“Write what you know!” That’s the old saw, but none of us ever do, and so we must do research. I know, I know, you want to write a novel, not an encyclopedia, but that doesn’t matter. Unless you are, in fact, John H. Watson, M.D., you’re going to have to look something up. Holmes looked stuff up–all the time, in fact, so you’re following in his footsteps. Just don’t expect Mrs. Hudson to pick up after you.
There are two problems with research. There’s either too much–or too little. No matter how hard you try, you will fall into one camp or the other. In the end, I would say that it’s best to end up with too much. You can always trim your lecture on bulls-eye lanterns on revision, but if you have Holmes and Watson flicking on Maglite flashlights in 1889, it’s over.
Perhaps, however, the word “research” smacks too much of uninspiring school reports on the life cycle of the paramecium. So let’s not use it. Let’s call it “exploring,” “investigating,” or, better yet, “world-building.” Because that’s what you’re doing, really. You’re constructing a world your characters and readers will inhabit, and you want that world to be cohesive and authentic. It probably is, in your head, but in order for it to become real for your audience, you need to be able to show them that world in glorious detail. The greater the detail, the more vivid the experience. The more vivid the experience, the more enthralled the reader, and the more glowing your fan mail will be.
Fortunately, Sherlockians tend to be a research-happy bunch. Their desire to know everything about Sherlock Holmes means that you have a wealth of scholarly material to work with. There are plenty of books out there that focus on Holmes and his times, or on crime of the period, so you can use your time efficiently. That being said, there is no substitute for primary sources, so do a little digging on you own. Look at newspapers and periodicals, (online, or in your library’s reference collection), contemporary literature, listen to music, look at photographs and paintings, or read first-person accounts of that era (you’ll be amazed at the number of diaries and letter collections available). In doing so, you’ll immerse yourself in the period you’re writing about, and it will be much easier to create a believable world. Besides, who knows when your research might lead you to an even more convoluted mystery, or provide the inspiration for your next book!
But this isn’t really a post about how to do research; everyone works out her own method.* Instead, I want to briefly point out the research mistakes I’ve most commonly found in reviewing Sherlockian fiction.
First, we have dates. I’m not talking about canon chronology here; we’ve covered that. Instead, I’m talking about actual recorded dates in history. Now bear in mind that I am someone who truly loves dates. It’s a quirk, it’s probably genetic (thanks, Dad), and I apologize. Nevertheless, it truly is important that real historical people are not alive when you say they are dead, or vice versa. Any time you use a real event or a real person, you need to make sure that your dates are correct. Thanks to the internet, this is probably the easiest research job you’ll have. Be aware, however, that on occasion, a reference will be wrong, so if at all possible, double and triple check. It takes only a few minutes, but your credibility is worth it. And if the actual dates hurt your story line? It’s probably possible to rework your plot to accommodate historical fact, but if not, use a handy prefatory note to explain that, while you do know your history, you’ve chosen to alter it for the sake of your story. Most readers will accept this and read on. What you don’t want is a slew of angry letters or some snotty reviewer pointing out that the troopship Orontes could not have been sailing towards India in 1896, as she was scrapped in 1893.**
Similar to the dating issue is the problem of anachronisms. Because you can’t go back to the exact days you’re covering, and because life changes as we watch, it’s going to be impossible to recreate, exactly, each moment in time. Still, an author can try. I know when I write an historical piece, I fall into the trap of believing that since I’ve seen films and read books set in that period, I’m envisioning it correctly. Nope. That’s how I completely forgot about gigot sleeves, for instance, and didn’t realize that The Castle of Otranto was a lot older than I thought. When you write, your brain tends to play out scenes without accounting for details as it should. Don’t trust it; double-check. There are slang dictionaries, fashion encyclopedias, household management guides, regimental histories, and plenty of other sources to help you stay true to your period. Don’t be the writer who has Watson write up a script for penicillin.
Setting is another concern, and writers have various ways of handling this. Let’s face it: most of us have neither the time nor the funds to pack up for a months-long research trip to Britain, or, if you live there, it may still be difficult to see what used to be under what is. First, let’s all be grateful that, for the most part, Sherlockian fiction takes place in the past, in a time and place in which people were literate–but not so distant that records and primary sources no longer exist. Again, research can fill the gaps you cannot bridge with travel. Conan Doyle also provides a useful precedent, in that he often made places up. Streets, pubs, inns, villages–so many locations he describes in the Canon never existed. If you can’t travel and stay long enough in an area to get a good idea of how it feels to live there, it’s probably best to follow his example. Better to make up a village than to completely misrepresent a real one. As far as London goes, there are several books out there which serve as guides to the city in Holmes’ times, so you can get a notion of the major landmarks, streets, and other locations. Still, many authors take liberties with geographic specifics; they just note it at the beginning of the book. If you’re still uncomfortable with attempting to describe a setting you’re unable to visit in person, you can bring Holmes to you. He’s mobile. The trick is giving him a good reason to travel–and realizing that it may be difficult for readers to accept that he is going to keep returning to Cammack, Indiana for the next ten books.
