Category Archives: Writing

Observations: Characterization in Your Pastiche

The challenge of creation...

The challenge of creation…

Part 3: Characterization

I love writers’ magazines and writers’ manuals. Nothing makes you feel more virtuous about not writing than picking up The Writer or a book by Donald Maass and telling yourself that you’re engaging in professional development.* And one of the staples of such books and periodicals (which you should read whilst curled up in a comfortable chair) is characterization–specifically, how to pull it off believably. Fiction writers devote huge amounts of time, index cards, notebook pages, and computer memory to make up people as real as their Aunt Nelly.** Authors of Sherlockian fiction don’t have to fuss with that, though, do they? After all, Conan Doyle has already done the heavy lifting, character-wise. All the pasticheur has to do is think up a decent plot, bring out the cast, wind them up, and let them go. Right?

Wrong.

Fortunately, it seems that most writers understand this. Occasionally, however, I’ll be reading along and all of a sudden, Holmes, Watson, or possibly even Lestrade does something so out of character that the story comes to a screeching halt. At this point, the pen comes out and does some shrieking in the margins, and I’m thereafter alert to any tiny deviation or error on the author’s part. Some readers don’t even bother to finish such a book. As an author, you don’t want either reaction, so here are some suggestions which I hope can help you avoid them.

 Maude! Watson would never say that word!  I'm telling Mother!

Maude! Watson would never say that word! I’m telling Mother!

Staying in Character

Let me say, right up front, that I am not talking about fan fiction here, although plenty of reviewers on those sites complain about characters being “OOC.”*** The thing about fan fiction is that it’s not for profit, so if you want to write about an incredibly emotive Holmes and a flinty Watson, it’s fine; you and your followers will have a great time and no harm done. But, if you’re writing for the larger market and hoping to get some royalties out of it, this may not be the best strategy. Not to disparage anyone’s artistic vision, but the truth is, most people who buy a Sherlock Holmes book do so with the strong expectation that they are going to read about the characters they already know and love. They are not going to permit you a lot of play.

This brings us back to research. It’s tempting to think that you already know all there is to know about the world of 221B, but it’s probably a mistake. Pretend, for a few days, that you’ve just met these people. Comb through the stories and pull out every fact and observation you can. Analyze speech patterns: the characters sound different, but why? How can you duplicate this yourself? What are their habits? How do they approach their daily lives?  Try your hand at a little deduction: What do their thoughts and actions reveal about their inner workings? Their pasts? You may come up with a new revelation, but even if you don’t, that’s all right (some might say it’s preferable). The point of this is to truly understand your characters (for you are making them yours by writing about them), so that you can render them real and recognizable on the page. When fiction writers draw up those long character sheets with spaces for “favorite food,” “traumatic school memories” and “zodiac sign,” chances are good that all of that information won’t make it into the book, but the exercise itself ensures that once those people hit the page, they’re individuals. For example,  we will never know everything there is to know about any person–not even those closest to us–but everything they’ve experienced is there, somewhere, and we’re seeing it constantly. The same is true of the fictional world. The trick with Sherlockian fiction, of course, is to keep your facts straight, and not go too far beyond the boundaries already set by Watson’s literary agent. That’s okay, though–he only created the most alive characters in English literature. You’re in good hands.

That’s all writerly theory. I love writerly theory. But, concretely, what does it mean? Are there things you can never do with Sherlock Holmes and John Watson?

Well, I hate to say “never,” because if you’re a good enough writer, and you can make the reader really, truly believe it, you may be able to make our boys do anything. But, that being said, here’s a short list. Guard rail, challenge–make of it what you will:

  • Watson is a ladies’ man, but he’s a gentleman, always.
  • Holmes is not a ladies’ man. It’s perfectly possible to hook him up with someone, but he’s not believable as a skirt-chaser or as someone who is promiscuous in any way.
  • Holmes is, most of the time, tightly controlled and devoted to the life of the mind. We know that there’s something underneath that logical exterior, but that’s the whole point–it’s underneath. He is not going to have the overt emotional expressions of a teen-aged girl.†  A tremendous number of Sherlockians live for a glimpse of those “hidden fires.” Use this to your advantage.
  • Watson is a smart man–he’s a doctor, after all. But he is not, for the most part, going to be smarter than Holmes on a regular basis. He seems to be ok with this, so while it’s all right to give him the occasional burst of brilliance, he probably shouldn’t run the investigation, nor make Holmes look stupid.
  • Neither Holmes nor Watson are evil criminal masterminds or serial killers. Nor are they “dirty” cops. They are decent men on the side of Justice.
  • Watson is more into the creature comforts of life, and while Canon Holmes is not necessarily as ascetic as, say, BBC’s Sherlock, he’s also not as concerned with substantial  regular meals and sleep as is his friend. It is disconcerting to see a version of Holmes agree, seemingly without irony, that a good meal aids his thought processes.
  • Whatever you do, don’t alter a character solely to further the plot or the dialogue at hand. You may need to put out a violin-centered clue, but please don’t suddenly make Holmes a musical dolt so that you can do so.

