Writing Advice from Agatha Christie’s Ariadne Oliver

Ah, the writer's life. A cozy study, an apple by your side, with an occasional bloody corpse to liven the day.

Ah, the writer’s life. A cozy study, an apple by your side, with an occasional bloody corpse to liven the day.

It’s a great pity that Agatha Christie never wrote a book on plotting and writing mysteries.* But she did us a favor by creating Ariadne Oliver, the apple-eating, opinionated author with the “booming contralto” of “The Affair of the Second Goldfish,” and “The Cat It Was Who Died.” Despite her reluctance to write or talk about her life, Christie was not adverse to using Oliver as a platform for her beliefs on writing, plotting, selling mysteries, and the vagaries of the writing life.

So, after going through the seven novels in which she appears, I present the Ariadne Oliver quotebook. Each quote or excerpt has a letter keyed to the novel it came from: Cards on the Table (C), Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (M), Dead Man’s Folly (D), The Pale Horse (P), Third Girl (T), Hallowe’en Party (H) and Elephants Can Remember (E).

* Fortunately, John Curran did the next best thing. Sorting through her notebooks, he published two books that show the incredible amount of creative work involved in the writing of her books and are well worth investigating.

“Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks”

“Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making”


ACCURACY

“I don’t care two pins about accuracy. Who is accurate? Nobody nowadays. If a reporter writes that a beautiful girl of twenty-two dies by turning on the gas after looking out over the sea and kissing her favourite Labrador, Bob, good-bye, does anybody make a fuss because the girl was twenty-six, the room faced inland, and the do was a Sealyham terrier called Bonnie? If a journalist can do that sort of thing, I don’t see that it matters if I mix up police ranks and say a revolver when I mean an automatic, and a dictograph when I mean a phonograph, and use a poison that just allows you to gasp one dying sentence and no more. (C)


CHARACTERS

“I rather believe now that she did it. It’s lucky it’s not in a book. They don’t really like the young and beautiful girl to have done it.” (C)


“I only regret one thing — making my detective a Finn. I don’t really know anything about Finns and I’m always getting letters from Finland pointing out something impossible that he’s said or done. They seem to read detective stories a good deal in Finland. I suppose it’s the long winters with no daylight. In Bulgaria and Roumania they don’t seem to read at all. I’d have done better to have made him a Bulgar.” (C)


(Ariadne is having trouble with her collaborator on a play about her Finnish detective) “But I really don’t feel it’s right making him a vegetarian, darling,” Robin was objecting. “Too faddy. And definitely not glamourous.”

“I can’t help it,” said Mrs. Oliver obstinately. “He’s always been a vegetarian. He takes round a little machine for grating raw carrots and turnips.”

“But Ariadne, precious, why?”

“How do I know?” said Mrs. Oliver crossly. “How do I know why I ever thought of the revolting man? I must have been mad! Why a Finn when I know nothing about Finland? Why a vegetarian? Why all the idiotic mannerisms he’s got? These things just happen. You try something – and people seem to like it – and then you go on – and before you know where you are, you’ve got someone like that maddening Sven Hjerson tied to you for life. And people even write and say how fond you must be of him. Fond of him? If I met that bony gangling vegetable eating Finn in real life, I’d do a better murder than any I’ve ever invented.”

Robin Upward gazed at her with reverence.

“You know, Ariadne, that might be rather a marvelous idea. A real Sven Hjerson – and you murder him. You might make a Swan Song book of it – to be published after your death.”

“No fear!” said Mrs. Oliver. (M)


“And you’ve got a detective who’s a Finn.”

Mrs. Oliver admitted the fact. A small stolid boy not yet, Mrs. Oliver would have thought, arrived at the seniority of the eleven-plus, said sternly, “Why a Finn?”

“I’ve often wondered,” said Mrs. Oliver truthfully. (H)


“Is it perhaps not true to say, madame, that you do put people in books sometimes? People that you meet, but not, I agree, people that you know. There would be no fun in this.”