The final research mistake pastiche-writers commonly make is in failing to have their manuscript “Brit-picked.” Of course, if you are British, you don’t have this problem–you may move on. But if you’re not, it’s highly likely that something of your native culture will creep into your writing without your noticing. Probably the funniest example I can think of for this is the word “pants.” In the U.S., “pants” are what you wear all the time, over your underwear. In the U.K., “pants” are underwear. You wear them under “trousers.” There are plenty of internet sites out there to help you with language questions, and if you have someone knowledgeable who is willing to check your book for cultural errors, I advise you to take advantage. Sherlockian books tend to have a worldwide audience. Sure, a reader in Birmingham, Alabama won’t notice that you use “can” instead of “tin,” but one in Birmingham, England certainly will.
Ok! So–now you’ve spent ages buried in books and newspapers and your room looks something like this….
How then to use all of your hard-won knowledge?
Well, the sad truth is, if you’ve done a good job, you’ll have far more research than you can include in your book and still have a plot. But this is as it should be. Every bit of fact in your head adds to the work’s authenticity; the trick is in the integration.
The way you use your research will be up to you as a writer. Some writers are Watsons–they love description and paint gorgeous word-pictures that make the reader believe he’s sitting on a special speeding up to Edinburgh, or that Holmes is leaning over her, adjusting the flue on the fireplace and she can smell the tobacco and the bay rum and the…
Oh. Where was I?
Ah, yes. Description, as you can see, is a powerful tool at the writer’s bench, but only if it’s not over-laden. For example, you may know, from your research that a lady’s dress is a Worth gown, black velvet on ivory satin, with “a fashionable reverse S-curve silhouette and [a] dramatic scroll pattern…that reflects the influence of Art Nouveau” and is reminiscent of ironwork, “with curving tendrils emphasizing the fashionable shape of the garment.”*** But you will need to describe it as your character sees it, not as a fashion history professor. Watson, perhaps, would see a woman wearing an opulent ivory gown with a black velvet pattern that made him feel as if he were looking at her through an intricate iron gate. Is the reader going to see this dress exactly as you did? Is he going to know about the House of Worth? Perhaps not. But remember, you don’t have that kind of control. Your research gave you an accurate view of what a wealthy client of that time might be wearing–no pagoda sleeves, for example–and you can share this with the reader without feeling the need to hijack the scene with a lecture on late 19th century clothing. That’s sufficient.
Occasionally, though, you need to be more specific–you can’t just allow the reader to fill in the blanks with her imagination. The plot requires a thorough understanding of courtship customs, legal procedure, or plaster bust manufacture. What was once commonly done–but is now frowned upon–is the “As you know, Bob” explanation, in which characters discuss, in at great length, the details of processes and events that they both already know. If you’re careful, and the section is incredibly short, you may be able to get away with it, viz., “But Holmes! If it’s murder she’ll be hanged!” “Now, now, Watson, sentences have been commuted.” But avoid disguising lengthy explication as dialogue; it just comes across as artificial. Instead, try providing the information as thought–say, Watson musing on the plight of prostitutes as he walks past a group of those ladies on his way home at night. Or perhaps break the facts up and sprinkle them throughout the scene in a logical fashion. One does not have to know how the pearl got there all at once. Remember, too, it’s always better to show the reader, rather than tell. You don’t have to outline the arrest procedure before it happens. Just show what Lestrade is doing; that’s enough. And if you’ve still got more to tell….
End-matter. I love seeing end-matter (glossaries, notes, bibliographies, etc.) at the end of a book. One, because it tells me that this writer knows her stuff; two, because it’s more to learn. Which is exciting. You see, a funny thing happens once people leave school. All of a sudden, education is fun again. History is no longer boring. The science behind phosphorescence is interesting. Even mathematical formulae and musical theory are intriguing when they’re partnered with the Great Detective. Don’t hesitate to share more of your research with your readers in this kind of formal way. It keeps your story from getting too cluttered, and enhances your credibility.
Again, the caveat. No matter how much research you do, there will be someone out there with a Baedeker ready to tell you no one could take that route to Edinburgh in 1889. That’s fine. It’s why God made errata pages and revised editions. Fix it and tell your critic to digitize his collection of old guides and train timetables, because there is a desperate need for them. In the probably-not-immortal words of Keane, whom I just happen to be listening to at the moment, “Don’t be scared at all, of all the things that you don’t know.” Just do your best to ferret out the facts, and have fun doing it. After all, you’re writing about a detective. He would approve.
*Just don’t plagiarize.
**They will, and she was.