Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Elizabeth George: Murder mysteries are more than just crime novels

Before this month, I had never even heard of Elizabeth George. But then I read where she will be the featured guest of honor at next year's BoucherCon mystery writers' and fans' convention in Cleveland http://bouchercon2012.com/guests.php -- so I sorta felt obligated to read some of her stuff. And boy am I glad that I did. George is not only a master of the crime novel genre, but she's also clearly the master of almost any fiction genre you can name.

So when Books, Inc. in Alameda announced that George was giving a talk the other day, I just had to go. And after George had talked for about two minutes, it became instantly clear that she was saying important stuff and so I started taking notes as she expounded on what it means to be a writer -- and how to do it too. Here are my notes:

"When writing, the most important thing involved is not what the author thinks -- but what the characters are thinking. Some novels are plot-driven but most are character-driven, and so paying attention to your characters is paramount.

"I prefer to write crime novels because the crime itself serves as a vehicle to get through a book's need for a plot. I trick people into thinking that it's a crime novel -- but actually I'm writing social commentary and so can explore issues broader than just the crime." Aha.

"The reason that I write about the British is because of the challenge involved. When you use that old formula 'Write what you know,' you run the risk of writing the same book over and over, and I never want to write the same book twice." Plus we all know that learning new things is good for one's brain cells -- and mine could use all the help they can get.

"And writing about a place where you don't live is also easier because it's easier to see the nuances of a place that you're not familiar with. And since the setting should always be considered a main character too, you can also be more objective. Plus I'm lucky that my editor encourages me to make every book different instead of demanding the same cookie-cutter approach to all my characters and locations."

One of George's most well-known books is, "What Came Before He Shot Her," which tells us how Inspector Thomas Lynley's pregnant wife Helen came to be gunned down on her own front doorstep. "My challenge was to make Joel Campbell, the boy charged with the crime, to be as sympathetic as Helen Lynley."

Several of George's books have been used as the basis for a Masterpiece Theater series on the BBC. How does she feel about that? "I am a novelist. That is my art form. So I don't get caught up in the motion picture aspects. I'm not involved, so it's no big deal what the BBC does or doesn't do with my characters -- although I was disappointed that they turned my novels into straight mystery stores and left out so much of the social-commentary nuances." She also mentioned that she's not interested in doing another BBC series again.

And why did George choose to write books? "I wrote my first novels simply to entertain myself, but I had known that I was a writer since I was age seven. When I began to write this series, I didn't know much about my characters but, as I wrote, the information slowly appeared. For instance I originally didn't know that Inspector Lynley even had a brother -- let alone that he was an addict. Or that there was a gulf between him and his mother. And I found all that out only as I was writing the books. It's all about creating a character in fiction."

How did George master the Caribbean-flavored dialects she used in "What Came Before He Shot Her"? Lots of research. "I wanted to write about characters doing the best that they can under very difficult circumstances. That was my first goal. Then I went to the Black housing estates themselves in order to learn the dialect spoken there, that Joel Campbell would have used. Writing dialect is tricky. If you write everything in dialect, it is quite hard to read -- so you look for and use only key words that only illustrate that a dialect is being used. For instance, Joel uses the slang version of 'Isn't it' a lot here."

Readers were apparently incensed when George killed off Helen Lynley, comparing it to when Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes. "But I knew several books before she finally got shot that Helen Lynley would have to die because I couldn't deal with her pregnancy. A baby would have closed the story down. There ain't much more boring to write about than a baby. At first I thought that a serial killer would bump her off, but that's just too convenient. Plus in Britain today it's more common that someone just shoots you for no known reason at all. So that's what happened to Helen. And although the reader is finally able to see what caused the shooting, the police never do find out either who really did it or why."

Writing and babies? George may be on to something here. Just look what happened to poor Sylvia Plath. Have you ever tried to write something deep and earnest while a four-year-old is bugging you to watch "The Backyardagans"? No easy task. Moral here? That if Helen Lynley had lived, she would have had a really hard time becoming a novelist?

"How do you go about writing and what would your typical writing day be like?" someone then asked George (that would be me).

"I grew up Catholic and am thus incapable of enjoying life because I feel so guilty if I'm not doing something. So I get up at 4:30 am, go running, and then put in six hours of writing in my office. I try to write at least five pages a day, and am currently working on two novels at the same time -- one that takes place in DeLuca, Italy, and one that's a young-adult novel which takes place on Whidbey Island, where I live. And then I eat lunch and work in the garden or learn Italian in order to clear my head."

George also swears by Alfred Hitchcock's famous refrigerator test. "That's when people are still talking about his film even after they've gotten home -- and are looking in the refrigerator for a snack and still saying to themselves, 'Ah, come on. Nobody's going to do that...' Will a plot of mine pass the Refrigerator Test?"

What about setting a murder mystery in America, based conflicts here between the One Percent and the 99 percent -- similar to the class conflicts in Britain that Inspector Lyndley often deals with?

"No -- because the barriers between classes here are permeable, but in the UK it's virtually impossible to pass through class barriers. For instance, the UK tabloid press absolutely hates that Kate Middleton, whose grandfather was a coal miner, may become queen. It would be harder for me to make class differences in America as believable."

No problem there. All she would have to write about is how hard it is to penetrate American corporatist dynasties like the Rockefellers, Bushes, Morgans, Rothschilds, Gettys and Waltons (of Wal-Mart fame). I rest my case!

And what about research? "Never let it get in the way of your story. I always write about what I want to learn about -- not what I already know. I like to have a challenge when I write."

So how about this for the ultimate crime-novel-writing challenge: To write about who killed democracy in America and how the corporatist bad guys almost got away with the murder -- until Inspector Lynley solves the crime, gets the evil-doers convicted and then puts all these slimy corporatist bastards in jail where they belong.

And then George could definitely have fun combining this murder mystery plot with a LOT of social commentary.

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