“You’re quite right,” said Mrs. Oliver. “. . . It does happen that way, I mean, you see a fat woman sitting in a bus eating a currant bun and her lips are moving as well as eating, and you can see she’s either saying something to someone or thinking up a telephone call that she’s going to make, or perhaps a letter she’s going to write. And you look at her and you study her shoes and the skirt she’s got on and her hat and guess her age and whether she’s got a wedding ring on and a few other things. And then you get out of the bus. You don’t want ever to see her again, but you’ve got a story in your mind about somebody called Mrs. Canaby who is going home in a bus, having had a very strange interview somewhere where she saw someone in a pastry cook’s and was reminded of someone she’d only met once and who she had heard was dead and apparently isn’t dead.” (H)


COLLABORATORS

But you’ve no idea of the agony of having your characters taken and made to say things that they never would have said, and do things that they never would have done. And if you protest, all they say is that it’s ‘good theatre.’ That’s all Robin Upward thinks of. Everyone says he’s very clever. If he’s so clever I don’t see why he doesn’t write a play of his own and leave my poor unfortunate Finn alone. He’s not even a Finn any longer. He’s become a member of the Norwegian Resistance movement.” (M)


DRINKING

“I wish I did [drink]. Like those American detectives that always have pints of rye conveniently in their desk drawers. It seems to solve all their problems.” (P)


Contemplating murder with a Golden Delicious.

Contemplating murder with a Golden Delicious.

IDEAS

Surreptitiously removing her shoes and still quietly champing at her apple, Mrs. Oliver lowered herself once more onto the settee and surveyed the room full of people critically. She was thinking in her authoress’s mind: “Now if I was going to make a book about all these people, how should I do it? They’re nice people, I should think, on the whole, but who knows?” (H)


“If you know anything about writers, you’ll know that they can’t stand suggestions. People say ‘Splendid, but wouldn’t it be better if so and so did so and so?’ Or ‘wouldn’t it be a wonderful idea if the victim was A instead of B? Or the murderer turned out to be D instead of E?’ I mean, one wants to say: ‘All right then, write it yourself if you want it that way!’” (D)


“Idea? I’ve got any amount of ideas. In fact, that’s just the difficulty. It always is my difficulty. I can never think of even one plot at a time. I always think of at least five, and then it’s agony to decide between them. I can think of six beautiful reasons for the murder. The trouble is I’ve no earthly means of knowing which is right.” (C)


“It’s never difficult to think of things. The trouble is that you think of too many, and then it all becomes too complicated, so you have to relinquish some of them and that is rather agony.” (D)


(Calling Oliver, Poirot reflects) He remembered how bitterly Mrs. Oliver had once reproached him for interrupting a train of creative thought and how the world in consequence had been deprived of an intriguing mystery centering round an old-fashioned long-sleeved woolen vest. (D)


Out and about with her friend, Hercule Poirot.

Out and about with her friend, Hercule Poirot.

MISTAKES

“There always is one. Sometimes one doesn’t realize it until a book’s actually in print. And then it’s agony!” Her face reflected this emotion. She sighed. “The curious thing is that most people never notice it. I say to myself, ‘But of course the cook would have been bound to notice that two cutlets hadn’t been eaten.’ But nobody else thinks of it at all.” (D)


MURDER

“I really can’t think how anyone ever gets away with a murder in real life. It seems to me that the moment you’ve done a murder the whole thing is so terribly obvious.”

“Nonsense. You’ve done lots of them.”

“Fifty-five at least,” said Mrs. Oliver. “The murder part is quite easy and simple. It’s the covering up that’s so difficult. I mean why should it be anyone else but you? You stick out a mile.”

“Not in the finished article,” I said.

“Say what you like, it’s not natural for five or six people to be on the spot when B is murdered and all to have a motive for killing B – unless, that is, B is absolutely madly unpleasant and in that case nobody will mind whether he’s been killed or not, and doesn’t care in the least who’s done it.” (P)


“Is your new masterpiece to be Murder by Suggestion?”

“No, indeed. Good old-fashioned rat poison or arsenic is good enough for me. Or the reliable blunt instrument. Not firearms if possible. Firearms are so tricky.” (P)


“What really matters is plenty of bodies! If the thing’s getting a little dull, some more blood cheers it up. Somebody is going to tell something—and then they’re killed first! That always goes down well. It comes in all my books –camouflaged different ways, of course. And people like untraceable poisons, and idiotic police inspectors and girls tied up in cellars with sewer gas or water pouring in (such a troublesome way of killing any one really) and a hero who can dispose of anything from three to seven villains single-handed.” (C)


“I only write very plain murders,” she said apologetically. “Just about people who want other people out of the way and try to be clever about it.” (P)


“Men get killed and nobody minds – I mean nobody except their wives and sweethearts and children and things like that.” (D)


PEOPLE

“I adore people, don’t you?” said Robin happily.

“No,” said Mrs. Oliver firmly.

“But you must. Look at all the people in your books.”

