Wednesday, May 15, 2013

What I Learned from Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks

Meet Linda Rodriguez.  She and I share an editor.  Linda’s second Skeet Bannion novel, Every Broken Trust (St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books), just hit the stores with one reviewer (Lesa Holstine) calling it “one of the best traditional mysteries I’ve read this year.” Her first Skeet novel, Every Last Secret, won the Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition, was selected by Las Comadres National Book Club, was a Barnes & Noble mystery pick, and is a finalist for the International Latino Book Award. For her books of poetry, Skin Hunger (Scapegoat Press) and Heart’s Migration (Tia Chucha Press), Rodriguez received numerous awards and fellowships. She is president of the Borders Crimes chapter of Sisters in Crime, a founding board member of Latino Writers Collective and The Writers Place, and a member of Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers, Kansas City Cherokee Community, and International Thriller Writers. She spends too much time on Twitter as @rodriguez_linda and on Facebook at  She blogs about writers, writing, and the absurdities of everyday life at

Annamaria Alfieri

 In 2009, my sister gave me Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks for a Christmas present. My sister and I had always shared our love of mysteries, and we were both huge fans of Dame Agatha.

The book was fascinating. John Curran, who compiled the notebooks and wrote the book about them, helps the reader to see how Christie’s mind worked when she was developing characters and a plot. I found it fascinating to see the notes she had made, written evidence of a writer’s mind at work in the difficult planning and plotting stages of a novel (though some of the notes deal with revision also).

I read them and watch as Christie changes her mind about who is the hero or heroine and about who is the killer. One character may audition as hero before landing in the killer spot. Another may spend a while as killer before being elevated to the protagonist’s position. Settings, titles, and murder methods can and do play musical chairs also. Christie is always seeking the combination of title, setting, killer, and hero that will meld with the perfect method of murder to make a great book.

This book is a great source of inspiration to me when I’m planning and plotting, as I am now. Not that I can use any of her ideas in my own work. They’re very much of her time—each period of time in which she wrote a book over the length of her long life. However, watching her fertile mind work, seeing all the alternates considered and rejected, watching the fantastically successful mysteries come to life always kicks my own brain into high gear.

More than inspiration, though, reading through the notebooks and glimpsing Christie’s mind in the midst of her work confirms for me that it was work. She didn’t come to any of her great, clever books by anything else. Nothing was predetermined. Christie played with combinations of the elements of a good mystery novel until she ended up with something so taut she could carry water in it, and she worked hard to make each book so watertight and startling. 

After following the course of her mind for a few of her books, I’m ready to roll up my own sleeves and go to work without expecting to hit the right characters or plot on the first try without effort. I believe it was Albert Einstein who said, “Genius is the capacity for taking infinite pains.” Christie’s notebooks illustrate this perfectly. So, now, I’m off to juggle setting, characters, motives, and murder methods myself, following in her footsteps.

What helps you in the planning stages of your books, if you’re a writer? If you’re not, how do you feel about seeing all of Dame Agatha’s sleight-of-hand revealed this way? Would you rather remain blissfully ignorant of how she managed her magic?

Linda Rodriguez 


  1. Linda, I am so impressed by all your honors and memberships! I hope you have a special wall in your home dedicated to them!!!! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

  2. The notebooks are absolutely fascinating and I'm so glad you featured them. Agatha Christie had an amazing life and career, and I love the way she juggled plot ideas,always throwing in a few red herrings to keep the reader guessing. Great blog!!!

  3. Loved Every Last Secret and looking forward to reading Every Broken Trust. Thank you for recommending Christie's Secret Notebooks. Impressed by how willing she was to change, killer to protatgonist, protagonist to killer to make the book the best it could be. And your Einstein quote is inspiring. As always, shored up and encouraged by how generous and supportive you are to other writers. Thank you!

  4. Thelma, thanks. *blush* No, actually, I don't even have them on display, at all. Probably need to unpack them and put them somewhere. But I'd have to clean up some mess first. *sigh* Later. :-)

  5. Hi, Mary! I'm glad to see another fan of the notebooks. I think there's so much there to learn about the process of writing and the successful writing life. I love the way her daily life--grocery lists, phone messages, things to do--are entwined with her hard thinking about what she wanted to do with her novels. Thanks!

  6. Jimin! So great to see you here! Yes, the notebooks are a wonderful gift to give yourself. I go back to them often, especially when I'm having problems. they remind me that things didn't just fall into place for Christie. She worked hard to make those books the best she could.

    And thanks for all the sweet things you said.

  7. Welcome to Crime Writers' Chronicle! I too was fascinated by that book's the insights into her plotting and reworking. At Malice, I replaced my tattered copy of 4:50 from Paddington, which is probably my favorite Marple. And promptly curled up and read the whole thing again.

  8. Thanks, Sheila! I've always love 4:50 From Paddington, but I love so many Christie novels. I think she's drastically underrated as a writer by the academic gatekeepers because she was so successful. She's remarkable in the way she can delineate believable characters and settings with remarkably succinct writing.

  9. I agree that she is underrated as an author. She deftly included social commentary of society in her work