.
His first novel, "Dead Cert," was published in 1962, and his books have been on worldwide bestseller lists ever since.
"I still find writing is very hard work," the author said in a recent telephone interview from his home on Grand Cayman Island. "It's much easier riding horses."
His idea for his newest novel, "10 lb. Penalty" (to be published by Putnam in September), came about in a way befitting a writer who has won just about every mystery award ever bestowed.
"Well, I was invited by the treasurer to watch a cricket match in his box at Lords [the venerable British cricket grounds], and in the next box was [then] Prime Minister John Major," Mr. Francis said. "They took me to meet him and he was so charming, I said 'I must write a book with a political background.' "
And so he did. Francis's thrillers have several trademarks: a stalwart hero and a narrative pace that's as fast as a horse you'd like to own. Backing up all the action is meticulous research. Francis's wife, Mary, is his ace researcher, even going so far as getting her own pilot's license when researching a novel ("Flying Finish") about flying. (Francis, himself a World War II pilot, was too busy writing.)