Observations: Using Canon in Your Fiction

Ok. That's the last time we let Violet make the book club pick.

Ok. That’s the last time we let Violet make the book club pick.

 

By Way of Explanation….

If you’re a reader, this has happened to you.

 You’ve bought a book with a terrific cover, possibly by your favorite author; you go to the library and check out a novel  your best friend swears is the greatest thing she’s ever read; a person in your writing group passes out the latest chapter in her saga…

 And you don’t like it.

 “But why?” asks your critique partner, your friend, or your credit card. “What was wrong?” So you think hard, try to puzzle it through, but the best you can come up with is: “I dunno, really. Guess it just wasn’t for me.”

 Most of the time, that’s probably good enough. Your friend knows you’re picky, your writing group is spared a tearburst, and your credit card company really doesn’t care as long as you pay some interest. But if you’re a writer who really wants to know what works and what doesn’t–or, say, a reviewer who has to justify that star-rating, there has to be more. When you’re both, well….

Over the past few years, I’ve read a lot of Sherlock Holmes-related books, pastiche, and unpublished fan fiction. I’ve learned to analyze it, so that I can explain precisely (I hope) what each writer does that either appeals to, or discourages, her audience. Sometimes this is easy to see; sometimes it’s a challenge.  Once I began this blog, I got the chance to find out what others look for in a good, non-Doyle story, and I try to incorporate this knowledge into my reviews; after all, it’s not about what I like, necessarily, but what the Sherlockian world wants to read. During the year I’ve been blogging, it came to my attention that there are common ways Sherlockian authors writing for the commercial market either succeed or fail, and I began to wonder if these observations might not be worth sharing. So here they are. Take them for what they’re worth.  You may agree, you may disagree–you may have something to add. Whichever camp you fall into–but particularly the last two–I would love to hear from you in the comments.

Please note: All examples of stories, errors, misbehavior, etc., are completely fictional, unless otherwise specified. Also, please do not call others out in a negative way in your comments.

 

Part One: Canon

 

Let’s get this one out of the way first, shall we?

If you write pastiche and/or fanfiction, let me just say right now that I admire you. I love writing fiction; there’s nothing better than creating a world, filling it with characters and setting them upon each other, preferably with poison, but sometimes a .22-calibre…

Oh. Where was I?  Yes–the bravery of the pasticheur.  See, if I write a story, I control it. There are parameters, of course, depending on the genre, but the characters are mine, and they can speak and act as I choose. All the reader knows about them is what I tell (ok, show–it’s “show, don’t tell”) them. Even in a series, I can make some changes, as long as I justify them adequately. Pastiche writers of any type don’t have that freedom. They’re taking on characters and worlds which have existed for decades, if not centuries, and which many of their readers know intimately. There are restrictions. There are guidelines. There is Canon.

Every time I type that word....

Every time I type that word….

As I’ve learned through talking to people and reading comments, Sherlockians vary in their devotion to canon. Some want stories to hew so closely to Conan Doyle that they refuse to read anything outside of those 60 stories.  Others want their pastiche to be true pastiche–to sound exactly like Watson. Others take what Conan Doyle himself told William Gillette to heart: “You may marry him, murder him, or do anything you like to him.” If Holmes is out there on Mars, bedding vampire women as he takes over a female Moriarty’s empire and cries over Oprah-bot reruns while eating donuts by the case and patting his pet rabbit, John, they don’t care, as long as they like the story. When we’re talking a commercial audience, however, it’s probably safe to assume that most of your potential readers are looking for a Holmes and Watson that they recognize.

Many Sherlockians, however, want even more. They want you to get the details right. They really do want the complete 1895 experience. They’ve read the stories a hundred times (or more), and they are quite concerned with trifles. It’s all very well to sputter at this, as some writers do, and point out that Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character, some of the stories have plot holes a foot deep, and, besides, Doyle himself is on record as not caring about continuity.

I hate to be the one to inform you, but–guess what? None of that matters.

