I am almost positive that, if you’re reading this, you have memories of books and stories which have stayed with you long after you first read them, or that have inspired you, or influenced you in some way. I know I have. There are some that have been way more inspirational than I ever could have realised at the time, and these have definitely influenced, not just me as a reader, but the writer in me, too.
The tiny reader ‘me’ gobbles stories
There are books I remember reading as a small child which gave to me, I’m sure, a love of the written word and the power of its magic. I remember vividly my one and only hardback copy of Twinkle. For the life of me now, I can’t remember what was inside, but the feeling I get when I think of it is that books are magical, transportive; the feel of it, the sight of it, the formation of the pages gave me joy and still does, even in memory.
I had a number of Roger Hargreaves’ Mr Men books on my shelf, too, which I devoured every day, over and over. Okay, I’m going to admit now that I have a bit of an OCD thing going on when it comes to books and films I love. I obsess about them and read or watch them compulsively and repetitively to the point of driving others bonkers! Anyway, back to the Mr Men… I absolutely loved the characterisation, which is no surprise because character is my favourite aspect of any book. When my brother was in the bathroom, I used to get him to call out two Mr men titles and I’d read the stories to him through the bathroom door (he’ll love me for sharing that!). This reading aloud, though, may well have given me an appreciation of the weight and function of words, and of sound patterns such as alliteration – even though I didn’t know it as such then, but I’m a complete alliteration lover in adulthood.
On a slightly darker note, and much more in keeping with me as a writer, the Mr Men stories also gave me a huge appreciation for the way a threat may come to pass, or a lesson can be learned the hard way, and the endings of these books left an indelible mark on my child sponge brain. I loved this unnerving aspect, the psychological element, and this feeling of just desserts, which created an easy point of transition to my subsequent obsession with Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven books. In fact, I’ve still got all fifteen of them, spines and edges a bit tattered and well-thumbed. The mystery and the need to solve it completely captivated me. The characters felt like friends, right down to Scamper the dog! Reading each mystery adventure, I felt a thrill as each clue was uncovered and I was with the gang all the way, trying to solve the case. At the age of seven or eight, I had no idea that my brain was in training for what was going to become the big passion of my life.
Everything changed with Agatha Christie!
At the grand old age of ten, my dad bought me my first Poirot novel, The ABC Murders. This I devoured quicker than a bar of Cadbury’s (and that’s saying something, believe me!). I absolutely fell in love with Poirot, if that’s a thing you can do with the little Belgian detective. Ever since then I’ve had an enduring and obsessive passion for Agatha Christie’s work and, more generally, the detective story.
I used to go into WH Smith’s and stand there, staring at the giant triple shelving that held all the Agatha Christie books. The poor man who served behind the counter where the posh fountain pens were, must have been absolutely sick of me standing with my back pressed against his glass case while I gawped at all the Poirot and Marple mysteries. My passion for Poirot only got deeper when I went home one day, clutching Sad Cypress. Even writing this now, the memory of reading that book is creating a feeling inside me that I literally have no words to describe. I will come back to my utter obsession for Agatha Christie and, in particular, Poirot, in another post, but it’s safe to say that the ball was set rolling for every spare penny I had to be spent on indulging my need to read mysteries and crime fiction.
Writing as a reader
People have said to me for years that I should write my own crime or mystery books, that I would be good at it. For decades I’ve struggled to believe that. The accepted notion that, if you read obsessively in a genre then it will make you more instinctively pulled towards writing it has, up to now, not seemed to work for me. I admire the structural complexities of the crime and mystery plot immensely, possibly to the point of reverence. For years, though, I’ve not thought it was something I could emulate. I convinced myself that I wouldn’t be able to construct such a story very well: the red herrings would be too obvious, the perpetrator too easily guessed. I just kept adding to this list or reasons why I’d be no good at writing a book with crime in it.
But, through my own written work, I’ve come to recognise that it’s not the thrill of the chase, or even necessarily the ‘whodunnit’ element that intrigues me, but the ‘why’. Why does a character commit a physical or moral crime? What drives them? What circumstances could cause someone to do something that goes against their own character and beliefs? The psychology of the characters is what I’m interested in (is that possibly because I’m a Poirot fangirl to my core?!). This essential notion of what intrigues me as a reader and a writer is what I’ve extracted from my decades of reading – and watching, it has to be said – crime and mystery fiction: the truths behind the characters, the truths that inhabit human nature, the thoughts, passions, torments that we hold inside ourselves and the ways we choose to act on them. Or not. The way they enact themselves on our psyche. How they form and re-form characters.
So, it seems that I knew exactly the kind of books I loved, and the kind of stories that were bound to be the ones I’d write. I figured out that character psychology was my ‘thing’. It was all falling into place, wasn’t it? Well, not exactly, because something came along to throw a massive spanner in the works. Why would I make this easy for myself? After all, I love stories in which you’ve got to try and figure out what’s going on…!
Next time, I’ll explain just what it was – or who is was – that threw the quest to discover the answer to my writer self into a turmoil that lasted for decades.
And lastly, but my no means least, I’d like to say a big HAPPY BIRTHDAY to Agatha Christie, who was born on 15th September 1890. She would have been 130 today!
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