When I am deep in a project, I generally don’t read too much women’s fiction. I worry about the unconscious influences of voice or tone, and I dread coming across a plotline that may be similar to mine. So last summer while I worked on the first draft of my current novel, I tended to curl up in my big chair with mysteries, specifically Agatha Christie's works—there is nothing like the Dame on a rainy summer night.
But as I worked on my story, it occurred to me that Christie’s formidable skills are a model for all writers, even those of us writing romantic fiction. Herewith are the lessons I have gleaned from Dame Agatha: --Mystery. No, I’m not writing one, but I’m planting small ones in my story, including a few red herrings. There are no bodies littering my tale, but there are characters whose motivations are not clear, a couple who may or may not come together (perhaps not so mysterious after all, but I will keep ‘em guessing for a bit) and a hero with a secret. --History. Just about every one of Christie’s murders has its roots in what happened before the action of the novel begins. It’s the characters’ histories that move them “towards zero,” or the defining moment that kicks the story into gear. My heroine has some baggage from her first marriage, and lots of residual anger. She’s got sibling issues with her younger sister that always threaten to bubble to the surface, and longstanding attachments to her grandpa and her beloved dog that get in the way of relationships with men (though her bad temper has something to do with that as well.) As I flesh out characters, I ask myself what has brought them to this particular place, so that I can move them “towards zero” in believable ways. --Economy. Can Christie describe a London alleyway with the poetry of P. D. James? No. Does she have the literary brilliance of Dorothy Sayers? Probably not. But she is an unqualified master of pacing; few writers move a story the way she does, and the reader is helplessly carried along on the swift and twisty currents of her plot. Characters are sketched quickly but skillfully, and back story is woven seamlessly into the action without slowing it down. For writers of commercial fiction, particularly in this market, it’s all about page turning. And who knows? Maybe I'll even try my hand at a real mystery one of these days.
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