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What I Learned About Writing This Week…from Agatha Christie

Today, dear inklings, I’m going to tell you stuff about writing that goes hand-in-hand with what I told you last week. It’s stuff that contradicts much of what I believe concerning Good Writing.

Forgive me if this elicits any dissociative episodes; alas, I can but follow where the Muse* guideth.

I’ve spent the last few days getting scared out of my wits by a wholly unexpected source: Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

I read this novel twice during my high school years; and even though I never forgot the premise, the plot, or the twist, I always knew I would read it at least one more time. Something about this story has always drawn me. It’s probably the first murder mystery I ever read. And it’s a doozy.

I said “doozy.” *gigglesnort*


So, when I picked up the novel over the weekend, I did so knowing full well the whodunit outcome. Knowing the story as I did, there was no mystery to the murder. The only thing I couldn’t remember was the sequence of who was killed when and where and with what.

Also, there were adverbs.


But in spite of the lack of mystery, in spite of the plethora of adverbs, and, yea verily, in spite of an omniscient narrator who spent bonkers too much time in characters’ heads…

…I still enjoyed the re-read, and it spooked me enough to give me goosebumps and walk around the house with all the lights on after sundown.

The Conundrum

…is that I’m not entirely sure how Ms. Christie did it. AHA! There’s the real mystery! Not the whodunit but the howdunit. And I don’t have any answers that are helpful to me, much less to any of you.

I just know it’s a crazy good story. But since we’re supposed to be learning something here, I’ll put my detective skills to the test.

Solving the Mystery

Character development! Maybe that’s it. The omniscient narrator lets the reader see who these people really are, as well as who they’re pretending to be even to themselves. That’s a pretty significant point, I guess — though omniscient will never be my favorite narration style.

Ugh for omniscient, really.

But still, it is fascinating to be in these characters’ heads and watch them start to interact. The reader sees them thinking one thing and saying another. If nothing else, this is quite the realistic study of the human condition. Kudos to Ms. Christie for that, most assuredly.

Realistic. Yes, that’s another point this story has in its favor. All the details are there: sights, sounds, smells, tactile sensations. The reader gets them from every character: more, from the characters who are more sensual; less, from those who are more practical; but still, every character offers them.

(Forgive the crudity of my punctuation; I haven’t had time to build it to scale**.)

Oh! Especially character Vera Claythorne. There’s a terrible, morbid attraction in watching her succumb to ***SPOILER!!!*** suicidal thoughts due, in great part, to the simple smell of the ocean.

My final clue in the howdunit is Christie’s use of italics and capitals. She emphasizes certain phrases in such a way that I can’t help but hear horrible violins punctuating every syllable — in the best thriller-film tradition. Here are some of my favorites:


Vera cried out, “Who was that speaking? …”

“…Ulick Norman Owen — Una Nancy Owen — each time, that is to say, U. N. Owen. Or by a slight stretch of fancy, UNKNOWN!”

“It’s the wife, doctor. I can’t get her to wake. My God! I can’t get her to wake…”

“There are five of us here in this room. One of us is a murderer…”

“There’s one other little fact. A pane in the dining-room window has been smashed — and there are only three little Indian boys on the table.”

I know they’re not terribly creepy out-of-context, but I hope they at least hint at why this novel chilled my spine.

Ms. Christie — in the Novel — with the Adverb

Christie uses adverbs. They’re everywhere. Like cockroaches.

Disparagingly. With active malevolence. Hospitably. Persuasively. Sharply. Doubtfully. Fantastically.

And that’s just two (2) pages’ worth.

If you’ve been paying attention — and I know you have, my sweet inklings, because that’s just the dear sort of people you are — you know that I’m not overly fond of adverbs.

Obviously, I use them sometimes. ; )

But I do try to stay away from them at least in dialogue tags.

Those adverbs of Christie’s I mentioned? All but two of them are attached to dialogue.

I am not a fan of this.

That said…Christie’s adverbs didn’t bother me so much. Maybe because my brain was already softened pre-conditioned by my enjoyment of Feist’s adverb-riddled high fantasy story. Or maybe I’m suffering early onset of dementia.

Either possibility is likely.

At any rate, Christie’s adverbs — in the midst of a clever, character-driven, suspense-filled tale — hardly distracted me from the story at all.

I don’t know why they didn’t. Except for the clever, suspenseful character stuff.

Loose Ends

So, I guess the only thing I really learned about writing this week is that it’s still possible to give me chills, even when I know what to expect. This says more about me than it does about writing, but you people can’t have everything, y’know.


*The Muse, in case I’ve never mentioned it here, is a chain-smoking, bar-dwelling pervert named Clarence who shows up in connection with my Grace and Jack stories, for those of you who’ve read some of those.

**Please, somebody tell me you get this reference. I’d like to feel not-old.

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