WFMAD Day 15 – The Genius of P D James

I would do anything for this woman.

Image credit David Sandison

This is P. D. James, one of the finest mystery writers, no, one of the finest writers alive. She just turned 91 and is still writing. (She didn’t publish her first novel until she was 42.) She is my hero.

From an article in The Guardian newspaper ten years ago: “Curiously, James identifies indolence as one of her chief short comings. She is very bad in the afternoons, she says and tasks that bore her, like letter-writing and paperwork, are only grudgingly and belatedly attended to. For the past 10 years she has been helped in these labours by her assistant, Joyce. But for 25 years she not only worked full-time, attended night school to qualify as a medical record-keeper and cared – albeit with the aid of her parents-in-law – for two daughters and an incapacitated husband, but also rose every morning at 6am and wrote for two hours before work, all of which she puts down to necessity. “My most valuable trait is tenacity,” she says, “but what got me where I am now is courage.””


Even better than her life story is her writing. I read her novels over and over again, enjoying her mastery of craft as well as her world-class storytelling gifts. She is particularly good at setting. Interestingly enough, that’s usually where her novels start.


“My own detective novels, with rare exceptions, have been inspired by the place rather than by a method of murder or a character,” she writes in her non-fiction gem, Talking About Detective Fiction.


Ready… Reserve one of P.D. James books at your library or buy one at an independent bookstore. One of her novels will teach more about writing than a million blog posts.


Set… “We can experience nothing but the present moment, live in no other second of time, and to understand this is as close as we can get to eternal life.” P. D. James


Today’s prompt: It’s rare to think about setting first. Too often, we go for what is safe and predictable. If we have a teen protagonist, then we set the story in a high school. If it’s a middle grade novel, there might be scenes at the mall, the skatepark, and a babysitter’s house.


Make a list of 10 different settings where you would NOT expect to find your main character. Be as detailed as possible; instead of saying bus station, say “the Greyhound station in Albany slumped in the shadows under the highway overpass; fifty shades of gray paint flaking slowly to the dirt.”


The goal is to stretch. Put your character on the moon if you want. Just describe it well. If the description does not come easy, think in terms of small detail. We’ll talk about this more tomorrow!


Scribble… Scribble… Scribble…

4 Replies to “WFMAD Day 15 – The Genius of P D James”

  1. Thanks for another great post. This one made me think about where my main character can squirm.

    PD James is one of my favorites–half the photos of me with my newborn (almost 22 years ago now) include a shot of one of her paperbacks. I also find I remember her settings better than I remember who committed the crime.

  2. Thanks for the inspiration today. I was just finally getting ready to write, and your post appeared! I’ve been following along in the challenge and have written an assortment of things – just trying to discover my inner writer.

    It was fun thinking of my character in unexpected places. I could see starting a story using some of these ideas. Many of mine seemed to have a little bit of action to them as well – hiding, clinging to a dime, stuck, etc.

  3. “…but what got me where I am now is courage.”
    I may have to abscond with this quote and post it on my blog. And then get seriously tenacious.

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