#WriterProblems: How Many Characters Do You Really Need? #DeathOnTheNile #AgathaChristie

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Welcome back, my fellow creatives!

Last year, my husband and I began watching various episodes of mystery series together. It began with Columbo–

–continued with Sherlock Holmes–

–and ended with some Poirot.

Now as I’ve noted, my dear Bo is quite the cinephile, so on top of the television adaptations of these stories, we were also watching the film adaptations. This meant we saw four different versions (at least!) of Hound of the Baskervilles and a couple versions of Death on the Nilethe 1978 version starring Peter Ustinov as Poirot, and the 2004 version starring David Suchet as Poirot. (I had yet to see the new Kenneth Branagh adaptation at the time.)

While Bo was giving me commentary on what actor had gone on to do X or Q or T, I was noticing how certain plot threads would come and go depending on the adaptation. Now for technical reasons, I could see how a story is condensed so it can fit into a two-hour movie or three-part special. This will mean cutting characters or condensing characters for the film–normal stuff. As writers, we can debate the trials and tribulations of film adaptations until the cosmic cows come to roost, or however that saying goes.

But there was something about the Poirot Death on the Nile adaptations that left me pondering. Lots of good fiction depend on multiple plot threads to keep the reader engaged from the first page to the last. Mysteries in particular need those extra plot threads to create red herrings and plot twists so that the solution to the mystery is a surprise to the reader. In order to populate those other threads, one must have a sizable cast of characters.

But is a big cast really necessary for the story, or are they just filler?

THAT is the question I’d like to discuss with you today, and I’m keen to use Death on the Nile to do so. If you don’t recall the original story’s plot, the Wikipedia entry covers it fairly well. (The entry also mentions the film adaptations I’ll be mentioning here, too.) I’ve also snagged the original cast list from Litcharts so we can see what Agatha Christie saw fit to print. I’ve actually trimmed a few folks out, trying to limit us to the folks who rode the Karnak during the majority of the novel.

ALSO: Spoilers abound. Writer problems trump “spoiler-free” descriptions any day.

THE ORIGINAL CAST OF THE 1937 NOVEL (PRETTY SURE, ANYWAY)

Hercule Poirot: This is a given.

Linnet Doyle: the spoiled rich English lady who marries Simon Doyle and gets murdered.

Jacqueline De Bellefort: Linnet’s best friend who was engaged to Simon until Linnet gets involved. Also, one of the story’s murderers.

Simon Doyle: the youngest son of a well-to-do family, so he loves fancy things but has no money for them. Loves Jackie but marries Linnet. Also also, the other one of the story’s murderers.

Colonel Race: I didn’t remember him from other stories, but apparently he befriended Poirot before Death on the Nile takes place. (Edit: I had to look this up–they do meet in Cards on the Table.) He is present on the riverboat Karnak due to a potential Communist and/or Anarchist threat, but from a storyteller’s standpoint, he is the trustworthy one Poirot can speak freely about his observations so readers know what’s going on.

Andrew Pennington: An American trustee for Linnet Ridgeway due to family connections. There’s a partner, but he barely factors in, so we’ll not bother with him.

Mrs. Salome Otterbourne: a writer of sensational, sexualized fiction who drank more the less her books sold.

Rosalie Otterbourne: Daughter of Salome–and because of the alcoholism, her mother’s keeper. This leads to Rosalie being very difficult for folks like Poirot to interact with.

Mrs. Allerton: the “nice” character of the novel, and essentially Poirot’s gateway into meeting all the other passengers of the riverboat Karnak.

Tim Allerton: son of Mrs. Allerton, eventual lover of Rosalie Otterbourne, and cousin of Joanna Southwood who enjoys hanging out with Linnet before the trip to Egypt. He helps Joanna steal jewelry and make forgeries, and on this boat, it’s his job to switch their fake pearls with Linnet’s real ones. This leads to one of the minor plots of Linnet’s missing pearl necklace being a possible motive for murder.

Miss Marie Van Schuyler: wealthy old American lady who bosses her cousin Cornelia and nurse Miss Bowers around throughout the novel. She’s also a kleptomaniac, which adds to the pearl necklace subplot.

Cornelia Robson: a nice girl who becomes a tool for Linnet and Simon and an object of the affections of Mr. Ferguson and Dr. Bessner.

Mr. Ferguson (Lord Dawlish): a Communist who is hateful to pretty much everyone except Cornelia, infatuated with her genuinely kind nature. Secretly a member of a very well-to-do English family. His brazen comments about how awful rich people and capitalism are material for the political agitator subplot.

Miss Bowers: nurse to Miss Van Schuyler who isn’t actually treating the old lady for anything. She’s there to keep the kleptomania in check and return things Van Schuyler steals, which means there is a “mysterious” return of the necklace, only it’s a forgery, and…yeah, the necklace subplot is a bit much.

Signor Richetti: a middle-aged Italian archaeologist that Poirot meets on an excursion near the hotel (which Ferguson also came on). He turns out to be the political agitator that Colonel Race is after. He has absolutely nothing to do with the deaths on the Nile. He’s just there to be ominous and threatening.

