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Romance Meets Mystery, or What I've Learned from the Dame


When I am working on a project, I generally do not read in my chosen genre, women's fiction. I worry about the unconscious influences of voice or tone, and I dread coming across a plotline that may be similar to mine. So this summer I have been curling up in my big chair with Agatha Christie, and though I am picky about which ones--yes on all Miss Marples, yes on the Poirots set in England, no on the Poirot internationals, yes on the miscellaneous works, no on Tommy and Tuppence (sorry T and T fans)--there is nothing like the Dame on a rainy summer night.

But as I work on my second novel, it occurs to me that Christie's formidable skills are a model for all writers, even those of us writing contemporary romances. Herewith are the lessons I have gleaned from Dame Agatha:

--Mystery. No, I'm not writing one, but I'm planting small ones in my story, including a few red herrings. There are no bodies littering my tale, but there are characters whose motivations are not clear, a couple who may or may not come together (perhaps not so mysterious after all, but I will keep ‘em guessing for a bit) and a hero with a secret.

--History. Just about every one of Christie's murders has its roots in what happened before the action of the novel. It's the characters' histories that move them "towards zero," or the defining moment that kicks the story into gear. As I flesh out characters, I need to be conscious about what has brought them to this particular place, so that I can move them "towards zero" in believable ways.

--Economy. Can Christie describe a London alleyway with the poetry of P. D. James? No. Does she have the literary brilliance of Dorothy Sayers? Probably not. But she is an unqualified master of pacing; few writers move a story the way she does, and the reader is helplessly carried along on the swift and twisty current of her plot. Characters are sketched quickly but skillfully, and back story is woven seamlessly into the action without slowing it down. For writers of commercial fiction, particularly in this market, it's all about page turning. Let the Dame show you how it's done.

And now I'm curious: when you write, do you read at all? Do you stay away from your influences or immerse yourself in them?