You see, Holmes, Watson, Mrs. Hudson, Lestrade, and everyone else who tromps through those pages have achieved something that most characters never do: at some point, they left the two-dimensional world of print and became real. Vincent Starrett was right when he wrote, “Only the things the heart believes are true.” Thousands of hearts believed in 221B very quickly. They still do. If they woke up in Holmes’ world tomorrow (and some are doubtless disappointed when they do not), they would know their way about. Like it or not, if you want to write a Sherlock Holmes book, these are the people you are courting, so it’s important to take their needs and preferences into account.

What does this mean to you as a writer? Research, basically. Lots and lots of research. We’ll deal more with the whole accuracy thing in another section, but basically, to write about Sherlock Holmes successfully, you need to know the canon.  Does this mean you need to be able to quote it, book, chapter, and verse?  No, not at all, but by the time you type “The End,” you may be able to win your  scion society’s quiz contest. You just need to have a copy of the the canon and the willingness to do the work. It will, at times, prove tedious, and involve checking and re-checking. You may need to change some of your plot points to accommodate established fact. Watson doesn’t give many concrete dates, for example, but when he does, it’s best not to have Holmes away in Greece when he’s supposed to be wrestling Moriarty in Switzerland. And don’t kid yourself that “no one will know.”  Because, dear writer, they will, and while most people are willing to dismiss the occasional contradiction, too many will hurt your credibility, and your next book may not be as well-received. The temptation always exists to go where your story takes you, ignoring the particulars, but keep in mind, you’re writing about a man who once quoted Thomas Carlyle: “Genius is the infinite capacity for taking pains.”*

You’ll find, of course, that, with Watson being the type to accurately catalog the details of a woman’s dress, but not remember exactly what month it is, it can be hard to ferret out the information you need. Then there is the troublesome fact that Sherlockians in general are people who like to prove how much like their hero they are, leading them to produce heaps of articles and chronologies and debates on every imaginable and improbable aspect of Doyle’s work. It is impossible to take everyone’s canonical hobby horse into account when you’re writing. Even now, someone is pounding out an impassioned essay in which they prove, once and for all, that Sherlock Holmes was behind the theft of the Blue Carbuncle. Your best bet is to invest in a good copy of the canon–with annotations, if you can afford it–and pick a chronology that makes sense to you. Many people are familiar with, and have access to, William Baring-Gould’s, but there are others which are also well-researched and respected. Once these are on your desk, treat them as if they were divinely inspired, and refer to them often. It’s as simple as that.**

Sherlockians engaging in a genteel discussion over the Oxford/Cambridge question.

Sherlockians engaging in a genteel discussion over the Oxford/Cambridge question.

 

What about AU (Alternate Universe), you ask? That’s an excellent question, and one that I struggle with as a reviewer. One might argue that once you decide to change Holmes’ world to that extent, canon no longer matters. My husband thinks that. So do many others; there’s no doubt that AU gives a writer plenty of room to play. Chances are excellent, too, that the readers who will be attracted to an AU story are not going to be Watson-voice Canon-sticklers.  But just trying to puzzle it through, it seems to me that the closer you are to Doyle’s world, the closer you should probably hew to canon. The audience for a Victorian/Edwardian Holmes is going to expect you to have some canon references, and that those will be accurate. They’ll expect a reasonably canonical timeline, and that you recognize major events, such as  Mary Morstan, Reichenbach, and The Great Hiatus.  If, however, you’re writing about, say, a present-day Holmes and Watson, people will be very happy with characters whose personalities they recognize and will give you lots of leeway with plot. Even then, the more canon “Easter Eggs” you put in, and the more ingeniously you manipulate established story lines, the better off you’ll be; witness the passion inspired by BBC Sherlock, and compare it to the Sherlockian world’s more tepid response to Elementary.***

If you’re going to write an AU story, though, I have two words for you: prefatory note. Just warn people. If you tell your readers up front that you plan to shamelessly manipulate canon (or ignore it) for your own purposes, then you won’t lose them the second you make Holmes a non-smoker.  Seriously. If your readers expect canon (and most do, initially), every instance which violates those expectations pulls them  further from your story, until some fling your book against the wall and others vow never to read you again. A simply warning of your intentions will filter out those who would not like your book anyway and appease the majority, who will be willing to play along, as long as they understand what you’re doing. A prefatory note can, in fact, be what takes your readers from thinking you a canonical dunce to believing you a creative genius.