Louise Bourget: maid to Linnet and Simon Doyle, Louise initially appears to be a minor character, until suddenly she takes center stage when she becomes the second murder victim.

James Fanthorp: a young English lawyer for Linnet Ridgeway, the nephew of the lawyer William Carmichael. I vaguely remember this guy.

Dr. Bessner: a middle-aged European doctor on board the Karnak who takes care of Simon after his leg injury and who eventually proposes to Cornelia Robson. Yes, Cornelia chooses this dude over the English Lord, much to her grandmother’s chagrin.

Fleetwood: an engineer on the Karnak who attempted to marry one of Linnet’s old chambermaids, despite the fact that he was already married to an Egyptian woman. Linnet prevented the marriage, which made both Fleetwood and Louise extremely angry.

So, we have our cast, and it’s not a small one. We have our primary players who drive the plot forward with their secret and not-so-secret actions, and those who make stuff happen for our primary players to react to.

Realistic Population

Death on the Nile primarily takes place in Egypt, broken up with stops at hotels and busy locations. The named characters ride on the S.S. Karnak up the Nile River together, and it is on this boat that the murder and mayhem take place. In the original novel, Ustinov adaptation, and Suchet adaptation, most of the characters have negative, tenuous connections to Linnet Doyle–her father bought out one character’s business, ruining the family, for instance. In another example, we see that in the Ustinov adaptation, Dr. Bessner’s clinic is about to lose its funding because Linnet Doyle is changing her father’s financial ties. But not all characters have these connections, and that is okay. Something we must remember as writers is that when a story is taking place in a public space, there will be strangers to the story. There are plenty of other visitors to the hotels in Egypt, and the riverboats are common transportation for tourists. Readers don’t expect every tourist on a boat to be connected to every other tourist on the boat. That’s what makes the old connection between Mrs. Van Schuyler and Linnet Doyle a surprise. On the surface, Mrs. Allerton and her son Tim have no connection whatsoever to Linnet Doyle, but when Joanna’s name is mentioned, a shady connection reveals itself.

To put it another way, it’d be as if the Hogwarts School was only populated by Harry and his friends, and Draco and his friends. The school just has four teachers at any time and that’s it. None of the other students and faculty matter, so trim them out!

Readers expect a school to be populated. They expect a city to be populated. They expect a passenger boat to be populated.

Of course, Agatha Christie had plans for the characters she put on the Karnak, but at the outset, having this large group made sense because it’s a tourist’s boat. It’s supposed to be busy and crowded. But it’s not necessary to make all those characters obviously connected. She didn’t make intricate connections between every student and every teacher in Cat Among the Pigeons, either; sometimes, you just need people there because people are supposed to be there. They are, essentially, moving scenery. And because those extras are treated like scenery, we readers are not expecting backstories on all of them. We don’t know all the backstories of all the crewmembers on the Karnak, nor are we looking for them. They are there to simply fill in the scene.

In the most recent Branagh version, however, this entire cast–yes, all those people–are the wedding party for Simon and Linnet Doyle. Considering Branagh’s time in Shakespeare, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by this strategy. Now the entire cast’s presence on the boat is justified. Such a move, however, means all the secretive, surprising connections are thrust out into the open. The chances for surprise go way down. And the fact some of those connections are negative at the outset makes it all the stranger some of these people are invited to the wedding. For instance, Branagh transforms the Dr. Bessner role part into another doctor who was Linnet Doyle’s former fiance. The man is clearly fawning after Linnet until she dies. Why is he at this destination wedding? No idea. But we need our suspects, dammit!

More Characters = More Subplots. Yay!

As previously noted, having this size of a group means one can have some other plot threads. These smaller plot lines give the writer a chance to break up the major plot and allow little breaks from major events without bringing the story to a standstill. After all, if all the major plot points of Death on the Nile were smushed together (marriage/murder/second murder/third murder/reveal), you’d have an overwhelming episode of a television show rather than a movie, let alone a novel. So having other plot lines allows the writer to build curiosity in the reader. What did that dollar fragment in the maid’s hand mean? Wait, who is Mr. Farnthorp, really? Why is the Signor so upset about his note? Why is Rosalie Otterbourne so protective of her mother?

Now even in a novel, one can have superfluous plot threads. Yes, Dame Christie, included. Take the Signor Richetti character. His sole purpose is to be the reason Colonel Race boards the Karnak. He is a sulky man who has no connection whatsoever to the Doyles or anything going on. He gets to have one angry interaction with Linnet Doyle, and that’s it. There’s a reason that all three adaptations of this novel omit this character. One could remove the “political agitator” subplot and affect absolutely nothing else in the story, which is why the films consistently cut him out.

The pearl necklace subplot is altered from film to film. Sometimes the pearls are forged, sometimes they are just stolen. Sometimes it’s the klepto old Miss Van Schuyler, while in the Branagh version the character created to replace Col. Race took the pearls in order to have a clean start with his love, Rosalie Otterbourne, whose mother is a jazz singer hired by the Doyle’s for this destination wedding thing. Unlike the political agitator plot, the stolen pearls provide a worthwhile red herring to Linnet’s murder–someone may have murdered her out of hate, but maybe they were just greedy for the money in those pearls. Greed doesn’t require a previous relationship or connection, and such greed allows strangers to become suspects. In a mystery set on a tourist boat, such a move makes sense and therefore requires characters to flesh it out.

