Answering Agatha

The envelope my father received in 1937, opened no doubt with hands fumbling from excitement, contained a letter neatly typed on lightweight airmail paper with the return address “58 Sheffield Terrace, London, W.8.”

“Dear Charles Shields,” it began. “I was very much interested in your letter of November 14th, but I am afraid I have so many plots in my head already that I could not use yours. Why do you not try and write the story yourself? You say you would like to be a writer so why not start now?

“I wish you the best of luck.”

A large, flourishing signature appeared at the bottom of the letter: “Agatha Christie.”

To my father, a 17-year-old living in a working-class Irish neighborhood in Philadelphia, a letter from one of his favorite authors—speaking to him as if he were a fellow writer—was an oracle’s prophecy. He, too, would become a novelist someday! Christie was welcoming him into the inner circle.

Two years ago, my father passed away. At that time, I found the cherished letter from Christie folded inside its original envelope, a keepsake he’d carried with him during the years of World War II, his marriage to my mother, his responsibilities as father to two boys, his career as a journalist and finally his retirement.

But searching through his files and old photographs, I didn’t come across any finished stories or even scraps of paper on which he might have jotted down ideas for stories. Apparently, he was content to remain a “newspaper man,” as he liked to call himself, his entire life.

Or was he? I have to wonder…did he ever try to heed Christie’s advice, which deserves to be framed above every would-be author’s desk? “You say you would like to be a writer so why not start now?”

I often hear good ideas for stories and books from people who say they want to write. I listen, I express interest and then I find myself echoing Christie: “Why not start now?”

But those words aren’t always enough. And so I offer a few more:

Start talking about yourself as a writer. Many people say they want to write, but telling others that you are a writer removes the wraps from your ambition. Why treat your desire as a secret? Go public and use the interest people express to energize your work.

Accept that anything that can get published is worth writing. Writing is largely craft, and a craft requires an apprenticeship. Local newspapers, church bulletins, trade magazines, company newsletters—you name it—all provide experience. You’re a writer, right? Well, the proof is on the printed page.

Read the best examples of writing you want to imitate. Choose authors you admire or who are held up as the best examples in your field of writing. Learn from them. Improve your taste.

Take risks. Once your apprenticeship has ended—you’ll know when, because the type of writing you’re doing has become too easy—then it’s time to seek larger markets, new vistas, new readers. Be original; that’s why some writers receive attention. They treat topics in a fresh manner.

Perhaps it was all of this that caused my father to give up his dream of writing fiction. He wasn’t willing, I suspect, to think of himself as a creative writer, to learn the craft and then take that mental leap into risk-taking.

In the course of researching my biography of author Harper Lee, I ran across a quote from a reporter who asked Lee to describe her writing regime. She replied, “I face the typewriter with both feet flat on the floor.”

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