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Extract from MASTERING THE PROCESS by Elizabeth George

‘After a number of years teaching writing courses and appearing at writers’ conferences, I began to see that creating a process book utilising one of my novels as an example of each step of my process might prove useful to people who are interested in novel writing or in how this individual writer approaches the complicated task of putting together a British crime novel.’

As the author of twenty-four novels, Elizabeth George is one of the most successful – and prolific – novelists today. In Mastering the Process, George offers a master class in the art and science of crafting a novel, sharing her wealth of experience with would-be novelists, and with crime fiction fans.


In this exclusive extract from the book’s first chapter, Elizabeth George introduces her process, and the importance of research


Research: Eliminating the Fear of the Blank Page


There’s some sense in arguing that writing can’t be taught, especially if one sees writing as purely art with no craft behind it to serve as a foundation. For art is the result of the impulse to create, and an impulse can neither be taught nor learned. An impulse just is. The result of that impulse is always in the eyes of the beholders who judge it and find it . . . well, any number of things: magnificent, inventive, idiotic, exceptional, mundane, vulgar, awe- inspiring, moving, nauseating. Name the reaction and someone will have had it. Tracey Emin’s bed on display at the Tate Modern in London is, I believe, a good example of the impulse to create. To some people it’s art; to others it’s an immense joke that Emin is playing upon the public.


The truth is that there is very little that we can call ‘pure’ art, something arising from an impulse to create but having nothing besides impulse serving as its foundation. Most art is based on a fundamental knowledge of craft, and craft is what an artist puts to work in order to create a piece of art. It is this – craft – that can be both taught and learned.


For example, should one wish to become a sculptor, there is something to be learned about working with stone before one bangs out the Pietà. It helps to understand how the old masters painted before slapping The Night Watch onto canvas. Someone working in bronze learns about moulding clay or the lost wax method first and then goes on to The Burghers of Calais. One might want to learn exactly how to blow glass before expecting to be the next Dale Chihuly. All of this is craft, and craft is what we use as a foundation for art. In writing, an understanding of craft is what we use to develop process. In writing, process is what we follow to write a novel.


Essentially, by developing and utilising a process, we eradicate our fears of the blank page and eliminate the chaos of the thoughts that are produced by our mental committees. We trick our minds into believing that there is actually a recipe for novel writing.


For me, this trickery begins with research, and the research comprises not only the background information I need in order to write with some degree of authority about various subjects that may or may not come up in my novel but also an experience and an understanding of the place in which the novel is going to be set so that locations can be rendered with accuracy. These days, some of this can be done via the Internet, especially when it comes to preliminary information that might well fuel the story. But for me, most of it needs to be done in person, in the actual setting, especially when the setting can inspire plot elements that I wouldn’t have considered had I not been there to prowl around.


By travelling to a location, I’m able to examine the broad landscape in which the novel is going to occur. This landscape is filled with countless details – equating to countless possibilities – that I can’t see using Google Earth. My job while in the location is twofold: I’m choosing from among myriad details those that will illuminate the story; I’m also looking for a score of places that can be used as individual settings for scenes in the novel. While doing this, I try to take into the examination of place absolutely no preconceived notion about how anything I see might be used. I simply look for places that shout ‘story’ to me. Upon seeing them, I make no determination about where in my novel each place will fit or even if a place will fit at all. I just see the place as a story possibility and add it to my storehouse of collected knowledge about a location.