If I could have a smidgeon of the fun Angela Lansbury has in acting for this film, I would be a happy soul, indeed.

More Subplots = More Characters to Keep Track of. UGH.

So you saw that list I made earlier. Let’s face it–that list is huge. Macbeth has roughly the same number of named characters. There’s a reason films often condense or omit characters from a movie: it’s just too much. The Suchet adaptation, for instance, eliminates three characters. The Ustinov adaptation deletes six. Branagh cuts a few, but then also adds some different ones to fill in the gaps. Yet these adaptations were able to tell the same essential story.

This means the effects of cast changes are felt far more in the subplots than in the major plot. Branagh’s adaptation, for instance, pushes love as the major motive for everything: the pearl necklace is stolen for love. Linnet is murdered for love. The maid–and the necklace thief–are murdered to protect love. By reorganizing the characters and how they connected, Branagh altered the very subplots those characters served.

And…sure, I guess that’s okay. But when there’s only one real reason folks are doing anything, you suck a lot of mystery out of the story.

Yes, having a big cast is a pain. Keeping track of multiple motivations is a pain. The Ustinov adaptation made this painfully clear with the connections they created for motives: Mrs. Otterbourne was getting sued by Linnet for libel (and Rosalie would go far to protect her mother, wouldn’t she?); Dr. Bessner’s clinic was going to lose funding; Communist Ferguson openly despised Linnet’s wealth and wanted to see her dead; the trustee Pennington was embezzling Linnet; even the nurse Miss Bowers blamed Linnet’s family for ruining her own. You couldn’t take a step on that boat without bumping into someone with the motivation to kill Linnet.

Keeping track of all those motivations and connections is very, very hard, for on top of making them exist, you have to make them matter. This means dedicating page space (or screen time) that adequately gives every plot thread relevance and urgency to the overall storyline. The more plot threads you have, the more complicated your pacing will have to be, too, for the major plot thread can’t be out of sight for long.

Final Thoughts…

So if you the writer are not sure you can make it all weave together, DON’T DO IT.

There is nothing wrong with keeping to a few plot threads and a small cast. There’s a reason “cozy” mysteries typically use a small group of characters: readers can track them easily, their motivations are easy to track as a writer, and any change to those characters is easier to distinguish because there’s less moving scenery to distract a reader. As one who has read mysteries for a few decades, nothing infuriates a reader like goofed character/plot connections. It messes up the story, and it makes you the writer look like you don’t know your own story-world.

Now I’m sure that, assuming you made it to the end here, you have your own thoughts on stories and the size of their character cast. I’d love to hear them!

I know that the easy advice here would be to “create only the characters your story absolutely needs,” but sometimes we just don’t know how many characters that entails–not in the first draft, anyway. I still grind my teeth over the plothole the filmmakers created in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban because they condensed the story too damn much. It takes time and practice to first find our central plot thread, and then the characters needed to see that plot thread through. I’m still working on this just like you, so I’d love to hear your take on big/small character casts, plot threads that could have used a few more characters, a few less, and so on.

And what’s your favorite book cover from the assortment in this post? I admit, I love the clean, cool colors of this one.

~STAY TUNED!~

I’ve another indie interview on the way! Plus we could wander the Holmesian countryside if you’d like, dissect the plot and characters of my own fiction, find inspiration among the sounds of nature, or take up a dragon to fight Napoleon. Mystery and adventure await!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#lessonslearned from #AgathaChristie: one #narrative #pov does not fit all #stories.

In Wisconsin, summer is a time for nature immersion. Whether you hike in the woods, take to the lake in a boat, or hunt for bugs’n’birds’n’fairies, this is the season for journeys into the wilderness of the North Woods.

Every venture “Up Nort'” requires mysteries for road reading. Since Bo had gotten me some Poirots for Mother’s Day, this seemed like the perfect time to catch up on them. (Bo can’t read in the car because a)motion sickness and b)my driving style freaks him out.) What was meant to be a little simple escapism turned into a reflection on narrative point of view and how it helps–or hurts–a story’s ability to hold a reader.

Back when I was researching the nonfiction writing workshop I had to give at my university last month, I came across an article that referenced “Fleming Method.” This method, the author said, called for blasting through a story by writing only key elements: the dialogue, the action, etc. All the other elements were to wait for the next draft. Doing this allowed Ian Fleming to complete the initial draft of Casino Royale in a few weeks.

After reading Sad Cypress–published years before Casino Royale–part of me now wonders if Christie came up with the Fleming Method before Fleming did.

The premise is clear-cut.

Beautiful young Elinor Carlisle stood serenely in the dock, accused of the murder of Mary Gerrard, her rival in love. The evidence was damning: only Elinor had the motive, the opportunity, and the means to administer the fatal poison.

