Thoughts on some Agatha Christie short stories.

Ag christie regatta_mysteryMy copy of, The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories, claims that Agatha Christie is ‘The Queen of Mystery’, and I’m inclined to believe that might be a fair assessment.  How many other writers have won the esteem of such a vast raft of readers over so many decades?  I can think of only a handful.

Most authors who have had time in the limelight eventually drift out of fashion, even in the second-hand market.  Some will be picked up again by publishers who specialise in reminding us of neglected, but worthwhile reads, many more will fade.  That’s fine, it has to be, or where is the room for new writers?

Agatha Christie, though, seems to have a special place in this system.  I’m not going to claim she’s universally loved or admired.  I’ve met plenty of people, including readers of mystery, who don’t rate her for various reasons. Still, her books continue to be published, and bought.  Last time I saw my friend Ruth, the bookseller, she told me Christie was one of her most asked for authors.

So, what’s the trick?  I think Christie is like a good quality bar of chocolate: comforting.  In her novels we’re in fairly safe hands.  The murdered are usually people we either don’t know, or aren’t sure we like, and the solution is generally tricky to predict.  We might be able to identify romances in the making, but you’ve got to be a careful reader to assemble the crime-clues correctly.

Romance might be the key.  Characters, generally with forgivable flaws, are gradually revealed to be secretly falling for someone who seems to be unsuitable.  Often they mistakenly suspect the object of their attention is the guilty party, and are conflicted about providing vital evidence. In the process of discovering this, they learn something about themselves.

Oh dear, how cynical I sound.  But, break any story down, and doesn’t it become flat? In a Christie novel main characters, even the caricatures, are not flat.  They have quirky dialogue, or entertaining mannerisms. They’re active and interesting, digging up red-herrings to keep me guessing.

In the past, I’ve read a lot of Christie’s short and long fiction.  As I contemplated the Harper/Collins paperback I thought about why I’ve preferred her novels.  Had I given the short-stories a fair read?  I flicked a couple of pages over.  Nothing else had caught my eye, and this paperback was less than a pound. Reader, I bought it.

I’d like to be able to say I had a revelation, but I don’t want to mislead you.  The stories are nicely written.  Setting and situation are delivered economically.  There’s snappy dialogue, tight plotting with twists that I mostly didn’t foresee, and neat solutions.  So, I’ve been asking myself, ‘why don’t I like them?’

In general, these felt dated, and irrelevant in a way that her novels don’t.  The novels draw me in gently, settle me into situations far outside of my experience, whether that means a smart ‘otel on a private island, an archaeological dig in a desert, or dinner at a crumbling stately home.  There are introductions, a chance to find my feet.

The short stories dropped me into an upper-middle-class 1930s world, often with characters I’d never met before.  Four of the stories featured Poirot. ‘Phew,’ I thought, ‘throw me a life-buoy, Hastings, old chap, will you? Please?’  He tried.  Miss Marple tried too.  I couldn’t adjust.  I tried to think myself into the period.  These, after all, were not written with an eye to the future. It felt like hard-work.

Sometimes a lot of characters tried to hold my attention, in others several significant doors were opened or shut in the same paragraph. The focus was on the puzzle, and some puzzles seemed big for the space they occupied.

Was there one story I liked? I’m afraid not: there were fragments.

‘Problem at Pollena Bay’ came closest.  The premise was so simple I actually worked out the solution, but the characterisation was strong.

Am I sorry I read them?  No, I learnt a lot by working out what I didn’t like.   I’m not sure I need to re-read them, though I’ve not given up on Christie’s short stories.  Apparently she wrote over 100.  I’ve a long way to go.

Who am I?

Last week I picked up a piece of old clay-pipe in a field gateway.  I thought it would make the subject of my next blog-post, so I placed it on the side of the laptop and began to type.  If you’ve read my previous entry, you’ll know that the pipe never featured.

If you know your bird-lore you may now be ‘picking up’ on why I wrote about magpies instead, and what that implies about the state of my coat pockets.  What might not be so clear is what the clay-pipe looked like, or what I mean by ‘old’.

Since I’ve shifted back to magpies, perhaps that won’t matter.  The purpose of this piece could be to tell you about how, or why, I pick up broken things that other people have thrown away.  Although put like that, it does sound as if I’m just a collector of rubbish.

Let’s try for a positive spin.  ‘Collector of rubbish’ suggests a strong civic conscience.  Perhaps I like to tidy up litter. If that’s so, why pick up a piece of clay pipe, and how come I put it on my laptop instead of the bin? This spinning is harder than I expected, and we’re back to the composition of that pipe again.

