Where Agatha Christie wrote

Where Agatha Christie wrote

Murders she wrote. Many, many of them. Outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare, she’s the bestselling novelist of all time. Next in the where writers write series: where Agatha Christie wrote her books.


Where Agatha Christie wrote: head shot b/w
Agatha Christie (1890-1976)

“A bath! The receptacle of porcelain, one turns the taps and fills it, one gets in, one gets out and ghoosh -ghoosh — ghoosh, the water goes down the waste-pipe”.

Hercule Poirot, in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun

For Poirot, taking a bath sounds pretty perfunctory. A means to an end, the end is clearly the most exciting part. Not so for his creator who liked to sit there thinking, undisturbed, lining the rim with apple cores.

‘I got my plots in the tub’, Agatha Christie told the New York Times in 1966. And not just any tub, either. It had to be the old-fashioned kind with a rim. Modern baths, apparently, weren’t built with authors in mind. ‘Too slippery’, she said, ‘with no nice ledge to rest pencils and paper on’.

Which was why, when she was renovating her house at Greenway, she gave architect Guildford Bell very specific instructions: ‘I want a big bath and I need a ledge because I like to eat apples.’

The house at Greenway in Devon.

Greenway, the estate on the River Dart in Devon Christie and second husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan, bought in October 1938, was for holidays only. Although she might read aloud her latest mystery to family and guests (only her daughter Rosalind ever guessed ‘whodunnit’) she did no writing there. But the house and grounds inspired three of her books: Dead Man’s Folly, Five Little Pigs and Ordeal by Innocence.

National Trust-owned since 2000 you can now wander round Greenway. See if you can match specific sites to her descriptions or head off on the Agatha Christie Mile walk. It takes in the Grand Hotel where she spent her wedding night in 1914 after her first marriage to Archibald Christie and the Imperial Hotel where she set several stories.

You could even stay in the Greenway apartment. It may not be Christie’s actual bathroom, but the bathtub in the apartment has a rim. Just in case you fancy a Braeburn or two while you soak.

Agatha Christie’s writing formula

Christie’s bath-time pastime was integral to the writing process. She never wrote a single word of a book until she’d outlined the plot.

Ideas for plots could come from anywhere. A conversation she’d overheard in a teashop (The Secret Adversary) or on the train (Why didn’t they ask Evans?) or some ‘clever bit of swindling’ she’d read about in the newspaper. She was always on the look-out for a ‘neat way of covering up the crime so nobody would get it too soon’.

Once she had the idea, she’d then work out the murder method, followed by the murderer’s character and the motive. Other suspects and their murder motives would come next, along with the clues and red herrings.

Because that’s the thing about Christie’s detective fiction. She doesn’t cheat her reader by leaving out details. The murderer’s identity is as available to you as it is to her detectives; her clues are always in plain sight.

She jotted everything down into carefully labelled notebooks. But as she often had several on the go at once, she still managed to lose track of what she’d noted where.

73 of these notebooks survive. Found after her death in 1976 they reveal she paid little attention to the subtleties of characters, would happily re-use plots and that entire works might be inspired by a single phrase.

But as for the writing process itself, it wasn’t easy. ‘There is no agony like it’, she once admitted. ‘You sit in a room, biting pencils, looking at a typewriter, walking about, or casting yourself down on a sofa, feeling you want to cry your head off’.

Where Christie wrote

Christie didn’t have a writing room of her own until later in career, when she and Max bought 58 Sheffield Terrace, in Notting Hill after they married in 1930.  Not that she needed it. Christie could write anywhere.

It caused endless problems with journalists who inevitably wanted to photograph the author at her desk. But to work, all she needed was a typewriter (a portable, Remington Victor T) and a solid work-surface. A marble-topped bedroom washstand was as good a place to write as the dining-room table between meals.

Friends remarked that they never knew when she was writing her books because they never actually saw her writing:

‘I must behave rather as dogs do when they retire with a bone; they depart in a secretive manner and you do not see them again for an odd half-hour. They return self-consciously with mud on their noses. I do much the same. I felt slightly embarrassed if I was going to write. Once I could get away, however, shut the door and get people not to interrupt me, then I was able to go full speed ahead, completely lost in what I was doing’.

