Inspiring People of 2018: Innovating Genre and Character with Agatha Christie
Inspiration is a strange and elusive creature. I’ve also said more than once that inspiration is over-rated. The Muse will reveal herself when she pleases. But it’s up to us to show up. If we don’t, she probably won’t either.
I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes at nine every morning.
But inspiration sometimes comes from unexpected places. It has this year for me.
For this last week of 2018, I want to highlight a few of the people who’ve been most helpful, most inspiring in my creative journey throughout this year, with the hope that some of these folks will inspire you, as well.
The first one was surprised me until I went back to my childhood.
My preferred genre of fiction is fantasy and fairy tales. This is what I read. This is what I’m writing.
But for some reason, Agatha Christie, queen of the mystery genre, has a been a part of my literary life for a long time.
I was about 9 years old when I finished reading through everything in the children’s section at the public library in Rochelle, IL. It was time to move upstairs to the whole new world of the adult section, with its Dewey decimal system and rows of genre fiction. I remember nosing through what seemed like massive numbers of books in the stacks. I am fairly certain there weren’t as many books as what I imagined. But it was a new world to explore, and new worlds always seem larger than they really are.
For whatever reason, I honed in on a nice thick hardback called “Murder on the Orient Express” and my 9-year old mind entered an adult world of murder, innuendo, and intrigue - much of which I didn’t understand. But I did like the story, the strange cast of characters, and I will always remember the surprising, yet inevitable, solution to the puzzle.
I soon moved from Agatha Christie to Tolkien, Pratchett, and Brooks (I had already read through the world of Narnia and the strange and wonderful universes of Madeline L’Engle numerous times in the children’s library).
Fast forward 42 years.
I’ve been married to a fellow lover of books and stories for almost 30 years now. While my genre borders on the strange, weird, and fantastical for her, she is a reader of mysteries - and has maneuvered through the world of Miss Marple and Hercules Poirot at least as many times as I’ve wondered Middle Earth.
So this year, we’ve passed our time on road trips listening to the combination of charm, humor, and darkness that is Agatha Christie.
And I’ve found it fascinating and educational, and always entertaining.
Here’re three ways Agatha Christie has taught and inspired me this year.
Christie teaches Genre
She is the murder mystery archetype. Her novels lay the groundwork. They set the rules. The expected tropes are determined by Christie’s characters. I’ve learned what to expect (and what not to expect) in the mystery genre. With a little careful observation, every genre has similar tropes. And tropes are not bad things when they are not “tropey.” Agatha Christie does the expected in the most brilliantly unexpected ways.
Christie teaches how to innovate structure
The murder mystery has a very specific structure. Christie innovates this structure from novel to novel, but there are very specific attributes to every story. A body. An inquest. A cast of characters. One or more complications. A red herring. A reveal. It’s astounding to me that she includes these things in every one of her 66 novels and 14 short stories, yet each is completely different and unpredictable. She was a master.
Christie teaches character development
Poroit used his “little gray cells”. Miss Marple was a student of human nature. Both are very different, whimsical, and endearing. Each of the characters in stories has a story of their own. Christie's characters have a depth and reality about them. They are interesting. Never boring.
Here’s the funny thing. I love fantasy. The fantastical worlds of trolls and gnomes and dwarfs and dragons are the worlds I prefer to live in. Renee’ is ever a practical one and likes to keep feet firmly planted in the world of reality.
That said, we do have the groundwork for a cozy mystery series. It probably will not come to fruition in 2019 - but I do see this being a reality in the next few years.
When it does happen, we have Agatha Christie to thank for that. But learning and understanding genre is a critical aspect of writing fiction. Agatha Christie is one of the best teachers of how to do genre fiction.
I’m also grateful for the stories Ms. Christie told that introduced me to the world of adult library books, as well as murder on trains in Central Europe.