Let me call it a shard, then.  You’re taking a kinder view of my habit, aren’t you?  It is, after all, a word with gravitas.  You’re likely to connect it to museums and galleries, places of serious study.  Perhaps I’m an amateur archaeologist, following an ambition to build up a cabinet of curiosities. *

Cabinet_of_Curiosities_1690s_Domenico_RempsI do like drawers and boxes.  I’m not so good with labels though, still working on the one for that pipe fragment.  Once we start to think about pipes, even clay ones, there are so many possibilities.  I didn’t want to set out with a huge descriptive passage, but now I realise I should have done.  You’ve probably already pictured it, so whatever I say will cause a fracture in the imaginative bond we’ve formed, and I can’t help feeling that the pipe is, after all, important.

What if you think it was a piece of drainage pipe?  My stopping to pick up something like that would certainly affect the way you view me.  It affects the way I view me, anyway.

Let’s be clear about this, the writer provides the only clues a reader has to go on, and I found my piece of pipe at the edge of a field: it’s reasonable then to assume an agricultural connection.  In this area, old land-drains can be made from red or yellow clay, and you’ve yet to be told that my piece was creamy-white, or that it was small.

This is starting to feel like a series of cryptic clues.  If only I’d said from the outset that I picked up a segment of old clay tobacco pipe.  I could have been more precise, and told you it was the junction where the bowl meets the stem. Then, instead of meandering along this maze of suppositions, we would have reached somewhere very different by now.

Painting: Cabinet of Curiosities by Domenico Remps  (1620–1699)

Photos: Left, my pipe fragment; right, Clay pipes at Bedford Museum, photographed by Simon Speed.

Book review: Elizabeth & Mary: cousins, rivals, queens. By Jane Dunn

The past, so L. P. Hartley, famously wrote, is a foreign country.  You must excuse my borrowing the well known quote for my own purposes, I’ve had my nose buried in a double biography at every available opportunity this past week.  So effective has the emersion been, that I’ve felt myself stepping across a border with each entry or exit from the pages.

elizabeth and mary by Jane DunnWhere was I?  In the Elizabethan era, jaunting between England, France and Scotland with two of the most prominent women of the period: Elizabeth herself, and her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.

I thought it would be a simple read, a matter of fluffing out facts I’ve already absorbed.  These two are, surely, high on the list of the most dramatized characters from Western history, aren’t they?  Aside from the significance of their own lives, they were peripheral characters to other significant adventurers who’ve been the subject of page, screen and stage interpretations.  At one time there seemed to be someone striding across the TV screen in tights, padded knickers and a cloak most Saturday afternoons.

With so much written, I didn’t think much more could be added.  Elizabeth never married.  She fell in love with unsuitable men, may have had affairs with them; wore a ruff, had ginger hair (later replaced with a wig), could be kind, but was mostly masculinely imperious, and signed a lot of death warrants, including one for her cousin Mary.

elizabeth 1stI think these things can be considered documented facts.  I also understand that they allow a variety of interpretations, so that portrayals of Elizabeth can range from evil through all the nuances to benign.  Mary’s life can likewise range from gullible victim to foolish martyr. So I opened this book without expecting much.  I was prepared to abandon it.

The thing with writing about two such famous, such prominent, characters, is that most readers are likely to know the key events.  So Dunn’s preface ensures we’re all starting at the same place.  She opens with the end of Elizabeth’s life, on 24th March 1603.

Having been propped for days on cushions on the floor in her chamber, she had been persuaded to take to her bed at last.  To her Archbishop of Canterbury, silencing his praise, she said, ‘My lord, the crown which I have borne so long has given enough of vanity in my time.’

Ah, detail.  I presume it’s authentic, that somewhere a witness had noted this down.  Reading it, my caricature version of the elderly Queen begins to humanise, and wonderfully, I feel a pull I recognise.  Is it, can it be, that I’m being hooked?

These words struck to the heart of the tragedy that had befallen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots.  This same crown had been the focus of Mary’s ambition too; her claim to Elizabeth’s throne was the obsession of her adult life from which so many disasters flowed.

Now I know what the focus will be.  How will Dunn work it?

Despite possessing the throne of England, with all the pride of a daughter of King Henry, she was haunted by a deep-rooted insecurity as to her own legitimacy.  When pressed by Parliament to sign Mary’s death warrant, Elizabeth railed in anguish against the crown that had made this unnatural decision hers alone.

She’s going to explore motivations and consequences.

Sixteen years before Elizabeth’s own natural death in old age, Mary was beheaded at the age of forty-four.

mary queen of scotsThere’s a lot to love about this book: the way Dunn twists back and forth along her timeline to provide context and explanation for key events; her use of short extracts from letters and diaries that really bring characters to life, and the alternative motivations and conclusions she adds to the traditional take on events.