Yet, inside the hostile courtroom, only one man still presumed Elinor was innocent until proven guilty. Hercule Poirot was all that stood between Elinor and the gallows.…

The story itself is divided into three parts: Elinor’s flashback through all the events preceding the murder, Poirot’s investigation of the murder, and then the trial. Again, clear-cut.

Yet when I finished the book, I let out a “hmph” and tossed it onto the car’s dashboard.

Bo’s not used to me doing that, especially after what was, by all accounts, a good morning. We had successfully completed a walk and lunch at a beer garden with the kids–a HUGE accomplishment when two out of three are picky eaters. “Wasn’t the book okay?”

The mystery itself, I explained was fine. There’s a love triangle of sorts, a girl gets murdered, Poirot eventually shows up to investigate, yadda yadda. But the way Christie tells it was weird.

Bo gave me a look. “What do you mean?”

I show him a thick pinches of text–Part 1, the flashback. It’s all quite narrative, with descriptions, exchanges, changes of scene. Part 2 changes point of view character-wise, from the accused murderess to Poirot. Again, we’ve got multiple elements of storytelling. Grand. Part 3, however, drops almost all pretense of story-telling and moves forward almost entirely through dialogue–that is, through the exchanges between witnesses and lawyers during the trial. After 200 pages of “traditional” storytelling, 50 pages of almost pure dialogue jolted me so much I found myself nothing but irritated with the story when the mystery was resolved.

Bo considered. “Has Christie done that before?”

I don’t think so, I said. The cynical teacher in me imagined Christie was on a time crunch, didn’t much care for the story, and decided to just slap together the ending so she could move onto something she did want to write. Or maybe she was so mentally drained from writing And Then There Were None the year before that she needed to put out SOMEthing to appease the publishers. But I don’t know for sure, I said with a shrug, and the reception on this road sucks too much for me to do any deep digging.

“So how does Christie normally write a mystery?”

I stared at Bo so long that Biff scolded me. “It’s rude to stare, you know!”

How did Christie “normally” write a mystery? Was there such a thing as “normal”?

I looked at the other books I had packed along: Dumb Witness, After the Funeral, and Death on the Nile. I thumbed through them, sharing observations with Bo as I went…

Dumb Witness

Everyone blamed Emily Arundell’s accident on a rubber ball left on the stairs by her frisky terrier. But the more she thought about her fall, the more convinced she became that one of her relatives was trying to kill her.…

On April 17th she wrote her suspicions in a letter to Hercule Poirot. Mysteriously, he didn’t receive the letter until June 28th…by which time Emily was already dead.…

This story had a mix of methods I both liked and disliked. The first few chapters involve a lot of head-hopping amongst the characters of the victim-to-be’s family. I have written about this head-hopping before–nope, not a fan of this “I’m thinking murderous thoughts” to “and I’m thinking murderous thoughts, too!” to “oh, we’re just aaaaaaall thinking murderous thoughts, aren’t we?”. After those opening chapters, however, the unreliable-yet-charming Captain Hastings takes over as narrator until the end of the book. I’ve also written about benefits of the unreliable narrator for mystery writing, and in Dumb Witness those benefits were seen once again: clues quickly dismissed by the narrator Hastings carry crucial importance, and characters Hastings suspects or respects often tend to be something else entirely.

I always enjoy a trip alongside Poirot and Hastings; the two have a wonderful chemistry that allows for light-hearted moments, such as when the victim’s intelligent dog takes such a liking to Hastings that Hastings feels he knows what the dog is saying.

If Christie had written every Poirot mystery with Hastings, though, the misdirections would grow tedious, the joviality stale.

In other words, we’d get bored.

After the Funeral (also known as Funerals are Fatal)

“He was murdered, wasn’t he?”

When Cora Lansquenet is savagely murdered, the extraordinary remark she had made the previous day at her brother Richard’s funeral suddenly takes on a chilling significance. At the reading of Richard’s will, Cora was clearly heard to say, “It’s been hushed up very nicely, hasn’t it. But he was murdered, wasn’t he?”

Did Cora’s accusation a dark truth that sealed her own fate? Or are the siblings’ deaths just tragic coincidences?

Desperate to know the truth, the Lansquenet’s solicitor turns to Hercule Poirot to unravel the mystery. For even after the funeral, death isn’t finished yet . . .

I hope you like head-hopping, because this story moves from character to character in an entire family tree throughout the whoooole novel. For the record, I didn’t throw this book out the car window because a) I recalled some of the plot from the David Suchet adaptation, but not all the bits and that was really irritating, and b) the kids would have yelled at me for littering, which would have been even more irritating.

But, I must admit, there was something else here, a good something that kept me wanting to remember the solution. For all the head-hopping, there remained a consistent uncertainty between characters, a singular dread of not feeling entirely comfortable around one’s own family, of relief for getting money and the simultaneous guilt for being thankful someone died so that money could be given. By giving these characters that mutual guilt and suspicion, the narrative no longer jostles readers about. We’re still following that dread, catching the little things that make the characters unique instead of having those things hit us in the face page after page after page to remind us who’s who.

Death on the Nile

The tranquility of a cruise along the Nile was shattered by the discovery that Linnet Ridgeway had been shot through the head. She was young, stylish, and beautiful. A girl who had everything . . . until she lost her life.

