Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Writing Advice From Agatha Christie

Well, not really advice per se, but this is some good stuff Christie wrote in the introduction to her novel Passenger to Frankfurt. I loved it, and I thought it worth sharing.

The Author speaks:

The first question put to an author, personally, or through the post, is, "Where do you get your ideas from?"

The temptation is great to reply, "I always go to Harrods," or "I get them mostly at the Army & Navy Stores," or, snappily, "Try Marks and Spencer."

The universal opinion seems firmly established that there is a magic source of ideas which authors have discovered how to tap. One can hardly send one's questioner back to Elizabethan times, with Shakespeare's

Tell me, where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart or in the head,
How begot, how nourished?
Reply, reply.

You merely say firmly, "My own head."

That, of course, is no help to anybody. If you like the look of your questioner, you relent and go a little further.

"If one idea in particular seems attractive, and you feel you could do something with it, work it up, tone it down, and gradually get it into shape. Then, of course, you have to start writing it. That's not nearly such fun--it becomes hard work. Alternatively, you can tuck it carefully away, in storage, for perhaps using in a year or two years' time."

A second question--or rather a statement--is then likely to be, "I suppose you take most of your characters from real life?"

"No, I don't. I invent them. They are mine. They've got to be my characters--doing what I want them to do, being what I want them to be--coming alive for me, having their own ideas sometimes, but only because I've made them become real."

So the author has produced the ideas, and the characters--but now comes the third necessity--the setting. The first two come from inside sources, but the third is outside--it must be there--waiting--in existence already. You don't invent that--it's there--it's real.

You have been perhaps for a cruise on the Nile--you remember it all--just the setting you want for this particular story. You have had a meal at a Chelsea cafe. A quarrel was going on--one girl pulled out a handful of another girl's hair. An excellent start for the book you are going to write next. You travel on the Orient Express. What fun to make it the scene for a plot you are considering. You go to tea with a friend. As you arrive, her brother closes a book he is reading--throws it aside and says, "Not bad, but why on earth didn't they ask Evans?"

So you decide immediately a book of yours shortly to be written will bear the title, Why Didn't They Ask Evans? You don't know yet who Evans is going to be. Never mind. Evans will come in due course--the title is fixed.

[I know that Christie's comments about setting won't apply to those of you who write SF/F, but a lot of this rings true for me. Discuss.]


  1. As far as science fiction it is very relevant. When you think of people spreading across the solar system. What will they use for fuel? If it is fusion from He3 than you need to look at the sources of He3 in the solar system. The Moon is the nearest and Jupiter's system of moons is the most abundant. You research those worlds and they come alive and you've got a grand setting. Then you need to place a story dealing with that setting and characters and you've got a novel.

  2. While I'm not especially a fan of Christie's writing, I think this advice is pretty stellar. I definitely see the need for taking ownership of the creative process. I also agree that, for the most part, the best settings are the ones that are already out there.

    One of the things I've only started to truly understand in the past few months has been the role that setting has in grounding or anchoring the reader. That happens most strongly when the setting is real and concrete.

    Even in fantasy and science fiction, I find the strongest settings are those which either already exist and have only been modified or which draw so heavily on settings which do exist that they might as well.

    Is it absolutely necessary? No, not at all. But I do think it makes the setting stronger.

    Sometimes, you want a weak setting. I would argue that, for instance, the setting in CS Lewis' "science fiction trilogy" is intentionally weak because he wants the reader to feel as ungrounded in alien lands as the main character does.

    Sometimes, the rest of your story is strong enough that you might not need or care about a strong setting.

    In my experience, though, I think she's right: it's hard for your readers to anchor themselves to a setting that is as much a conceit as your characters and your plot.

    At least that's what I've started to believe in the past few months...

  3. I approve of an opportunistic style of writing.

  4. What's to discuss? She nailed it!

  5. If you like the look of your questioner, you relent

    My favorite.

  6. I have yet to read anything of Agatha Christie's, but I know a lot of big readers love her. I keep meaning to get around to it, but I never do.

    This list seems fairly arbitrary, and I wonder how sincere she was being. Or, to put it another way, I do the opposite of what she does, so maybe I'm doing it wrong!

