What Would Agatha Christie Say?

I was honored when Katie invited me to write a guest blog, but also a little unnerved. I’m not actually published—at least not in fiction. Since I can only imagine the life of a bestselling author, what do I have to offer? “Write what you know” is the old adage, and if there’s one thing I know it’s Agatha Christie.

Image by Olivia Wharton

I’ve been a mystery buff since age eight, and an Agatha Christie fan since my teens. I’ve read every book she’s written, including her poems, plays, and the romances she wrote as Mary Westmacott. My first thought was to write a post called “What Would Agatha Do?” That proved to be a little tricky. Since Dame Agatha died in 1976, I can only guess what she would do in certain situations. But I can share her comments about writing, since she wrote frankly about this subject in Agatha Christie: An Autobiography.

Everyone Has to Start Someplace, Even the Queen of Crime

In Agatha’s case it was a novel she called Agnes. As she recalled, “It had four sisters in it: Queenie, the eldest, golden-haired and beautiful, and then some twins, dark and handsome, finally Agnes, who was plain, shy and (of course) in poor health, lying patiently on a sofa. There must have been more story than this, but it has all gone now. All I remember is that Agnes’s true worth was recognized at last by some splendid man with a black moustache whom she had loved secretly for many years.”

On a Writer’s Self-Confidence (or Lack of It)

“I don’t think I went as far as being pleased with my stories—but then there always has to be a lapse of time after the accomplishment of a piece of creative work before you can in any way evaluate it. You start into it, inflamed by an idea, full of hope, full indeed of confidence…buoyed up with exultation. You then get into difficulties, don’t see your way out, and finally manage to accomplish more or less what you first meant to accomplish, though losing confidence all the time. Having finished it, you know that it is absolutely rotten. A couple of months later you wonder whether it may not be all right after all.”

On Becoming a Professional

“I had worked out the plot—a conventional plot, partly adapted from one of my other stories, and I knew, as one might say, where I was going, but I could not see the scene in my mind’s-eye, and the people would not come alive. I was driven desperately on by the desire, indeed the necessity, to write another book and make some money. That was the moment I changed from an amateur to a professional. I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don’t want to…”

On Rewrites

“I finished the last half of the book, or as near as not, during my fortnight’s holiday. Of course that was not the end. I then had to rewrite a great part of it—mostly the overcomplicated middle. But in the end it was finished and I was reasonably satisfied with it. That is to say it was roughly as I had intended for it to be. It could be much better, I saw that, but I didn’t see just how I could make it better, so I had to leave it as it was…Then I got it properly typed by somebody, and having decided I could do no more to it, I sent it off to a publisher…who returned it. It was a plain refusal, with no frills on it.”

On Contracts

“Then he went on to the business aspect, pointing out what a risk a publisher took if he published a novel by a new and unknown author… Having given up hope for some years now of having anything published…the idea of having a book come out in print went straight to my head. I would have signed anything. This particular contract entailed my not receiving any royalties until after the first 2000 copies had been sold—after that a small royalty would be paid… I didn’t even notice that there was a clause binding me to offer him my next five novels, at an only slightly increased rate of royalty.”

What Would Agatha Say About Social Media and Self-Promotion?

“There are many careers where personalities and public relations matter—for instance if you are an actor, or a public figure. An author’s business is simply to write.”

The Guinness Book of World Records lists Dame Agatha Christie as the bestselling author of all time, although some sources show her tied with William Shakespeare. She has sold between 2-4 billion books in over 100 countries.

Note: All quotes were taken from Agatha Christie: An Autobiography by Agatha Christie, William Collins Sons & Co., London, 1977.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! If you could choose any classic author to me your mentor, who would it be? Tell me in the comments!

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About Becke Martin Davis

Becke Martin Davis is multi-published in non-fiction but is still a struggling fiction writer. This year, three of her short stories, written as Becke Martin, appeared in the Ohio Valley RWA’s Christmas anthology Home for the Holidays. She is part of the Romance University team, moderates Barnes & Noble’s Mystery Forum, and is completing her second term as vice president of the Ohio Valley Chapter of RWA.

Comments

  1. AC is one of my mentors. Thanks for this post.

  2. Morning Becke!!

    Great post, and isn’t Agatha just spot on? Wow. The self-confidence one is absolutely perfect! I think I’d choose Dickens to be a mentor…he knew how to make you really visualize the story.

