Being Watson: Appreciating the Genius of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Jude Law Watson

This past Saturday, I finished writing a story I’ve been working on for several weeks, a Sherlock Holmes short story that will become part of an anthology to be published later this year. The challenge of the project is that the stories have to be completely traditional mysteries in Watson’s voice.

For those who may be unfamiliar with my books, Watson’s voice is not something I normally write, In fact, I never write it. My novels, while traditional in setting and characters and running alongside the canon, include the perspectives of Irene Adler and Sherlock Holmes. Watson appears as a character, but his perspective isn’t the focus.

I took on the anthology project as a personal challenge, something new to build my authorial muscles. I did it; I wrote a completely traditional Sherlock Holmes mystery in Dr. Watson’s voice; those who have read it for editing purposes have enjoyed it, and I’m excited to share it with lovers of traditional stories.

I’m still wiping the sweat from my weary brow. The story took me longer to write and was far more difficult than I ever would have expected. Ultimately, I gained a new perspective on the challenges that traditional story writers face and a new appreciation for the incomparable Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

FreeWatson

Here are some reasons why:

1) The Narrator versus the Main Character Issue–There’s a reason that Sherlock Holmes famously says he would be lost without his Boswell. Like Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, the Holmes stories are about the man in the name, not the narrator (though, of course, both are also about a relationship). Normally, when I’m writing my own books, I know that I will periodically reach a section where I can explore Holmes’s point of view. Writing as Watson, I was limited both in what Watson knows and what Holmes is allowed to show. I found myself, at times, needing to excise Watson inserting his thoughts where Doyle’s Watson never would have. I also found that I had to be careful not to have Holmes be overly obvious about what he knows before it would be logical for him to do so, since his point of view is not a direct part of the narrative.

2) The Secondhand Discovery Issue–Sometimes, both in the original stories and in the ones that come after them, Holmes and Watson make a discovery at the same time. Often, however, Watson is the secondhand discoverer of information Holmes already knows. This makes the pacing and plotting of a traditional story an intricate exercise in keeping things straight. Watson needs to be writing about the actions of a man who is often at least a few steps ahead of him, while maintaining the integrity of his own knowledge level. In other words, a huge part of what makes traditional stories interesting is that Holmes and Watson don’t have the same brain, and they are not usually able to have long conversations about exactly what Holmes knows the moment he knows it. As a result, for a writer, this means maintaining a narrative voice that is in a slightly different place in the story than the man he’s constantly writing about.

3) The Watson is No Idiot Issue–John Watson is not stupid. This is a fact, borne out by his actions in many of Doyle’s stories. He is, however, not the deductive reasoning expert that Sherlock Holmes is. As a result, barring unusual situations, he needs to be firmly in the dark about certain facts that are relatively easy for Holmes to grasp. For a writer, this means having to think like Sherlock Holmes. Stay with me for a second. What I mean is this: if a writer writes a deduction for Holmes that is overly simple, but Watson doesn’t get it automatically, Watson looks stupid, which is a bad result. In order for Watson to take his rightful place as audience stand-in and conductor of light, his deductive abilities need to look average compared to Holmes’s abilities seeming brilliant. This means the writer of a traditional Holmes story has the burden of coming up with something brilliant enough to seem like an average person wouldn’t get it right away. This is a lot harder than it sounds. Ask me how I know…

The above are just a few of the challenges inherent in writing the traditional Holmes and Watson dynamic of the original Sherlock Holmes canon. My own attempts to navigate them made me marvel, in a totally new way, at how easy Doyle made it look. That’s the true mark of genius, isn’t it?


How to purchase my Sherlock Holmes novels:

(Book 1) The Detective and the Woman: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

(Book 2) The Detective, The Woman and The Winking Tree: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

(Book 3) The Detective The Woman and The Silent Hive is available from all good bookstores including   Amazon USAAmazon UKWaterstones UK, and for free shipping worldwide from Book Depository. In ebook format it is in Amazon Kindle.

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