Hercule Poirot recalled an earlier outburst by a fellow passenger: “I’d like to put my dear little pistol against her head and just press the trigger.” Yet in this exotic setting nothing is ever quite what it seems.

I feel like this is the mystery that inspired spoofs like Monty Python’s Agatha Christie sketch or the movie Clue–you know, where someone says, “I saw the ___ who did it!” And just before that someone says a name, the lights go dark, a shot rings out, someone groans, and thud–another murder.

(I’m likely quite wrong on this, but that sort of scene is in Death on the Nile, so it’s all I can think about now.)

Blessedly, Death on the Nile is told with an omniscient narrator who mostly follows Poirot about, only occasionally lingering with other characters if there’s a romance arc to propel along.

The narrator never focuses readers away from what Poirot’s doing, nor does the narrator give unnecessary attention for the sake of distraction or red herrings. Being a third person limited point of view, readers don’t get insight into Poirot’s head, either, so we still don’t learn the full solution until Poirot’s ready to “do his thing,” as it were. And that’s fine.

It’s all fine.

Honestly, it is. The head-hopping, the unreliable narrator, the traditional omniscient–each are appropriate approaches to telling a story. Even a chapter of pure dialogue has its place. What matters is that the chosen method encourages readers to continue the story. Can the reader get the information by following one character around, or are multiple viewpoints needed in order to get the big picture? Would readers enjoy the guessing game that comes with unreliable narrators, or does the plot require a more neutral voice to share it? Does the scene’s power come in what is said, or what is not?

It never hurts to experiment and find which approach is the best fit for the story at hand, for like our kids, every story is different. So long as we consider the heart of the story–spurned love, broken family, desperate greed–we can take a step back and consider how readers should reach this heart. We don’t want it to be a simple straight path, nor the path we know so well we could write it blindfolded. Where’s the fun in that? Where’s the understanding in that?

So, try directing readers to different characters to help them appreciate the multiple relationships. Let them follow the outsider to reach that inside perspective. Leave them with one soul and see if they will trust that character–or not.

Just don’t commit the Unforgivable Writing Sin, one that leads to readers abandoning your story to the Did Not Finish shelf, never to be journeyed again:

Thou Shalt Not Bore.

Have you ever been intrigued by an author’s choice in narrative point of view? Befuddled? Disappointed? I’d love to hear about it!

STAY TUNED!

Interviews, music, and fantasy fiction lie ahead! I’ll also provide more updates regarding my new novel, Fallen Princeborn: Chosen and how YOU can get your hands on an ARC.

(Yes, I know this says 2019, but IT’S HAPPENING, dagnabit, and that’s what counts!)

Thank you for companionship on this writing journey. You help make my corner of the world a brighter, saner place. x

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#writerproblems: #writing awesome #characterdesign in three sentences or less.

Yes, I know that hashtag #characterdesign is more of an art-related thing, but it fits with this little lesson learned, believe you me.

This week started with its usual chaos: calls at 5am for a substitute teacher in 5th grade–no wait, Kindergarten. No wait, art, just art for aaaaaall the grades, can you do that? Bash wakes up with a swollen eye from Lord knows what (don’t worry, it left just as mysteriously as it came), university students re-submit work I had already flagged as inappropriate for the assignment requirements. On top of all this, another university contacts me to schedule an interview for a full-time gig. (insert excitement and anxiety here.)

Meanwhile, I did my best to stay in the writing community loop, reading about the racial controversy over American Dirt and learning from fellow indie author Michael Dellert that The Arcanist is calling for western speculative flash fiction:

Is there another short story inside me for the bounty hunter Sumac? I asked myself as the twelve-year-olds tried to stab each other with colored pencils. 1000 words didn’t feel like a lot of wiggle room. Night’s Tooth was meant to be a short story, after all, but writing a fantasy western inspired by Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name trilogy meant a LOT of slow-but-tense moments. Thus, the novella instead of the short story. (Click here if you’d like to read one of those moments.)

As magical showdowns percolated in my mind, I continued planning my excursion into the “dark, impulsive, whiny villainy” of Disney’s Star Wars. I had my collection of Robert McKee Story quotes at the ready for studying the bizarre mix of Hux and Kylo interactions in The Force Awakens and shift from there into the smothering subversions of The Last Jedi.

That is, until my perusal through Agatha Christie’s short fiction sparked a little something that I just had to share.

So we all know that when it comes to short fiction, you gotta pack a lot into a tiny space. Plot, character, setting–aaaaall that jazz has gotta be played at a heightened, almost truncated speed. There’s no time for meandering interludes or long drum solos.

(RIP Neil Pert. I know he wasn’t a jazz player, but Bo’s a HUGE Rush fan, so he’s been showing concerts to the kids and now I’m stuck in a land of music metaphor that doesn’t jive and we’re just going to move on because I clearly have no sense of what decade I’m in.)

Agatha Christie wrote over a hundred short stories. If ANYone knew the importance of keeping the story elements thrumming along, it was her. This is especially clear when she describes her characters. Like any good musician, Christie’s style moves sweet’n’slick with just the right amount of flourish.

