A Tribute to PD James

P D James very generously opened the second season of the Hampshire Writers’ Society on Tuesday, 11th September 2012. Although 92 years old, she held the room spellbound for over an hour as she described the craft of crime fiction. It was a truly magical evening, and one which I am sure our members will never forget. It is with great sadness that we have learned of the death on 27thNovember 2014, of this witty, talented, generous and gracious lady.

P D James inspired members by saying that there is never a convenient time to write that first novel and what drove her personally was the thought of telling her grandchildren she would have like to have been a writer but had failed. She wrote Cover Her Face while caring for a sick husband and bringing up two small children.

PD James 2Born in Oxford in 1920 and educated at Cambridge High School for Girls, she worked from 1949 to 1968 in the National Health Service. Subsequently, she worked in the Home Office, first in the Police Department and later in the Criminal Policy Department, where she developed a wealth of experience which she used to craft her novels. She was a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Royal Society of Arts and served as a governor of the BBC, a member of the Arts Council, where she was Chairman of the Literary Advisory Panel, on the Board of the British Council, and as a magistrate in Middlesex and London. She was an Honorary Bencher of the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple.

A writer of more than 20 novels, she has won awards for crime writing in Britain, America, Italy and Scandinavia, including the Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster Award and the National Arts Club Medal of Honor for Literature (US). She has received honorary degrees from seven British universities, was awarded an OBE in 1983, and was created a life peer in 1991. In 1997 she was elected President of the Society of Authors.

Awards: International Crime Writing Hall of Fame 2008; Grand Master Award from Mystery Writers of America, 1999; Diamond Dagger from British Crime Writers’ Association, 1987.

P D James remarked, “I hope I would know myself whether a book was worth publishing. I think while I am alive, I shall write. There will be a time to stop writing but that will probably be when I come to a stop, too.”

P.D. James Talks to Hampshire Writers by Adrienne Dines

There are two elements to a successful Detective Story:

  • Mystery with plenty of clues to be solved;
  •  It has to stand alone as a good novel.

The golden age for Detective Novels was between the great wars; we are now in another golden age. That said, there is never a convenient time to write any novel. You have to decide ot get on with it – then get on with it!

All fiction is autobiography (and a lot of autobiography is fiction!). While we stay within the constraints of a detective novel, we tell truths about men and woman. Our ambition must be to be a good writer and for this we are lucky to have such a colourful and expressive language. English is the most beautiful language in the world and it is a privilege for us to be able to work in this language.



Who am I writing about – a professional or an amateur?  There are dis/advantages to amateurs:

  1. they can have your own interests and hobbies;
  1. they can’t keep falling over bodies (except in Midsomer);
  1. the police won’t really welcome the interference;
  1. they can’t be more clever than the police;
  1. they have to know which policeman to call!


There are dis/advantages to professionals:

  1. they’ve got all the resources;
  1. you need to be accurate – talk to pc’s;
  1. being accurate can slow down the action.


Characters like retired couples are great – they have time, and possibly money, to snoop around and the dynamics of their relationship adds interest.

Currently, there are no famous detective teenagers – opening for a writer there.



Once you have the detective, you need to get the idea, the new method of murder! You need to research forensic pathologists, new ways to poison, new instruments to hammer blows on the victim.  You need to think of a suitable setting – an old house; a stretch of beach; a community of people; a nuclear power plant; a nursing home.



The setting must come alive but it must not hold up the story so you must practise your descriptive writing. Get into the habit of writing down the description when you see something useful and choose carefully. Setting, character, plot and theme have to hold together so be careful when the setting is very distinct. Currently – nobody had written a crime novel set on an oil rig because it is too hard to get access/first-hand accounts (*except that I can!!).



Character have to come alive.  Some writers, like Agatha Christie had stereotypical characters – the canny spinster, the vicar, the wealthy cad, the suspect man from abroad, the apparently (but not really) innocent secretary, the ne’re-do-well brother.

