Showing posts with label Agatha Christie. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Agatha Christie. Show all posts

Friday, March 21

Writing A Murderously Good Mystery: The Importance of the Murder Victim

Writing A Murderously Good Mystery: The Importance of the Murder Victim

Today I'm continuing my mini-series on how to write a murderously good mystery by exploring what qualities the murder victim might have.

The Victim

W.H. Auden in The Guilty Vicarage [2] writes that two things should be true of the victim (and please keep in mind that the murder mysteries under discussion are English cozies where all the characters have some connection to each other):

i. All your characters should have a reason to want to kill the victim.
ii. All your characters should feel sorry, or at least a little guilty, that the victim is dead, or for wanting him dead.

The trouble, of course, is that for everyone to want the victim dead it's unlikely he's going to be a shining ray of sunshine. On the contrary, he's probably going to be one fine example of an SOB. This sets up a contradiction: Why should the characters feel guilty that someone they hated is dead? Or, more importantly, why should your readers care that the victim is dead?

Survivor Guilt

First of all let me mildly disagree with W.H. Auden. In the majority of the murder mysteries I've read and watched the survivors do not mourn the untimely passing of the first victim. In fact, often, this initial death is greeted with a measure of glee. Though, that said, I do grant that sometimes, perhaps even often, one or more of the survivors do experience feelings of guilt for wanting the victim dead. 

For example, Agatha Christie's short story, The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, the victim is singularly despicable in every way and anything we found out about the deceased afterward just confirmed our low opinion of him. (The same can be said of the victim in Christie's Murder on the Orient Express.)

On the other hand, in Evil Under the Sun, Agatha Christie reveals that much of what we thought we know about the victim came by way of the killers. Sure, no one would nominate her for person of the year but she was young and lonely and alone. 

Perhaps the lesson here is that if you want your characters to think better of the victim after they've given their pseudo-life for the plot, you could have the survivors discover either that they'd been misinformed about some of the victim's faults or discover new information about the victim, information that paints them as a nice--or nicer--person. For instance, perhaps the victim gave generously to a children's hospital because his child died of an, at that time, incurable disease.

A Sympathetic Character

Occasionally when the first victim is thoroughly reprehensible you can get your readers to care about who killed them by making a sympathetic character the first suspect (e.g., Agatha Christie's story, The Triangle at Rhodes). 

The sympathetic character, though, doesn't always have to be the first suspect, it could be someone who cares about the suspect (a girlfriend for example) or someone who believes that justice has not been done and swears to make sure it is. 

For example, in Agatha Christie's Mrs McGinty's Dead, James Bentley--a thoroughly unsympathetic character--is convicted of her murder. But that's fine because Christie draws the reader into the story--makes them care about the fate of the prisoner--through her use of the thoroughly sympathetic character, Superintendent Spence, as well as James' almost-girlfriend Maude Williams. And, of course, through the recurring character of  Hercule Poirot. 

Subsequent Victims

Auden writes, "If there is more than one murder, the subsequent victims should be more innocent than the initial victim, i.e., the murderer should start with a real grievance and, as a consequence of righting it by illegitimate means, be forced to murder against his will where he has no grievance but his own guilt." [2]

This is something I've noticed as well; it doesn't always happen, but if you have a murderer whose first victim is a reprehensible character, one the murderer felt pushed to kill, it is often effective to have the next victims be sympathetic, perhaps even characters the murderer cared for. When this is the case it sets up tremendous conflict within the murderer.  

For instance, in Agatha Christie's novel, A Murder is Announced, while the first murder victim was a minor criminal and not very sympathetic, the other two victims were. More than that, the killer truly loved one of them. 

In the next installment of this series, How To Write A Murderously Good Mystery, I will talk about what readers look for in the second most important element of a good murder mystery: the murderer.


2. "The Guilty Vicarage: Notes on the detective story, by an addict," by W.H. (Wystan Hugh) Auden over at This article is from the archives and was originally published in Harpers magazine in 1948.
3. "Raymond Chandler’s Ten Commandments for Writing a Detective Novel," by Jonathan Crow over at

4. "A Plot Begins to Take Shape," by Margot Kinberg over at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist ...

