Agatha Christie's Writing Process

Monday, September 25, 2017

Several months ago, Roland gave me a copy of Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks by John Curran. The “secret” notebooks of the title are the ones she used for plotting her mysteries, and they contain many insights into her writing process. Although I enjoyed Curran’s book, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who isn’t a big Christie fan. The notebooks are way too numerous to print in their entirety, and much of the material is apparently of little interest. So Curran selects passages and adds his own comments and analysis. Still, much of the information in the book is in Christie’s own words.

Some of those words are placed in the mouth of Christie’s alter ego, a mystery writer named Mrs. Ariadne Oliver. Mrs. Oliver is a recurring character, and when she talks about her writing process, we can be confident that she is speaking from Agatha Christie’s own experience.

Getting Ideas and Following Through

In Dead Man’s Folly, Mrs. Oliver voices my own problem, both with getting initial plot ideas and with dealing with the ones that pop up within the story.

“It’s never difficult to think of things,” said Mrs. Oliver. “The trouble is that you think of too many, and then it all becomes too complicated, so you have to relinquish some of them and that is rather agony.” (Chapter 2)

Later in the same book, Mrs. Oliver talks about how she deals with the ideas she keeps.

“I mean, what can you say about how you write your books? What I mean is, first you’ve got to think of something, and then when you’ve thought of it you’ve got to force yourself to sit down and write it. That’s all.” (Chapter 17)


Christie used a basic outline. It wasn’t a chronological outline or one that followed the action of the story, although she might have used one of those, too. But she started with six questions: Who? Why? When? How? Where? and Which? (See page 93 of Secret Notebooks.)

While the questions were etched in stone, however, the notebooks make clear that the answers were not. Even the identity of the murderer could change as she developed her plot.

But that doesn’t mean she had a new plot every time. As the writer of Ecclesiastes noted, there is nothing new under the sun. All writers reuse plots—both our own and somebody else’s. The trick is dressing them up in different clothing.

Cue Mrs. Oliver again, although this time the quote comes from Chapter 8 of Cards on the Table.

“Don’t you ever write the same plot twice running?” asked Battle.

The Lotus Murder,” murmured Poirot. “The Clue of the Candle Wax.”

Mrs. Oliver turned on him, her eyes beaming appreciation. “That’s clever of you—that’s really very clever of you. Because of course those two are exactly the same plot, but nobody has seen it. One is stolen papers at an informal week-end party of the Cabinet, and the other’s a murder in Borneo in a rubber planter’s bungalow.”

“But the essential point on which the story turns is the same,” said Poirot. “One of your neatest tricks. The rubber planter arranges his own murder; the cabinet minister arranges the robbery of his own papers. At the last minute the third person steps in and turns deception into reality.”


If we were to continue the above passage, you might think that Christie doesn’t care about accuracy. Here are the next three paragraphs.

“I enjoyed your last, Mrs. Oliver,” said Superintendent Battle kindly. “The one where all the chief constables were shot simultaneously. You just slipped up once or twice on official details. I know you’re keen on accuracy, so I wondered if—”

Mrs. Oliver interrupted him.

“As a matter of fact, I don’t care two pins about accuracy. Who is accurate? Nobody nowadays. If a reporter writes that a beautiful girl of twenty-two dies by turning on the gas after looking out over the sea and kissing her favorite Labrador, Bob, good-by, does anybody make a fuss because the girl was twenty-six, the room faced inland, and the dog was a Sealyham terrier called Bonnie? If a journalist can do that sort of thing I don’t see what it matters if I mix up police ranks and say a revolver when I mean an automatic and a dictograph when I mean a phonograph, and use a poison that just allows you to gasp one dying sentence and no more.”

So it is probably true that Christie wasn’t upset if she got the minor details wrong. But the notebooks show that she did care about the major ones.

First, as I mentioned in my blog post two weeks ago, Christie used maps and diagrams to keep her facts consistent. In addition to the three I listed in that post, she drew maps showing where the players were during the murder in Five Little Pigs (published in America as Murder in Retrospect) and Towards Zero and a seating diagram for the dinner party in Sparkling Cyanide (published here as Remembered Death). Those are just the ones mentioned in Curran’s book, so there may have been more.

And there are other notes that show her attempts to get the facts right. Many of her murderers used poison, which she knew something about because she worked in a hospital dispensary during World War I. But when she was dealing with a stabbing and struggling with a seeming medical impossibility in Ordeal by Innocence, she checked the facts against cases reported in the British Medical Journal. She checked legal possibilities with lawyers. And when setting a story in ancient Egypt (Death Comes as the End), she got much of her information from a professor of Egyptology.

Agatha Christie wrote popular fiction and, like many prolific writers, some of her books were better than others. But writing was her life.

And we can learn from her.

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