Agatha Christie – Some Thoughts on Writing

 

As I mentioned in Part One, Agatha Christie did not include much about her writing in her autobiography.  There are references sprinkled here and there, and some observations, but no real advice.  It’s as if she regarded the writing to be a minor aspect of her life, necessary but not of that much importance, which is peculiar for such an established and prolific author. I suspect she did not think the details of her craft would be of much interest to her reading audience, as writers were not as common back then, not like now when social media has made everyone a writer.

I can’t imagine coming up with the plot and characters for 66 plus books. I read somewhere that she would put all the characters together at the end and then decide who did it, and then go back and insert the clues, but I can’t substantiate this. While there is little in her autobiography about her technique or what inspired the books, she does tell us how she got started.

Her older sister had written and published a few short stories, and it was an early conversation with her which proved crucial to her own writing career.  Her sister, in an informal bet, dared her to write a detective novel, a popular genre at the time.  She was discouraging, “I don’t think you could do it,” said Madge, who had thought about it herself, but “they were very difficult to do.”  “I should like to try,” was Agatha’s reply.  ‘Well, I bet you couldn’t,” said Madge.  There the matter rested….but the “words had been said….from that moment I was fired by the idea that I would write a detective story…..I didn’t start to write it then, or plan it out but the seed had been sown……the idea had been planted.  Some day I would write a detective story.“    

An earlier attempt at a novel set in Cairo, had been rejected and then critiqued by a neighbour who was a popular novelist, who realizing how shy she was, was kind in his criticism, offering encouragement and some advice about plotting.  

She wrote her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, while her husband Archie was off at war.  The idea was conceived at work in the dispensary, where she was surrounded by professional poisons.  Soon she had a sketchy picture of some of the characters, including her detective, Hercule Poirot, whom she imagined as a meticulous, tidy little man, Belgian like the Belgian refugees in the area, but she wished she had made him younger, considering they were to be together for so many years.  (In later years she found him “insufferable” according to her diary.)  

“In leisure moments, bits of my detective story rattled around in my head.  I had the beginning all settled, and the end arranged, but there were difficult gaps in between.  It made me absent-minded at home.”  Her mother encouraged her, her mother had the usual complete faith that her daughters could do anything.   She wrote it out longhand, and then typed it.  “Up to a point I enjoyed it.  But I got very tired, and I also got cross.  Writing has that effect, I find.”   She had difficulties with the middle, “the complications got the better of me, instead of me being the master of them.”  It was then that her mother made the suggestion that she go away on holiday and write undisturbed.  She booked into a large dreary hotel in the country, walked on the moors and wrote.  She spoke to no one – it would have taken her mind off what she was doing.

She sent it out several times with no success, and had almost forgotten about it as Archie had come home from the war. They were busy looking for a place to live, as flats were in short supply in post-war London, so she was surprised when it was accepted for publication.  They requested a few minor changes, and it was finally published in 1920.   

Like many young authors, she got trapped into a lousy contract promising them her next five books. (After fulfilling her end of the bargain, she changed publishers with no explanation given, although they were willing to bargain by then.)  

“Having given up hope for some years of having anything published, except the occasional short story or poem, I would have signed anything……I would not receive any royalties until after the first 2000 copies had been sold…..none of it meant much to me – the whole point was the book would be published.  I didn’t even notice there was a clause binding me to offer him my next five novels……I signed with enthusiasm…..In spite of the clause about the next five novels, this was to me a single and isolated experiment.  I had been dared to write a detective story, I had written a detective story.  It had been accepted and was going to appear in print.  There, as far as I was concerned, the matter ended.  Certainly at that moment, I did not envision writing any more books.”  

Her child Rosaland was born.   She was worried about keeping Ashfield, her family home as her mother still lived there.  Her husband suggested she write another book.  

She started making money and had an unexpected request from the Income Tax people about her literary earnings.  She had not thought of herself as an “established author” and had not kept track of the royalties, so she got herself a literary agent – a young man named Edmund Cork – and a friendship which lasted for 40 years.   

 “The nice thing about writing in those years was that I directedly related it to money.  If I decided to write a story, I knew it would net me L45, deducting income tax.  This stimulated my output enormously.  How different from the last ten or twenty years of my life.  I never know what I owe. I never know what money I have…..or shall have next year.” 

In 1927 she went to the Canary Islands to get away from the publicity of her disappearance and pending divorce, and managed to write the best part of a new book,  but admitted she had no joy in writing it. “I had worked out the plot, a conventional plot….I knew where I was going, but I could not see the scene in my mind’s eye, and the people would not come alive.  I was driven desperately on by the desire, indeed the necessity, to write another book and make some money.  That was the moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional.  I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don’t want to, don’t much like what you are writing, and aren’t writing particularly well.  I have always hated The Mystery of the Blue Train, but I got it written, and sent it off to the publishers  It sold just as well as my last book – though I cannot say I have ever been proud of it.” 

By the time she remarried in 1930 she had written ten books.  