Photo credit: "Lavender Dreams" by Bhumika Bhatia under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, December 2

HarperCollins Mystery Writing Contest: Write Your Own Agatha Christie Mystery

HarperCollins Mystery Writing Contest: Write Your Own Agatha Christie Mystery

HarperCollins, in conjunction with Agatha Christie's estate, offers writers a chance to play a game of Consequences by writing a chapter in the voice/style of the Queen of Crime. A theme is given for each chapter and contestants have three weeks to finish their entry and submit it.

The winning entries are placed online for others to read and, together, they will constitute a mystery story written collectively.

Entry Fee: None. This is for fun and the contest is free to enter.

The Background

This competition is based on the game of Consequences Agatha Christie played with the other members of the Detection Club.

"In 1931, in a literary game of Consequences, Agatha Christie and thirteen other members of the Detection Club contributed a chapter (and a proposed solution) to a collaborative detective novel ultimately called The Floating Admiral."

This time around you can contribute a chapter.

The Contest

"In 2013, we are inviting all comers, wherever they live, whether they have read a Christie novel or not and whether they are a published author or not, to contribute a chapter, and an end solution, to a similar (and we hope equally enjoyable) concept: Write your own Christie.

"Our novel will take ten months to complete so there will be ten chances to enter a chapter and win."

For complete instructions, see the link at the bottom of the page (Write Your Own Christie).

Chapters One and Two have already been written but Chapters 3 to 10 lie ahead. You're given chapter titles. The title for chapter three is "Enter the Detective" (for a complete list see "Write Your Own Christie" in the list of links).


a. Your chapter must be between 1,500 and 3,000 words long.

b. You must have a clear denouement in mind. Write one or two sentences describing:

a) the identity of the murderer,
b) their motive,
c) how they committed the murder.

Your description should be consistent with all the clues given in the previously published chapters

c. "The murderer must be one of the characters introduced in Chapters One, Two or Three."

d. Don't reveal the murderer till Chapter Ten.

e. Only one entry is allowed per chapter, but you're encouraged to submit an entry for each of the remaining chapters.

How To Submit Your Entry

You must fill out and sign the entry form--it's available in the PDF file "Write Your Own Christie" (see the links section, below)--and include it with your entry (this applies to whether you're submitting by email or by traditional mail). 


If submitting your entry by email, send it to:

Don't forget to include:
- your full name as well as 
- the chapter number 
in the subject line of the email.


Send your chapter to:

Agatha Christie Limited, 
4th Floor, 67 - 68 Long Acre,
London, WC2E 9JD, 

The Judges

Entries will be judged by Mathew Prichard, Christie's grandson, David Brawn, Christie's British publisher, and Daniel Mallory, Christie's American Publisher and one of her biggest fans. "They're looking for originality, plenty of plot twists and perhaps a little gentle humour."

The Prize

If your entry is selected the judges will invite you to dinner. In addition, authors of highly commented chapters will "receive a copy of a Christie novel of their choice," one signed by Agatha Christie's grandson, Mathew Prichard.

The Fine Print

With contests of any sort one always has to worry about the fine print. On submitting your entry are you also 

"All entrants agree to not publish their entries in any form and anywhere in the world until September 15th 2014 without ACL's express written permission."

Seems reasonable.

I just found out about this contest today. Sounds fun! I'm currently writing two books, but this is something I'd love to try and squeeze in. Agatha Christie is one of my favorite authors, I've enjoyed her work immensely over the years, in all its many and varied forms.


- Write Your Own Christie (webpage) (twitter page)

Photo credit: "Copper Eyes" by Karen Woodward under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike Licence.

Tuesday, April 16

5 Rules For Writing A Murder Mystery: Keeping the Murderer Secret Until The End

5 Rules For Writing A Murder Mystery: Keeping the Murderer Secret Until The End

It seems like a contradiction of sorts, I love reading murder mysteries--whodunit's--but I've never written one.

I think about writing one from time to time, I've even started to sketch an outline, but I lose interest. It's a puzzle. I don't understand how I can love to read something but have no real desire to write one.

So it was with eagerness, and perhaps a wee bit of envy, that I read  Price McNaughton's guest post on how to write a murder mystery, Keeping the Murderer Secret until the End.

