There's learning how to write a mystery, and then there's learning how to write a mystery..."like Agatha Christie."
Because no single author has defined the mystery genre like Christie -- she is, after all, the bestselling novelist of all time.
And even if you're not currently working on a cozy mystery, or delving into the mystery genre at all, there are still fundamental writing lessons Dame Agatha Christie can teach you.
So, here are 5 keys to writing a mystery (ish) novel like the late, great (and most successful of all novelists) Agatha Christie:
How to Write a Mystery Like Agatha Christie Tip #1: Write More Than One Book at a Time
Christie wasn't just prolific, she was a writer who suffered from a serious case of ADD while working on her projects. To combat what she referred to as "creative stagnation," she would work on multiple projects all at once.
If she got bored of Miss Marple's English countryside, she would simply bounce over to the drawing rooms and parlors of Hercule Poirot to keep her invested creatively.
Key Takeaway: Work on two mystery novels at once, with different protagonists. (Christie used this method to churn out 72 novels and 15 short story collections over her lifetime.
How to Write a Mystery Like Agatha Christie Tip #2: Make Sure the Murderer Ain't the Only Bad Guy
Everybody knows, in a mystery, the murderer is the ultimate trouble-maker. (They are, after all, the only reason the story exists.)
But one of the more interesting plot devices Christie employed - and she used it nearly every time - is the idea of creating ANOTHER troublemaker/trickster character in the story...
...who is NOT the murderer.
This character (or characters) cause havoc and create confusion - usually through a misguided attempt to hide an extramarital affair or an act of wartime cowardice or some other transgression - but they are NOT the person who shot Professor Plum in the library.
Not only can this "trickster" character offer you some serious red-herring mileage, but their emotional arc usually can be used to echo, or counteract, the theme of the main murder plot. (A nice symbolic touch that will help your mystery novel become memorable.)
Key Takeaway: Come up with not one, but two, troublemakers in your story. (And, if you can, link up the motivations for the trickster character to the main murder plot.)
How to Write a Mystery Like Agatha Christie Tip #3: Kill Your Darlings (And Your Fancy Words)
Linguistics experts from three universities in the U.K. did a study - and if you were a linguist, wouldn't you want to do a study on Agatha Christie - and they found a couple of key characteristics of Christie's writing style:
- She used the word "said" almost exclusively
- She used plain, everyday language (So her readers focus on plot, not vocab)
- Her sentences were short
- Her vocabulary word range was quite low (No big, fancy words)
- She repeated important words or phrases again and again (to create an almost hypnotic effect)
This doesn't mean you have to embrace your inner Hemingway, move to the Left Bank of Paris and start writing sentences like:
"I went to the river. The river was there."
But it does mean Christie understood, almost intuitively, her job was to get out of the way and tell the story. (Without calling any attention to her talents as a wordsmith.)
How to Write a Mystery Like Agatha Christie Tip #4: Have Your Detective/Hero Be an Outsider
Despite Christie's seemingly humble and unpretentious goals, her "drawing-room mysteries" actually had quite a lofty, mythological dimension to her story.
And nowhere is that more clear than in the "hero as outsider" motif, as illustrated through Marple and Poirot.
The concept goes something like this...
....the ONLY character who can fix the ills of the story world - whether it's solving murders, confronting outlaws, killing the dragon - is a character who lives on the fringes of society.
For Poirot, he is literally an outsider. A Frenchman with a strange accent, and an even stranger wardrobe, who perches in the upper-crust of Edwardian society to use his "little gray cells" to observe what other miss and pronounce judgement on the guilty.
For Marple, it's a bit more subtle, as her character is more polite and (seemingly) deferential. But like that famous TV detective "Columbo," what sets Marple apart is how she is under-estimated. Overlooked.
She is seen, when she is seen at all, as an "old bitty" who is just getting in the way of the "real" investigation. But it's the fact that she is under-estimated that helps her gather the clues she needs to solve the murder.
And the real bonus of making your detective an outsider is that it lets you, subtly, take some critical jabs at the society the story is set in. It's these little touches, these little insights into how you "see" the world you're living in, that can transport your ordinary drawing-room mystery...
...into something we talk about 100 years from now.
What's your favorite Agatha Christie writing technique? Let us know in the comments below!
- "Did Agatha Christie Have a Formula for Her Success," - Helping Writers Become Authors
- "The Writing Style of Agatha Christie," by FreelanceWriting.com.
- "How to Write Like Agatha Christie," by Karen Woodward Blog
- "Agatha Christie - Her Method of Writing," over at christiemystery.co.uk.