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?
… 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?
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!