Price writes:
When I first began writing murder mysteries, my biggest fear was that I would reveal the murderer too soon. I hate books that make the perpetrator evident from the moment he/she steps onto the page. I didn’t want to be guilty of the same!
Price's solution was to make up his own set up rules for mystery writing (I'm paraphrasing):

1. Know who your murderer is and why they did it.

- What was their goal?
- What are the stakes?
- What motivates the killer?

By the end of the story make sure you've answered these questions in your manuscript.

2. Leave clues

The clues "do not have to be obvious or even fully explained. You'll want to leave some "mystery in your mystery."

3. After you finish the first draft add in clues where needed

Price's tip:
Red herrings are much easier to add in after the book is written as long as you don’t write yourself into a corner with your characters, such as explaining everything they do and why.

4. Don't fully explain everything

Price writes: "Let your characters retain some mystery."

People aren't fully explained any more than they are wholly good or bad, your characters should reflect this.

5. Your protagonist doesn't have to know everything, at least not right away

Like you and me, it's okay if your sleuth doesn't have all the answers and is unsure about what happened ... as long as she gets there in the end.

Question: Have you written a murder mystery? What are your rules?

Other articles you might like:

- How To Write Episodic/Serialized Fiction, Part 2 of 2
- Larry Brooks On The Structure Of Short Stories
- What Slush Pile Readers Look For In A Story

Photo credit: "7:08 AM" by dicktay2000 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, February 25

Monsignor Ronald Knox's 10 Rules Of Detective Fiction

I love murder mysteries.

You'd think I'd have written a murder mystery by now given they are half of what I read, but I haven't. I've tried, but my stories are stubborn and insist on being urban fantasy.

Often, perhaps to convince my muse to let me write a mystery story, I've analyzed one of Agatha Christie's who-done-it's in an attempt to expose her magic, her formula, her secret.

So far, bupkis.

Monsignor Ronald Knox's 10 Rules Of Detective Fiction

Perhaps I should try again, but, in lieu of that, here is a list of Monsignor Ronald Knox's (1888 -- 1957) 10 rules of detective fiction:
1) The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow;

2) All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course;

3) Not more than one secret room or passage is allowed;

4) No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end;

5) No [stereotype] ... must figure in the story;

6) No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right;

7) The detective must not himself commit the crime;

8) The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader;

9) The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader;

10) Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them. (How crime fiction has moved on, Rebecca Armstrong, The Independent)
Ronald Knox's list is currently displayed at "the entrance to the Murder in the Library, a compact new exhibition that charts the A-Z of crime fiction at the British Library" (How crime fiction has moved on).

Crime stories have changed over the years. These days, while it's still important the reader be able to solve the underlying puzzle of "who did the crime" we also expect authors to employ psychology in unmasking the culprit. Rebecca Armstrong writes:
The final word goes to Baroness James of Holland Park herself. In her elegant 2009 work Talking about Detective Fiction, she writes that "the solving of the mystery is still at the heart of a detective story," but that, like all forms of entertainment, it has, as it must, evolved. "I see the detective story becoming more firmly rooted in the realities and the uncertainties of the 21st century, while still providing that central certainty that even the most intractable problems will in the end be subject to reason." Fewer secret rooms, then, and a lot more psychology are the hallmarks of the modern whodunit. (How crime fiction has moved on)
Rebecca Armstrong has written an entertaining and instructive article, it's well with a look.

Thanks to The Passive Voice Blog for the link.

Other articles you might like:

- How to record an audiobook at home
- The Importance Of Finding Your Own Voice
- Write A Novel In A Year, Chuck Wendig's Plan: The Big 350

Photo credit: "Touch to believe" by Jsome1 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, March 10

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie is one of the best selling authors of all time. Years ago—I'm not sure whether this is still true—it was said that she had outsold the Bible!

I know opinions vary widely, but I have been a fan of Agatha Christie's since grade eight when my english teacher—one of my favorite teachers—assigned us Christie's "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd," to read—and we got to watch the movie! It was great fun—we each had to try and guess who had committed the murder—and I've loved her books ever since.

Every time I read one of Christie's books I ask myself, "How did she do it? What was her secret, why are her stories so popular?" I think I must have read each of her books many times and one thing I noticed is that in both her Miss Marple and Poirot books she tends to include a romance.

I find that interesting and possibly revealing.