Agatha Christie, An Autobiography

When she could go full speed ahead, she wrote her manuscripts in longhand, then typed them up herself. It kept her to the point, she said. In later years, after she broke her ‘writing wrist’, she was forced to use a Dictaphone. She disliked it. ‘Odd how hearing your own voice makes you self-conscious and unable to express yourself‘.

‘A sausage machine, a perfect sausage machine,’ as she described herself, Christie churned out books. And while she’d been known to rattle off a work in as little as six weeks (‘If you can write fairly quickly, the result is more spontaneous’) she usually spent three or four months on a book, often working on two at a time.

What’s more, wherever she was, even when she was in the desert on archaeological digs with Max, she managed to put in several hours’ a day on her work in progress. No wonder she was so prolific.

Agatha Christie’s writing career

Christie never had any ambition to be a writer, she says in her autobiography. And even after producing ten books, she still didn’t consider herself a ‘bona fide author’. Asked for her occupation when filling in forms, she’d write ‘married woman’ instead.

Born Agatha Miller on 15 September 1890 in Torquay, she was the third child of upper-middle-class parents. An afterthought, much younger than her two siblings, she was the only child still at home for many years. And apart from a stint at a Paris finishing school aged 16, she had no formal education.

Not that she let that set her back. By the time she was 5 she’d taught herself to read. Aged 11 she published her first poem in a local newspaper and by her late teens had written several short stories and had verse printed in The Poetry Review.

It was Christie’s older sister who provoked her into writing her first detective novel — by telling her she couldn’t. The plots were just too complicated, she said. She didn’t think Christie capable of weaving the strands together.

Where did Agatha Christie work when she wrote her first novel?

During the first world war, after a stint as a VAD nurse in Torquay’s field hospital Christie transferred to the dispensary set up in Town Hall. It was there, as qualified pharmaceutical assistant, she started working with poisons.

She put her knowledge to good use. Poison – most commonly arsenic, presumably because it was easier to come by at the time – is used to kill off over 80 victims in her books. It was the murder method she chose for her first novel, too, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which she wrote in 1916.

Published in 1920, it introduced Hercule Poirot to the world (there were Belgian refugees in Torquay during the war). And with the proceeds, she and Archie bought a house in Sunningdale they called The Styles.

But it would take a few years for Christie to achieve real success as a writer. Her breakthrough came in 1926 with her first bestseller, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

How many books did Agatha Christie write?

Christie published 66 detective novels, 14 short story collections, an autobiography and a travel memoir. Then there were her plays — 16 of them in total. The only playwright ever to have 3 plays on simultaneously in London’s West End, she also penned the longest-running one: The Mousetrap which opened on 25 November 1952.

Much to the dismay of her publishers (who’d have preferred her to stick to crime) under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott, Christie also wrote 6 romantic novels. And for nearly 20 years, the public had no idea Christie and Westmacott were one and the same. Until a newspaper columnist blew her cover in 1949.

The one book ‘that satisfied me completely’ she said in her autobiography, was her romantic novel ‘Absent in the Spring’. She wrote it in 3 days flat:

‘I went straight through…I don’t think I have ever been so tired…I didn’t want to change a word and although I don’t know myself of course what it is really like, it was written as I meant to write it, and that is the proudest joy and author can have.’

Agatha Christie, An Autobiography

Which was her favourite of her detective novels? And Then There Were None (or so she said in 1972). Perhaps because it was the most challenging to write.

The storyline went through innumerable rewrites before she was happy with it. But it also happens to be her best-selling novel. Over 100 million sales to date make it the best-selling murder mystery of all time.

Which Agatha Christie book is set on Burgh Island?

Burgh Island in South Devon inspired the settings of two of Christie’s books. Her favourite, And Then There Were None, and the Poirot mystery, Evil Under the Sun. Built in 1929, the art deco hotel overlooking the beach at Bigbury-on-Sea was popular in the 30s.

Churchill, Edward and Mrs Simpson, Josephine Baker and The Beatles are among the guests who stayed there. Noel Coward famously went for 3 days and stayed 3 weeks. Agatha Christie was also a regular guest. And now the hotel’s been restored you can stay in Agatha’s Beach House, the writing retreat they built for her in the rocks.

Or make a murder mystery weekend of it. Hire the island and have exclusive use of the hotel. It sleeps 50.