I’m sure as you read this, you thought of successful books which flouted at least some of these stipulations. M. J. Trow’s Inspector Lestrade series portrays both Holmes and Watson as being less-than-heroic, and Michael Kurland’s Moriarty books feature the detective as drug-addled nitwit. Michael Dibdin’s controversial Sherlock Holmes is…wellllll, let’s say he’s not on the side of the angels. And of course there’s always the film Without a Clue, in which Watson is the brains of the operation. So, marry, murder, whatever you like, but do your homework and remember that the onus is on you, the author, to make it believable. Remember that the best lie is surrounded by truths.

Best Performance in a Supporting Role

Best Performance in a Supporting Role

Real Historical Personages

These characters are also prefab, in a fashion, and they appear frequently in Sherlockian fiction, sometimes as bit players, and other times as major actors. Some show up more often than others: various Churchills, Teddy Roosevelt, King Edward VII (before and after coronation), Jack the Ripper, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Sigmund Freud, H.G. Wells, Houdini, Dracula, and the Titanic make regular appearances. Using real people as characters can either enhance your story, or prove an annoying distraction. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Be accurate. Make sure that this person was alive and in the area at the time he or she encounters your characters. Readers will often know more about these people than you think. Holmes is not going to meet George Washington, unless it’s during a seance or stepping out of a time machine. Oh dear. Please forget I said that.
  • Treat the historical person with some respect. I recently finished a book in which a very prominent individual–who was most certainly not a serial killer–was put forth (to the reader) as a possible….serial killer. Part of the suspense came from wondering if the author would actually pull that trigger. Unless you have evidence–real evidence–this seems unwise. Best to simply let your Real Historical Personage appear as him or herself, without drastic fictionalization.
  • Make the historical person three-dimensional. Teddy Roosevelt needs to have a reason to interact with Holmes beyond providing a history lesson to your readers.  Likewise, social justice is great, and Victorian living conditions and attitudes could be appalling, but that Real Person should not preach and leave. If they stood on a soap box on a daily basis in life then, by all means, let them have a bit of a say, but don’t use them to heavily underline A Message. Nor should they appear just to highlight another’s character trait. Is Holmes in favor of women’s suffrage in 1897? I dunno; give it your best shot, but don’t have Millicent Fawcett pop up with a pamphlet just to make the point that he’s a free-thinking man or a card-carrying member of the patriarchy.
  • Finally, limit your list, particularly if your Real Historical Personages are walk-ons. Don’t use them constantly as chronological props (Look, Holmes! It’s Lily Langtry! Walking past Rudyard Kipling! It’s 1897!). It’s perfectly legitimate to expect Holmes in particular to encounter some of the famous people of his time, either through his work or through Mycroft, and in some settings (such as the theatre) there will be more than one. Still, name-dropping for its own sake gets annoying, particularly when you’re dealing with a man who seems to disdain fame, power, and wealth on a philosophical level. And those chance sightings of famous people as children (“That 10 year-old clog dancer will be a remarkable actor one day, Watson, mark my words!”)?  Weave it into the plot, or just say no.

Original Characters

Chances are good that you won’t be using only canonical or historical characters in your story. You’ll add a few of your own. Oddly enough, for all of the space dedicated here to keeping Holmes and Watson recognizable, I’ve found that in most commercial Sherlockian fiction, authors do a decent job writing them in character. No, in general, the weakest characters are those created from scratch. Writer, this need not be so.

First, of course, you should give your original characters the same treatment you did those from canon. Here, you can relax a bit and let your imagination have more rein. Get to know these people really well, so they’re not just a cardboard audience for Holmes’ revelations. You probably don’t have to imagine favorite colors for every walk-on part (and most of the time, you’re advised to keep your character list small), but the more alive your original characters are, the more real the world of your book will be. Your goal is to make the reader believe that your story really happened–that Watson just didn’t get around to recording it. You want her to make it part of her “headcanon,”and to devoutly wish it were true. You want him to wonder, just for a moment, if that quote is from canon…or from your book. You cannot achieve this if your own characters aren’t as living as Doyle’s.

This leads us to two common character issues: the self-insert character, and the “Mary Sue/Gary Stu.” It can be argued that most of our original characters carry something of ourselves in them, some more than others. Just don’t make it obvious. Your main original character doesn’t have to share your appearance, birthday, occupation, and every one of your personality traits. I particularly advise this if your character is going to be a romantic interest. Don’t kid yourself into believing that people won’t know. They will. They won’t see themselves as the horribly murdered victims or criminals you’ve made them, but they’ll immediately recognize you in that scene. For the sake of your own sanity and self respect, mix it up a little.