“That’s different. I think trees are much nicer than people, more restful.” (M)


PLOTS

(Looking over her books in a store) “‘The Affair of the Second Goldfish,’ she mused, “that’s quite a good one. ‘The Cat It Was Who Died’ – that’s where I made a blowpipe a foot long and it’s really six feet. Ridiculous that a blowpipe should be that size, but someone wrote from a Museum to tell me so. Sometimes I think there are people who only read books in the hope of finding mistakes in them. What’s the other one of them? Oh! “Death of a Debutante” — that’s frightful tripe! I made sulphonal soluble in water and it isn’t, and the whole thing is wildly impossible from start to finish. At least eight people die before Sven Jherson gets his brainwave.” (M)


“I often have a master criminal in my stories — people like it — but really he gets harder and harder to do. So long as one doesn’t know who he is, I can keep him impressive. But when it all comes out, he seems, somehow, so inadequate. A kind of anticlimax. It’s much easier if you just have a bank manager who’s embezzled the funds, or a husband who wants to get rid of his wife and marry the children’s governess. So much more natural.” (P)


“If I write things, I get them perfectly clear, but if I talk, it always sounds the most frightful muddle; and that’s why I never discuss my plots with anyone. I’ve learnt not to, because if I do, they just look at me blankly and say – ‘er – yes, but – I don’t see what happened – and surely that can’t possibly make a book.’ So damping. And not true, because when I write it, it does!” (D)


“That dreadful Finn of mine has got himself terribly tangled up. He did some awfully clever deduction with a dish of French beans, and how he’s just detected deadly poison in the sage and onion stuffing of the Michaelmas goose, and I’ve just remembered that French beans are over by Michaelmas.” (C)


“I’ve written thirty-two books by now — and of course they’re all exactly the same really, as M. Poirot seems to have noticed — but nobody else has.” (C)


PUBLIC, MEETING THE

“People say things to me — you know — how much they like my books, and how they’ve been longing to meet me — and it all makes me feel hot and bothered and rather silly. But I manage to cope more or less. And they say how much they love my awful detective Sven Hjerson. If they knew how I hated him! But my publisher always says I’m not to say so.” (T)


“What can you say about how you write books? What I mean is, first you’ve got to think of something, and when you’ve thought of it you’ve got to force yourself to sit down and write it. That’s all. It would have taken me just three minutes to explain that, and then the Talk would have been ended and everyone would have been very fed up. I can’t imagine why everybody is always so keen for authors to talk about writing. I should have thought it was an author’s business to write, not talk.” (D)


PUBLICITY

“Ariadne Oliver. A best seller. People wish to interview her, to know what she thinks about such subjects as student unrest, socialism, girls’ clothing, should sex be permissive, and many other things that are no concern of hers.”

“Yes, yes,” said Poirot, “deplorable, I think. They do not learn very much, I have noticed, from Mrs. Oliver. They learn only that she is fond of apples. That has now been known for twenty years at least, I should think, but she still repeats it with a pleasant smile. Although now, I fear, she no longer likes apples.”


PUBLISHERS

Mrs. Oliver prowled round her sitting room. She was very restless. An hour ago she had parceled up a typescript that she had just finished correcting. She was about to send it off to her publisher, who was anxiously awaiting it and constantly prodding her about it every three or four days. “There you are,” said Mrs. Oliver, addressing the empty air and conjuring up an imaginary publisher. “There you are, and I hope you like it! I don’t. I think it’s lousy! I don’t believe you know whether anything I write is good or bad. Anyway, I warned you. I told you it was frightful. You said, ‘Oh! no, no, I don’t believe that for a moment.’ “You just wait and see,” said Mrs. Oliver vengefully, “You just wait and see.” (T)

ariadne2


SEX

(A playwright suggests making her Finnish detective younger and in love with a girl, saying the “feeling of sex antagonism” will “pep the whole thing up enormously!”

“Sven Hjerson never cared for women,” said Mrs. Oliver coldly.

“But you can’t have him a pansy, darling! Not for this sort of play. I mean, it’s not green bay trees or anything like that. It’s thrills and murders and clean open air fun-” (M)


SELF-IMAGE

She was not unduly modest. She thought the detective stories she wrote were quite good of their kind. Some were not so good and some were much better than others. But there was no reason, so far as she could see, to make anyone think she was a noble woman. She was a lucky woman who had established a happy knack of writing what quite a lot of people wanted to read. Wonderful luck that was, Mrs. Oliver thought to herself. (E)


SPEECHES

“I don’t need to make a speech,” said Mrs. Oliver. “Several other people who like doing it will be making speeches, and they are much better at it than I would be.”

