Tag Archives: Writing

How the late P D James found the ideas for her novels

PD James

The author PD James

The death of crime writer P D James on 27 November, 2014 was a sad day for all of us who love the traditional, English detective story.
Baroness James, who began writing in the 1950s, was a link with the Golden Age of crime writing and has gone on record as saying one of her own favourite writers was Dorothy L Sayers.
And after the death of the acknowledged Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie, in 1976, P D James was sometimes referred to by the media as ‘the New Queen of Crime’.
She will be remembered particularly for her 14 Adam Dalgliesh novels, many of which have been filmed for television.
Living until the age of 94 enabled Baroness James to enjoy her success and to go on set to watch the films of her books being made. She met the actor Roy Marsden, who was the first to play the part of Dalgliesh, on many occasions.
As a young journalist I was lucky enough to meet P D James at Minsmere in East Anglia during the filming of Unnatural Causes in 1992.
She was kind enough to give me some time and I was able to ask her about her writing methods, the answers to my questions giving me the basis for a newspaper feature.
I interviewed P D James in the caravan she had been allotted while on location alongside two male journalists who both seemed far more confident than me.
But the kindly mother and grandmother, who was 72 at the time, soon put me at ease. And when it became obvious that neither of my fellow hacks had actually read any of her books and were interested mainly in the filming, I plucked up the courage to ask her about her relationship with her main character, a widower who is a poet as a well as a policeman.
She admitted that there was a lot of herself in the character of Dalgliesh as they shared a love of poetry, architecture, bird watching and the terrain of East Anglia.
She said: “I think if you are going to have a character who goes on for a series of books you do tend to give them the same interests as you have.”
Another characteristic she said they shared was taking pleasure in being alone. “I do need to be on my own when I’m writing. I need the house to be empty. It’s very strange.”

Beach at Dunwich

The bleak beach at Dunwich that was the inspiration for the novel Unnatural Causes.

Although by then she had become a Baroness and was sitting in the House of Lords she said she made sure that when she was working on a book she did not let anything stop her writing every day.
“I very much enjoy writing detective fiction. I love the construction, the clue making, the characterisation. I love everything about it.”
I asked if she had decided to keep Dalgliesh single because it made him a more interesting character. He had met and fallen for a young woman in her first novel Cover her Face (1962) but the relationship hit a stumbling block when he had to arrest her mother for murder.
Baroness James seemed amused but did not really answer the question. She referred to Dorothy L Sayers, who was often thought to be in love with her fictional creation Lord Peter Wimsey, but eventually married him off to a woman mystery writer, Harriet Vane.
“When she married him off it was as though she had done with him and she wrote very little about him afterwards,” P D James said.
She then revealed that she was intending to write a new Dalgliesh novel and in doing so, she gave me some valuable advice.
“I think I have the germ of an idea for another Dalgliesh book at the back of my mind now, inspired by a place. My books nearly always are inspired by a place or a setting.”
She said the opening scene of Unnatural Causes had been originally inspired by a particular part of East Anglia . “I was standing on the beach at Dunwich and I had this strong idea of a boat drifting ashore containing a corpse with the hands cut off at the wrist.”
She went on to write another six Adam Dalgliesh novels after my meeting with her, the last one being The Private Patient, published in 2008.
More than 20 years after our conversation, I finally started crime writing myself and took her advice by allowing a mysterious and magical setting, the walled city of Bergamo in northern Italy , to be the inspiration for my first novel Death in the High City.

Today’s writers can still learn from Anne Brontë

It was by chance that I came to visit Anne Brontë’s grave in Scarborough this summer but I am so glad that I did.
I was in the seaside resort with my sportswriter husband and sightseeing during the day while he was covering a cricket match.
We were staying on the North Cliff near the Castle close to the churchyard of St Mary’s where AnneBrontë is buried.

Anne Brontë's grave can be found in the clifftop churchyard of St Mary's.

Anne Brontë’s grave can be found in the clifftop churchyard of St Mary’s.