Surprisingly, she never had a room of her own to write in.  “I suppose I was enjoying myself so much in ordinary living that writing was a task which I performed in spells and bursts.  I never had a definite place which was my room or where I retired specially to write.  All I  needed was a steady table and a typewriter.   I had begun now to write straight on to the typewriter, although I still used to do the beginning chapters and occasionally others in long-hand and then type them out.”  Many friends had said to her, “I never know when you write your books, because I’ve never seen you writing, or even seen you go away to write.” 

She never felt any desperation as to whether she could think of one more book to write.  “There is always of course, that terrible 3 weeks or a month which you have to get through when you are trying to get started on a book……when you think you can’t do it.”   She admitted to talking to herself, while working out bits of dialogue.    

Later she branched out into writing plays – she was good with dialogue – and it was a new adventure, along with her annual Christie for Christmas.  She discusses how Three Blind Mice became The Mousetrap and her feeling of happiness when the audience enjoyed it so much, and its long run on the stage, and, the dread she felt about having to make a speech for a party at the Savoy on it’s tenth anniversary.  She hated public speaking, crowds, large parties, and fuss.  I don’t think there were as many author interviews back then and it was not as necessary to promote your book the way it is now when there is so much competition. 

She doesn’t state how long it took her to write a book, or how many drafts or revisions she went through, but mentions that she once wrote a book in 3 days flat – Absent in the Spring, under her pseudonym, Mary Westmacott.  It was a fiction novel she had always wanted to write, about a woman whose image of herself was completely mistaken, an idea that had been clear in her mind for some time, and the one book which satisfied her completely.  She wrote the first chapter, and then the last because she knew so clearly how it was going to end, then wrote straight through, calling in sick to work, so frightened was she of interrupting the flow, then she slept for 24 hrs.    

Of her detective books, the two that satisfied her best are Crooked House and Ordeal by Innocence. “No book was exactly as I wanted it to be, and I was never quite satisfied with it.”

Regarding any piece of creative work she wrote, “There always has to be a lapse of time after the accomplishment of a piece of work before you can in any way evaluate it.   You start into it, inflamed by an idea, full of hope, full indeed of confidence (about the only times in my life when I have been full of confidence).  If you are properly modest, you will never write at all, so there had to be one delicious moment when you have thought of something, know just how you are going to write it, rush for a pencil, and start in an exercise book buoyed up with exaltation.  You then get into difficulties, don’t see your way out, and finally manage to accomplish more or less what you first meant to accomplish, though losing confidence all the time. Having finished it, you know that it is absolutely rotten.  A couple of months later you wonder whether it may not be all right after all.”   (I find this is true, it’s difficult to evaluate your own work.)

To sum up, after reading her autobiography, I know more about her life, but I don’t feel that I really know her any better as a person or as a writer, although I enjoyed reading and can relate to many of her observations on writing.  I found her to be a complex person, contradictory in some ways, but that might just be because she was a product of her time and the times had changed.

It seems as if the writing was just a sideline to her marvelous and enjoyable life. She wrote mostly for herself – that you could make money from it and that other people liked it was a bonus.  Of course, in her later years, when she was expected to produce a book every year it could be drudgery and work – but by then she had assumed the mantel of a professional writer and she had her plays as a diversion.  Like any other job, writing has its good days and its bad days.  So perhaps there is some advice here, for those of us slogging away putting words on a page, after all.

PS. I watched the new Kenneth Branagh version of Death on the Nile recently. It was nicely filmed but just okay, casting and plot-wise. The usual quota of dark- haired men and very thin women. I guessed the ending about 20 minutes in, and there were way too many dead bodies for me.

32 thoughts on “Agatha Christie – Some Thoughts on Writing

  1. brilliantviewpoint says:

    Thanks for such a detailed review. Now, I don’t have to read it. I admit that I’m not a big fan of mysteries. I like them, but they are not the first books I look for in a library, so I would not have read this book, but appreciate learning about her life. So, thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ally Bean says:

    I’ve been waiting to see what you’d have to say about AC’s writing. I think her ability to make writing just a part of who she was rather than letting it define her whole life is admirable. She had a gift and maybe to her it seemed obvious about how to do it, therefore there’s nothing for a biographer to latch onto about AC’s process. That might explain the lack of depth about her writing itself. I remember seeing The Mousetrap in London in the late 70s and it was as fresh as the day she wrote it.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Joni says:

      That was well said Ally. I was going to comment on how I thought that was a good approach to writing for everyone, but didn’t know how to phrase it. I sometimes wonder about authors who put out a book or two every year – how do they find the time? Do they not have a life? Or are they just fast writers and the words just flow. And what about those who work for years on a book and can’t sell it – do they feel that is wasted time? (One of the last books I read which I now can’t recall the name of the author said she had spent five years writing it) It seems like a good balance to write for yourself when you can fit it in and let fate decide the rest.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Joni says:

        I know….but they do…..Elin Hilderbrand, John Grisham, do two a year, a winter one and summer one, and James Patterson (who I do not read and have never although I tried one once and couldn’t get past the first ten pages), seems to have one out every few months. They must have servants and cooks and maids etc. plus assistants to fact check and do research and editors to catch mistakes. I get the thing about having a writing routine such as mornings, but still there’s a limit to how much you could get written and something else always gets in the way.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ally Bean says:

