Monday, June 20, 2011


Lessons from a pioneer

Back in 1919 a young woman who received a number of gruff rejections for her first novel accepted a contract at last for the book. It was a contract that favoured the publisher and in fact meant that the author would not receive a penny for years for this book. Of course she was thrilled to see her first work published but that didn’t turn into cash in a hurry. Not only was she bound by harsh terms, but she was obligated to give this publisher her next four books! The book: The Mysterious Affair at Styles. The author? Agatha Christie. Christie went on to become what is generally believed to be the best-selling author of all time. The lesson: authors shouldn’t sell ourselves short. We may not follow that same meteoric path but we all need to be respected and treated fairly.

Do not be too anxious to give away your rights in order to be published. We should be thinking about this as the name of the game changes with e-books. What is fair and reasonable? That is the question.

Agatha Christie was horrified to learn that a Hollywood studio had actually bought the rights to her characters and could make whatever movies they wanted with them no matter how much she protested. A contract’s a contract. She hadn’t paid that much attention to the fine print. Everyone needs to pay attention to the business and read those contracts.

Authors reading this should take comfort in knowing that she frequently was most upset about her covers.

She was very prolific, turning out plays, short stories, romances, and 80 detective novels, and continuing to turn out “a Christie for Christmas” long after she felt like doing it. Agatha loved to travel, to decorate houses (and buy and sell them) as well as to cook, play with her dogs, enjoy her grandson’s company and stroll on her property. These seem like excellent pursuits to me. Sometimes she just had to force herself to sit down and write. Fine. I’ll get back to work.

In 2005, John Curran became acquainted with a Christie treasure trove when her family gave him access to her collected notebooks, still in Greenway. In Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks he shares what he found: the notebooks are full of illustrations, cross-outs, arrows, retries, plot versions, and great big X’s. Stories were worked, reworked, changed and changed again. Sometimes the story seemed to be turned upside down. If the parts of the novel weren’t working out to Christie’s satisfaction, she just kept at it, most likely surprising herself from time to time. Note to self: don’t give up if it doesn’t come together right the first time.

Christie drew on her experiences growing up in large well-appointed English houses, even though she was well-off rather than very wealthy in her early childhood. She used the rituals of entertaining and village life to create settings that captivated the world. When times were tough (down to one maid, nanny and cook), the family rented out their home and escaped to France where they could live well for much less. Agatha only noticed the adventure. She spent a lot of time in her imaginary world, peopled with characters that seemed real to her. We can all mine our life experience to enrich our stories, even if we didn’t have the nanny, the maid and the cook. Most of us had the dog.

She used her love of archaeological digs and travel in the Middle East (particularly pre-World War II Iraq) to create engaging and exotic tales that captured the setting and the lure of the digs. She wrote what she loved even though, it seems, she may not have always loved what she wrote.

These are just a few samples of what I’m learning from the seemingly immortal Dame Agatha in her own autobiography, as well as the surprisingly entertaining Duchess of Death: the Unauthorized Biography of Agatha Christie by Richard Hack and the fascinating Secret Notebooks. Christie is really a gift that keeps on giving, not just at Christmas.

It’s all helping me. So what lessons have you learned from classic crime writers?

Mary Jane Maffini rides herd on three (soon to be three and a half) mystery series and a couple of dozen short stories. Her thirteenth mystery novel, The Busy Woman’s Guide to Murder, which hit the bookshelves this spring, is brimming with names, no two the same.

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