Miss Lemon was forty-eight and of unprepossessing appearance. Her general effect was that of a lot of bones flung together at random. She had a passion for order almost equalling that of Poirot himself; and though capable of thinking, she never thought unless told to do so.

“How Does Your Garden Grow?”

In just three sentences, we’ve got a sense of this character’s physical appearance, interests, and mindset. Christie doesn’t dwell on the minutiae, like what Miss Lemon wears or how she does her hair. That all falls under “unpreposessing appearance.” But some readers whine when they can’t “see” a character without more precise detail. What if we picture different things? What if we don’t see the character the same way the writer did? THAT CHANGES THE READING EXPERIENCE, DOESN’T IT?!

Honestly, folks, does Miss Lemon’s outfit affect the story? No. Does it matter if each of us picture “a lot of bones flung together” (damn, I really like that bit) in different ways? No.

More importantly, a short story doesn’t have space to waste on that kind of detail. When a writer’s looking into contests like The Arcanist‘s, he/she can’t afford to spend a hundred words on description when forty will do the trick. Heck, even twenty’s enough for Christie in some cases. Take these character descriptions of two parents.

Mrs. Waverly’s emotion was obviously genuine, but it assorted strangely with her shrewd, rather hard type of countenance.

Mr. Waverly was a big, florid, jovial-looking man. He stood with his legs straddled wide apart and looked the type of the country squire.

“The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly”

Again, the colorful details are skipped in favor for body language and behavior. We get senses of these people–the hard, heart-broken mother, the upper-class, happy sort of father. We may not know what these two look like, but we know their body language, and in this we get impressions of their attitudes and behaviors, which are far more important than hair color.

Six months ago she had married a fifth time–a commander in the Navy. He it was who came striding down the beach behind her. Silent, dark–with a pugnacious jaw and a sullen manner. A touch of the primeval ape about him.

“Triangle at Rhodes”

Those third and fourth sentences say it ALL. “Silent, dark”–readers can already get a sense of a nasty face, but since this man’s “a commander in the Navy” then we know he’s going to carry himself like a man of authority and power. Words like “pugnacious” and “sullen” tell readers how he’s going to interact with the other characters: always negatively, aggressively, and without any sort of kindness. The fact he’s “primeval” practically forces readers to picture this character as a sort of sub-human, incapable of empathy or feeling.

And aaaaaall that characterization is given in just eighteen words.

When Poirot’s friend Captain Hastings narrates the story, Christie is also able to take advantage of her ever-lovable unreliable narrator, which allows her to misdirect readers when she so chooses.

The sixth Viscount Cronshaw was a man of about fifty, suave in manner, with a handsome, dissolute face. Evidently an elerly roué, with the languid manner of a poseur. I took an instant dislike to him.

Mrs. Davidson came to us almost immediately, a small, fair creature whose fragility would have seemed pathetic and appealing had it not been for the rather shrewd and calculating gleam in her light blue eyes.

“The Affair at the Victory Ball”

Oh, Hastings, you do love a pretty face. Poirot’s partner loves to let readers know when he’s a fan of a woman or not, consistently keen to describe her appearance and whether or not she’s attractive.Once in a while, though, he’ll catch something genuine, such as Mrs. Davidson’s shrewdness. Likewise, if Hastings doesn’t like a man, he’s obvious about that, too, and these opinions from Hastings always alter how he interacts with the characters as well as how he interprets their words and body language. This in turn affects the information readers receive, and so by the end of “The Affair at the Victory Ball” we’re just as surprised as Hastings to discover how wrong we are about these people.

Once in a while, though, Christie does allow a little drum solo when a minor character takes the stage. It seems to happen when it’s a character type Poirot, Hastings, or the omniscient narrator ignores in favor of more interesting goings-on: a mere citizen, a member of the populace where the mystery occurs. Sometimes it’s this common-ness that plays its part in getting Poirot to the mystery, such as in “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”:

Everything about Mr. Jesmond was discreet. His well-cut but inconspicuous clothes, his pleasant, well-bred voice which rarely soared out of an agreeable monotone, his light-brown hair just thinning a little at the temples, his pale serious face. It seemed to Hercule Poirot that he had known not one Mr. Jesmond but a dozen Mr. Jesmonds in his time, all using sooner or later the same phrase–“a position of the utmost delicacy.”

“The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”

And this bit from “A Cornish Mystery” is a lovely reminder to readers and writers alike that every setting’s character, no matter how bland and un-unusual, is still a person with problems, fear, and feeling.

Many unlikely people came to consult Poirot, but to my mind, the woman who stood nervously just inside the door, fingering her feather neck-piece, was the most unlikely of all. She was so extraordinarily commonplace–a thin, faded woman of about fifty, dressed in a braided coat and skirt, some gold jewellery at her neck, and with her grey hair surmounted by a singularly unbecoming hat. In a country town you pass a hundred Mrs. Pengelleys in the street every day.