Of Mary, after the murder of her second husband, Dunn writes:

Certainly the extent of her culpability and her state of mind were a much more complicated story than any of the simplistic characterizations that have shadowed her from this moment to the present. Mary was still only twenty-four years old.  She was without any real political support or disinterested advice, she had been ill, and was certainly under great duress.

The rumour and gossip soon spread.

As a former Queen of France, Mary might have expected kinder treatment from her traditional allies but in fact it was Elizabeth who emerged at this time as the most sympathetic voice, showing more concern for Mary’s plight than outrage at what the world was whispering.

Glimpses of surprising women, that’s what hooked me.  Sorry can’t stop here longer, I’ve got to see how Dunn spins the rest of their stories.

 

Finding the right story-strand.

Sometimes we need to be reminded of the obvious.  As one of those tutors who likes to stress the importance of re-drafting, this week I was forced to think about what I do when I came across this Phillip Pulman quote:

I don’t agree with the emphasis that teachers lay on drafting.  I never write drafts – I write final versions.  I might write a dozen final versions of the same story, but with each one I set out to write it as a final version.

Is this a good point?

I agree that we should aim for excellence in all our drafts, and intend them to be flawless.  But, I’m not sure that this approach is encouraging to the less experienced writer.

In my own case, one of the most liberating discoveries I made was that great writing is usually achieved through a process of re-draftings.  George Eliot’s notebooks of Middlemarch, scribbled over with extra ideas and corrections, were reassuring. I can’t say whether she thought of them as drafts or final versions, what I needed to understand, was that she re-worked her writing.

Most good writers do the same.  We just don’t always have evidence of that available.

I share this revelation with my writing groups, because too many people doubt their abilities if they don’t create a flawless and beautiful piece of writing at the first try.

On the other hand, when drafting there are times when it feels as if I’m wandering in theSpiderinwebL_tcm4-571483 midst of a labyrinth, and Ariadne hasn’t just supplied me with a single story thread, I’ve got a fist full of possible routes.  Pulman’s suggestion offers a sensible solution: stop dithering, go back to the beginning and start again.

Sounds like a reworking of the solution another spider offered to Robert the Bruce.  There’s never just the one rule in writing, it seems…

*Photo: http://www.stephen-coley.com/blog/spiders/

What makes an artist?

I went out on an errand yesterday and left the radio on.  I was only supposed to be gone a minute or so, but gave in to gossiping, so by the time I returned my provincial play had been replaced by an American voice I vaguely recognised.  Time to get back to my paperwork, I thought, heading for the off-switch.

‘I had no idea what kind of composer I wanted to become,’ the man was saying. Kerry Shale, I thought, can’t mistake him.  But who is he being?  Fact or fiction?  It was a fatal hesitation.

Mahler-Symphony-9-Grant-Park-audition‘My study of the orchestra’, he continued, ‘came through a time-honoured practice of the past, copying out original scores.  In my case, I took Mahler’s ninth symphony as my subject and I literally copied it out note for note on full size orchestra paper.’

I was hooked.  One of the little cartoon characters racing round in my head gave the attention bell a resounding ping.  Musicians did that too?

Shale continued, ‘This is exactly how painters in the past studied painting.  Even today, some can be seen in the museums, making copies of traditional paintings.  This business of copying from the past is a most powerful tool for training and developing a solid tool for orchestration technique.’

The cartoon character in my head stopped ringing her bell and turned to cartoon character two. ‘You see?’ she said triumphantly. ‘You see?  Isn’t this what I’ve been telling you all along? It’s not just painters who need to keep a sketch-book: all artists learn by studying the work of previous generations.’

‘He didn’t say study,’ objected character two.

‘But you must see that’s what he was doing,’ said character one.  ‘How could an artist copy out a work of art and not learn something about the means of its construction?’

‘Sounds like plagiarism to me.  And what about innovation?’

‘Surely that comes from an understanding of the past.’

‘Well,’ said character two, ‘I don’t want to have my writing infected by someone else’s style and ideas.’

‘Mmm,’ said character one.  ‘It’s not an exercise that suits everyone.’

Meanwhile Kerry Shale read on, and I looked up the schedule to see if I’d correctly guessed the author.  I don’t know much about music, apart from whether or not I like the sound of it.  But I do know a well shaped story when I hear one.  It was the memoirs of Phillip Glass, Words Without Music.

Time I widened my musical horizons, I think.