    =)

    carrie

  3. Hi Clarissa – Isn’t Agatha great? I lived in England when she was still alive and always dreamed of meeting her one day. But she was a very private person. I think she would have been appalled by the internet, but it’s fun to imagine her chatting on Facebook!

  4. Hi Carrie – Dickens wasn’t one to worry about word count, unless it was to expand his stories into a few more installments, since that’s how he got paid. He definitely wrote for popular consumption, even though he’s considered a literary classic today!

  5. This is a fabulous blog, and packed with new insights into the amazing Agatha. It is reassuring to know that even the Queen of Crime had to do re-writes! (I’d love to hear her take on writing a synopsis!)If I could choose a mentor, I think I’d pick the fabulous Donald Bain who writes the MURDER SHE WROTE series for Penguin. He’s written over 100 books and I’m a huge admirer of his work.

  6. Hi Mary! It gave me chills when I recently re-read Agatha Christie’s autobiography and realized she suffered from the same qualms as other writers. Sadly, her autobiography didn’t include any tips for synopsis writing. I could definitely use some help in that direction!

  7. It’s nice to know that even Agatha Christie had her moments of self-doubt and rejection. Loved the quotes. I think mine would be Mark Twain.

  8. Hi Sharon – Thanks so much for stopping by! Mark Twain’s path as a writer was anything but smooth. During his career he went from a rich man to a pauper more than once! I love his acerbic wit – it’s fun to browse his quotes:

    “An author values a compliment even when it comes from a source of doubtful competency.”

    “To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement. To condense the diffused light of a page of thought into the luminous flash of a single sentence, is worthy to rank as a prize composition just by itself…Anybody can have ideas–the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.”

    “I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English – it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.”

    It’s always a mistake to get me started on quotes…

  9. I just finished Agatha Christie’s autobiography last month (and just posted elsewhere about it). What I loved learning was which of her books she loved the most. I’ve ordered a Mary Westmacott, Absent in the Spring, and can’t wait to get my hands on it. It was surprising to see how early Roger Ackroyd was in her career, as I think it’s magnificent. I was pleased she loved Crooked House, as I thought it was one of her best, too (though when I talk with others, no one seems to remember this one). Of course And Then There Were None was a favorite (and technically satisfying for her to create). I was surprised she never mentioned Curtain. Maybe it was written after her autobiography was done?

    Have you ever read the ancient Egypt mystery? That was another I was unaware of. It was lovely to get a better picture of her life and world.

  10. Hi, Becke. Wonderful post! I had to print the quote on self-confidence. Agatha just nailed that one.

    I think I would have to pick Jane Austen.

    Thanks for making me smile today!

  11. Hi Caroline – I love CROOKED HOUSE! As to CURTAIN, that was one of the books she wrote in the 1930s and had stored in a vault. I think it was one of the books she signed over to her daughter or her grandson. I suspect she wrote it because she was getting fed up with Poirot. I think she modeled Ariadne Oliver and her Finnish detective after herself and Poirot.

    Yes, I’ve read DEATH COMES AS THE END. I held off reading it for a long time because I was afraid I wouldn’t like it. Instead, I loved it!

    My mom loved the Mary Westmacott as much or more than she liked Agatha Christie’s mysteries. She had all the Westmacott books and I read them when I was on a Christie binge. They would be considered sweet by today’s standards, but I believe they sold very well. And she kept her pen name a secret for about 14 years, if I remember correctly.

  12. Hi Adrienne! I love Jane Austen’s quotes on writing:

    “I must confess that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, & how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know.”

    letter to Cassandra, on Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet
    January 29, 1813 [79]

    “You will be glad to hear that every Copy of S.&S. is sold & that it has brought me £140–besides the Copyright, if that should ever be of any value.–I have now therefore written myself into £250.–which only makes me long for more.”

    letter to her brother Frank about the success of Sense and Sensibility
    July 6, 1813 [86]

    There are more like this here: http://www.austenquotes.com/jane_austen_quotes/writing/

  13. Becke, Love the statement above “An author’s business is simply to write.” If only that were true. Today, PR is the lifeblood of a writing career. Without it, your books go understocked and underread. That said, social media has its rewards. It has made it possibe for me to be in touch with so muny people having mutual interests. Like being here today in the midst of Agatha Christie fans. So there you go. It’s PR forever!

