If Elizabeth George were a character in one of her psychological mystery novels, figuring out her “core need” would be a snap. The core need is part of how George defines her characters, a step in a rigorous process that the self-confessed “left-brained” writer uses to unleash her creative right brain.
“My core need is that I’m dominated by the need to be really competent at what I do,” says George, whose resume includes a master’s degree in counseling/psychology as well as 11 published novels.
So, in her nightmares, she’s back teaching English at El Toro High School in Orange County, Calif., running late or not prepared for class.
Not likely. George’s success has taken her far from the blackboard. Her books sell a million copies and get translated into 20 languages. Her latest novel, A Traitor to Memory (Bantam), spent last summer on the New York Times best-seller list. Late this year, Bantam will publish her first collection of short stories, I, Richard. She’s been nominated for an Edgar award and has won the Agatha, the Anthony and France’s Le Grand Prix de Literature Policiere. And when Mystery airs an adaptation of her first novel, A Great Deliverance, later this winter, she’ll become the first American writer ever featured on the popular PBS-TV series.
“I knew from the age of seven that I was meant to be a writer,” she says. Born in Warren, Ohio, and raised in the San Francisco Bay area, George used to scan the San Francisco Examiner for true-crime fodder. She wrote her first novel—″Nancy Drewlike,” she describes it—at the age of 12, and collected rejection slips on five books before getting published in 1988.
Two of those rejected books starred the cerebral forensic scientist Simon Allcourt-St. James, a supporting player in her subsequent novels. It was only when George decided to see if the New Scotland Yard detectives who helped St. James—the aristocratic Thomas Lynley and his frumpy partner, Barbara Havers—could solve a case on their own that she broke through with A Great Deliverance.
“I wish that I had known back then that a mastery of process would lead to a product,” she reflects. “Then I probably wouldn’t have found it so frightening to write.”
George’s process for novel writing today is complex but ultimately as clear as her plots. “I have to know the killer, the victim and the motive when I begin. Then I start to create the characters and see how the novel takes shape based on what these people are like.”
Besides a core need and the rest of a psychological profile, each character gets a physical description, a family history and what George calls a “pathology,” which she defines as “a particular psychological maneuver that he engages in when he’s under stress.” Much of this material, written in stream-of-consciousness form, never makes it into the actual novel, but it helps George
discover the truth about her characters. When she gets it, George says, she feels something right in her solar plexus.
“Creating the characters is the most creative part of the novel except for the language itself. There I am, sitting in front of my computer in right-brain mode, typing the things that come to mind—which become the seeds of plot. It’s scary, though,” she adds, “because I always wonder: Is it going to be there this time?”
George’s plotting process is equally detailed. “I outline the plot beginning with the primary event that gets the ball rolling. Then I’ll list the potentials that are causally related to what’s gone before.
“I continue to open the story and not close the story, putting in dramatic questions. Any time the story stalls out on me, I know I’ve done something wrong—generally, I played my hand too soon, answered a dramatic question in a scene without asking a new one.”
Her running plot outline might cover up to the next 15 scenes. “The plot outline doesn’t forbid the inspiration of the moment, but it does prevent a wild hare, something out of character that drags the story off in a wrong area.”
For each scene, the outline notes what George calls her “THAD,” short for “Talking Head Avoidance Device.” The THAD that animates each scene, George says, springs from her prep work getting to know her characters.
The outline also notes the point of view for each scene. Unlike many mystery writers, George shifts her point of view among multiple characters—rather than, say, sticking with the detective’s viewpoint. “In any given scene, I ask, ‘Whose story is being advanced here?'” she explains. “I can usually tell the point of view by which character’s part in the narrative I’ve gotten to.”
Sometimes that’s the killer. “I wanted the challenge of writing from the killer’s viewpoint after the killing’s taken place. The killer is thinking about the killing, but the reader never knows that’s what the person is really thinking about.
“I wanted to write books that bore a second reading,” George goes on. “Books that play fair with the reader but sometimes would be the kind of book where the reader wouldn’t realize I’d been fair to them until a second reading. The reader is always in possession of vastly more knowledge than the investigators are.”
As George has set herself more daunting writing challenges, her novels have grown longer and more time-consuming to write. She wrote A Great Deliverance in three and a half weeks; her latest took 18 months. “The books are vastly more complicated now. I’m more interested in subplot, how subplots could unify the novel and reinforce the theme.”
Research takes time, too, especially since all her novels are set in England, half a world away from her home in Huntington Beach, Calif. The most common question she gets is: Why write about England when you’re an American? George can’t understand why people find that so surprising. Her stock response: “It worked for Henry James.”
But it does mean spending weeks at a time in England, which George first visited and fell in love with on a summer Shakespeare course in 1966. She keeps a flat in South Kensington, London, home base for research excursions armed with camera and tape recorder. For Well-Schooled in Murder, for example, she visited a half-dozen schools and created architectural plans and a brochure for her fictional British school setting.
“I want to ground myself in specifics, not generics. I want to force myself to deal in details. I can’t make these up, that’s not my talent.”
Writers who want to follow in George’s footsteps often complain that they don’t have the time to write. George has little patience with that excuse: “Evaluate how you’re using your free time every day for a week—talking on the phone, reading the newspaper, watching TV, listening to the radio. All these things are bleeding away from your writing time, thinking time, preparation time. You have to structure your life to allow yourself to write.
“Writing is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent endeavor,” she adds. “It’s a job and has to be approached as a job. Writers write—they don’t wait for it to be fun.”
Clearly writing is more than just a job to George. Yes, she allows, it helps fulfill that core need at the foundation of her character.
“Only when I write,” she says, “do I feel whole and at peace.”
This article appeared in the February 2002 issue of Writer’s Digest.