BOSTON — 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...?
"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.)
For "10 lb. Penalty," centered around a tale of a father and son involved in a vicious political struggle, Francis says, "We did get to go to Number 10 Downing Street and have a good look around."
Like many writers, Francis adheres to a schedule. He begins a new novel in January and tries to finish by May. He dispels any idea that writing is a mystical experience.
"Oh, I start on Page 1 and go through to the end," he says as modestly as one of his heroes. "I do it all in my handwriting. I don't have the whole plot worked out, because I sometimes develop subplots as I go along."
And although summer does mean a family holiday "at the same seaside in Devon for 40 years," Francis begins gathering ideas and research for his next book as soon as one novel is finished.
"I do try to think of a dirty deed, and build a plot around it," he says. The world in which each book is set depends on any number of factors, from meeting an intriguing painter, to his wife's interest in photography, to having a neighbor who was a jeweler.
But prime ministers aside, Francis reveals that there's no substitute for a good imagination. "You know," he adds in his charming way, "sometimes you just might be driving along the road and suddenly you get an idea and well, something usually develops."
Ed McBain doesn't hesitate at all when asked where he starts his novels. Right away, no hedging, boom, he has an answer.
"Oh, it's title. I always start with the book's title and go from there," he said recently, speaking from his Manhattan apartment. "Each word has different resonances. The title keeps me on track. With 'Ice,' for example, we're talking about icy streets, diamonds. With 'Nocturne,' everything had to be at night. I base all that on the title."
It would be hard to imagine Ed McBain hesitating about anything, given his track record. He's been writing his world-famous "87th Precinct" novels about a group of urban cops since 1956, when "Cop Hater" was published. More than 40 years and 48 books later, he's still writing about the same group of cops in "Nocturne," just published by Warner Books.
But that's just the 87th Precinct series. He's written 12 Matthew Hope novels also using the name Ed McBain. Under his real name, Evan Hunter, he's written 20 novels, several short story collections, children's books, screenplays (including Hitchcock's "The Birds"), and teleplays (including "The Chisholms").
McBain is a naturally prolific writer, but he backs up that gift with sheer discipline. "I'm at my desk at 9, 9:30 every morning, and put in a full day, until about 5 p.m." He writes on a computer, and tries to average about 50 pages a week.
He doesn't find it hard maintaining interest in characters he created more than 40 years ago.
But all his characters haven't equally endeared themselves to McBain. Look for Florida lawyer Matthew Hope to meet his demise in his next outing, "The Last Best Hope," McBain says. "I'm going to stop this series," because it's become too difficult to write, with always having to check legal facts.
With just three "Stephanie Plum" novels to her credit, Janet Evanovich might be considered a novice, but she says with a laugh, "Don't forget I was an unpublished writer for 15 years while my kids were small."
Evanovich, speaking from her home near Hanover, N.H., has received a lot of praise since the first appearance of the New Jersey bailsbondsman Stephanie Plum, in "One for the Money," in 1994. The brassy, blue-collar babe became a hit with fans and critics in her further misadventures, "Two for the Dough" and "Three to Get Deadly."
Between the unpublished years and the big time, Evanovich wrote romances, but her love of humor and lack of interest in the sex scenes made her realize "I never was the ultimate romance writer."
But when her two children approached college age, she started looking for some way to make money. "Put me in pantyhose and I'm really cranky," she said. "So I decided I would write a novel." She eventually realized that she wanted a series so she could stay with a character.
Although the ideas for her books can come from anywhere - "It's a little bit of everything, from movies to staring into space" - she takes a more structured approach to the actual writing.
"First off, I figure out what the crime will be. Next, who the bad guys are, and third, who (which minor character) will I feature besides Stephanie."
Unlike some writers who say their characters decide what happens next, Evanovich says she finds it hard "to meet reader expectation if you're too intuitive. My primary purpose is to entertain."
You might think it would be impossible for Faye Kellerman to begin writing in any fashion, considering she shares a home with four children (and novelist-husband Jonathan Kellerman).
Yet the bestselling writer is as calm and organized as - well, as her supermom character Rina Lazarus when she's reached at her Beverly Hills home for a 7:30 am. interview she hadn't been informed about. "Oh, just give me 10 minutes ... and call me right back," she says. Cheerfully.
Ok. Any lingering uncharitable thoughts about the overwhelming goodness of fictional wife Rina Lazarus must be dispelled if her real-life creator can be so polite. Rina shares a house and life with Los Angeles detective Pete Dexter.
In 10 books, readers have followed their unlikely courtship (Rina's an Orthodox Jew; Pete was raised a Baptist), marriage, and merging of families. In her 11th, "Serpent's Tooth," Pete again relies on Rina when a mass murder leads him into the world of the rich and spoiled.
In Faye Kellerman's world of family and work, creative organization seems to be the key.
"I don't go out to look for an idea," she says, chatting over the sound of children's voices. "I get my inspiration from all over. My imagination, news sources, the Web. When I begin to write, I usually start with plot and theme. Plot takes the longest and is the hardest," she says, "although my novels are character-driven. I do outline meticulously, but the creative process takes on a life of its own. The characters can change during the course of writing."
Kellerman writes daily but structures her time around her children, aged 5, 12, 16, and 19. "I've learned how to write in dribs and drabs with kids," she laughs, "about three hours at a time. I might write a few hours in the mornings after they go to school, or after they go to bed. Whatever."
"There's no such thing as an innocent conversation," Marcia Muller says, laughing, from her home in California. "One idea I had [for a book] was just from talking about an article my husband [mystery author Bill Pronzini] had read. We were just kicking around ideas." All husbands and wives kick around ideas, but few put them into best-selling books the way Ms. Muller and Pronzini do.
But then Muller is in a league of her own. She's widely recognized as the mother ("yeah, it gets a little old") of the contemporary female private eye, since her protagonist, Sharon McCone, first appeared in 1977. McCone makes her 18th appearance in "Both Ends of the Night," just out from Mysterious Press.
After her initial appearance in "Edwin of the Iron Shoes," Muller couldn't get anyone to buy her books for the next four years, hearing comments like "No one's going to believe women in this profession." Happily for her fans, Muller persevered.
"Flexibility is important to me, she says. "I don't plan the ending of a book. I think all good fiction comes out of character; plot doesn't work if you have to force the characters." Muller cheerfully points out the truth of a writer's life: "When you have a deadline, you have to write. Period."