As much as I love a good novel, sometimes I marvel that they ever get written. If you are serious about it, writing a novel is a mammoth task, most of it completed in isolation. Then, if you’re lucky and determined, you publish it … and readers may or may not notice, and two or three years of hard work might sink into a swamp of indifference.
Elizabeth George doesn’t have to worry about that last part. The Seattle resident has published 20 internationally acclaimed bestselling Inspector Lynley mysteries, a compulsively involving series of English crime novels. She’s working on No. 21. Featuring the irresistible partnership of Thomas Lynley, an aristocratic English police detective, and his pit bull working-class partner Barbara Havers, the books are the basis of a BBC television series broadcast from 2001 to 2008.
George, a former high school English teacher, has a drive to educate, and she decided to tell her readers how she does it in her new book “Mastering the Process: From Idea to Novel.” It’s a soup-to-nuts road map for how she puts her novels together, from the initial research into landscape and setting to the final draft, using extensive examples from her 2008 Cornwall, England-set novel “Careless in Red.” A self-described perfectionist, George says her meticulous organization actually frees her to be creative — without it, she writes, her life’s work would be “agonizingly slow and fraught with fear.”
Maybe staying at home has helped you start your novel. Here are some tips from George on how to get to the finish line:
A: Some of them are plunging right ahead, because as writers we really are used to being isolated. Some are keyed in to what is going on and find it very difficult to break away from all the information out there about the virus. You really have to school yourself to maintain a routine.
For me it’s not a problem, because I’ve always been a schedule-oriented person. The main thing is overcoming a general sense of dread about the coronavirus and the country in general.
Q: What is the most prevalent misconception that first-time novelists have about what it’s like to write a novel?
A: People tend to think it’s about sitting down before the computer or legal pad and getting in touch with the cosmos. My feeling since I began teaching writing is that everyone has 100 pages in them. It’s getting beyond the 100 pages that’s the tricky part. There are all kinds of problems that neophyte writers can run into that they can address if they have the proper tools.
Q: You write that dialogue can reveal any number of things, and one of those is social class. Your novels are set in England, but you’re an American. How did you go about mastering the different shadings of class in the way the English speak?
A: I’m not so sure mastering is the right word. It’s tough being an American and writing about a part of the world where virtually everything in speech is determined, not only from the class you were born in, but by your regional accent as well. I try to give the flavor of an accent rather than going all out. I choose the (particular) words a character would use. If this character is from a housing estate (English public housing), they might use “summint,” for example. Anything written in pure dialect would be unintelligible and irritating.
Q: You create extensive psychological portraits of your characters before you even write the first draft, and you mention two key ingredients. One is the character’s “core need,” the other is their “pathological maneuver.” Explain.
A: Everyone who walks the earth has a core need, but they only emerge as you rise higher on psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Lower down, you’re just focused on staying alive. But as you climb up toward what Maslow calls self-actualization … the core need arises out of a character’s birth circumstances and their young lives, and to some degree you are born with a personality that has a need attached to it. In my case, my core need as a personality is to be seen as competent. That has driven a lot of my behavior. When I was a teacher, I would never wing it. People are defined by those needs. The pathological maneuver rises out of the core need, from the core need not being met.
Q: My favorite character in your books is Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers. What is her core need?
A: Barbara Havers wants to prove herself equal to everyone else. Whereas Lynley wants to absolve himself — he’s far more compassionate because he has a totally different need. Havers would drag her mother into jail if that’s what it took.
Q: After you’ve completed your final draft, you send it to what you call a “cold reader,” someone who can read it with fresh eyes and give you unfiltered feedback. What does this person do? Have you always had the same cold reader?
A: It’s always been the same person. She is a former colleague of mine; I taught high school with her. She is a great reader of novels — she must belong to at least three different book groups. She does not want to be a writer or become a writer. I’m not writing my novels for writers, I’m writing for readers. I give her some questions in advance and some in a sealed envelope for (opening) after she finishes the book. I’ve known her for over 30 years. She’s very good … she knows what I’m looking for and what my chief concerns are.