Writers Helping Writers: P.D. James and Mary Higgins Clark Up Close and Personal

by Karen Harper, author of Shallow Grave

As a reader, I look up to certain authors. But as a veteran writer, I look up to particular trailblazing authors too. I was blessed to spend time with Mary Higgins Clark (who needs no introduction to readers of suspense) and had dinner with the famous and fabulous British crime writer P.D. James. Time with those two veteran authors has been one of the highlights of my thirty-five years (and counting!) as a published novelist.

In early February of 1996, I was invited to be on the faculty of a three-day writer’s conference sponsored by the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. I accepted happily (we were snowbirds in South Florida) but I was even happier when I saw that famed British author P.D. James was on tour in the US and was also speaking at the conference. I had begun to write contemporary suspense as well as historical novels, and I remember thinking, If I can just breathe this woman’s air, it will help me!

I attended two workshops she gave and was seated next to her at the faculty dinner. I’m used to being with authors and have met and learned from some of the best, but this was special to me.

Granted, I am a rabid Anglophile in general, but I greatly admired her work. This was five years after P.D. (Phyllis Dorothy) was dubbed by the queen as “Dame James,” Baroness James of Holland Park. How well I recall (and still have my notes from) her advice in her workshops and during our meal together.

One thing she shared was that she always began to build a book with a particular setting in mind, rather than a plot or character coming first. This surprised me, since her police procedurals present character and plot so well. Of course, her best known work—the Adam Dalgliesh crime novels—has continuing characters. So perhaps she had those “persons” well in hand, but they did evolve and change within the fourteen Dalgliesh novels that stretched from 1962 to 2008.

I always begin planning my stories with a place that intrigues me but I know I’m in the minority; most authors I’ve talked to take one of the other two routes to their stories. It gave me a big boost to know she conceived of a new story the same way I did. She told me, “If the place seems real to the reader, everything else should too.”

Another piece of advice I’ve hung my writing hat on for over twenty suspense novels is to keep the suspects (she called them possible villains) to about three, so each one can have the attention he/she needs in the story: character development, motives, unique personalities.

In short, I found the (then) seventy-six-year-old Dame James not only charming but generous with her advice. In addition to meeting and spending time with Mary Higgins Clark when I won her award in 2006, my time with P.D. James was one of the most moving and valuable events in my career.

Mary Higgins Clark also always gives her readers a great suspense novel; she specializes in “woman in jeopardy” stories. I believe one reason I won her award for my Amish-country-set book Dark Angel (and was also rewarded with some time and advice from her!) was that I strive for that story structure too. And in the South Shores series, family drama, danger and the love story of a woman with an unusual disease make a great mix for romantic suspense.

P.D. James died in 2014, but Mary Higgins Clark is still going strong with great books. I found both women generous and willing to uplift newer authors. I really appreciated the advice from them about writing great suspense and hope I can “pass it on” through my novels to my readers and other writers.

 

About Shallow Grave:

The truth won’t stay buried forever…

It’s been four months since forensic psychologist Claire Britten last crossed paths with danger. Finally feeling she can catch her breath, together with her partner, criminal lawyer Nick Markwood, Claire has settled into a new role, volunteering with a support group for children stressed by domestic violence. But a leisurely field trip to a wildlife sanctuary turns deadly, leaving Claire to question whether the death was an accident, suicide—or something far more sinister.

Nick gets the South Shores team on the case, hunting down anyone with a potential grudge against the sanctuary. But their investigation turns wild when other attacks come too close to home. With a hostile predator on the loose, Nick and Claire will have to race to unbury the truth before a killer wipes them from the endangered-species list for good.

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Comment ( 1 )
  1. Karen Harper
    March 26, 2018 at 4:26 pm
    Reply

    I’d be interested to know what famous people you have met and if you had a worthwhile takeaway from that meeting.

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