“I’m sure you’d make a lovely speech if you put your mind to it,” said Maria, adjusting herself to the role of a tempter.

“No, I shouldn’t,” said Mrs. Oliver. “I know what I can do and I know what I can’t. I can’t make speeches. I get all worried and nervy and I should probably stammer or say the same thing twice. I should not only feel silly, I should probably look silly. Now it’s all right with words. You can write words or speak them into a machine or dictate them. I can do things with words so long as I know it’s not a speech I’m making.” (E)


TAXES

My books bring me in quite enough money — that is to say the bloodsuckers take most of it, and if I made more, they’d take more, so I don’t overstrain myself. (M)


“You’ve written lots of books. You make a lot of money out of them, don’t you?”

“In a way,” said Mrs. Oliver, her thoughts flying to the Inland Revenue. (H)


TITLES

“What sort of thing?”

“Blood in the courtyard,” said Poirot.

“Really!” said Mrs. Oliver. “That’s just like the title of an old-fashioned detective story. ‘The Stain on the Staircase.’ I mean nowadays you say something more like ‘She Asked for Death.’” (T)


TRUTH

“Do you believe in the value of truth, my dear, or don’t you?”

“Of course I believe in the truth,” said Rhoda, staring.

“You, you say that—but perhaps you haven’t thought about it. The truth hurts sometimes—and destroys one’s illusions.”

“I’d rather have it, all the same,” said Rhoda.

“So would I. But I don’t know that we’re wise.” (C)


WRITING

“I’m too busy writing or rather worrying because I can’t write. That’s really the most tiresome thing about writing – though everything is tiresome really, except the one moment when you get what you think is going to be a wonderful idea, and can hardly wait to begin.” (P)


It’s safer, I think, to stick to what you know . . . People on cruises, and in hostels, and what goes on in hospitals, and on parish councils – and sales of work – and music festivals, and girls in shops , and committees and daily women, and young men and girls who hike round the world in the interests of science, and shop assistants -” (P)


“It must be wonderful just to sit down and write off a whole book.”

“It doesn’t happen exactly like that,” said Mrs. Oliver. “One actually has to think, you know. And thinking is always a bore. And you have to plan things. And then one gets stuck every now and then, and you feel you’ll never get out of the mess—but you do! Writing’s not particularly not enjoyable. It’s hard work, like everything else. … Some days I can only keep going by repeating over and over to myself the amount of money I might get for my next serial rights. That spurs you on, you know. So does your bank-book when you see how much overdrawn you are.” (C)


WRITING, EASY

(Eve Carpenter and the playwright Robin Upward try to convince Ariadne to set her next murder in Broadhinny.)

“Who shall we have as murderer and who as victim?” asked Robin.

“Who’s your present charwoman?” asked Mrs. Oliver.

“Oh my dear, not that kind of murder. So dull. No, I think Eve here would make rather a nice victim. Strangled, perhaps, with her own nylon stockings. No, that’s been done.”*

“I think you’d better be murdered, Robin,” said Eve. “The coming playwright, stabbed in a country cottage.”

“We haven’t settled on a murderer yet,” said Robin. “What about my mamma? Using her wheeled chair so that there wouldn’t be footprints. I think that would be lovely.”

“She wouldn’t want to stab you, though, Robin.”

Robin considered.

“No, perhaps not. As a matter of fact I was considering her strangling you. She wouldn’t mind doing that half as much.”

“But I want you to be the victim. And the person who kills you can be Deirdre Henderson. The repressed plain girl whom nobody notices.”

“There you are, Ariadne,” said Robin. “The whole plot of your next novel presented to you. All you’ll have to do is work in a few false clues, and – of course – do the actual writing.”

* Curiously, the above’s from “Mrs McGinty’s Dead” (1952), but “A Pocket Full of Rye” where the maid, Gladys Martin, is strangled with a pair of stockings was published the next year.


WRITING, PLEASURES OF

She had been lost in a nostalgic dream of home. Walls covered with exotic birds and foliage. A deal table, her typewriter, black coffee, apples everywhere . . . What bliss, what glorious and solitary bliss! What a mistake for an author to emerge from her secret fastness. Authors were shy, unsociable creatures, atoning for their lack of social aptitude by inventing their own companions and conversations. (M)


Before we’re done, let’s let Mrs. Oliver have the last line:

“You’re a much better detective than that lanky Laplander of yours.”

“Finn,” corrected Mrs. Oliver. “Of course he’s idiotic. But people like him. Good-bye.”

(c) 1995-2016 by Bill Peschel