In 2009, my sister gave me Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks for a Christmas present. My sister and I had always shared our love of mysteries, and we were both huge fans of Dame Agatha.
The book was fascinating. John Curran, who compiled the notebooks and wrote the book about them, helps the reader to see how Christie’s mind worked when she was developing characters and a plot. I found it fascinating to see the notes she had made, written evidence of a writer’s mind at work in the difficult planning and plotting stages of a novel (though some of the notes deal with revision also).
I read them and watch as Christie changes her mind about who is the hero or heroine and about who is the killer. One character may audition as hero before landing in the killer spot. Another may spend a while as killer before being elevated to the protagonist’s position. Settings, titles, and murder methods can and do play musical chairs also. Christie is always seeking the combination of title, setting, killer, and hero that will meld with the perfect method of murder to make a great book.
This book is a great source of inspiration to me when I’m planning and plotting, as I am now. Not that I can use any of her ideas in my own work. They’re very much of her time—each period of time in which she wrote a book over the length of her long life. However, watching her fertile mind work, seeing all the alternates considered and rejected, watching the fantastically successful mysteries come to life always kicks my own brain into high gear.
More than inspiration, though, reading through the notebooks and glimpsing Christie’s mind in the midst of her work confirms for me that it was work. She didn’t come to any of her great, clever books by anything else. Nothing was predetermined. Christie played with combinations of the elements of a good mystery novel until she ended up with something so taut she could carry water in it, and she worked hard to make each book so watertight and startling.
After following the course of her mind for a few of her books, I’m ready to roll up my own sleeves and go to work without expecting to hit the right characters or plot on the first try without effort. I believe it was Albert Einstein who said, “Genius is the capacity for taking infinite pains.” Christie’s notebooks illustrate this perfectly. So, now, I’m off to juggle setting, characters, motives, and murder methods myself, following in her footsteps.
What helps you in the planning stages of your books, if you’re a writer? If you’re not, how do you feel about seeing all of Dame Agatha’s sleight-of-hand revealed this way? Would you rather remain blissfully ignorant of how she managed her magic?