Christie's Notebooks - 2015

 How my analysis all started

In 2004, I designed and presented a Workshop on structuring and planning a mystery. The diagram and list near the bottom is from that workshop. More recently I saw some documentaries on Agatha Christie and her Notebooks. I discovered that her structure is similar and her method much like mine and many other writers. (Or are we all like her?) We write "stuff" in notebooks and eventually, those bits coalesce into a story.
After reading the first book by John Curran "Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks: Fifty Years in the Making", I designed this presentation. 
The second book is: Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making: More Stories and Secrets from Her Notebooks. 
Agatha had a solitary childhood and developed the habit of reading copiously. She continued reading, fiction and non-fiction, throughout her writing career. Safe to say that to be s successful writer, one must continue to read.

Queen of Mystery

Know what they want and like
and give it to them.

  • Give your sleuth an unusual perspective, keen sense of observation and excellent listening skills… and a logical reason for being that way.


  How Murders or mysteries work.

  •  Many of her ideas on mystery stories come out of the mouths of her characters. In particular, Mrs. Oliver is deemed to be Christie's alter ego.
  • In Towards Zero, when the venerable, old judge explains how he views murder he is speaking "for Christie."
  • The judge explains that the real story happens before the murder, and that all the events and people converge until 'zero hour' when the murder occurs. In other words, as writers we must know the back stories if our sleuth is to solve the case.

What was in those 71 surviving notebooks?

Plot snippets:

Location, mode of death, manner of death, discover and reporting of death; items moved in, added to or taken away from the crime scene; clues and red herrings

Character information

  • individual types, personalities, professions - developed fully
  • connections between the characters, especially between several characters and the victim
  • motives, opportunities, special knowledge (poisons and other options for killing)

Her ideas ran through her mind, and she reworked them over and over until she felt ready to write the story.


Location played a large part in her plots. She often picked the location first and used ordinary places allowing her imagination to plot out the murder. She owned eight houses and each of them appear in a book. Locked in a small geographical space, the characters interacted with the sleuth watching, asking and speculation until the evidence jelled about what happened. The 'crucible concept' is often still used for mysteries.

Her settings included:

  • Country estates (Mysterious Affair at Styles, Dead Man's Folly, Toward Zero)
  • Villages (The Moving Finger, Murder is Easy, A murder is Announced)
  • Hotels  (The Pale Horse, At Bertram's Hotel, A Body in the Library)
  • Vacations/buses and trains (Nemesis, Murder on the Orient Express)

Example from a notebook entry that turned in Dead Man's Folly:

 Useable Ideas:

  • Mrs. Oliver summons Poirot
  • She is at Greenway – professional job – organizing a treasure hunt or a murder hunt for the conservation fete that is to be held there

Some ideas:

  • Hiker (girl) from hostel next door – really Lady Bannerman
  • A girl easier to disguise than a man
  • Would mean nobody knows her well
  • ? Ill- invalid – always in her room
  • ?or stupid and nobody pays her any attention
  • Then someone arrives who knows the real person – will expose her??

Clues and Red Herrings

At least three to five characters have motives for killing her victims. Christie always watched and listened and turned the most mundane events and items into clues. She recorded endless varieties of seemingly basic ideas. A key clue often appears early in her books, sometimes even before the murder occurs. If something is mentioned only once - take note. And if the Sidekick makes a statement of opinion and the sleuth neither agrees or disagrees, it's probably wrong.

Back Story
  • recent - this is the murder itself
  • historical -the connections and events from over the years that lead to the murder
Once Christie had her ideas she used he ABC method, giving each event a letter. (see 1,2,3, sample in chart below) She reordered her points numerous times until she was satisfied. These key events, clues and evidence were used to write the scenes and the unraveling followed a circuitous route. 
From "Building a Mystery" M. G. Reid, 2004
1./Asleuth enters the story
2./Bsleuth dissects crime sceneEach clue might have its own letter and scene. (G, H, etc)
3./Csleuth retraces history of victim
4./Dsleuth uncovers connects: victim+suspects
5./Esleuth find proof to nail the killer
6./Fsleuth reveals the killer

Zoe Wanamaker (Mrs. Oliver)

The Sleuth

Main characters
  • Hercule Poirot
  • Miss Marple
  • Inspector Battle
  • Mrs. Oliver (Usually with Poirot)
  • Tommy and Tuppence
  • Poirot has Colonel Hastings, and his housekeeper, Miss Lemon and the often appearing, Inspector Japp
  • Miss Marple often had help – but it varied from friends (Mrs Bantry) to various policemen who came to know her and respect her input.

 The Bottom Line

  • Mysteries are about uncovering the back story - know yours in detail.
  • The book moves forward - but the STORY looks back, prompted by clues and words and situations in the present until the hidden motives are all revealed. 
Mahrie G. Reid, Agatha Christie's Notebooks - and what we can learn from them. When Words Collide, 2015


  1. Just watched the movie, Knives Out, using Chrstie's way of telling the story. Sure kept me guessing on whodunnit. Lots of fun. Learned a lot in your blog
    Thank you.

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