Tag Archives: Agatha Christie

Writer’s Clues

This week I have been considering – no, make that marvelling at – writer’s clues we novelists leave sprinkled about our stories. The clue is always a key to unlock some crucial element of plot or character when it becomes important. In other words, later. A breath from the future.

Some are for the readers, especially if we’re writing some sort of whodunnit, whether the crime is murder or stealing a pig.

But some are for ourselves. And some come as a complete surprise to us when we get to the crucial moment.

Writer’s Clues for the Reader

clue, County Hall Assembly ChamberThis week I went to see a terrific presentation of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution. It was staged in the old Council Chamber of the Greater London Council at the former County Hall.

It is a powerfully authoritarian assembly chamber. One quailed as one entered. Well, I did, anyway.

The production makes a great point about the might of the law. And this was absolutely the perfect venue for it. But the play itself, taken from a short story, is about solving a murder mystery as you’d expect.

It’s been filmed twice. In 1957 was it directed by Billy Wilder and starred Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich. The movie, Wilder and Laughton were all nominated for Academy Awards. In 1982 it was filmed for television with Ralph Richardson and Diana Riggs in the Laughton and Dietrich roles, plus a host of other starry names of the times – and a young Beau Bridges.

In the current staging, the dramatic, not to say melodramatic, events didn’t really get going properly until the second act. There’s a lot of exposition in the early dialogue. And in that exposition there is a Writer’s Clue.

Writer’s Clues the Readers Miss

blue question marksI am sure it must be there in the story. But my companion did not pick it up from the stage performance. “I don’t understand. Where did that [character] come from?” he demanded afterwards, irritated.

I reminded him of the conversations in which the character was mentioned. He conceded. But it clearly didn’t have the impact that Christie or her playwright collaborator would have liked.

Evil Things, Katje Ivar, CluesBy contrast I have raved elsewhere on this blog about Evil Things by Katje Ivar.

Among its many virtues, it has an absolutely fabulous clue which you note but don’t see the significance of until the end.

Then the events are explained that actually led to the murder. And the explanation is a fact you already  know. You – well, I –  just didn’t complete the jigsaw. Perfect!

And I managed both Christie and Ivar without spoilers! Yay!

Writer’s Clues to Self

When the wonderful Diana Wynne Jones died in 2011, she left an unfinished manuscript, The Islands of Chaldea. Eventually, her younger sister, Ursula Jones, completed it. Her Afterword on the process is both inspiring and illuminating about her sister’s writing process. (Read it. It’s terrific – and spine chilling – and heartbreaking.) About the stories that Diana would tell her younger siblings when they were children, she writes:

It filled a series of exercise books, and she would read the newest section to us in bed at night. When she suddenly stopped reading we would wail, “Go on, go on. What happens next?” and she’d say, “Don’t you understand? I haven’t written any more yet.”

And that’s how Diana Wynne Jones carried on through  45 years of wonderful magical adventure stories that make you think, make you weep, make you want to go on great expeditions and be brave. Her sister again: “She left no notes: she never made any. Her books always came straight out of her extraordinary mind onto the page and she never discussed her work while it was in progress.”

An archetypal pantser then. But no notes? No notes at all? Not just a pantser, a major risk taker, I’d say.

Ursula Jones, a children’s writer herself and an actress, says she scoured the text for those writer’s clues and found nothing. For months. And, just when she was starting to despair, she found one of DIana’s clues, early on in the manuscript.

My Own Writer’s Clues

writing energy magic, book, bluebell woodI’ve always been a pantser. I hear my characters, usually at a moment somewhere close to the start of my, their, story. And at that moment I know exactly as much as they do about what they are going to do and what difficulties they are going to encounter. Zilch.

Into the woods we go, equally clueless.

But I know them. And sometimes I know stuff I don’t know I know.

Take the case of  The Accidental Mistress. It’s the second in a trilogy about three girls in the same family. I knew the girls intimately. So I steamed ahead after Book 1. But oh, the hero…

So I did what I’d tell anyone else to do. I sat down and started reading it aloud. And, there it was, the Writer’s Clue to Writer. On page one. Page One. 