“The Cornish Mystery”

It seems Hastings spends an awful long time introducing us to a character that’s just one of a hundred one would pass in the street–81 words, in fact. Why so much time on a single, ordinary character in a short story? Hasting’s description creates an expectation of ordinary-ness, regularity, typicality. But of course, Christie being Christie, this time spent on an ordinary character comes with reason: this ordinary character, this one of one hundred, is murdered. Why would someone murder this one Mrs. Pengelley out of a hundred one would pass on a country town street?

Ah. That is why the reader reads on.

So when you work on your own character designs, writers, always ask yourself what matters more: the character’s appearance, or behavior? The character’s look, or feelings? A character’s choices are often the influence of action and pacing, but there’s no denying that sometimes, a character’s appearance alone may twist the narrative into surprising directions. What matters is that you share character traits important to the story. Picturing a character’s apparel means little when readers cannot see a character’s attitude.

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

Back to The Young and the Restless of Disney’s Star Wars villains!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#lessonslearned from #AgathaChristie: #Write #ChristmasTraditions with a #Sinister Flair for some Wickedly Fun #Seasonal #Storytelling

Good morning, my friends! At last I can write to you by the light of a Christmas tree. Many still slumber in this snowless cold of Wisconsin, but thanks to coffee and sweet sounds of soft singing, I’m content to sit and write to you of Christmas traditions…and murder!

Inspired by amazing indie author SJ Higbee, allow me to share some samples of this story’s covers. First, nothing’s so ominous as a skull outline in frosting. 🙂

“It’s dying out, you know,” he said, “the real old-fashioned type of Christmas. People spend it at hotels nowadays. But an English Christmas with all the family gathered round, the children and their stockings, the Christmas tree, the turkey and plum pudding, the crackers. The snowman outside the window…”

“The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”

Two years ago I shared with you a few of the traditions Bo and I have passed on to our children. I realize, however, I didn’t stress just how important those Christmas cookies are. Telling Bo to “skip the cookies this year” is akin to telling me to “skip the music this year.” In order words: BLASPHEMY! Bo will spend hours upon hours dying the dough, organizing the cutouts, laying out the sprinkles and ships for the kids to use for decorations. He loves giving these cookies to friends and family because they embody the love his mother shared when she baked cookies in his childhood. Though dead for twenty years, her love sweetly returns every Christmas through Bo, a tradition I love to see him honor.

Traditions, especially Christmas traditions, have this way of calling us back to our childhood. Once more we feel the snap of magic in winter’s air, hear the joy in song, see beauty in the world when the candles are lit and ornaments are hung. And don’t forget the food!

“All the same old things, the Christmas tree and the stockings hung up and the oyster soup and the turkey–two turkeys, one boiled and one roast– and the plum pudding with the ring and the bachelor’s button and all the rest of it in it. We can’t have sixpences nowadays because they’re not pure silver anymore. But all the old desserts…”

“What does all this have to do with your little murder bit earlier, Jean?” you may ask.

Okay, okay, I’m getting there.

Isn’t this one dreadfully plain? Oh, it’s pretty enough, but there’s absolutely no sense of mystery here whatsoever…unless we’re to presume the snow’s actually arsenic powder or something.

While some reread A Christmas Carol every year, I love to reread the Poirot short “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding.” (No, I do NOT like to reread Hercule Poirot’s Christmasthough I’m the first to admit the David Suchet adaptation of this clunker is hilarious because they added a storyline of Inspector Japp dealing with his in-laws.) The premise for “Christmas Pudding” seems straightforward enough: a government official and a princeling ask Poirot to help them recover a jewel stolen by someone they suspect to be staying with the Lacey family at the old manor house King’s Lacey. They manage to bribe Poirot with the promise of the manor’s modern heating system–and, perhaps, some bloodshed.

“You see, it is very famous, this ruby. There is a long trail behind it, a history. Much bloodshed–many deaths!”

Poirot finally agrees to help and goes to the manor house under the guise of wanting to experience a good old-fashioned English Christmas. Though the Laceys do not know of the jewel, they do know they don’t like their granddaughter’s boyfriend, and hope this detective can help them disentangle their granddaughter Sarah from the cad Desmond, who only seems good when he tends to his mysteriously ill sister always hiding away in her guest room.

So, we have the traditional homecoming mixing with the nontraditional guests. This clash promises some engaging storytelling to come–and it does.

Hercule Poirot entered his bedroom. It was a large room well provided with radiators. As he went over towards the big four-poster bed he noticed an envelope lying on his pillow. He opened it and drew out a piece of paper. On it was a shakily printed message in capital letters.

DON’T EAT NONE OF THE PLUM PUDDING. ONE AS WISHES YOU WELL.

Hercule Poirot stared at it. His eyebrows rose. “Cryptic,” he murmured, “and most unexpected.”

A note is no dead body, but there’s a clear warning here of danger to come, and of all things that danger is connected to a Christmas dessert. I can’t imagine Bo’s cookies being dangerous, but then again, we don’t serve his cookies ON FIRE.

On a silver dish the Christmas pudding reposed in its glory. A large football of a pudding, a piece of holly stuck in it like a triumphant flag and glorious flames of blue and red rising round it. There was a cheer and cries of “Ooh-ah.”

