Lessons from Dame Agatha

I blog on Live to Write/Write to Live every two weeks, sharing the blog with another group of fabulous women. Over on LTW/WTL, we are all different types of writers, but my topics frequently are about the mystery genre. I published this post on September 16, 2010. I hope you enjoy it.


Happy Birthday (a day late) to Agatha Christie. She was born 120 years ago, and died in 1976. And yet–who had to ask who she was? Even if you aren’t a mystery reader, you’ve heard of her. She is still one of the top selling novelists of all time.

I’ve spent a lot of time pondering Dame Agatha’s craft. In 2009 I got my master’s degree, and my thesis was on Agatha Christie, her use of point-of-view and how it contributed to the genre. Trust me when I say, in order to get this topic approved I had to read a lot of critical essays, biographical materials, genre reflections, novels and short stories. And as a bonus I learned a lot about the craft of writing. These are some of the lessons Agatha Christie taught me:

Shake it up. Agatha Christie created several series characters–Hercule Poirot (with Hastings), Miss Marple, Tommy and Tuppence. She also wrote stand alones. She wrote short stories. She wrote plays. Most of her work was in the mystery genre. But, she didn’t keep repeating the same book. Instead she shook it up. Used different points of view. Took reader’s expectations and shook them up.

Be professional. In her autobiography, Agatha Christie reflected on writing The Mystery of the Blue Train, her least favorite novel. She was recently divorced, and writing had become her vocation, her means of supporting herself. She wrote about the challenge of writing when you don’t want to, and the importance of meeting deadlines.

Work on your own terms. I love that Agatha Christie wrote the final book for Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot years before she was done writing the series. It was as if she knew she needed to write those books while she was still at the top of her game. Curtain is a brave way to end a series character, and it allowed her to end Poirot’s story on her own terms.

Just do it. By all accounts Agatha Christie was a very shy woman. She was famous in her own lifetime, which must have been uncomfortable. But she just kept going. She kept writing, stretching both herself and the genre.

And so Happy Birthday Agatha Christie. Thanks for the hours of reading enjoyment, and the writing lessons. I’m trying to decide which novel to reread in honor of your birthday. Which would you chose?

22 Thoughts

  1. Thanks for this interesting piece. Christie is indeed an inspiration and an icon. I love her stories and imagination and her books remain fresh to me even after years of reading them over and over and they fit well into the market place today. Really enjoyed this, thanks so much. Agatha is buried not far from where I live and the area is easily recognisable in her books. I too have a spent a great deal of my time in Cornwall and know the area well…the stories are always that more special when you have actually been to some of the locations.

      1. I know. My mother was due to go on a trip to see her home Greenaways, but the climb from the river boat to the house is about 25 feet and at 84 it was going to be too much so she cancelled it. I wish I’d known…would love to have gone in her place. I hope you get to visit some one day. 🙂

  2. What does it say about me that I am mostly familiar with Agatha Christie from her plays? I keep wanting to read her books, but I just don’t get around to it.

    I did listen to And Then There Were None on audio years ago. It took me a couple of days to fully appreciate it, but now I love it. And I got to see the play version once a year for three years in a row – different theater and cast each time.

    1. Mark, first of all, it says that you and I need to have a cup of coffee one of these days. (I work in theater–did you know that?) Please read “And Then There Were None” the book. As you are familiar with the play, you will love the differences. And I hope you’ve seen the movie with Barry Fitzgerald.

      One note about her play life–she was really unhappy with early adaptations of her books into plays, so started to do them herself. Another reason I admire her.

      1. I listened to the unabridged audio version of ATTWN before I saw the play, so yes, I have “read” it.

        I knew you worked in theater, but I had forgotten. I love live theater. Love movies, too, but there is something fun about a play.

        And no, I haven’t watched that film version of the story. The only one I’ve watched was from the 60’s.

  3. My sister suffered through experimental , alternative reading lessons when she was young, she never read well and was an underachiever in school.When she was in her late 20’s , her mother-in-law gave her “Peril at End House” and she loved it so much, she taught herself to read well and read everything of Agatha Christie’s she could find. I was taught phonics, I zipped through them after she handed “Peril” to me; I was a teen.
    I found that Dame Agatha and I have something in common: we both pace clues for our grandchildren and make them deduce where a ‘treasure’ is hidden. (Great minds think alike!LOL!)

    1. What a wonderful post–thank you! I first discovered Agatha Christie the summer my family moved to Maryland. I was so unhappy, and my mother gave me MURDER IN THE CARIBBEAN. She got me through that time.

      And I love the clue idea–may steal it for my nieces.

      1. I hope you have fun.I stated out when my grandson was very young, leaving pieces of paper with drawings of where he’d find the next clue, then it became written instructions and he’d take his younger cousins with him. Now, it’s clues,[ a guitar pick…is the next clue at his guitar, or his fathers? A DVD..it goes to a player in which room?,, etc.] I was unhappy when my family moved FROM Maryland!

  4. Julie, thank you for this today. So useful! I am taking notes. Your thesis sounds fascinating—a rarity. Have you considered rewriting for publication aimed at writers? I would certainly read it. xo

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