Elizabeth George has it all. Flat in London, home in California, prose so Anglophilic that she's been produced by the Beeb, and that drop-dead-with-envy descriptor, "international best-selling author." Now she's baring her literary breast and telling us how to write.
Boiled down its essence, all advice about how to write is much of a muchness. You have to be willing to put in the time to do the crime novel, or any other. George is a fiend for advance planning. Even those who are already impressed with her thorough characterizations will be overwhelmed with the chapter's worth of detail she puts into just one character development exercise. No, she says, writing isn't fun. "Writing is a job like any other...I don't require my profession to be fun. I require it to be satisfying."
Surprisingly, George is not English - so how does she do it? She's the very successful creator of Lord Peter to-the-manor-born Lynley, his chain-smoking Cockney sidekick Barbara Havers, and the sexy and oh-so-upper-class Helen. Immersed comfortably in one of the Lynley series, you'd swear the author had been born in Scotland Yard, cut her teeth on murder most foul and lost her virginity on a misty Yorkshire moor. Not so. She was a schoolmarm from a rather bland California background who was considered to be nutty for wanting to write British mystery stories.
Though it's not exactly secondhand, George says that making another country come alive in imagination and thence to paper is all in "the travel and tramp of the actual journey, the photographs and the tape recorded commentary," turning a place into a setting. She shows the photos she worked from for one of her books, and delivers the passages inspired by them.
George writes plot outlines so well-crafted that one wonders when she has time to write. She knows her people by the time she writes about them, and couldn't write about them if she didn't. Nothing haphazard.
George quotes herself but not immodestly, and draws from a well of many waters to give examples of the best sorts of writing - Hemingway, Stephen King - how about them for bedfellows? She asserts that there's no story without a conflict, though it needn't be earthshaking conflict: "a conflict is merely a form of collision...conflict is what will bring your characters to life and make them real for the reader."
Other pointers from this excellent source: "Suggest dialect rather than go for full dialect. The reader will get it and you'll save yourself a lot of headaches." "The critical element to point of view is...voice."
And, "If there's one rule about writing, it's that there are no rules" - this from a California school teacher who did not write about "what she knew." Had she confined her vision to her home base, we would all be lacking - all of us who love a great read, with driving plot and lifelike characters whose foibles and Freudian needs are familiar, all done up in elegant, erudite language that makes every sentence a pleasure to read. Lucky for us Elizabeth George did not stay home, creatively, and doubly lucky for us that, with Write Away, she's given us a heaping helping of her writerly wisdom.