"An inhuman noise broke from Holmes as he seized me--er, Agnes--in a desperate clinch...."

“An inhuman noise broke from Holmes as he seized me–er, Agnes–in a desperate clinch….”

The other frequent character issue–and one to which readers are very sensitive–is the “Mary Sue.” This is the main character (or, for our purposes, the main original character) who is flawless. She’s tough, she’s tender, she’s brilliant, she’s talented, she’s kind, she’s beautiful, she’s athletic, she loves children and puppies and kitties and sings even more beautifully than she plays piano and if she had three wishes all of them would be for world peace. She even has a tattoo, because she has street cred. If she has any flaw, it’s that she’s too feisty, or too liberated for her time. Mary Sue inspires instant feelings of love and desire in whichever character you’ve designed her for. He wants to protect her, all the while she’s throwing knives at ninjas and saving his skin. There are a lot of Mary Sues in Sherlockian pastiche, and even more who come dangerously close. It’s so tempting, I know, because you love your original character, and want the reader to love her (or him–the less common male version is known as a Gary or Marty Stu) as much as you do. The trouble is, adult readers tend to not be fond of this type. Your original character often serves as the reader stand-in, and they want to be able to identify with him or her, which they really can’t do if this person is perfect. Instead of rooting for him or her, they find themselves vaguely resentful, the way one might feel towards the goody-goody kid in school who excelled at everything. They nurture hostile thoughts and wouldn’t care if one of those expertly thrown knives were a boomerang. It may be petty, but there you are. Do all you can to create, not a paragon, but a flesh-and-blood human being with fears, faults, and failures, some of which are not at all adorable. Fiction feeds on conflict and imperfection; provide some in your characters.

One final note on the Original Character: try not to fall in love. This is very, very hard to do, but it is probably essential if you are writing a novel which purports to be about Sherlock Holmes. The thing is, when people buy your book because it has “Sherlock Holmes” somewhere on the cover, they expect him to play a major role, not be a bit player in your character’s story. I can’t be the only one who finds herself flipping past pages and pages of Original Character scenes in such books to find the five pages on which the Great Detective appears.†† Eventually, it’s difficult not to lose interest in such series entirely, not because they’re badly written, but because one feels cheated. This is not to say that you can’t write a book about your characters in which Holmes, Watson, or other Doylean people appear; obviously, you can. Just don’t market on the strength of their names; it’s not playing fair.

Well, there you have it: some thoughts on characterization in pastiche. This was, so far, the hardest post for me to write, simply because I’m well aware that it’s possibly the most subjective. So I’d like to know what you think–or, rather, what you like or dislike in a pastiche character. And if you write Sherlockian fiction, how do you deal with issues in characterization? Leave your views in the comments!

Footnotes:

*And you are, but after several months of this, let’s be real….. By the way, Donald Maass’ books are excellent, inspiring you to close them and get some work done, the best kind of writing manual.

**Sometimes, in fact, they are  Aunt Nelly, but all authors hold to the belief that people won’t recognize themselves on the printed page, or at least won’t take family to court.

*** “OOC” is fan fiction parlance for “Out Of Character.”

†Unless, of course, you re-imagine him as a teen-aged girl, but even then….  “Hidden fires” refers to   Holmes’ emotional reaction at finding that it is Selden, the convict, who has fallen prey to the Hound (of the Baskervilles) and not Sir Henry. His relief is extreme, and Watson is a little shocked.

†† Or I may be, and am a horrible person.

9 Comments

Filed under Characters, Holmes-related ficiton, Original Character, Pastiche, Real Historical Personages, Writing

Observations: Research and Your Pastiche

What do you mean, "Queen Victoria wouldn't summon Holmes in 1907?"

What do you mean, “Queen Victoria wouldn’t summon Holmes in 1907?”

“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.

You know what she's going to say, don't you?

You know what she’s going to say, don’t 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.**

HMS Orontes in better times.

HMS Orontes in better times.

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.

There are also two buildings across the street, so, plenty of room for crime.

There are also two buildings across the street, so, plenty of room for crime.

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….

mrs hudson messy room

Yes. You owe her a very, very nice gift.

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.

Yes, girls, one day you'll read Eliot willingly!

Yes, girls, one day you’ll read Eliot willingly!

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.

Footnotes:

*Just don’t plagiarize.

**They will, and she was.

***metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1976.258.1a,b

10 Comments

Filed under Holmes-related ficiton, Pastiche, Research, Writing

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.

 

 

7 Comments

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