 

 

“The Figure in the Carpet”? – I’ve Read It!

henry jamesI had an hour to spare yesterday, so I picked up a little black Penguin Classic that I’d been loaned.   It’s been waiting for my attention since March, but I have to be in the mood for James, even when he’s writing short.

Let me start by being Jamesian, and call this text as he preferred to, a ‘short tale’, rather than a novella, in a sentence that is longer than you might have anticipated, when you set out on it (are you still following me?).  Sorry, couldn’t resist having a play with some clauses, but I promise to behave now.

Back to March, then, when Helen stopped me on the way out after a discussion about the novella, What Maisie Knew.  We’d drawn comparisons with some other James texts, raising mixed responses.

Holding out the small Penguin Classic, Helen said, ‘This one isn’t so well known, but I think it’s more interesting than The Turn of The Screw. Would you like to borrow it?’

Intriguing.

I knew I wasn’t going to have time to read it just then, but Helen said that was fine.  Though she may have changed her mind about that by now, of course.  However, that’s how the little book came to enter the sea of research that is my desk, and for a while sank below the surface.

This wasn’t the easiest of novellas to get into, but is there such a thing as an ‘easy’ Henry James?  He could write short sentences, and use simple language, but mostly he chose not to.  There are various theories about why he developed that style, and how it connects him to the modernist writers, but I’m going to stay with the straight-forward approach in this reading-reflection.

I’ve given a lot of thought to the question of what makes a good story, and one of the definitions that comes high on my list is, does it entertain or intrigue me?  After my first dash at the text I might turn to reviews and analysis to see what I’ve missed, but before that, I want to be engaged by the writing.

This time I wasn’t, I’m afraid. I couldn’t decide whether James meant the un-named narrator to come across as irritatingly priggish – to use a Victorian term – and I didn’t really care whether he learned what the ‘figure in the carpet’ was.

In fact, I felt cheated by his title.  Here was an image that suggested surreal.  It has mysterious possibilities, yet turned into a story that never attempted to explore anything other than the vanities of a few characters who seemed flat.

Titles, I tell my writing groups, are important: are worth taking trouble over.  They can set a tone, imply a theme.  Readers are influenced by them.  I expected a mystery on the lines of  Turn of The Screw, because I saw a parity between the two titles.  Was that my mistake, or James’s?

Leading Question: Why write a blog?

dscf5154There are, of course, any number of sociable benefits to having world-wide links.  The strands of the web have certainly re-drawn my idea of the globe.  So the quick answer to my question, ‘why do it?’, is another question: why not?

Perhaps that’s a bit glib, so here’s a more writerly reason for blogging: structure.  You don’t think I’m talking about shaping my writing…do you?  I could be.  Blogging has certainly taught me a lot about making my point, but no, it’s not top of my list of benefits.

The structuring that I’m talking about here is time-management.

Like so many other people intending to write, the main thing that hinders my creativity is settling to a writing schedule.  I have the best intentions, but there are so many calls on my time.  They belong on a sliding scale of importance, and in theory, writing is pretty close to the top.  Yet, I find that my own stories are the most flexible activity on my list – regularly getting shifted downwards.

Apart from a blip a year or two ago, when I fell by the wayside for a few months, the one piece of writing that bucks this trend, is my blog.  I’ve set myself a weekly deadline of Monday mornings, and mostly, I achieve that.

You’ll notice that I’ve been kind to myself, that there’s no precise time limit, though I aim for 09.20?  Some weeks I slip down that deadline and post late in the day, I can live with that. I can live with that?

I can learn from it, surely.  If I can put off tasks from that flexible list to make room for my blog, then it’s time I started doing the same for other writing.  So this week, as my teaching schedule eases off for Christmas, I’m looking at my diary and setting myself another deadline.  Five hundred words, rough as they come, by Wednesday teatime.

We should talk about this next week.

dscf4760

 

 

Feedback sessions in a writing group.

Can enough ever be said about the value of thoughtful feedback?

The feedback that generally happens in my writing classes is based on the heard story.  The author reads their work and the group respond.  That’s pretty standard, and it’s a lovely, if initially scary, experience.

dog-paintingI hope I will always remember my own early experiences, when I rushed through the words that I had sweated over – usually the night before it was due to be read.  Terrified and exhilarated at the same time, I set off reading at such a pace that my tutor needed to pause me at the end of the first page, and remind me to breathe.

I credit my good friends Ruth and Lynda, who between them coached me through the ‘Story-telling’ module at University, with the fact that I can now read at a more measured pace (thanks pals).  But that’s another story altogether.

Crimson and gasping as I invariably was at the end of those early reading slots, I went back for more, week after week.  What drew me?  Well, aside from the joy of finding other people creating stories and poems in their spare time, and the stretching of my creative horizons that happened during writing exercises, I had an audience for writing that until then, I had mostly been doing in secret.

