Dr. Watson’s Writing Tips
“Writing is dancing with language, walking the tightrope of clarity, and discovering what more there is to learn.”
Sherlock Holmes once said: “Yes, I have taken to living by my wits.” Writing a novel is nothing like anyone thinks it is. For example, how does one attempt to explain living by ones wits? Reginald Musgrave believed it because he had been astonished by Holmes’ application of his abilities at college. But me, who believes I live by my wits?
Writing is dancing with language, walking the tightrope of clarity, and discovering what more there is to learn. For any artist, composer, performer, or writer, the employment of one’s given talents of imagination, intuition, creativity, and joie de vie are essential. It is this application of talent through a visual and literal mind that brings one the perseverance to continue.
To write mystery, there must be peril on the page and a delicate harmony between suspense and revelation. Plus the part my literary agent hated––working out the mystery. I am incredibly lucky in that I share rooms with Sherlock Holmes and each story I write is a collaboration. The reader must be allowed to figure it out for themselves and as writers, we must let them. Clues are necessary or the reader feels cheated. I find that weaving the characters into the mystery grants the reader a chance to solve it along with the protagonist. Of course, Holmes has his own methods.
The writer’s mind is where the story comes together. Practice daily and creativity and imagination flourish exponentially. Each scene and conversation must pass the test for truth. My stories span five decades so it is important to be aware of the style, fashion, politics, social etiquette, and history of the years I am writing about. Plus Holmes’ native understanding of the streets of London. And remember: “All knowledge comes useful” — to the novelist.
About research, I can say that after hours of scrutinizing the British Museum, the Library of Regent’s College, the University of London Library, Scotland Yard’s Black Museum, The National Archives, and Holmes’ resources, when you find what you are looking for, it is absolute serendipity and feels like your birthday.
What about criticism? Anger can be a great motivator. But, if you are carrying it around with you and it is hurting your self-esteem, have no compunction about leaving it behind. A strong acid can both help and harm. Knowing which stands before one may save your life.
Start with Baker Street, and add a foggy trip through South London, and another to Upper Norwood. A six-mile trudge to the Thames, a river search lasting days ending at Jacobsen’s Yard. Plus a steamer chase starting at the Westminster Steps downriver almost to Gravesend, and a tale which brought us to Hope Town, Calcutta, and the Andaman Islands. The journey broadens until it is done.
If you feel lost in writing your first novel, find a writer’s group. Or hire yourself an editor, every shilling you spend is worth it. Like taking a master’s in English that is focused on your book alone.
The mystery demands major changes and eventually, I’m cutting out chapters, and re-writing new ones to fit where the story is going. A novel must be allowed to develop into what it will. Not what I can make out of it. Of course, my experience and the form I am writing in are the containers for this creative licence.
When my imagination is speaking through my characters, and I’m waking up with the solution to a problem that has dogged me for days. Or those rare and marvellous moments when Holmes explains his process. These are some of the best parts. So too are those times when I re-read a scene or chapter and it just sings! Eventually, they all will, and that is when I let it go and drop it off at The Strand.
Gretchen Altabef is an Award-Winning author who brings to her novels the history that Arthur Conan Doyle left out. She publishes with MX, Belanger Books, Mondadori, and Mystery Magazine. The first, These Scattered Houses, is in Holmes’ own voice, and resourcefully chronicles the conclusion of his underground years, his ‘Great Hiatus’. This is where the Rachel Holmes Series begins. 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 under surveillance by Moriarty’s henchmen, 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. Ms. Altabef’s most recent novel, THE KEYS OF DEATH is the genesis story of the world’s most famous address, and the young occupants of No. 221B Baker Street.
Gretchen is currently tucked away in her writer’s cabin with a goodly stock of Earl Grey and delicious concoctions from Mrs. Hudson’s Garden. Where she is diligently at work on the third Rachel Holmes novel. Rachel Holmes has her own BLOG Posts, where she will keep you apprized of her world during the book’s progress.
Do you enjoy my stories? Are there ways they could have been improved? Please help me and future readers of my books by posting a review on Amazon. Doing so would be incredibly helpful. Thanks in advance, Gretchen.