There were signs directing visitors to the churchyard and it seemed almost discourteous not to go and pay my respects. I love visiting the homes of famous writers and had visited the Brontë Parsonage Museum at Haworth some time ago.
The grave was easy to find close to the entrance and was marked by an additional stone, recently added by the Brontë Society, correcting the author’s age at the time of her death.
Anne Brontë was 29 years of age when she passed away in Scarborough, not 28 as the original headstone had maintained for more than 160 years. As someone who is inclined to put things off in life, I found it sobering to reflect on how much Anne had managed to achieve in such a short time in the world.
Ironically, considering she was a writer, Anne’s original headstone bore several errors. When Charlotte Brontë visited it three years after her sister’s death she had it refaced but Anne’s age was still not corrected. The error remained to mislead everyone until 2011.
Anne was the youngest child in her family and was born to a clergyman and his wife on 17 January 1820 . They moved to Haworth soon after her birth but her mother died before her second birthday.
Her eldest sisters, Maria and Elizabeth died at the ages of 11 and 10 after becoming ill at boarding school.
Charlotte and Emily were removed from the school and along with their brother, Branwell, the three girls were educated at home by their father and aunt.
There was little money and the sisters had to do their share of the domestic chores but they had access to their father’s books and periodicals, which they read avidly.
There were few toys or treats, but a gift from their father toBranwell of a set of miniature soldiers led to the children creating a rich, imaginary world. Anne would have been six years old when she helped her brother and sisters write plays and stories about the lives of the soldiers. These were recorded in tiny, hand-written books that they produced for the soldiers to ‘read’.

The original headstone marking Anne Brontë's grave.

The original headstone marking Anne Brontë’s grave.

When Charlotte went away to school again, Emily and Anne created another fantasy world of their own and continued to invent characters and stories for it until well into adulthood.
Nowadays we live far more comfortably and have many possessions and sources of entertainment, but these can also serve as distractions and stop us achieving things. Having so little in life made the Brontë children become inventive and they also drew inspiration from the moorland scenery and the buildings near where they lived.
Charlotte eventually found work as a teacher and took first Emily and then Anne to the school with her as pupils to improve their education because, apart from marriage, the only career option available to the sisters was working as governesses.
They all eventually found situations but Anne found the children particularly hard to control in her first post. She was eventually dismissed, which was traumatic for her, but she learned from her bad experiences and was able to reproduce them in her first novel, Agnes Grey.
Her second post as a governess proved more successful and the family took her on their annual holiday to Scarborough each year. She fell in love with the seaside resort, which inspired many of the locations in her novels.
When the Brontë sisters’ aunt died, they used some of the money they inherited from her to have their poems published under the pseudonyms, Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell.
Only two copies of the volume of poetry were ever sold, although Anne later succeeded in having some of her poems published in magazines.
But the sisters were not deterred and turned to novel writing instead. Amazingly, Charlotte ’s first novel, The Professor, was rejected by every publisher she sent it to. She never let this put her off and started on her second novel, Jane Eyre, immediately. This was eventually accepted for publication and became an instant success.
Emily’s novel, Wuthering Heights, and Anne’s first book, Agnes Grey, were both accepted straight away. Charlotte criticised the terms they were offered as they each had to contribute £50, which was to be refunded when a sufficient number of copies had been sold. History has proved the investment to be worthwhile so take heart, all modern-day self publishers!
Although ‘lady readers’ were warned against Wuthering Heights and Anne’s second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, because of their depictions of wild characters and violent scenes, the books continued to sell well.
Anne is now believed to be the first ‘feminist’ author, but she never received the recognition she deserved during her lifetime.
Branwell died suddenly in 1848 at the age of 31 and then both Emily and Anne were found to be suffering from tuberculosis. Emily died three months after Branwell at the age of 30.
Aware she was dying, Anne decided to visit Scarborough one last time, hoping the sea air would help her. In May 1849, accompanied by Charlotte and a friend, she travelled to Scarborough where she died four days later.Charlotte decided to ‘lay the flower where it had fallen’ and buried Anne in a churchyard close to the sea.

The 'corrected' headstone placed by the Brontë Society.

The ‘corrected’ headstone placed by the Brontë Society.

Many people writing today may not be as talented or inventive as Anne Brontë, but if they are lucky enough to live long enough and prepared to work hard enough they at least have the chance to improve. Ironically, we have easier lives than people in the 19th century, but perhaps this has made it harder for us to be disciplined or have the will to persevere.
The odds were stacked against Anne Brontë as a writer from the moment she was born. As a woman she was considered to be a second class citizen and her writing was not taken seriously until she submitted it under a pseudonym. As the youngest in the family she was patronised by the other children and expected to be submissive.
But she was quietly determined and immensely self-disciplined and in her 29 years she managed to write two good novels and some powerful poetry.
In today’s climate of redundancy, women who have been pushed aside in the workplace and made to lose confidence should take heart from her and be inspired by her because if they are lucky to live long enough and prepared to work hard they may yet still achieve their ambitions.
It is claimed that Charlotte Brontë would not allow the reprinting of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall after her sister’s death and, lying in her cold grave in Scarborough , there was nothing Anne could do about it.
But like the error on her headstone, this was put right in time and Anne is now seen as not just a minor Brontë, but a major literary figure in her own right.