A book about Agatha Christie’s working notebooks reveals that the writer known for her intricate plots worked in a highly nonlinear fashion. Sometimes she didn’t even know whodunnit until late in the writing process.
The contents of the notebooks are as multi-dimensional as their Escher-like structure. They include fully worked-out scenes, historical background, lists of character names, rough maps of imaginary places, stage settings, an idle rebus (the numeral three, a crossed-out eye, and a mouse), and plot ideas that will be recognizable to any Christie fan: “Poirot asks to go down to country-finds a house and various fantastic details,” “Saves her life several times,” “Inquire enquire-both in same letter.” What’s more, in between ominous scraps like “Stabbed through eye with hatpin” and “influenza depression virus-Stolen? Cabinet Minister?” are grocery lists: “Newspapers, toilet paper, salt, pepper …” There was no clean line between Christie’s work life and her family life. She created household ledgers, and scribbled notes to self. (“All away weekend-can we go Thursday Nan.”) Even Christie’s second husband, the archeologist Sir Max Mallowan, used her notebooks. He jotted down calculations. Christie’s daughter Rosalind practiced penmanship, and the whole family kept track of their bridge scores alongside notes like, “Possibilities of poison … cyanide in strawberry … coniine-in capsule?”
I don’t know why this approach seems so surprising. From all that I’ve read about how book authors work, writing a book is like sanding wood…you can’t just start with the extra-fine sandpaper and expect a smooth surface.