How did Agatha Christie—author of more than 70 novels, more than 140 short stories, and 22 plays—manage to generate and keep track of all of the ideas that went into her works? How did she develop the characters with their visible quirks and hidden secrets, the detailed settings, the plot twists, and the varied ways that her characters met their end?
The lowly notebook. Lots and lots of notebooks, according to Christine Kenneally, writing at Slate.com.
John Curran, a Christie expert and the author of Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, had the opportunity to explore Christie’s notebooks, which her grandson keeps at the family home.
These weren’t neatly organized notebooks; on the contrary, Christie usually had several notebooks lying about, and would grab whichever one was at hand when she wanted to jot something down.
Christie’s promiscuous note-taking meant that any one novel or play might be distributed over multiple notebooks and many, many years. Christie used Notebook 3 for at least 17 years and 17 novels. The other notebooks were more or less like this; only five notebooks deal with a single title (three notebooks contain only chemical formulae, the last notebook is blank).
She used her notebooks to write down scenes, list characters, sketch out maps, create historical backgrounds, and capture plot ideas. But amidst the details that ended up in her many written works are shopping lists, notes to herself, samples of her daughter’s penmanship practice, and bridge scores.
Many of the ideas that Christie scribbled in her many notebooks never appeared in any of her published works.
Curran also carefully excavates ingenious but unused ideas, “Nitro-benzene—point is—it sinks to bottom of glass—woman takes sip from it—then gives it to husband.” He unearths diverse fragments, such as the mercifully killed title, “Fiddle de Death,” the unpublished play Butter from a Lordly Dish, and the otherwise blank page with the excruciatingly unfinished sentence, “A good idea would be …”
(One interesting tidbit revealed by Agatha Christie’s notebooks was that she often started her murder mysteries without knowing who the murderer was. “…it turns out that for many of her books, Christie often ran through multiple scenarios for the victim, the method of death, and the identity of the murderer.”)
The lesson Christie’s notebooks teach is that a lowly notebook—or perhaps several notebooks—can be a writer’s best friend. Use them for everything and anything. Capture those ideas when you get them, whether or not it has anything to do with a project you’re currently working on. You never know if and when something you jot down in an idle moment will be exactly the idea you need.