  14. I think Agatha would have held to that statement, but authors today don’t have that luxury. At least authors who are uncomfortable meeting people in person can keep a certain amount of distance by interacting through social media instead of in-person book signings.

    I thought it was an interesting comment in light of the changes in the industry today.

  15. Absolutely, Becke, and, boy, are there changes. But that’s life. Nothing remains the same which prevents “things” from becoming stagnant. Guess that could refer to writing and publishing as well.

  16. Backe,

    Great post! I loved reading Agatha’s insight into the business of writing! My choice of a mentor is very non-literary. I’d go with Sidney Sheldon. I love the edge of your seat suspense in all of his stories. He was a screenwriter before becoming a novelist, and I always envision my novels as movies in my head!

  17. Looks like I’m late to the party! Thank you so much for sharing your post (and Agatha!) with us today, Becke. I’m honored to have you here.

  18. Louis L’Amour… I like his writing style, and I also tend to do well when writing the same genre.

    Thanks for a great post, Becke Davis. 😀

  19. Becke-
    I love Christie’s work, too. Thanks for giving us insight into her life. I agree that there is much we can learn from Agatha Christie when it comes to writing, but she was definitely a product of her time. Besides, she was able to get away with so much just because she was Agatha Christie!

  20. Becke –

    Have I told you lately that you’re amazing, and I love all the tidbits stored away in that brain of yours? I so want to go back and read some AC now!

    I have to say Ray Bradbury is one of my all time faves. The Veldt is one of the most powerful stories I’ve ever read (possibly because I was secretly terrified my children would one day sic lions on me…), and I have an inkling of an idea that’s loosely based on The Illustrated Man.

    Happy Friday, all!
    Kelsey

  21. Hi Maria – I’m a Sidney Sheldon fan, too. I read for enjoyment, and his books fit the bill!

  22. Katie – Thank you so much for inviting me! I hope by channeling Agatha today I’ll introduce more people to her work!

  23. Hi Gideon = I admit I’ve only read one book by Louis L’Amour but I did enjoy it!

  24. Hi Stephanie – You can pick up a lot about Agatha Christie’s life just by reading her fiction, but her autobiography was a real eye-opener to me. My husband gave it to me as a birthday gift when it first came out. When I reread it a few weeks ago, it was the first time I’d read it with a writer’s eye. I was amazed how forthcoming she was about her career!

  25. Kelsey – Oh my gosh, THE VELDT is amazing! That and THE RAVINE are two of my favorites. I’m a HUGE Ray Bradbury fan!

  26. Becke, great post! I’m going to look for Agatha Christie’s autobiography. Sounds like an amazing book. Can you believe I’ve never read an AC novel? I know!!!

  27. Hi Tracy – You’ve never read one? Ooooh, where to start…

    Some of my favorites:

    THE TUESDAY CLUB MURDERS
    MURDER IS EASY
    THE MIRROR CRACK’D
    A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY
    NEMESIS
    CROOKED HOUSE
    SAD CYPRESS
    N OR M?
    THE PALE HORSE
    MRS. MCGINTY’S DEAD…

    too many to list!
    THE 4:50 FROM PADDINGTON
    CARDS ON THE TABLE

  28. Oops – I stuck “too many to list” in the middle of the titles, somehow!

  29. Great blog, Becke! I cut my reading-teeth on Agatha’s mysteries, and I think that’s why I lean towards that period, and authors, in my reading habits. As far as writing, I’m a big fan of Virginia Woolf, as she prompts my deep spirit to write; Also, contemporary writers Haruki Murakami and Amanda July. I love these combinations of prose and poetry, and imagination, in writing.

    Becke, you’ve been my biggest support, and I wish you nothing but the best in your writing!
    KathyS

  30. Hi Kathy – I remember that you’re a big Virginia Woolf fan. Did you mean Miranda July? I love her! If that’s who you mean, you should check out her movie “Me and You and Everyone We Know.”

    I got it from Netflix awhile back and after watching five minutes, was ready to stomp on the DVD and stuff it in the trash. But then I kept watching…and watching…and I ended up buying the darn thing. My whole family is hooked now!

