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Writers Group Shows What an Asset It Is

A protégé of novelist O.C. resident Elizabeth George breaks into the ranks of the published

By Valerie Takahama
The Orange County Register

By tradition, private detectives in mystery novels are loners, solitary sleuths who never call for back-up. Writers, too, are supposed to be solo operators who hole up with their manuscripts and shun society until book tour time.

Somehow, novelist Elizabeth George missed that memo.

An acknowledged master of British crime fiction, she reached out to writers in a weekly writing group that met in her Huntington Beach home for more than a decade until her move to Seattle in the fall.

Now, Patricia Smiley, a long-time writing student, has published a mystery of her own, Cover Your Assets. And Elizabeth George is the first person she thanks in its acknowledgements.

"She's been the mentor that I think not very many writers are lucky to have," Smiley said.

The two writers' work is quite different. George is known for absorbing well-crafted crime novels featuring an Oxford-educated Scotland Yard inspector; Smiley's sunnier, L.A.-based fiction centers on Tucker Sinclair, a business consultant and amateur detective.

In Cover Your Assets, Tucker hunts for the killer of her college boyfriend, a high-powered Hollywood agent with a drug habit and a secret apartment in Venice. It's the follow-up to False Profits, the 2004 novel that introduced Tucker, her friend and former co-worker Venus Corday, her actress mother, and her mother's pooch, a high-maintenance white terrier named Muldoon. Both books took shape in the writing group.

"Of all of my students, Patty has always been the quickest study," George said. "Her writing got consistently better. Week after week, she got better and better."

Hard Work and Luck

The two writers describe Smiley's progress from novice to published novelist as the result of years of hard work, a good helping of camaraderie and a touch of kismet.

Smiley, whose background includes acting and an master's degree in business, had always been a big fan of mysteries, and she tried her hand at the genre in university extension writing classes. On a whim, she had applied to the master of fine arts program in creative writing at UC Irvine in the mid-1990s. She wasn't accepted, but the rejection letter contained a note from then-program director Thomas Keneally suggesting that she contact George and ask to be part of her group.

The group was nearly as small and selective as UCI's. Membership was limited to 10, and spots opened up infrequently. When one became available a few months after Smiley contacted George in fall 1996, she got voted in and began to make the rush-hour commute from her Westside Los Angeles home to Orange County every Wednesday evening.

George remembers that she fit right in from the beginning.

"She had the same liberal politics and quirky sense of humor that the other members of the group had," she said.

Politics and humor aside, the writers were a diverse group working in a range of styles, from a Civil War-era literary novel to a coming-of-age novel set in the '60s.

"She's very careful not to imposed her style on any of us," Smiley says. "Her manner says, 'it's my opinion, it doesn't mean you have to take it.'"

Mostly, Smiley did. She even changed her heroine's name from Chelsea Tyler when George suggested that it might help Smiley liven her up a bit.

"I came the next week with Tucker Sinclair, and that girl had attitude. It made all the difference," Smiley says.

So did George also have a mentor who offered her advice and assistance when she was beginning to write?

"No, not at all. I wrote in isolated obscurity," she said, speaking from Seattle, where she will live with her husband, Tom McCabe, until the house they're building on nearby Whidbey Island is completed.

George began writing novels in the 1980s while teaching English at El Toro High School. Her first novel, A Great Deliverance, introduced her aristocratic hero, Thomas Lynley, and his working-class partner, Sgt. Detective Barbara Havers. It was published in 1988 after a long string of failed attempts.

"It took me six attempts at a novel and three at a British crime novel to get published," she said. "Had I had a really good writing group with nobody with an ax to grind, I don't think it would have taken me that long."

Returning the Favor

George, then, has gone out of her way to help others by teaching at writer's conferences and elsewhere. She's even written a book on the craft of writing, Write Away, with tips on character, setting and voice; examples from writers like Martin Cruz Smith, Barbara Kingsolver and Louise Erdrich, and lots of advice, reassurance and inspiration for beginners.

It's not unusual for writers in this country to help other writers, she said, but less common in England.

"When I first started, British writers couldn't believe I taught writing," said George, who's written 13 best-selling novels and edited a short-story collection.

"You were supposed to figure it out yourself and when you got it and got published, you were supposed to pull up the welcome mat behind you."

While she's been busy lending a hand to fledging writers, she's also inadvertently provoked the wrath of many of her longtime fans.

The newest installment in the Inspector Lynley series, With No One as Witness, caused a ruckus when George killed off one of the series' characters at the end. Fans wrote letters to tell her how distressed, dismayed and disgusted they were. One reader campaigned for other people to send their copies back to the author.


George said she was stunned by the reaction.

"When I read a book that moves me to tears and grief, I put the book down and I say, 'My God, what a novel.' And I write a letter to congratulate the author for writing a piece of literature that achieved so much," she said.

"So what surprised me was the amount of anger and bitterness that came from readers who took this quite personally."

She defended her decision as "honest, true and right."

"I loved that character," she said. "She was a wonderful leavening force in the whole book, and in any book that she was in. But her death was not gratuitous. It was thematically appropriate and fit the rest of the book."

She said she hadn't grown tired of Lynley, Havers and the rest of her characters. In fact, she has just finished the first draft of her newest installment in the series. She was mum about the details, but the title was telling: What Came Before He Shot Her.