This post was originally published at Novelicious.com and is now at WritingTipsOasis.com. WritingTipsOasis.com acquired Novelicious.com in June 2022.
It's a soggy summer evening in the Midlands. I'm eleven years old and my brother and I are staying at our grandparents' house for a week. I, a nerdy, voracious reader have already raced through the collection of children's books I brought with me, and so I begin scouring the shelves of my grandparents' spare bedroom looking for something else to devour.
I'm extremely unfussy in my choice of reading material – I've been known to get absorbed in the backs of cereal packets over breakfast – and so I pluck a book from the shelf and bravely open it, even though it has a quite frankly disturbing cover photograph of a mad-eyed woman with her face torn in half.
“Miss Jane Marple was sitting by her window,” it begins, in an odd incongruity with the gruesome cover, and from there on I'm hooked into The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side. It's not so much the clever plot that drags me in as the sheer readability of the prose. There's more too – a cheeky sense of humour, fantastic characters and – although this is something I don't appreciate at the time – every action or conversation has a meaning, leading up to the final dénouement.I've already decided that I want to be a writer when I grow up, but it's making my way steadily through Agatha Christie's oeuvre that teaches me the template for how a novel ought to be. It's from her I recognise the importance of dialogue and action to show character. It's through compulsively turning the pages that I learn the tricks she uses to keep me doing so.
However, by the time I start writing a novel in my early twenties, I've grown away from Christie. I want to be a serious writer, after all; gritty, contemporary, unafraid to tackle big themes. By now, Miss Marple and Poirot are way too safe, too predictable, and that just isn't me.
For years, I struggle at being the sort of novelist I want to be. I write about guilt, bombs, the Spanish civil war. I search for perfect metaphors and heartbreaking imagery. I collapse a moment into tiny fragments, I paint a giant canvas. I am completely unpublished.
Then one day, older and wiser, I return to my alma mater. It starts when I pick up a second-hand copy of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Christie's first published novel, and delight once more in her writing. When Captain Hastings says, “Marry me Cynthia!” in an ill-conceived moment, I chortle. The method of murder is ingenious, to say the very least. The characters bounce off the page. No wonder this is the best-selling novelist in the world; she's a genius.
And it is Agatha Christie's lessons that inform me as I begin my – as yet untitled – novel, set in a big building named Castaway House that overlooks a seaside town. It's not a crime novel such as Christie wrote – I prefer my mysteries laced with other aspects too, of love affairs and secrets. Yet I sense her at my back constantly; I feel she would like my characters, including a louche couple and a naïve young man on the verge of self-discovery. I write lines I hope she would enjoy, and attempt to ensure that every word is relevant.
Then it's finished, except for the title. I play around with different ideas, but just as I came back to Christie with my writing, so I do with my title, and I decide to name my début novel in homage to hers. It has to be, of course, The Mysterious Affair at Castaway House.
The Mysterious Affair at Castaway House by Stephanie Lam is out now.