"Well, yes, Patty, but the author already said this takes place in the 1940s, so of course Holmes' dressing gown would have contrast stitching."

“Well, yes, Patty, but the author already said this takes place in the 1940s, so of course Holmes’ dressing gown would have contrast stitching.”

 

All this being said, however, I have seen some very able writers try something else: “vaguing.” Their Holmes and Watson inhabit what is obviously the canonical world. They ride in hansoms, have curried fowl, go to see Sarasate, etc., but there are no direct references to specific events, stories, or dates. There is no way I can do a fact-check and devote a review paragraph to how Mycroft could not possibly have appeared in this story, as the author has specifically set it to predate “The Greek Interpreter,” and since he and Watson are playing chess and eating cake together, Watson cannot be surprised when, five years later, he learns Mycroft exists, unless he’s had far too much brandy between times. As a reviewer, I appreciate the cleverness of someone who can weave their own novel into canon without any loose threads showing. However, I also have no problem with the “vague” approach. If you’re the kind of writer who is not exceptionally detail-oriented, who has a wonderful plot and wants to focus on your puzzle or emotional revelation without having to watch your canonical back, then “vaguing” is for you.

Finally, a caution. No matter how careful you are, someone is going to take issue with your canonicity. It is ineluctable.  How do you respond? Graciously, my dear. First, check your facts. They could be wrong. I don’t know how many times I have substituted Granada for canon, for example, sometimes in an embarrassingly public manner.  On occasion there are varying interpretations, and it can be fun to explore these with your readers. Sometimes, however, the reader will be correct, and you’ve blundered. Relax. It happens. Hopefully the person pointed it out nicely, but even if they didn’t, it’s ok. Tell them how much you appreciate their comment–you don’t know how you could have missed that, and will correct it, etc., etc. Stay polite, even if you have to grit your teeth to do it. Whatever you do, do not fight with this person, or make disparaging comments about him to others–particularly online. Trash him with your spouse or your best friend if you must, but that’s it. Believe me when I say that if you behave unpleasantly online, you will damage your professional reputation. The writing world has a very long memory, and nothing attracts attention and page views like an online meltdown.† After you’ve responded appropriately in public, and spent a few days emoting in private, your next step is to LET IT GO. A canonical error is no reflection on your worth as a person, your potential as a writer, or your love of Sherlock Holmes. Everyone else is not thinking about it anymore; they’ve moved on, and so should you.  As a reviewer, I can promise you that even when I point out a canonical error–as is my job, frankly–I still think well of the writer and, usually, of the story. I know it’s hard to get everything right.  I want every author to do well, to write more, and to be happy. Please believe that most people out there think the same.

Well!  That’s “Canon.” Stay-tuned for its close cousin, “Research,” up next post, and in the meantime, let me know what you think.

 

 

Footnotes:

*So, let’s be really picky. What Carlyle actually said–far less pithily– was, “‘Genius’ (which means transcendent capacity of taking trouble, first of all)….”  in his History of Frederick the Great.

** I’d put a winking smiley face emoticon here, but this is a professional blog. ;)

***Not a value judgment, either way. But I assume you want to inspire the type of devotion that fuels a thousand Tumblrs.

†Ok, so this bit of advice was actually inspired by several actual events in the romance-writing community.  But it’s also very standard.

