Wednesday, September 2, 2020

CONNECTING WITH MY "INNER AGATHA": Guest Post by Marty Ambrose

Marty Ambrose:
Connecting with my “Inner Agatha”

I’ve been thinking a lot about writing in a time when the world seems to be chaotic.

Mystery writers create stories about a sudden crisis entering a community and turning it upside down. A local official is murdered, a wealthy neighbor is kidnapped, a child goes missing. Something happens that is out of the ordinary and, as the sleuth tracks down the criminal, the world turns dark and generally more sinister things happen. I write historical mysteries, but the basic plot is similar; it’s just that my characters experience these events in the past. That’s the kind of fiction that I write. But it’s fiction.

Most of us who write mysteries don’t live through those kinds of traumas, much less a global upheaval.

We might read about them but our lives, for the most part, are made up of routines at the computer with occasional research trips and writers’ conferences. Until now. We’re living through the kind of world turmoil that happens once in a lifetime—hopefully. As this pandemic has unfolded over the last months, it’s permeated every aspect of our lives, and it’s required a huge amount of focus to keep writing (sometimes I don’t quite make it). Many times, my own creativity proved to be elusive no matter how hard I tried to find it. After a particularly difficult morning of staring at a blank screen for two hours, I turned in desperation to the Mother-of-All-Mystery-Writers, Agatha Christie, for some inspiration. She was a prolific author and enjoyed a long career; I’d loved her books forever. Surely, there were some lessons to be discovered from her life.

I found all of that—and more.

Christie was born in 1890 and died in 1976. She went through two world wars, the 1918 pandemic, the Great Depression, and other cataclysmic social changes. Yet she kept writing. In fact, she wrote 66 detective novels and 14 short stories. What was her secret to keep going in trying times? Well, it took a little digging, but I found that her curiosity always sparked her focus when craziness erupted around her. She kept occupied with her interests, bordering on obsessions, and filed them away for future books. In fact, her experiences during WWI made her want to be a writer.

When the war broke out, she lived in her native Torquay in Devon, England, and volunteered as a nurse, learning about the nature of wounds, which she later used in her murder plots. Even more intriguing, she worked in the dispensary, learning about medicines and tonics, where she relates, “I first conceived the idea of writing a detective story . . . Since I was surrounded by poisons, perhaps it was natural that death by poisoning should be the method I selected.” Only Christie. She began her first book in her spare time, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which was published in 1920. It wasn’t a great success, but it set her on the road to becoming a novelist; she also began her lifelong love of killing off characters with deadly chemicals. Throughout the war, she worked long hours, endured the loneliness of a being an absent soldier’s wife, and gave birth in London at the end of pandemic. Yet she somehow found the momentum to keep going as a writer.

Certainly, nothing prepared Christie for such tough times (the sight of blood initially made her faint), but she found something about every catastrophe that engaged her inner strength to keep searching for something new and intriguing. During WWII, she volunteered again as a nurse in the dispensary and acquired even more knowledge of poisons for fresh methods of murder. This type of obsession might sound odd to the average person, but for a mystery writer it’s business as usual to find new ways to dispose of characters. Reading about Christie’s secrets for getting through her trials and tribulations, one quote stood out for me: “I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow; but through it all I still know quite certain that just to be alive is a grand thing.” Wise advice.

I may not be able to volunteer as a nurse, but I can be involved in my community by donating to food banks, checking in on my neighbors, finding a mutual aid network. It helps to negate the isolation. Writers tend to spend a lot of time alone creating imaginary worlds, but it’s important to spend part of the day rooted with the people in my surroundings—doing whatever I can to help. Thank you, Agatha.

I may not be consumed with poisonous substances, but I can delve into another deadly subject for my fiction writing. My novels are set in nineteenth-century Italy, so I decided to build my next plot around a mysterious dagger. I’ve been studying about the cinquedea, a long knife that was popular during the Italian Renaissance; its name means “five fingers” because that was the width of the blade. And it was lethal. I researched its history—the shape and style—and how it was used as a weapon. It’s riveting, and I can’t stop reading about it. Thank you, Agatha.

During all of my research, I’ve been reflecting on Christie, trying to imagine her pounding away at the typewriter as disastrous world events swirled around her. I realized that she wasn’t just a mystery writer; she was a remarkable woman who has shown me what it means to have been blessed and cursed to “live in interesting times.” And somewhere in the creative process, maybe a little positive energy goes out into the world as a light in dark times.

 As Christie reminds us, we can’t forget that life is a grand thing.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Marty Ambrose has been a writer most of her life, consumed with the world of literature from the time she first read Agatha Christie mysteries and British Romantic poetry. Marty pursued her undergraduate and graduate degrees in English, both in the U.S. and the U.K. so she could teach students at Florida Southwestern State College about the writers that she so admired. Three decades later, she is still teaching and has enjoyed a writing career that has spanned over fifteen years, with eight published novels for Avalon Books, Kensington Books, and Thomas & Mercer. Marty Ambrose lives in Florida with her husband, ex- news anchor Jim McLaughlin. She is currently working on the third book in her trilogy, Forever Past. 

1 comment:

Nancy J. Cohen said...

Beautifully written and inspirational.