        Yes, I bet you’re right that these prolific authors have a staff that deals with the mundane chores of daily life. Or they don’t sleep, I guess. Better to live life then write about it, than to spend your days writing about a life you wished you lived.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Eilene Lyon says:

    Thanks for the summary of her writing life, even if she es a bit sketchy about it. I always find the process of prolific writers intriguing – that will never be me! It certainly must have come easier to her – especially dialogue, which is something I’ll probably never do well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joni says:

      I think they have servants….and researchers/fact checkers and editors…..I can get sidetracked and spend hours on research alone let alone do the writing part and edit for grammar.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Linda Schaub says:

    I’m going to have to explore more authors when I am retired – that is clear. Our required reading list in high school and even college never really delved into mysteries. All I can remember is having to read the same books over and over, some which even CliffsNotes couldn’t make sense of them. And more Dickens … when you do your Dickens’ posts, I realize how much I have missed. Speaking of Dickens, today the historic Holly Hotel had a horrible fire and burned down. You may recall when you wrote a Dickens’ post at Christmas I mentioned that the town of Holly, Michigan turns into a Victorian era town with their decor, period costumes, all to celebrate Dickens and “A Christmas Carol”. It was something quaint and a tourist attraction for the holidays. I had seen it advertised on that one-day bus tour and wondered (pre-COVID) if it might be a nice tour to go on.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joni says:

      That’s horrible – was it due to the high heat? I don’t remember taking Dickens in high school….or any mysteries either, but then mysteries weren’t as popular then I think. I truly don’t remember what we studied in high school English, other than we had to do a monthly book report on a book of our choice. I don’t really understand the Agatha Christie reverence, as to me she is just an average writer, certainly prolific, but not that memorable, kind of like the authors today who churn out a book a year and you really can’t remember much about them once you’re done. But I did find her life fascinating. Going to bed – 11pm – you should too. Hope your week gets better.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Dave says:

    This was an interesting read, Joni, especially considering I’ve never read (or had any desire to read) an AC novel. Stephen King’s book “On Writing” completely disagrees with AC’s approach. He believes you should write every day, all the time – implying more translates to better. AC suggests she could write a good story at will without “practice” (and I believe her). King also believes you should hide yourself away, where you can fully concentrate on your craft. I agree with him here. Too many distractions if I’m not in my home office. Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” was written straight through, in a matter of hours, so I thought of that when you mentioned the one short story. Finally, I can understand AC’s obsession over plot and characters when she was in the middle of writing a novel. Her self-labeling of “absent-minded” makes sense, as if you can never fully focus on anything else while you’re still trying to work out the details of your story. Not sure I ever want to be in that state of mind ( which is my convenient excuse for never attempting a novel – ha).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joni says:

      Thanks for your comments Dave. I agree it’s better to have a writing routine and a least a space without interruptions. But I suspect she had a unique talent where the words just flowed and it came easy to her. I’m envious of that, as I am a slow writer, although a fast typist, I edit endlessly, and plots are my downfall.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Dave says:

        Ah, so I meant to reference AC’s writing as well. I find it remarkable she could write an entire novel longhand (as if there were other options before the typewriter, right?) If I didn’t have my keyboard and screen, my ability to edit and re-edit, and spellcheck, I think I’d go through dozens of erasers (or bottles of white-out). Also, I didn’t ask you for a recommendation on the first AC book to try, because I sensed you wouldn’t necessarily recommend one. Maybe her life really was more interesting than her mystery novels.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Joni says:

        I couldn’t write longhand either – think of Jane Austen and the Brontes and Dickens – all handwritten, and perfectly constructed in a era when paper was scarce so revisions were likely limited. I remember electric typewriters in high school with those dual white eraser ribbons or bottles of WhiteOut and how annoying it was when you wanted to change one word or sentence on an essay. I couldn’t recommend an AC book as I have only ever read two – Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None – neither of which I finished if I can recall, but then I knew the plot from the movies. I don’t know what it is about her books, (or movies) but I just cannot get into them. I think it has to has to do with trying to keep all the characters straight when given only limited superficial information about them. Sophie Hannah, a popular British mystery writer, although I don’t particularly care for her own books, is the designated appointee of the Christie estate to continue the Hercules Poirot books, so I read one of them a few years ago, and it was the same thing – readable but not very good. I find Hercule Poirot annoying. Maybe I would have better luck with Miss Marple?. I am somewhat tempted to try her first book though – The Mysterious Affair at Styles and see what all the fuss was about.

        Like

  6. J P says:

    How people write is almost as interesting to me as what people write, so this was a great topic.

    I am intrigued by the idea of writing a novel but also intimidated by it. Maybe when I retire I may give it a whirl. At least I can tell myself that. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joni says:

      It does take time, but I see a novel in your future JP! I’ve dared Dave who’s just retired. I’m currently reading John Grisham’s latest legal thriller – the cover says it’s his 47th bestseller – I can’t imagine but if it comes easy and you don’t have to work otherwise yea…..

      Like

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