A couple of days ago, a friend at work gave me a book by Agatha Christie called Passenger To Frankfurt. And I thought, “Goody. I can romp through that.” In the Introduction, I found one of the best articles I’ve read on how to write.
I think most of us forget that Christie was a woman playwright. She’s become more of an institution than a writer. People say, “Oh, an Agatha Christie play, ho hum,” as if they know all about it – dated, formulaic, boring. Community theater. “I mean, The Mousetrap,” they mutter. (Not long ago, I wrote a ten minute play called Name Recognition, in which I trashed all those community theaters that refuse to look at a new play and instead produce The Mousetrap over and over.)
She wrote nineteen plays, eighty crime novels and short story collections, two memoirs, and six novels under another name. She invited characters that stick in your mind, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple to name only two.
How did she do that? This same friend who gave me that book, also came up with a quote from Christie about how to start to write. “All I needed was a steady table and a typewriter.”
To the question of “Where do you get your ideas from?” Christie answers, “You merely say firmly, ‘My own head.’” You look. You listen. You keep up with what is going on in the world – the great events and the passing events of the day – bad and good.
She insists that the setting in any work is real. It can be described. It can be felt and seen.
She goes for a ride on the Orient Express. Ah hah!
She has tea in a Chelsea cafe. In the cafe, she sees one girl pull out a handful of another girl’s hair.
The setting is real – the cafe. The characters will be invented. The girls become hers. Who are they and what were they quarreling about? She begins to have an idea about them. If an idea seems attractive, shes tosses it around, works it up and gets it into shape.
And then hard part begins – writing it down and turning it into a plot. But she has something to work with, something to build on.
It doesn’t happen overnight. In her autobiography, Christie talks about how strange it feels to have a book growing inside you, building up all the time. For one of her books, she says, it took six or seven years before it all fell into place. Suddenly, the characters were already there, in her head, just waiting in the wings, and she wrote the book in just three days.
I’d forgotten the thrill of observing something, some interaction, some conversation, some quirk, some incident, and putting it in my notebook for use later until suddenly, it becomes insistent. (Agatha Christie sometimes had five or six notebooks!) I’ve been thinking instead, “I have nothing to say, nothing to write about.”
So, thanks for Agatha Christie, I’m getting out my notebook again. If only I could take a ride on The Orient Express. Well, there is always the Metro line. There are lots of stories there.