 Agatha Christie writing tips

‘What can you say about how you write books? What I mean is, first you’ve got to think of something, and when you’ve thought of it you’ve got to force yourself to sit down and write it. That’s all….I can’t imagine why everybody is always so keen for authors to talk about writing. I should have thought it was an author’s business to write, not talk’.

Ariadne Oliver in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly

Christie didn’t leave a ‘how to’, but she did leave us the apple-eating, opinionated Ariadne Oliver. A middle-aged woman, ‘handsome in a rather untidy fashion, with fine eyes, substantial shoulders and a large quantity of rebellious grey hair’, she appears in several of Christie’s Poirot novels. And as Christie admitted, had ‘a strong dash of herself’.

A strong dash indeed. A mystery writer, she shares Christie’s writing habits, ‘a deal table, her typewriter, black coffee, apples everywhere. What bliss, what glorious and solitary bliss’. She even has her own detective, a Finn called Sven Hjerson.

‘Of course he’s idiotic,’ she says ‘but people like him’, something Christie herself often said of Poirot.

Here are some Ariadne Oliver gems on writing detective fiction:

Write what you know

Stick to what you know…people on cruises, and in hotels, and what goes on in hospitals and on parish councils…and music festivals, and girls in shops, and committees and daily women, and young men and girls who hike round the world in the interest of science, and shop assistants’

Add plenty of corpses

If the thing’s getting a little dull, some more blood cheers it up. Somebody is going to tell something—and then they’re killed first! That always goes down well. It comes in all my books –camouflaged different ways, of course. And people like untraceable poisons, and idiotic police inspectors and girls tied up in cellars with sewer gas or water pouring in (such a troublesome way of killing anyone really) and a hero who can dispose of anything from three to seven villains single-handed.

Don’t worry about accuracy

Who is accurate? Nobody nowadays. If a reporter writes that a beautiful girl of twenty-two dies by turning on the gas after looking out over the sea and kissing her favourite Labrador, Bob, good-bye, does anybody make a fuss because the girl was twenty-six, the room faced inland, and the dog was a Sealyham terrier called Bonnie? If a journalist can do that sort of thing, I don’t see that it matters if I mix up police ranks and say a revolver when I mean an automatic, and a dictograph when I mean a phonograph, and use a poison that just allows you to gasp one dying sentence and no more.

Interesting facts about Agatha Christie

The butler never did it

Although, in Three Act Tragedy, one of her murderers dresses up as a butler to kill his victim.

She liked to surf

Christie was one of the first Brits to try surfing. Already a keen bodyboarder she learnt to surf on holiday in Hawaii in 1922.

‘I learned to become expert, or at any rate expert from the European point of view—the moment of complete triumph on the day that I kept my balance and came right into shore standing upright on my board!’ she says in her autobiography.

She was also rather delighted with ‘a wonderful, skimpy emerald green wool bathing dress, which was the joy of my life, and in which I thought I looked remarkably well!’

Agatha Christie disappearance

On 4th December 1926 Agatha Christie vanished. In a plot worthy of one of her books, she kissed her daughter Rosalind goodnight and, taking only an attache case with her, drove away from the family home in her Morris.

Her car was found abandoned near Guildford, its front wheels dangling over the edge of a chalk pit. But there was no sign of the 36 year old novelist.

Her disappearance made the headlines and sparked a nationwide hunt. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was called in to help. Then, 11 days after she disappeared, a young journalist called Ritchie Calder, found her using her fictional detectives’ sleuthing techniques.

She was staying at the Hydro, a spa hotel in Harrogate, booked in under the name of her husband Archie’s new mistress. A clue to the reason for her vanishing act, do you think?

Christie never spoke about her disappearance and there’s no mention of it in her autobiography. But it seems the amnesia her husband claimed she was suffering from didn’t extend to her work-in-progress. According to the chambermaids who cleaned her room during her hotel stay, she spent much of her time there writing.

Agatha Christie books

For a list of Agatha Christie books in order go to agathachristie.com

For books on the Christie’s life and work try these. (Click on an image to buy from an independent bookseller.)


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Where Agatha Christie wrote
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Where Agatha Christie wrote
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Murders she wrote. Many, many of them. Outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare, she's the bestselling novelist of all time. Next in the where writers write series, find out where Agatha Christie wrote her books and where she did her plotting.

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