All your characters come from real life but are subtly changed by imagination. We must look to ourselves for our characters, use our own emotions and reactions.  For a writer, no experience or emotion is ever lost but you must find the right words to convey that emotion so that it is real for the reader.



The construction of a novel is important – the excitement must be distributed evenly. The beginning isn’t always written first.  Ngaio Marsh had great beginnings then wheeled the characters in for interview. Different characters had different reactions and she chose the best.  The characters set the tone of the novel, a sinister portent that the calm will soon be shattered.  In the end, the truth must come out.  One way to approach it is to write everything that happens in order then divide it up so that there’s excitement in every chapter.



It is good for the story to be about something, not just death and discovery.



Respect the language, respect the words you use and use simple words in new ways. Be sensitive to devices and desires. Make sure your opening sentence is a good one – “Brenda was the fifth victim of the murderer because she missed the bus…” suggests a whole back story that has to be fed in so it works well as an opener.


The Writer

The writer is in a strange position. S/He has to be both the character and the creative artist. You are in the scene, so work out what will frighten the character and transfer/recreate that fear for the reader.  Graham Greene said that you must have “…a splinter of ice in your heart.”  You are both within and out with the action so you must “…feel the emotion but be the writer.”

P.D.James is particularly proud of a line in Death comes to Pemberley which she wrote in the style of Jane Austen – “Elizabeth knew that she was not formed for the sad contrivances of poverty.” When asked who her favourite writers were, Austen was top of the list, with Evelyn Waugh and Hilary Mantel.  When asked why ‘P.D’ she said it was simply for speed if there was a long signing!



  1. Make a list of your own hobbies and interests.
  1. From that list, draw out skills that are required to pursue the interest.
  1. How might those skills be useful for a) a criminal; b) a detective?
  1. Make a list of character traits.
  1. Make a list of everyday situations – a traffic jam; a school run; preparing a meal…
  1. How do those traits dictate how a person might react in the various situations? For example, an impatient person will not suit a traffic jam but a dreamer might welcome to opportunity to tune in to Classic fm.
  1. What makes a person appear innocuous – consider looks, mannerisms, occupations (this should be a comprehensive list!).
  1. For each of your characters, choose a name. How does the name affect how we respond instantly to the character (think of Uriah Heep).
  1. Make a list of distinctive settings.
  1. Again, draw out from those settings the elements that make that it a suitable venue for a crime to take place.
  1. Make a list of crimes and briefly outline their method of execution.
  1. Marry the crime with a setting and a character and think about what theme your story might have.
  1. What’s your opening line?

September Competition Winners 2012

compBecky Bagnell of the Lindsay Literary Agency adjudicated the monthly competition which was to create an amateur detective in 250 words.


Competition Winners

1st place: David Eadsforth with Street Level

2nd place: Maddy Woosnam with All That Jazz

3rd place: Honey Stavonhagen with Hope Green -The Blind Detective

All winners received a signed copy of a PD James novel.
Celia Livesey won the prize draw for those members who renewed their HWS before the July 31st deadline.

Opening Evening of the New HWS Season – PD James

 PD James 2Barbara Large, HWS Chairman, opened the first evening of the new season by introducing Simon Eden, Chief Executive of Winchester City Council who described himself as a cross between Sir Humphrey in Yes, Prime Minister and a translator for politician and local people.  He then introduced PD James – Baroness James of Holland Park – who held the room for over an hour, without the use of any notes, on the craft of mystery writing.

PD James told us that there is never a convenient time to write that first novel and what drove her personally was the thought of telling her grandchildren she would have liked to have been a writer but had failed.  She wrote Cover Her Facewhilst caring for a sick husband and bringing up two small children. She set her standards high and, enjoying the richness of the English language, continues to use all twelve volumes of her dictionary when she writes today.audience

The audience’s appreciation of Lady James’s talk was heartfelt and deafening. There could have been no better start to the HWS’s second year.  Barbara Large gave Lady James a copy of Winchester, by Chris Caldicott, a photographic celebration of the city as a special thank you gift.