Image: Matthew Loffhagen
P.D. James was arguably one of the last great crime novelists working within the distinctly British ‘gentleman detective’ genre. Her famous detective, Adam Dalgliesh, turns up in fourteen celebrated novels including Cover Her Face, Shroud for a Nightingale, and Original Sin. On top of these, she’s known for The Children of Men, a dystopian novel closer to George Orwell, J.G. Ballard, and John Wyndham than to Ruth Rendell or Agatha Christie, proving that her talents were not limited to just the mystery genre. The Children of Men was adapted into a critically acclaimed film in 2006.
Before she passed away in 2014, James led a remarkably active life touring and lecturing in universities across the UK and US. A Conservative Party baroness, James rather unsurprisingly favored ‘nature’ over ‘nurture’ when it came to the question of whether someone could become a successful writer or not but, despite this, she managed to leave behind some fantastic tips that any writer would do well to learn from.
1. Stand outside of yourself
James, in her ‘Art of Fiction’ interview with The Paris Review, roots her ‘writers are born, not made’ attitude in an anecdote from her childhood:
I lived in the world of the imagination and I did something that other writers have told me they did as children – I described myself inwardly in the third person: She brushed her hair and washed her face, then she put on her nightdress… as if I were standing outside myself and observing myself.– P.D. James, The Paris Review
Here, she hints at an interesting idea: the notion that writers are (whether innately or otherwise) able to more easily escape the confines of their own skulls and see themselves as just more ‘characters.’
This kind of detachment can be a valuable thing; when we stop seeing ourselves as rational, authoritative observers of the world and instead recognize our own fallible humanity, we become more self-aware, and self-awareness is invaluable when it comes to understanding (and writing!) the complex motivations that drive human behavior. It goes without saying that, if you understand these things, you’ll have an easier time writing authentic characters and scenes of human drama.
2. Read widely but discriminately
An unrepentant snob in that old, wealthy, English way, James echoed the more commonly given advice of ‘read widely’ but added that any old trash wouldn’t do – to gain value from reading, you have to read discriminately.
I’m in full agreement with James here; while yes, technically, you’re reading while you guiltily browse dodgy fanfic forums or trawl through the Facebook posts of your old school chums, processing these words won’t do you any good. In fact, James suggests, reading bad writing could do you harm: ‘Read widely and with discrimination,’ she says, because ‘Bad writing is contagious.’
So, if you’re serious about writing as well as P.D. James, ditch the E.L. James and pick up some Henry James.
3. Occupy your characters
Considering James was so vocal about the benefits of escaping your own skull, it’s no surprise that she also considered occupying the skulls of others a good thing. Empathizing with others was a big part of James’s creative process; when asked about the bond between author and character, she responded:
When I was writing that passage I was Brenda, feeling first of all the relief that she was going to be on the bus and then the realization that there was this murderer, and then an increasing fear and unease. I was Brenda knowing everything that had happened at the dance, although I wasn’t going to write about it. I was Brenda knowing exactly who she would meet at home when she got there and what her relationship with her parents was, although none of that was going to be in the book; I was just Brenda.– P.D. James, ‘On writing: authors reveal the secrets of their craft’ in The Guardian
It goes without saying that this kind of occupation, this close empathizing, makes for authentic and carefully considered characters; by imagining yourself in your character’s shoes, down to every mundane detail of their life – ‘who she would meet at home when she got there,’ whether they were hungry or not, whether they were tired after a challenging day at work or energized by a vocational success – you ensure that, conceptually at least, your characters are rich, believable people rather than just flat archetypes or literary devices. Of course, whether you can translate your rich character concepts into compelling text is another question altogether!
One of my favorite pieces of writing advice comes from American author Cheryl Strayed. She said to one struggling young writer:
We get work done on the ground level. And the kindest thing I can do for you is to tell you to get your ass on the floor. I know it’s hard to write, darling. But it’s harder not to. The only way you’ll find out if you ‘have it in you’ is to get to work and see if you do.– Cheryl Strayed
Strayed’s no-nonsense, stop-whining approach is one James would have doubtlessly approved of; like Strayed, James had little patience for writers who endlessly ummed and aahed about getting words down (though admittedly, she expressed her distaste in a rather more reserved manner):
Don’t just plan to write – write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.– P.D. James
It’s important to note here that James is quick to elevate the importance of personal style. You shouldn’t imitate anyone else, she says, and you shouldn’t write for market – instead, ‘Write what you need to write’ – and do it idiosyncratically. It’s worth stressing that voice isn’t something that you should expect to come easily; it can take lots of reading, lots of writing, an expert knowledge of the language, and a whole load of time.
James also suggests making it easy for yourself to write. ‘Never go anywhere without a notebook,’ she says, ‘because you can see a face that will be exactly the right face for one of your characters, you can see place and think of the perfect words to describe it.’ By removing as many obstacles as you can between you and the physical act of writing, you’ll always be in the right place at the right time!
5. Be on the alert
Even the most technically skilled writer would never finish anything if they didn’t know how to recognize inspiration, which is why writers including James, Martin Amis, and Paul Auster all stress the importance of knowing how to recognize good ideas, whatever form they take, and run with them.
Amis called such moments ‘throbs’ and stressed that they could be anything. For James, however, throbs are almost always compelling settings:
Something always sparks off a novel, of course. With me, it’s always the setting. I think I have a strong response to what I think of as the ‘spirit of a place.’ I remember I was looking for an idea in East Anglia and standing on a very lonely stretch of beach. I shut my eyes and listened to the sound of the waves breaking over the pebble shore. Then I opened them and turned from looking at the dangerous and cold North Sea to look up and there, overshadowing this lonely stretch of beach was the great, empty, huge white outline of Sizewell nuclear power station. In that moment I knew I had a novel.– P.D. James
You can tell how powerful an effect the place had on James through her description here – you can see the lonely, grey beach; feel the bitter wind; and see the romantic, lonely, anachronistic shape of the power station above the sea. A story is practically begging to be told here, and James wasn’t deaf to its call. She’d learned to recognize potential stories.
Now, maybe settings don’t do much for you – maybe, like Virginia Woolf, you find yourself hanging on the words of strangers on the train, or maybe you latch on to strange myths, anecdotes, or factoids. The important thing is to recognize what excites you; what gets your brain going and your imagination flowing.
A certain justice
P.D. James left a gaping hole in the UK crime fiction scene when she died in 2014, but thankfully her legacy is both vast and rich. While her explicit advice will always pale in comparison to the lessons to be learned from reading her fiction, her eloquent, deliberate, and carefully considered nuggets of wisdom should inform and encourage any writer.
So, next time you’re agonizing over a story, go for a walk and be sensitive to the stories in the world around you. Watch people; watch the hills, the beaches, the movement of cars down a busy road. Try to forget yourself and walk instead in someone else’s shoes and, when you’re full of ideas and feel like you know your characters better than you know yourself, write, damn it, write!
What are your favorite books by P.D. James? What lessons have you gleaned from her writing? Let me know in the comments, and check out 6 Ways Paul Auster Can Help You Improve Your Writing and 5 Things Jennifer Egan Can Teach You About Writing for more advice from literary greats.