This was not family or best-friend feedback.  My fellow scribblers responded with constructive, impartial support.  I began to see where my writing worked, and how it could be improved, which both encouraged and challenged me to work harder.  I became more confident about my ability to put words together, and critical of what I was doing.

The next level of feedback is to look at the story, rather than listen.  That way, what happens on the page is the story.

Sounds obvious?  Well think about how much the ‘telling’ style directs us.  Delivery (the pauses, accents and intonations), plays a part in how we respond to the events being described.  It is one speaker’s interpretation of what those marks on the page mean.

So this week the aim is for no reading out-loud in my class.  Each writer will have a papertwo-diaries copy of the homework-writings to study and respond to.

This is a big step to take, but an interesting one.  To sit quietly and hear what someone else understands you to have said can be challenging, particularly if they’ve seen something you didn’t intend.  Does that mean they’ve missed the point, or, have you?

Perhaps you’ve not written that scene clearly enough: or is it that depths have made their way instinctively into the construction of your writing?  Sometimes, it takes a reader to see the writing road that you’ve side-stepped, and what better reader than another writer?

 

Photo from, 1952 film, The Importance of Being Earnest.  Dorothy Tutin and Joan Greenwood.

More thoughts on saving drafts

I write, I write, I write…what a buzz when the words flow.  The story unrolls under its own momentum.

Okay, in the cold light of the next day there may be changes to be made, that’s fine: that’s good.  It’s part of the process.  Do you know what?  I love that too.  It’s a different way of working, a honing of story and meaning.

scissorsHowever, let me put in a warning, a statement of the obvious, if you like…it’s fine to take those virtual scissors to your electronic document and snip your words into shape, but don’t – please DON’T – throw them away.   Okay, it seems like you’ve finished with them.  Despite the fact that some of them were beautiful sentences, you’ve concluded that they don’t fit.

Resist your minimalist instinct to be tidy: practice hoarding.  Make a copy of your draft, whether you’re working on paper or on a word-processor.  Make copies of each of your drafts – yes, I do think there will probably be more than one.  Because, if you see your words differently after a twenty-four hour break, imagine how it will read if you leave it for another week or three.

henri-matisse-travaillant-a-des-decoupages-geants-nice-1952-photo-helene-adant-1The thing is, in two or four weeks, when you look at your work again, what if you decide you shouldn’t have cut those lovely words from your first draft?  In my experience, if they’ve been destroyed, they’ll haunt you.  You’ll never quite feel that you’ve managed to recreate them, no matter how many hours you struggle to.

Time will pass, and your temper may fray.  This scenario can cause a writers-block.

Think what happens if, on the other hand, you can go back to that first draft.  There is your deathless prose, ready to be reassessed.

I learned the hard way, but it is now second nature for me to save my drafts. In case you don’t, I’m recommending it.

matisse-cutting-paper

*Photographs, Henri Matisse making paper-cut-outs.

The value of the diarist-travel-writer.

ruth-annies-safari-2My friends Ruth and Annie went on a trip-of-a-lifetime this summer, an African safari.  Lucky them.  Now though, lucky me too, because for the past month, I’ve been vicariously sharing their experiences via Ruth’s blog, silver anniversary safari.

This is definitely my preferred way to travel: no injections, waiting around in airport lounges or hours of sitting in a metal box being hurtled across the sky.   I jump straight into the heart of another culture when I open the latest instalment.

I’ll make a sweeping assertion that conveying the excitement and wonder of a place is the general aim for any travel-writer.  The key to this particular travel-log is the narrative voice: the choice of language, and stand-point.

Now let’s just take the last thing first, and clarify what I mean by ‘stand-point’.  I’m not talking about Ruth’s proximity to the animals, although at times, that was breathtakingly close. What I mean, and I’m sure you understood this, but I’d like to be precise, is how her thinking led her to interpret what she experienced.

What comes through strongly in these pieces is personality: there is humour, as well as wonder and fascination.  The way Ruth describes the people she meets, the incidental events she chooses and the things she sees, show us our narrator as well as providing a brief insight into the culture she is experiencing.

Perhaps it’s because I’m mid-way through tutoring my Writing Family History course, that I’m also thinking about the value of Ruth’s piece of writing for the future.  It is not just entertaining, it is a record of interactions with specific environments at this point in time.  Imagine, in the future, someone tracing their family tree and discovering not just the photographs of this trip, but alongside them, the story that sets them in context.

ruth-annies-safari

*Photos taken from Ruth Boardman Anniversary Safari.