Folks, it is utterly impossible for this anxious-addled mother of mischief-maker kiddos to imagine serving food on fire and expecting them to EAT IT. I mean, I know you don’t eat the fire, but still.

Rapidly the plates were passed round, flames still licking the portions.

“Wish, M. Poirot,” cried Bridget. “Wish before the flame goes….”

…. In front of everyone was a helping with flames still licking it. There was a momentary silence all round the table as everyone wished hard.

There was nobody to notice the rather curious expression on the face of M. Poirot as he surveyed the portion of pudding on his plate. “Don’t eat none of the plum pudding.” What on earth did that sinister warning mean? There could be nothing different about his portion of plum pudding from that of everyone else! Sighing as he admitted himself baffled–and Hercule Poirot never liked to admit himself baffled–he picked up his spoon and fork.

At a glance, this cover doesn’t look like much effort’s gone into it: just text in frosting with the pudding for a backdrop. But I do like how the frosting drips from the letters…like BLOOD, mwa ha ha!

If the great Belgian detective admits he’s baffled, then readers know there’s a real mystery afoot. We know there’s a precious ruby somewhere in this manor. We know the the manor’s heir is dating a ne’er-do-well that is surely the ruby’s thief. But what has any of that to do with this age-old Christmas tradition?

We soon find out.

Something tinkled on [Poirot’s] plate. He investigated with a fork. Bridget, on his left, came to his aid.

“You’ve got something, M. Poirot,” she said. “I wonder what it is.”

Poirot detached a little silver object from the surrounding raisins that clung to it.

“Ooooh,” said Bridget, “it’s the bachelor’s button! M. Poirot’s got the bachelor’s button!”

Every portion of the pudding contains a little token: wedding rings, a thimble, a pig, a coin, etc. For my lovely friends across the Pond, you’ll have to enlighten me about what tokens are or are not traditional, for my two-second search on Google only alluded to coins, thimble, bachelor’s button, and a wishbone. (And again, Panic-Mom-Me would be crying “THEY’RE GOING TO CHOKE!” throughout all this. Prrrrobably for the best we don’t have the Christmas Pudding Tradition in the Lee house.) I especially wish I knew more about the traditional tokens because of what happens when the lord of the manor digs into his portion.

While not too colorful, I do love the menace of this cover. You’ve got the ruby that starts the story, an old illustration of making the pudding, and blood dropping onto a snow-like surface. I dig it!

“God bless my soul,” [Mr. Lacey] ejaculated. “It’s a red stone out of one of the cracker brooches.” He held it aloft.

…. “But what I can’t understand,” said Mrs. Lacey, “is how it got into the pudding.”

Mr. and Mrs. Lacey are both baffled about this particular “token.” Poirot isn’t–nor are we readers–but the reaction of the Laceys makes it clear that of all the tokens Tradition dictates be put into the Christmas pudding, a red stone isn’t one of them. It’s a peculiar twist on the tradition to them, but to Poirot, the pudding provides the answer to the mystery of the ruby’s hiding place.

Of course, now he has to figure out how it got there in the first place. The answer comes in yet another Christmas tradition learned when Poirot compliments the cook Mrs. Ross on her pudding and asks how she makes it.

“…As it was, that pudding was only made three days ago, the day before you arrived, sir. However, I kept to the old custom. Everyone in the house had to come out into the kitchen and have a stir and make a wish. That’s an old custom, sir, and I’ve always held to it.”

When the cook says “everyone in the house,” she means it: not only did the family members come and have a stir, but the staff and all guests–including the suspected thief Desmond and his supposed sister. This tradition provides the nontraditional guests the opportunity to hide their criminal activity in an unlikely place.

Yet why would they hide the ruby inside something everyone was going to eat? It turns out the Christmas pudding wasn’t meant to be the Christmas pudding, as the cook explains.

This is the cover of my copy. I love the balance of festive color against that vicious knife. If only the author text weren’t so huge!

“As a matter of fact, sir,” said Mrs. Ross, “it was the wrong pudding you had for lunch today…This morning, when Annie was getting [the Christmas Day pudding] down from the shelf in the larder, she slipped and dropped it and it broke…. So we had to use the other one–the New Year’s Day one.”

Thanks to the tradition of multiple puddings for the holidays, the Christmas dinner had been saved–and the ruby exposed.

Of course, then, there comes a wee spot of murder, but I’ll let you read about that on your own. Honestly, “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding” is a quick’n’fun read for your lunch break or before dawn creeps to your window.

As you embark on your own writing adventures this December, consider the holiday traditions you’ve known since childhood. What villainy could hide under the plate of cookies, or in the shadows beyond the carolers outside? A festive promise of mystery and adventure awaits!

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

I’m lining up author interview for 2020! Some have already reached out to me, and I’m in the process of reaching out to others. It promises to be a smashing year of sharing authors we love! I’ve also got some brilliant music to share with you both seasonal and magical. Plus, let’s not forget an update from Blondie and her own storytelling as well as the importance of giving the gift of literacy to others. Here’s hoping I can get Bash back on his Transformer Christmas story, too. 😉

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!