Agatha Christie – On Writing

Agatha Christie managed that most remarkable of achievements in publishing more than one book a year ever since the 1920s. How did she do it? Where did she get her inspiration I wondered?

I found some of the answers in the introduction to her spy thriller Passenger to Frankfurt, published in 1970.

Where did she get her ideas from?

Her immediate response:

‘I always go to Harrods’, or ‘I get them mostly at the Army and Navy Stores’, or, snappily, ‘Try Marks and Spencer.’

Her real answer is of course:

‘My own head.’

She did relent a little to add that if she had an attractive idea she would:

toss it around, play tricks with it, work it up, tone it down, and gradually get it into shape. Then, of course, you have to start writing it. That’s not nearly so much fun – it becomes hard work. Alternatively you can tuck it carefully away, in storage, for perhaps using in a year or two years’ time.

Do you take most of your characters from real life?

Her answer, indignantly:

No, I don’t. I invent them. They are mine. They’ve got to be my characters – doing what I want them to do, being what I want them to be – coming alive for me, having their own ideas sometimes, but only because I’ve made them real.

What about the settings?

She replied:

… it must be there – waiting – in existence already. You don’t invent that  – it’s there – it’s real.

… you don’t invent your settings. They are outside you, all around you, in existence – you have only to stretch out your hand and pick and choose.

Where do you get your information – apart from the evidence of your own eyes and ears?

Her answer:

It is what the Press brings to you every day, served up in your morning paper under the general heading of News. Collect it from the front page. What is going on in the world today? What is everyone saying, thinking, doing? Hold up a mirror to 1970 in England.

Look at that front page every day for a month, make notes, consider and classify.

Agatha Christie also wrote about her writing methods in her Autobiography:

Plots come to me at such odd moments: when I am walking along a street, or examining a hat-shop with particular interest, suddenly a splendid idea comes into my head, and I think, ‘Now that would be a neat way of covering up the crime so that nobody would see the point.’ Of course, all the practical details are still to be worked out, and the people have to creep slowly into my consciousness, but I jot down my splendid idea in an exercise book. (page 451)

Those exercise books she kept have now been published – Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks by John Curran and these too make fascinating reading. But here is what she herself wrote about her notebooks in her Autobiography:

… but what I invariably do is lose the exercise book. I usually have about half a dozen on hand, and I used to make notes in them of ideas that struck me, or about some poison or drug, or a clever little bit of swindling that I had read about in the paper. Of course, if I kept all these things neatly sorted and filed and labelled it would save me a lot of trouble. However, it is a pleasure sometimes, when looking vaguely through a pile of old note-books, to find something scribbled down, as: Possible plot – do it yourself – girl and not really sister – August – with a kind of sketch of a plot. What it’s all about I can’t remember now; but it often stimulates me, if not to write that identical plot, at least to write something else. (page 451)

What a fertile mind!

12 thoughts on “Agatha Christie – On Writing”

  1. thanks for those quotes. I haven’t actually read any Agatha Christie but there seems to be a real resurgence lately. Just out of interest, if I was to read something of hers what would you recommend?

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  2. A truly fertile mind.
    I think she understood, brilliantly, that having the ideas is not the challenge – the real question is what you do with them. And in books like And Then There Were None, she took a simple concept and elaborated it quite superbly.

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  3. She did indeed have a fertile mind and I appreciate it all the time. She gives me so much pleasure. This week I reviewed 13 At Dinner and I read that she got her inspiration for the story from watching a famous American impersonator. That was definitely a key in the story.

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  4. It is remarkably how many haven’t read Agatha Christie although they are crime fans. Apparently you have to have reach a certain age or be an aspiring author to be familiar with Lady Mallowan a.k.a. Agatha Christie. Her second husband was a archaeologist who, as the lady said, found her more interesting the older she got. A marvellous lady with a sharp tongue.

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  5. This was a fantastic posting, Margaret. What a woman she was! Really, a genius! It’s clear that I’m going to have to buy both the autobiography and the notebooks book. A reader could truly devote one’s reading life to just her work. :<)

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  6. Thanks for an interesting post. I recently read the Notebooks & it was fascinating how she jotted down a few notes & maybe years later they would become a novel. I also have fond memories of the Autobiography. It’s recently been reissued in hardback with a CD of Dame Agatha reading parts of the book or notes for the book, not sure which. The Queen of plotters, definitely.

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