How to write a mystery by P.D. James

Posted: May 12, 2013 in Crime Writers
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P.D. James

P.D. James

What’s the difference between writing a straight novel and writing mystery? According to P.D. James, not much. ” A first class mystery should also be a first class novel,” she says. However, if you aspire to write great mysteries, there are important conventions, and who better to learn them from than a master? Keep reading to find out what P.D. James’ best advice is.

1. Center your mystery. “No matter what, there should indeed be a mystery at the heart of the novel,” says James. “Usually, there is a murder, a closed circle of suspects with means, motive and opportunity for the crime and a detective, either amateur or professional, who comes in like an avenging deity to solve it.”

She also emphasizes the importance of structure. “I always know the end of the mystery before I begin to write. Tension should be held within the novel and there should be no longuers of boring interrogation.

2. Study reality.
 Once you’ve plotted you’re novel, the next step is to make it come to life, and James admits it is “more difficult (comparatively) to combine a credible puzzle with a setting which comes alive, an underlying theme and distinguished writing,” says James.

What’s the solution? “You must go through life with all your senses open to experiences, good and bad,” she says. “Empathize with other people, and believe that nothing which happens to a true writer is ever wasted.

3. Create compelling characters
. Most of all the characters are important. You want them to be “rather more than stereotypes. The characters should be real human beings, each of whom comes alive for the reader, not pasteboard people to be knocked down in the final chapter.”

4. Research, research, research
. In addition to paying attention to real-life, a huge part of the writer’s job is to research. Often times, this is the best way to make your characters real–by finding out the facts they would usually know. James does her research personally, and it usually takes months. “I revisit the scene, get advice from experts, and usually consult both the police and the forensic science laboratory.”

5. Follow the “fair-play rule” 
James always makes sure that information available to the detective is available to the reader. “By the end of the book, the reader should have been able to arrive at the real solution from clues inserted into the novel.” Of course, she also admits that you can provide these clues with “deceptive cunning but essential fairness.”

6. Read!
 It may seem a cliche, but you have to read in order to write. First, find your favorite authors. James particularly admires and says she has learnt from a diverse collection including Jane Austen, Wilkie Collins, Dorothy L Sayers, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh.

“Read the good prose, and learn from it,” she says. “And the tools of your craft are words.” she says. ” Try always to enlarge your vocabulary through reading. This is not in order to use complex or pretentious phrases, but to have available precisely the right word for every sentence.”

7. …And write
. When asked if she gets writer’s block, James said “No, I have never experienced writer’s block, although I sometimes have to wait a long time before I receive inspiration for the next book.” So don’t think of yourself as blocked. Use your time between inspirations wisely, and practice the craft by short pieces. Create exercises to complete or take a class. “By writing prose and learn from the experience, you will develop your own style.”

8. Follow a schedule
. Here’s how James says she works:

“I get up early, make tea and settle down to about two hours writing. I have no special room, require only a comfortable chair, table or desk at the right height, and sufficient space for my dictionary and research material. I do, however, need to be completely alone. When my secretary arrives I dictate to her what I have written. She puts it on the computer and prints it out for editing and correcting.”

Even though you might prefer getting a late start and typing for hours on a computer in a coffee shop, James proves that success relies on treating writing as a structured job. Just make sure you have a method you can stick to.

© PD James & Random House.


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