 

 

6 Comments

Filed under AU (Alternative Universe), Holmes-related ficiton, Pastiche, Writing

6 responses to “Observations: Using Canon in Your Fiction

  1. James O'Leary

    Your post should be required reading for any budding pasticheur. If the author takes the trouble to give us a credible Holmes and Watson, readers will not begrudge small errors.

  2. Very good post indeed! I like to write in my own universes, sporting original characters as well as minor characters heavily altered from canon, but it’s canon itself that inspires most of it with its thousands of questions and twists and holes. I guess everybody has their own way of approaching their writing, it has certainly taken me a whole long time just to find this one for the Holmes universe, and every world demands another. It’s a fascinating journey which I feel a little safer on, now that I’ve read your kind words.

    A question about the review topic – I agree with you on that very much, too, and I think it’s good to reply to that sort of comment in a most courteous way. After all, no matter how the remark was written and if it’s true or not, someone took the time and effort to write it. On the other hand, I’ve seen a lot of reviewers arguing that they don’t want the author to show any sign of reading reviews and, good Lord, replying. I guess the difference is in replying to a comment that’s been left to the author with the intention of being read, and a complete review directed at the fellow reading audience. Would you agree with this differentiation? I can understand if reviewers feel intimidated if suddenly the author pops up in their blog, no matter how grace- and grateful the reply is, and I’d therefore think that the replying part is meant to happen to comments on, say, the author’s own website or blog.

    • Thanks for this! I think you’ve provided a very nice guideline for an author who isn’t sure how they should respond to a review publicly.

      I admit that I was absolutely terrified the first time the author of the book I reviewed left a comment, and I always get a little nervous. They’re generally positive; at least one person, I think, disagreed with something I wrote, but it was no big deal, and they were pleasant. Even when the author’s response is positive, I worry that readers will think that somehow my objectivity has been compromised. The Sherlockian world is relatively small, however, so it’s inevitable that, if you write or review, you’ll get to know others who do the same, so I got over that.

      I think the question over whether or not to respond to a review on that reviewer’s blog (or in the newspaper, or whatever), depends on the situation. If, for example, I get something wrong in a review, or completely miss the point, then–for me–it would be all right for the author to point that out in a comment, as long as they were nice about it. At the same time, though, reviewers have the right to their opinions (and that’s all they are, in the end), and it does no good to respond to a negative review with an argument. It makes the author look petty. Plus, I’m not sure that a bad review is going to really hurt sales (and here’s an article from the Harvard Business Review supporting this: http://hbr.org/2012/03/bad-reviews-can-boost-sales-heres-why/ar/1). I might not like Sherlock Holmes falling in love with his step-sister, for example, but quite a few people really love that book. In another example from this blog, I wrote a review in which I mentioned the author’s deviations from canon. It was very difficult to do this because, emotionally, the book was wonderful. The author put her (very classy) response on her own blog. This review got the most responses of any I have done, and most commenters did not agree with me. I hope that the book got a boost in sales from that discussion.

      The one thing, though, that I don’t think authors should ever do is respond to Amazon or (probably) Goodreads reviews. Those are readers talking to each other, and there is no way you can enter that discussion without looking incredibly insecure and unprofessional.

      (What do you write, by the way?)

  3. I once had an author respond to a review on my blogsite (not a Sherlock title, but a lost artefact/Nazis/Russian mafia thing) considering I’d been a bit harsh on the derivative nature of the story he was a very pleasant about it.

  4. fictional100

    I agree with Mr. Leary above–this blog feels like an instant classic! So delightfully written and thorough, the product of much pastiche-slogging and then reflection, perhaps with three smokeless pipes!

    I must only add that I enjoy “Elementary” very much and admire the stretch to ‘CSI-Sherlock’ that it has accomplished. A very different take on what-would-Holmes-do in the modern world than we see in BBC’s Sherlock, but I notice that while not hewing to the Conan-canon, Elementary is tossing in more ‘Easter Eggs’ as the series goes on. That your analysis accommodates both types of pastiches, and many more, testifies to its strength, usefulness, and applicability. Brava!
    ~lucy