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  • Sue Hawley

What Agatha Christie taught me about writing

Reading has been a huge part of my life forever. I can’t remember a time I didn’t have a book next to my bed and beside my chair in the living room. We were raised to appreciate good books and the credit goes to my mother. She loved reading and made sure books were a part of growing up.

My mother introduced me to Agatha Christie as a teenager; she would wait until I had read half the book before asking if I knew who the murderer was. I never had the right answer but her question taught me to pay closer attention to the clues Christie laid out in her story. Christie's influence on my own writing is incalculable. It never ceases to amaze me how much we can learn simply by reading a good book. Writing style, pacing, word choices, and character building are necessary for a great story. The plot line is the backbone but to pull the reader into your world you must add meat to the bone. As a mystery writer the necessity of ‘red herrings’ is vital, and learning to place the false clues came from reading hundreds of mysteries over a lifetime.

Of the many characters she created my two favorites are Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. Both characters are unique: Miss Marple is an older woman from a small English village, Hercule Poirot a retired detective from Belgium. The one thing they have in common is their ability to understand human nature and use that knowledge to solve a crime. Christie must have had the same talent as her two most famous characters were so spot on concerning the flaws and strengths of ordinary people. Her description of Hercule Poirot is very detailed, down to the smallest gesture. I tend to write more streamlined than writers from the last century. I chose to give much looser descriptions with my main character, Peg Shaw. We know she is a mere 5’1”, has stick-straight hair she dyes herself, and struggles to keep her weight under control. This allows readers to create their own mental picture of her and means I can focus more on developing her personality.

There are only two characters Christie created who I personally do not enjoy- Tommy and Tuppence. They tend to be too silly for me, but their stories have also influenced me as I don’t usually write a character that strikes me as silly. The closest I come to this is the character of Bob. He is goofy in many ways but has never struck me as ridiculous. My readers may disagree with me on this point but I have tried hard not to make him a fool even though Peg gets frustrated with him at times.

What we read affects us more than we realize. Every detail is stored in our memory banks and we pull on those memories subconsciously every single day. Most of us never give it a thought but, once I began writing my own stories, I recognized that my forty plus years of reading great authors had more of an impact than I would have ever thought possible. Their talent is ever present in my mind as I develop a story, I owe them all a great debt.

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