P.D. James: 5 Pieces of Advice for the Writer

PD James, the English language, Uncategorized, vocabulary, whodunit, writing
Phyllis Dorothy (P. D.) James was the author of twenty books, many of which have been televised or filmed. She began writing in the mid-1950s. Her first novel, Cover Her Face, featuring the investigator and poet Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard, was published in 1962. Many of James’s mystery novels take place against the backdrop of UK bureaucracies, such as the criminal justice system and the National Health Service, in which she worked for decades starting in the 1940s. She was the recipient of many honors, including the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award and the National Arts Club Medal of Honor for Literature, and in 1991 was created Baroness James of Holland Park. She died in 2014. Here is the advice she gives to would-be authors.
1)    Increase your word power. Words are the raw material of our craft. The greater your vocabulary the more effective your writing. We who write in English are fortunate to have the richest and most versatile language in the world. Respect it.
By increasing your word power she does not, of course, mean simply poring over a dictionary and logging up scores of obscure words that you use indiscriminately in the course of your writing. It means when you write you have several alternative synonyms you can draw on in order to give your writing color and nuance. Whenever I discover a new word, I usually find it helpful to use it at the first possible opportunity, either in conversation or in writing so that it gets embedded in my memory. That way, I retain knowledge of new words and can use them whenever seems appropriate.
2)    Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.
Here the focus is on reading good authors. But I also think it depends how you read. If you read for pleasure only and without any attempt to analyze the text then there is only a limited amount of benefit you can derive in terms of your own writing. That’s not to say you shouldn’t enjoy what you’re reading. It just means that when you read you should also pay attention to how an author writes, how he or she achieves certain effects, how the book is structured and what kind of vocabulary is used. That way you can enjoy reading but also grow as a writer yourself, by trying to imitate the good aspects of another author’s writing.
3)    Don’t just plan to write – write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.
Like any other skill, the more you practice the better you get at it. What definitely helps is if you build writing time into your daily/weekly schedule, instead of blitzing it twice a year. Steady progress helps you to develop as a writer, better than staggered and erratic effort.
4)    Write what you need to write, not what is currently popular or what you think will sell.
That’s easy for her to say, you might think, since she has a steady stable of bestsellers to show for her efforts. On the other hand, if you are only writing what you think the public will buy in the hope of accumulating wealth, readers, more often than not, will notice your insincerity and steer clear. If you can combine writing what you really want to write with a popular genre, all to the good. Just don’t sell out to commercialism just because people seem to be buying a certain kind of book.
5)    Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other people. Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted.
This also makes a case for not isolating yourself as a writer. Writing is a solitary occupation, and unless you can plug yourself into human experience in a meaningful way, by putting yourself into situations where you can interact with other people, gradually you will run out of convincing things to write about or become one-dimensional in your representation of human relationships. Again, it also makes a case for trying to see life through the eyes of the other people we know and using that in our writing to portray authentic human beings.





Some of these points apply more fully to writing fiction, but most of them have a bearing on any kind of writing – poetry, non-fiction, even business reports at a stretch!

The Classic Whodunit

Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Dorothy L. Sayers, Hercule Poirot, Janet Evanovich, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, Mary Higgins Clark, P.D. James, Uncategorized, whodunit

When I was about ten years old, a school friend lent me a copy of an Agatha Christie whodunit. It was a revelation to me. Not only was the book relatively short – which for me was a sine qua non – but I got a great deal of pleasure from trying to work out who the murderer was and discussing it with my friend.

Agatha Christie is, of course, the world’s best-known mystery writer of all time. Her books have been translated into over 40 languages and have sold over two billion copies. Apart from the Bible and Shakespeare she is top dog in terms of sales. Her oeuvre covers 78 mystery novels, 19 plays, and over 100 short stories. This is a staggering output. In fact she was so prolific that she once wrote an entire novel over the course of one weekend: Absent in the Spring under the name Mary Westmacott.

My own personal favorite was Hercule Poirot, the Belgian bon-vivant detective who appears in 33 novels and more than 50 short stories. I loved the way he hardly seemed to do any detective work: a question here, a conversation there – and always with very little in the way of hard facts until right near the end. The classic conclusion is where he gathers all the suspects together in the same room and says something like, “I suppose you are all wondering why I have gathered you here. One of you is the murderer…”

It wasn’t until years later that it dawned on me how gruesome those books were. Poisoning, bludgeoning, stabbing, hanging, shooting – all horrible ways to end one’s days. And there I was at the tender age of ten reading one after the other. Perhaps what makes the whole thing less horrific is the way in which the detective treats it, not as the snuffing out of a human life, but as an intellectual conundrum that has to be solved. The characters were all cardboard cutouts – the colonel, the doctor, the nurse, the governess, the young couple etc..

They were all taken from her stock of regular characters albeit with the names changed for each book. And that lack of real humanity is what made it acceptable to deal with the murder on a cerebral level rather than as a terrible human tragedy. And that’s also what makes these kinds of detective novels slightly distasteful. If we ourselves had been witness to one of those ghastly murders, we would probably need a course of counseling and Prozac to recover from it. Agatha Christie’s characters take it in their stride (after all, they had already been through it all before in her previous books).

Some of the best exponents of the classic whodunit are women: apart from Agatha Christie, there is Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Tey, P.D. James, Mary Higgins Clark, Janet Evanovich, Donna Leon, and so on. Why is that? Perhaps the reason why they are so good at it lies in the natural female ability to empathize with various characters and therefore adopt various different characters’ points of view and emotional reactions. That, of course, is essential if you want to write a convincing whodunit. Whatever the reason, these women have become adept at portraying brutal killings and their aftermath in a convincing way.

Agatha Christie’s novels always wrap themselves up quite satisfactorily at the end with no loose ends left dangling from the end pages. But, paradoxically, the best whodunits are only partly satisfying. If the author has portrayed the characters in a convincing enough way, then we hate to see them disappear when we get to the end of the book. We want to know what happens to them after we have turned the last page. We care about them enough to want to spend more time in their company and resent it slightly when the author has drawn the action to a close. And, ultimately, isn’t that feeling of loss more satisfying than a clever deus ex machina from Agatha?