My hero, Dom, is an explorer. He’s about to go to the Arctic and he’s lost 10% of his funding. My heroine works in a Public Relations Company. Her boss offers to help. And Dom has gone into the office for a strategy meeting and is sitting at the table doodling impatiently.

Doodling? WTF? Is he totally irresponsible? He should be taking notes. Hell’s teeth, he should be handing out his own brief, insisting the PR people read it. What’s going on here?

Clearly Dom doesn’t feel comfortable in an office. Doesn’t take notes. Doesn’t read the stuff they’ve given him. Why?

Dom is dyslexic!

writer's cat - kitten at computerAnd there he was. There he had been from the very first moment I’d started writing the book. And my conscious mind – the mind that was counting words and ticking off key milestones in the plot and looking at deadlines [hollow laughter] – blithely went on worrying that my hero wasn’t there yet.

The blasted kitten had more sense than I did.

In Search of your Writer’s Clues

So I have enormous sympathy with Ursula Jones, trying to identify, let alone decipher, the clues left by somebody else. Because it is something that happens below the level of analysis and reason. It comes with dreams, tingles at the back of the neck and, oh heavens, doubt.

But writer, if you’re writing a book and get stuck in the middle, read it aloud. Those clues will be there. You have to dive in and let the book talk to you. And it will. Eventually.

Good luck

Sophie Weston AuthorSophie

Wanna Wallow, Dear Reader?

Georgette Heyer’s endings

Re-reading some of my favourite Georgette Heyer novels recently — Dame Isadora snagged me as the minion to do the research for her blogs because she, being a Very Important Personage, had Better Things To Do — I was struck by how often Heyer brings her lovers together at the very end of her novels, sometimes on the very last page.

bride and groom pre wallow
Heyer might give us a chaste embrace. She might even give us a fierce kiss or two. And she often adds a shared joke.
But that’s about it.

What we don’t get in Heyer is a lovers’ wallow.

What’s a wallow?

I’d describe the wallow as a shortish section at the end of a love story where the reader sees the lovers together and passionately in love — both of them trusting and relaxed and happy. Sometimes the lovers are married, sometimes they have had children, sometimes they are simply enjoying each other.

wallow on tropical beach



It’s the Happy Ever After ending shown right there on the page for the reader to savour.



Some readers love a wallow. Some readers even feel shortchanged if a novel doesn’t have one at the end. But readers still love all those Heyer novels that don’t have the merest hint of a wallow. So…

Does a love story need a wallow?

Continue reading

The Amateur Sleuth: Guest Blog by Lesley Cookman

crime writer Lesley Cookman on the amateur sleuth

Lesley Cookman
creator of amateur sleuth Libby Sarjeant

Today our guest blogger is Lesley Cookman, an author who is probably most widely known for murder mysteries featuring her amateur sleuth, Libby Sarjeant.

But Lesley also writes in lots of other genres.

Lesley is the author of seven pantomimes, a Music Hall Musical, two romances and sixteen books in the Libby Sarjeant series. She has also written the first in what she hopes will become a new series about an Edwardian Concert Party. In describing her professional life, Lesley says she “writes a lot, reads a lot and occasionally acts a bit.” Sounds like a typically tongue-in-cheek description!

Libertà hive members know what it’s like to keep trying to find new plots for romantic entanglements, but Lesley’s challenge is probably even greater. Her sleuth is established, but how do you find yet another scenario for an unexplained death that your amateur sleuth can solve?

Over to Lesley…

frustrated crime writer seeks plotNew Ideas for the Amateur Sleuth


New ideas for the amateur sleuth?

“If only,” says the beleaguered writer.
“Can’t wait,” says the eager reader.

Suspension of Disbelief

murder will out

I sometimes think that, apart from Fantasy Fiction, the amateur sleuth mystery is the one genre in which readers are the most determined to suspend disbelief. Take my own Libby Sarjeant. How could one middle-aged woman actually fall over murders in sixteen novels, one novella and a short story? That’s eighteen crimes she has managed to investigate. Continue reading