A Pocketful of Rye by Agatha Christie. At the time I loved the concept of books but I found them so difficult, my reading was so slow and finishing a book seemed like an impossibly difficult task, a mountain too high to climb. This book intrigued me. The cover was macabre, a black bird’s skeleton surrounded by its black feathers, lying on an illustrated sheet music to a child’s nursery rhythm. I began to read it and on the second page was the description of a man dying from poisoning. I was hooked and carried on reading.
What kept me reading it, at my painstakingly slow pace back then, was the plot. At the end of the book, the twist hit me hard; it wasn’t the murderer I thought it was, I’d been certain it was. Then I looked back on the story and saw the clues she had sprinkled throughout the plot, subtly hinting at who the murderer was, and I didn’t feel cheated, I didn’t feel that she had held back important information from me. She had just got the better of me.
I raced out, got another one of her books and started reading it.
As a teenager
Christie’s books were the first “adult” novels I read and I loved them. It was
their tight plots that kept me guessing who the murderer was and their archetypical
but very recognisable characters that kept me reading them.
novels were a gateway into the world of literature for me. From her I read some
other Golden Age crime writers, some I enjoyed and some I didn’t, and from them
I started to read modern day crime writers (modern day when I was a teenager).
This was a very mixed experience, many of them were poor or just plain bad, but
I also discovered PD James and Ruth Rendell, and later still Joseph Hansen.
These authors opened my eyes to the fact that crime fiction can be about much
more than just a murder (or two). They all used detective fiction to write
about other subjects too and their prose was of such a high standard. They took
time setting scenes and developing characters; they gave their detectives a
whole life outside of work. Their writing led me to other, non-crime fiction,
literary fiction and other genes, though I still enjoy a good detective novel.
As an adult, I
still enjoy a Christie novel, occasionally, but I cannot say she is the
greatest of writers. Her descriptive prose is poor, just using a few commonly
used colloquialisms to sum up a recognisable image; most of her description is
left to the reader’s imagination to fill in. She set her novels in a very
narrow world, that of the middle- and upper-class English, but her books still
had strong and well-crafted plots. It was from reading them that I learnt how
to plot and how important plots are in fiction.
carefully set the scene of the story, introducing the place and characters but
not giving away all the details at the beginning. Her plots dripped out the
information and clues as the story progressed, they didn’t give away all the
information in one go. Her plots give the reader a journey to go on throughout
At first, I
thought this plotting style was only useful for crime fiction, where withholding
information until later in the story was an important element. Then I read Job's
Year by Joseph Hansen. Here he used the same style of plotting but in a
non-crime novel. Each chapter gave more information about the central
character. Reading it, I felt like a detective finding out more about a
character, it was like how I felt in a friendship; over time I found out more
and more about that friend, I wasn’t given all the information about them in
one go as soon as we met. It felt much more of a natural way to tell a story.
You don’t have
to be writing crime fiction to learn from this style. I learnt not to give
everything away at the beginning of a story, treat it like a detective story,
drip out your information as the story progresses. So instead of telling the
reader everything about a character as soon as you introduce them, let the
information fall out as the story progresses, as a natural progression. Hold
the reader’s interest by giving away clues to a character as the story flows;
tell them about the character’s background and history through the length of
the story, not as one, rushed chunk of information at the beginning.
I have learnt to
give the reader a beginning, middle and end to a story. I introduce the story and
draw the reader into the world I’ve created. Like Christie, I don’t let
interest fall during the middle of a story, the middle isn’t just there to get
from the beginning to the end as quickly as possible. I use that part to build
on my story and characters, I let the reader get to know my characters, I let
the characters speak for themselves, to set their own motivations. There’s no
need for the end of a story to tie up all the loose ends, but I give the story
a definite moment where it ends. An example of this is my story The Men Who
Took Their Vows Together in East Ham Registry Office. Though this story has
an ending I have used a lot, it ends at a certain point of the story, not tying
up all the loose ends and giving the characters a neat resolution; instead it
ends with the character moving forward. I try to always give a reader an
ending, just not always a neat one.
Plot holds so
much writing together; even if it is a story/piece that is looking back on a
character’s life or following a character’s emotional journey a plot gives me a
structure to hang all this upon and, hopefully, to hold a reader’s attention.
At present, I am
writing a short story about a man, in his late twenties, who cannot seem to
attain an adult, romantic relationship. All he can find is short-lived
relationships that crash and burn and casual sex. The story explores how he has
got into this situation, what has contributed to him being so poor at
relationships, though I want to portray him as a character with little insight
into his own situation (I do like a challenge). I could just write it as the
character looking back on his life, but this would be a very dry story with me
just telling the reader about this character’s situation. I have decided to intersperse
this retrospective narrative across one evening of this man’s life when he goes
on another first date. With the date, I can show the reader some of this man’s
problems, how he sabotages his attempts to forge a relationship. Here I am
using a plot as a device to explore a subject.
was called the Queen of Crime, she is one of the most widely read of English
language authors, she is also the most successful English woman playwright, but
for me Agatha Christie was a great teacher. Her books taught me how to plot a
story and I’m so grateful to her for this.
I also have a
strange link to her, not through her books. During the Second World War, Agatha
Christie worked as a hospital dispenser at University College Hospital in
London. This was one of the hospitals where I did my nurse training, so she and
I walked the same hospital corridors, just separated by five decades.