Doyle’s School for Writers

“. . . when the facts slowly evolve before your own eyes and the mystery clears gradually away as each new discovery furnishes a step which leads on to the complete truth.” ENGI.

In writing a new Sherlock Holmes novel such as These Scattered Houses, it is essential to look to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s sixty Sherlock Holmes stories. They are the backbone of any new book. Dr. Watson’s literary agent has much to offer the Sherlockian writer, and here Watson is our gracious host.

A very few examples:

“Elementary,’ said he. ‘It is one of those instances where the reasoner can produce an effect which seems remarkable to his neighbour, because the latter has missed the one little point which is the basis of the deduction. The same may be said, my dear fellow, for the effect of some of these little sketches of yours, which is entirely meretricious, depending as it does upon your retaining in your own hands some factors in the problem which are never imparted to the reader. Now, at present I am in the position of these same readers, for I hold in this hand several threads of one of the strangest cases which ever perplexed a man’s brain, and yet I lack the one or two which are needful to complete my theory. But I’ll have them, Watson, I’ll have them!” CROO.

WRITE: Throughout the canon Holmes acknowledges Watson’s contribution to their work. Watson seems that “gentle everyman” who has the ability to rise above and reach beyond his expectations. And in his honourable capacity to overtake himself, he stimulates the greatest mind of his day. With the courage of a soldier and wartime medic, he takes up his pen as a means to justice, and sets the record straight. Most of what we know of Holmes is filtered through the mind of his humble chronicler. Watson has much to say to those authors who come after him.

“There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.” BOSC.

DRAMA: We meet a gentleman discovering his latent talent as a writer, finding his Muse, and that he is good at it. Dr. Watson puts the readers inside the mind of the man. We see the horror of the world through his eyes. We feel it because on the surface, he doesn’t. And he has the ability to bring justice to it seemingly in an instant. Watson clearly delineates the environment around him so we feel like we’ve been there. What a recipe for author success.

Holmes might say it is also of the first importance to put aside the dramas of the world. For the writer, getting caught up in them can result in an unfinished novel, or career. As Holmes does, it is important to liberate the mind from the world’s problems. Focus on filling the book with drama, instead.

“. . .that mixture of imagination and reality which is the basis of my art.” THOR.

IMAGINATION AND REALITY: Conan Doyle was an enormous soul. He was the hero of his life and a mighty adventurer. Doyle’s life filled his stories with just the right amount of reality and art.

Like Doyle and Watson, most authors live varied and sometimes, adventurous lives. While writing, an author’s life experience amplifies reality. For example: At one time, Conan Doyle had a medical practice in Norwood. He set his story, “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder” in the town he and his family lived. He knew Norwood’s streets, its homes, and as the local physician he treated its residents and knew all its secrets.

I once worked in a locked ward at a New York psychiatric hospital, an unusual and highly adventurous job for me. I had no idea then that I would someday write and publish a novel filled with New York’s historical asylum system. These Scattered Houses was written with the authenticity of a real witness.

“There is nothing more to be said or to be done tonight, so hand me over my violin and let us try to forget for half an hour the miserable weather and the still more miserable ways of our fellowmen.” FIVE.

UNBLOCK: Drop everything and maketh Music. When writer’s block hit me, my wonderful brother and writer’s confidant, said: “What would Sherlock do?” That was when I realized there could be something else in these stories. What if Watson’s story as the biographer of Holmes was also an open communication from Conan Doyle as to the writing process?

What would Sherlock do? It wasn’t cocaine, that was how he got through the boredom of commonplace life, in-between cases. He would approach a dry spell by spending the day fully engaged in making or appreciating live music. But first, he would entirely let go of the case by dropping it completely from his mind. Watson frequently commented on his uncanny ability to do so. This skill allowed Holmes to focus on fact completely and forgo all misleading theorizing. He reached for another creative and enlightening aspect of himself and lost himself in it. When stuck he let the problem go and let the brilliance of music fill him instead.

I play no instrument, so I sing in the face of writer’s block. Music that is both familiar and engaging. Or I go to a pottery wheel and attempt to throw a pot. Walk in nature with my camera, or get into my garden and do the long, hard, dirty work. And the next day I am writing again. It is astonishing that the combination of music and the practice of letting go that works for Holmes also works for me. Try it!

“Nothing clears up a case so much as stating it to another person.” SILV.

READERS: Readers are the most wonderful people on the writer’s planet. They will read a manuscript and give generous feedback. To the author alone in his cabin, it is pure manna from heaven. The help of a good editor or writing coach is also invaluable, especially for a first novel. Inviting an actor friend to read a chapter or the book out loud is eye-opening. It can provide a new perspective on the manuscript, like turning a painting upside down to find where it’s unbalanced or like Watson reading the news to Holmes.

“I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” SCAN.

RESEARCH: Research, research, research, and then verify. Something Watson never had to do, but we who write during his time are historical novelists. It is again the artful application of fact and fiction. Writers of historical fiction will spend half the time in research and verification yet it soon becomes half the fun. Research spurs the imagination. The writer is taken to places previously unknown. Welcome this, it is a great teacher and usually leads to plot or character development.

“Pray, be precise as to details.” SPEC.

HISTORY: In a historical novel, much is research. Choosing to follow in Dr. Watson’s footsteps, and write during Victorian or Edwardian times, the writer finds that there is another history to adhere to, the history within the canon of sixty stories. So the Sherlock Holmes author follows two separate sets of history, one fictional and one real. As Watson infers below, the mind of Sherlock Holmes can conceive in four dimensions, through generations, and in certain circumstances, through history. Yet we flat-footed writers still attempt to keep pace with him.

Conan Doyle’s abundant messages to authors seem to proliferate in those sixty stories, including his clear statements, his hurried mistakes, and his humor. There is so much to discover in this hypothesis, have fun with it. But most of all, as Watson tirelessly does, keep writing.

“Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. We would not dare to conceive the things which are really mere commonplaces of existence. If we could fly out of that window hand in hand, hover over this great city, gently remove the roofs, and peep in at the queer things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the planning’s, the cross-purposes, the wonderful chains of events, working through generations, and leading to the most outré results, it would make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable.” CASE.

All quotes are from Conan Doyle’s canon of sixty Sherlock Holmes stories, each represented by the abbreviations created by Jay Finley Christ.

Published with minor changes, 12/11/2019, a Guest Post on Geri Shear’s Blog.

Gretchen Altabef is an MX author of Sherlock Holmes novels. Mondadori Publishing has contracted to translate her novels into Italian. Ms. Altabef strives to emulate Dr. John Watson’s and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary style. The first, These Scattered Houses, is in Holmes’ own voice and resourcefully chronicles the last two months of his ‘great hiatus’. The second in the series is, Remarkable Power of Stimulus. After 3 years away, Holmes finds London awash in murders, No. 221B under siege, anarchists threatening Paris, and the return of Irene Adler. Fully aware he is being watched by Moriarty’s men, Holmes steps out of the cab into Baker Street knowing he will find Watson’s friendship and unerring aim are as dependable as the British Rail.

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