  7. Ah, this is excellent. I've found these questions usually come from readers, not writers, because most seasoned writers know how silly they are.

    I've found it disturbing at times to admit that my ideas don't come fully formed, and that half the time I'm figuring out all those clever twists and turns completely by accident. This is the best way, in my opinion.

    This may inspire a post.

  8. Her thoughts are illuminating, but a writer once said that 'there are three golden rules for creating and writing a novel. But no one has ever discovered what they are.'

  9. Project Savior: I hadn't thought about it that way. Do you suppose that it's the same with fantasy, which doesn't necessarily rely on the real physical properties of the universe?

    Nevets: "Passenger to Frankfurt" is not a great book, I hear. Your thoughts on setting seem to come down to a solid, "Well, it depends."

    Justus: Take this opportunity to write. Take it!

    Scott: I think so.

    Yat-Yee: Christie was a funny old bird.

    Domey: I agree that Christie's rules are arbitrary. I think we all have personal arbitrary rules. These pretty much fall in line with the way I write, but your arbitrary rules are just as good as mine are.

    Mighty Reader suggested that someone create an image and let you and me both write stories based on it; you'd use it as the start and I'd use it as the ending and we'd come up with radically different but equally valid (or whatever) stories!

    Michelle: Let's see that post!

    Martin: I know what they are.

  10. Scott, that would be a really really cool idea! I'd love to!

  11. @Michelle - You're so right. I'm not sure I would even know how to answer the question of where my ideas come from, because the question itself seems so disconnected from the reality of the writing process.

    I think it's probably more manageable to answer when it's from readers. A student asked my writing prof that once in our fiction writing class, though, and it got a little snitty.

    "But where do you up with your ideas?"

    "We've just had two classes covering free-writing exercise and brainstorming and free-thinking."

    "But where do you up with your ideas?"

    "Those things we just talked about."

    "But how to do come up with the idea of what to free-write or free-think."

    And so on.

    As I recall his final word was, "I use my creativity," with the strong implication that she had none to use. She didn't come to a whole lot of classes after that.

  12. @Scott - I take an unwavering position of strong equivocation on all matters of writing rules.

  13. I second Mighty Reader's idea. Let's see that happen.

  14. Nevets: As long as you stand by that statement, I will accept it as true or not!

    Yat-Yee: Davin and I accept the challenge! Maybe Michelle should join in. I was complaining a few months ago that the three of us never get to have any fun with our writing contests (not that judging them and reading all the entries and finalists isn't fun; it's just that writing is MOAR fun).

  15. Um, yeah, don't leave me out of that, please.

  16. Veritas in verbae est non est.

    Be cool for all three of you to do it, but a third party... erm... fourth party... should select the image. Perhaps TMR herself.

  17. Excellent, Scott and Davin. Would love to see the results.

    Just for fun, here's another way to get your creativity paths to cross: What if Davin paints a picture for you and Michelle to write, Michelle takes a photograph for you and Davin, and you...huh, I don't know enough about you...create a spreadsheet for Davin and Michelle?

  18. Yat-Yee, that's hilarious!

    I think Michelle has to use the picture in the middle of her story!

  19. No no, Michelle.

    It's another plate.

  20. It's the start of another entire table.

  21. I lucked out on the setting issue in my fantasy novel, since it's set in contemporary Britain and with one exception, I visited all of the locations in England, Wales, and Scotland that are in the book. That was fun.

    I'm with Christie on inventing characters, though I did use bits of my own personality for a particularly pragmatic character and that, too, was a blast to do. Love to make fun of myself -- and it's much safer than making fun of your friends and family.

    Ideas...don't they come from the Little People who dwell beneath my floorboards?

    I read a lot of Christie in my youth but have not revisited her of late. I have fond memories. Maybe I'll leave them that way.

    --Alexandra MacKenzie

  22. I remember when I read this for the first time and loved it - she's so right! Sometimes an image or word will stay in the back of your mind for years before it percolates into something worthwhile.

  23. nice post, are you still in writing..
    did you also consult for lab report writing..


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