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Agatha Christie - Her Method of Writing


What process did Agatha Christie go through to write her books?

How did she develop her plots and characters?

And does the language she uses in her books explain why they are so compelling that you can't put them down?

To discover more, select an option from the menu below:

  Character Development
Plot Development
How She Wrote
Her Language & The Agatha Christie Code

 

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Agatha Christie Character Development
In writing her first novel, Agatha Christie looked around for inspiration for her characters. She initially started to base her murderer on an acquaintance who lived nearby, but even though she considered it at some length, she could not see the man in question ever murdering anyone. Agatha therefore decided once and for all not to use real people as inspiration, and that she must create her characters for herself. She started looking out for people in trams, trains and restaurants who could act as her starting point, and this worked well.

Agatha Christie tried again later on in her writing career to incorporate a close friend, Belcher, into one of her stories. He was badgering her to be the murderer in the book she was writing, The Man in the Brown Suit. She found this incredibly difficult, and it was only when she gave the character a different name, Sir Eustace Pedler, that his character started to develop - even though he did use some of Belcher’s phrases and anecdotes.

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Agatha Christie Plot Development
Agatha Christie used to start her books from the murder. She would first decide on the method of murder, the murderer and the motive. She would then consider the other suspects and their motives. Finally, she would turn her attention to the clues and red herrings. She was always wary of putting too many false clues into the plot, because with so many things to unravel the book would be not only difficult to solve but also difficult to read.

Agatha admits that she often thought out the plots some time previously to actually writing the book, as plots came to her at such odd moments: as she walked along a street, or examining a hat shop with particular interest. She would suddenly discover a “neat way of covering up the crime so that nobody would see the point”. Whilst all the practical details were still to be sorted out, and the characters had to creep slowly into her consciousness, the plot often came out of the blue, and was jotted down in her notebook. However she then admits that she would invariably lose the notebook!

Christie usually had about 5 or 6 notebooks on the go at once and used to make notes in them of ideas that struck her, notes about some poison or drug, or a clever swindle that she had read about in the newspaper. Although sometimes going back through her notebooks she couldn’t remember what the plot sketch was all about, it then might spark something else.

Other plots just stayed with her, teased her mind, and require her to think about them and play around with them. One such plot was The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which played on her mind for along time before she could get the detail fixed. In leisure moments, bits of her story would rattle around her head, often making her absent-minded at home.

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Agatha Christie How She Wrote
In her autobiography, Agatha Christie admits to never really having a place or room which was specifically to write in. All she said she needed was a steady table and a typewriter, quite often just the dining room table.
Her family would usually notice a time of approaching activity, recognising the signs when she was broody and urging her to lock herself away in a room and get busy.

Agatha found that the effort involved in actually typing or writing helped her keep to the point. The temptation when using a Dictaphone was to repeat the same thing in a slightly different way, which destroyed the smooth flow of the writing. By about 1930, she had begun to write straight onto her typewriter, although she still used to do the beginning chapters longhand.

She says that there was always a terrible three or four weeks which had to be got through when she first started to write a book. In her autobiography, she says there is no agony like it: such misery and despair, such inability to do anything in the least creative – a feeling of paralysed hopelessness. Then suddenly, she found she would begin to function again, know that “it” was coming and that the mist was clearing.

Independent analysis of Agatha Christie's notebooks by university researchers, showed the pace at which she appeared to write. In one section she wrote fourteen pages, then she stuck a line through it, and the next section was then a perfectly written section without crossings-out; it was as if all her thoughts had clicked into place, and she had only then managed to get it down on paper.

During the Second World War, she decided to start writing two books at once. This was because when writing just one book, she found a danger of it going stale. When this happened, she would have to put it aside and get on with other things. However during the war, there were no other things to do, with few social distractions as most people rarely ever went out in the evenings. In addition, she said that she never found any difficulty writing during the war as she was able to cut herself off into a different compartment in her mind and live in the book with the characters.

In her autobiography, Agatha Christie talks about how strange it feels to have a book growing inside you, building up all the time. In the case of Absent in the Spring (writing as Mary Westmacott), this process took 6 or 7 years, and then suddenly it all fell into place – the characters were already there, waiting in the wings, ready to come onto the stage when their cues were called. Suddenly, she just had to write the book, and she wrote it in just three days. As soon as she had finished the first chapter, she wrote the last, so concerned that any interruption would disturb her train of thought. She took a day off from work, and continued to write, and then at the end of the third day, when the book was complete, she slept for nearly 24 hours straight through, completely exhausted.

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Agatha Christie Her Language & The Agatha Christie Code
Agatha Christie believed that economy of wording was particularly important in detective stories; that the reader did not want to heard the same thing repeated three or four times.

She also uses very simple everyday language, and repeats it, rather than trying to introduce new words and phrases. She also relies heavily on dialogue throughout her books. In addition, the solution often depends upon the reader’s interpretation of something that a character says. Therefore by keeping her dialogue very simple and straightforward, and not challenging the reader with the vocabulary, she leaves us free to focus on the plot.

The simplicity of the language is one of the key points raised in the debate regarding “The Agatha Christie Code”, an ITV documentary backed by research undertaken by a number of universities.

The research team also analysed each of Christie's books for its word length, frequency and sentence structure. They found that all of her books are very similar in style, using the same number of letters in a word on average, and approximately same number of words in a sentence. This is true for books written at the beginning of her career as well as books at the end of her career; it was as if she found a successful formula which captivated her readers and stuck with it.

The researchers also found that there was a level of repetition of key concepts in her words within a small space. When Agatha is getting a concept across, she repeats key words and words which are similar in meaning in rapid succession and in a condensed space. This theory is also backed up by believers of neurolinguistic programming, which is how language affects the mind and how the words can have an affect on how we think and feel. By repeating words at least 3 times in a paragraph, it enables the reader to become convinced about something.

In addition, the programme claims that a person’s conscious mind has a very limited focus, and can only focus on between five and nine things at one time. Once there are more than nine things to focus on, the conscious mind can’t continue to track them all, and so the person literally goes into a hypnotic trance. The Agatha Christie Code claims that Agatha often uses this by using more than nine characters, and by having more than nine plot lines taking place at any one time. As the reader’s mind gets overloaded, they start to begin really experiencing the book, feeling the book, and getting lost in it. And because feelings are infinitely more memorable than thoughts, people associate the feelings with Agatha Christie’s name and also with her novels.

Finally, the research team discovered that Agatha Christie very precisely controls the speed at which we read her books, by changing the level of descriptive passages. There are more descriptive passages at the beginning of her book than at the end, which has the effect that we read more quickly towards the end of her books... literally we are rushing towards the end to see who did it!


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