    Whoever your muse is, you should definitely keep writing! It helped me to know that even Agatha Christie – who has sold BILLIONS – was plagued by some self-doubt.

  31. This is funny, a picture of me at the wheel…how did this happen? Technology never ceases to amaze and confound me! Ha!

  32. I love it! It’s fun to see you hard at work on your art!

  33. Yes, yes! I meant Miranda…darn, I keep messing her name up!

    I have her new book, It Chooses You, and want to see her new movie, The Future, which this book connects to… but no, so far I haven’t seen her movies, but hope to soon…I’m just hooked on her writing style.

  34. It’s encouraging to hear that even such a popular writer as Agatha Christie had her learning curves:) Thanks so much for this post. I really how John Grisham weaves his plots. Although there’s other writers I admire also:)

  35. John Grisham is a true master, Lorna! Don’t you wonder if authors like him worry about their writing, too? Hard to imagine…

  36. Thanks, everyone, for sharing your writing influences. This has been such a fun day!

  37. I’m late, I’m late. But I loved the post. I’ve read a lot of AC but not nearly as much as you have, Becke.
    It always amazes me when authors I admire speak of their fears and worries. It’s so refreshing to know they have the same struggles we all have. There are so many authors I admire, but I’d have to say from the classics it would be Jane Austen. For me, she captures the character’s emotions and gets them onto the page with such a deft hand that I truly believe I’m sitting in that same drawing room. To be mentored by JA would have been incredible.

  38. I would choose Mark Twain. His writing ranges from humor to biting social commentary. I believe all American authors are in his debt.

  39. I would have gone with Agatha to be my mentor as well! I think I’ve listened to every one of her mysteries, watched several tv adaptations, and I do it over and over again all the time. They bring me great comfort.

    its really nice to read about how she was as insecure as I am right now.

  40. Hi Robena – I wonder if Jane Austen wrote multiple drafts. I think if I had to write by hand I’d be like, “This scene would be better if I rewrote those twenty pages but, you know? I can live with it!”

  41. Hi Warren – I agree, Mark Twain’s books are just as riveting today as when he wrote them. I’m not as fond of HUCKLEBERRY FINN as his other books, probably because I “had” to read it in school. But everything I’ve read of his since then I really liked. Have you read his (massive) autobiography? Someday I’d like to tackle that.

  42. Candace – Like you, I was surprised she had insecurities as a writer and didn’t hesitate to admit it. I used to think my periodic attacks of “Imposter Syndrome” were because I’m a relatively new writer. The more authors I meet, the more I realize this is NORMAL. Not sure if that’s reassuring or terrifying!

  43. Becke – great post. I love hearing the thoughts of the greats. I make me feel in touch with them and when they feel the same as me, it makes my insecurities somehow a little less imposing.

    I’d like to have had Poe or Austen as mentors. Hugely different, but both emotional writers with distinct characters. X

  44. Becke,

    Thank you for mentioning Agetha’s other works under her pen name Mary Westmacott. I will now be on the look out for any of those books.

    I hate to admit it here, amongst all of these raving accolades to a famous writer, but I did not particularly like the first AC mystery I read, Body in the Library. It was ok, but it didn’t live up to all the hype I had heard. I expected a book by such a great lady to be a real page turner, one I couldn’t put down no matter the hour, and for the mystery to have me baffled right up to very end. I found myself getting bored in some places, choosing to walk away from it mid-chapter, and even mid-page at times, and I sussed out the murderer almost immediately, though I was surprised by how the victim ended up where her body was found.

    Believe me, I take no pleasure in the fact that I was less than impressed by a tome from one of histories all time best sellers. My thirteen year old son LOVED it and was anxious to start on another novel by this fabulous writer.

    My mentor in writing would be, well two authors come to mind really, William Shakespeare and/or J.K. Rowling.

  45. Hi Shah – Poe is definitely one of the greats! I’d be a little nervous to meet him in person, though. On the other hand, I’d LOVE to be a fly on the wall if Poe crossed from his ghostly plain and had a chat with Stephen King!

  46. Hi Dawn – Some of Agatha’s works do seem a bit tame by modern standards. And you can DEFINITELY see her writing improve over the years. I’ll admit, THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES has never been a favorite.

