The Crime Readers' Association

Christine Poulson – A good occupation?

5th June 2015

I believe it was Agatha Christie who remarked that murder was a good occupation for a woman at home.

What she might have added was that nevertheless it was important for that woman to get out of the house now and then. It is true that the long slog of writing a novel does tend to be done mostly at home (not many of us can afford a separate office). But when it comes to inspiration it’s a different matter. In her Autobiography, Christie describes how she had only a vague idea of the plot of her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, when she found herself sitting on a tram in Torquay near a mysterious-looking man with a black beard, and knew who was to be the murderer. In my own case, most of my ideas have also come to me when I wasn’t actually at home writing. Certainly it helps to get away from the telephone, the ping of incoming emails and Jehovah’s witnesses at the door – but it’s more than that. It is being jolted out of a rut, seeing things afresh, that is so conducive to new ideas. Perhaps that is why so many of my short stories have been inspired by holidays.

My first published story was set in Crete and began ‘Anne was every inch the Englishwoman abroad. Of course, that in itself wasn’t a good enough reason to murder her . . .’

Similarly the first lines of ‘Fishy Story’- told from the point of view of a fish – came to me in the London Aquarium, as I gazed at the fish and they gazed back at me. And the basic plot and some key locations for my most recent novel came to me on a trip round Sweden.

It is rare for me to come home from a holiday without an idea for a story, maybe even a first draft. The cathedral close in Salisbury, the Guggenheim Museum in Venice (that wonderfully sinister city), the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen (creepy after dark, with all those screams from the rollercoaster): all have been sources of inspiration.

Perhaps writers are never really on holiday? A recent publication in the British Library Crime Series, Resorting to Murder: Holiday Mysteries, contains a fascinating collection of stories by Golden Age writers with settings ranging from the Swiss Alps to the Lake District, no doubt places the writers had visited themselves.

Luckily my husband is an architectural historian and he is never really on holiday either. It’s not just being in a unfamiliar place that is so useful. Modes of transport too can help. If I am stuck with a plot point or can’t think how to make something happen, a train journey of a couple of hours or more can be a godsend.

Driving isn’t so good (too much concentration required) and flying doesn’t work either, though hanging about in an airport might. Walking can be effective. Stephen King tells the story of how 500 pages into The Stand he got completely blocked. He had no idea what should happen next. He started going for long, dull walks, mulling the thing over, but his rational mind failed to come up with an answer. When the solution came, it came out of the blue, when he wasn’t really thinking about it.

I seem to remember that the late great Ruth Rendell was a keen walker, too. Dorothea Brande’s classic book on writing, Becoming A Writer – first published in 1934, but just as relevant today – also recommends walking and other non-verbal pastimes for writers. Listening to music and or looking at paintings work for me.

It is all about distracting or quieting the critical, rational side of the brain and allowing the intuitive, creative side to throw up the ideas that you need. There is a wonderful etching by Goya with the title, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, in which sinister creatures emerge from the mind of a sleeping man. As crime-writers that’s sometimes exactly what we’re aiming for.

Before Christine Poulson turned to crime, she was a respectable academic with a PhD in History of Art and had written widely on nineteenth-century art and literature. Her book, The Quest for the Grail: Arthurian Legend in British Art 1840-1920 (Manchester University Press, 1999) was short-listed for a Mythopoeic Award for non-fiction. During her career as an art historian, she worked at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and at the William Morris Society at Kelmscott House, London. Later she was a lecturer in Art History at a college in Cambridge.

The city of Cambridge and the surrounding Fens, with their unique and sinister atmosphere, provided the setting for her first novel, Dead Letters, published in 2002, which featured literary historian and accidental sleuth, Cassandra James. Stage Fright, the second in the series, came out in 2003, and Footfall in 2006. Her short stories have appeared in CWA anthologies, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and elsewhere. One of them,‘A Tour of the Tower,’ was nominated for a Short Mystery Fiction Derrringer Award in 2011.

Christine’s new book, Invisible, a stand-alone suspense novel, will be published by Accent Press in 2014.

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