Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Thoroughly Chaotic Writer of Neatly Plotted Stories

Her less-than-refined writerly day began with finding her notebook, which surely she'd left right there. Then, having found a notebook (not the one she'd used yesterday), and staring in stunned amazement at the illegible chicken scratchings therein, she would finally settle down to jab at elusive characters and oil creaky plots. ... Christie's promiscuous note-taking meant that any one novel or play might be distributed over multiple notebooks and many, many years.
I thought I was a chaotic writer but didn't expect the same to be true of such a neat plotter as Agatha Christie!  In Slate magazine Christine Kenneally, a great fan of Christie's work, pours over Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks : Fifty years of Mysteries in the Making. She finds that :
The contents of the notebooks are as multi-dimensional as their Escher-like structure. They include fully worked-out scenes, historical background, lists of character names, rough maps of imaginary places, stage settings, an idle rebus (the numeral three, a crossed-out eye, and a mouse), and plot ideas that will be recognizable to any Christie fan: "Poirot asks to go down to country—finds a house and various fantastic details," "Saves her life several times," "Inquire enquire—both in same letter." What's more, in between ominous scraps like "Stabbed through eye with hatpin" and "influenza depression virus—Stolen? Cabinet Minister?" are grocery lists: "Newspapers, toilet paper, salt, pepper …" There was no clean line between Christie's work life and her family life. She created household ledgers, and scribbled notes to self. ("All away weekend—can we go Thursday Nan.") Even Christie's second husband, the archeologist Sir Max Mallowan, used her notebooks. He jotted down calculations. Christie's daughter Rosalind practiced penmanship, and the whole family kept track of their bridge scores alongside notes like, "Possibilities of poison … cyanide in strawberry … coniine—in capsule?"
Most surprising of all, it seems that Christie did not always know who the killer was when she started writing her crime novels, but allowed herself the space to try out different possibilities. I always thought that an outline of the plot had to come first when writing this particular genre (I know that this is how Elizabeth George works, for example.)

John Curran's book also includes two previously unpublished Poirot stories and sounds like a must-buy for anyone who loves Christie's books.  I'm fascinated by the creative process, love to study writer's notebooks, and will add this to my wishlist.


Amir Muhammad said...

I've read about 40 of her books. The 'Inquire enquire -- both in same letter' one was definitely one of them, although I can't remember the title.

Dzof said...

If she didn't know the 'who', I wonder if she at least knew the 'how'.

In my (very limited) experience of plotting whodunnits, the 'who' is only important when the motive for the crime itself is a twist. On the other hand, if it's more of a howdunnit, then you focus on the twist in a method or alibi.

Or maybe she's just a genius!

Oxymoron said...

I think there are loose ends at the end of some of her books. Murder on the Orient Express, for instance. Some things not explained.

Jane Sunshine said...

I find organized people annoying because I am so absolutely all over myself - of course I am jealous at such organizational skills. But if Agatha Christie's managed all that genious work with such haphazardness- that sure gives me hope.

Unknown said...

This makes me feel better about myself. Definitely.

I was writing a post about how scatter-brained I am in my writing process, and then came across this post and smiled. Have linked to it :)

Frank, Wong said...

Read "The Orient Express" when I was in Form 1. Definitely a mind-opener. Forgot the plot within a very short time but managed to find a copy many years later to reread. The ending was one of the most satisfying for me. Whether the author tied up all the loose ends or not, it's still a fond memory to me whenever the name of this book is mentioned.Other Poirot's titles that I enjoyed include "Murder on the Nile" & "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd". Talking about the golden age of mysteries writing, I do think John Dickson Carr's works are very recommendable if you like Agatha Christie's works. :)

KayKay said...

Ah! The joy of reading Christie never quite goes away and I revisit some of her books every couple of years.
For Christie, the mystery was paramount, her sleight-of-hand plotting the true "star" of the books.
If this often came at the expense of character development, I'd take this over P.D.James' ponderous social commentary anyday (because, James is, after all, "MUCH MORE THAN A MERE MYSTERY WRITER")
And it's always struck me as kinda cool that Christie created an iconic detective out of a physically unremarkable man who didn't have a sex life and then proceeded to kill him off with ruthless expediency(see the Conan Doyle parallels here ).
Getting the John Curran book this weekend!

Unknown said...

Sharon, thanks for letting me know of John Curran's book. I graduated from Blyton and went straight to Christie at 12. Became a loyal fan throughout. I believe I've read all of her mysteries. I spent my teen years alternating between fantasizing about becoming girlfriend to a member of Duran Duran, and faithful sidekick to Hercule Poirot. Poirot won most of the time. Will definitely get the book, and tickled to know that Christie created herself in her books in the form of an absentminded authoress (I forget the name, must revisit!). Sorry for the ramble, am excited about the book.

KayKay said...

Eliza....Mrs. Ariadne Oliver