    I liked N or M? because it had some universal concerns even though the setting – the English coast during wartime – may seem out of date. And I have a special fondness for A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED because it was the first Christie where I spotted every clue as I read it. One key part of the plot won’t mean much to modern readers, but I still like the story.

    Many people like the “puzzle” aspects of her books best. If you like tricky mysteries, try MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD or AND THEN THERE WERE NONE. Also, if you like short stories (I love them!), Christie has a deft touch with those.

    While I like Poirot, Miss Marple and Mr. Parker Pyne are my favorite Christie detectives. I love the way people underestimate Miss Marple because she’s a little old lady, until they gradually realize she’s a fierce figure of justice, as in NEMESIS.

    I also like the books where Christie dabbled in the paranormal, like THE GOLDEN BALL AND OTHER STORIES. If you need more recommendations, search “Agatha Christie” at BN.com’s blogs and forums. We talk about Christie a lot at the Mystery Forum there!

  47. Thanks Becke! I will certainly look for some of these other titles you have suggested as well. 🙂

  48. LOVE LOVE LOVE AC!! As a cozy mystery writer, she’s my go-to gal every time! Thanks so much, Becke!

  49. Hi Tonya – Sherlock Holmes gets more love these days, but I’ll always be a loyal Agatha fan!

  50. Hi Becke & Katie!

    I’ve read a couple of Christie’s books, but I’m a big fan of her works that have been turned into movies or television series,like Miss Marple and my favorite, Poirot. I find strange comfort in knowing she harbored doubts as a writer. I think of her contribution to the literary world and wonder where we’d be if she’d given up.

  51. Hi Jennifer – One thing I find interesting is that her very English stories (even though she was half American)remain popular throughout the world, and seem to sell equally well to men and women.

    I like some of the film adaptions of her books – Joan Hickson is a wonderful Miss Marple and David Suchet IS Poirot – but it drives me batty when the change her plots!

  52. I love Agatha Christie stories and now that I’m older, fancy myself a version of ‘Miss Marple’! It’s nice to read she didn’t always feel satisfied with her stories either and I think most writers feel this way about their work. It seems as if we are forever tweaking. Thank you for a great post. I really enjoyed reading this.

  53. Thanks Becke, it continues to amaze the number of authors that suffer failure before becoming successful. Whilst I’m not an AC fan, the inspiration you give me is to read more autobiographies for authors. I’ve got Louis L’Amour’s in the bookshelf, untouched, but I have read Stephen King ‘On Writing.’ I suspect we have all read this…

  54. Hi writernubbin – I want to be Miss Marple when I grow up, too! 😉

  55. Hi Robert – You might try BLACK BEECH AND HONEYDEW, Ngaio Marsh’s fascinating autobiography. Another old favorite of mine is Lilli Palmer’s CHANGE LOBSTERS AND DANCE.

  56. Hi Becke, I am also a Agatha fan, and have been for years. I have all her books, and continue to watch the Ms. Marple and Mr. Periot TV shows on Masterpiece Theatre. I am also a a big James Patterson fan. I love my crime dramas.

  57. Hi Anonymous, aka Helen! 😉

    I’m also a fan of the Masterpiece MYSTERY Christie productions. I especially like a film version of THE PALE HORSE from several years ago; I don’t think that one was PBS, though.

  58. Becke, Finally caught up with you here and loved “hearing” AC talk about her frustrations, pitfalls and determination to success despite all. Proves that giving up isn’t an option. Suppose she had? The world would be pooorer for it–and perhaps she would have been too. Also enjoyed the collection of covers you showed for And Then There Were None. Most interesting, and rather awesome that one slender mystery could cause such a stir. Thanks for sharing.

  59. Thanks for commenting, Jean – sorry I didn’t spot it sooner! We Agatha addicts have to stick together!

  60. Becke, I really enjoyed this. I read her autobiography years ago and had forgotten most of this. It was nice to have a refresher.

  61. It had been out of print for awhile, Edie, but it’s now available in paperback: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/autobiography-agatha-christie/1100158392?ean=9780062204578

    You might like this new book from HarperCollins, too:
    http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-grand-tour-agatha-christie/1111397949?ean=9780062191229

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