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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Canon Thursday: Why Pastiche?

Yesterday marked a milestone for me, the conclusion of the first draft of my second novel starring Sherlock Holmes and the indomitable Irene Adler. MX Publishing has given me the greenlight, and I’ll be getting it ready for publication.

Possibly as a result of this, I’ve been thinking for the past few days about why it is that we write Sherlock Holmes pastiche. (For the purposes of this post, a pastiche is any work that stars Sherlock Holmes that was not written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle).

The canon itself is not exactly short. Conan Doyle was prolific, and fans have fifty-six short stories and four novels to sink their teeth into. And yet, people have been writing Holmes pastiche ever since the detective was created, and in today’s Internet-focused world, we see more and more fanfiction, or pastiche that is published for entertainment rather than profit. (Yes, I believe that in many cases, this is one of the only major differences between fanfiction and pastiche.)

Pastiche, of course, is not only a Holmesian phenomenon. Numerous sequels to Pride and Prejudice exist, and Scartlett, the fan-written sequel to Gone with the Wind is regarded by some as a modern classic, to name a couple of examples. In these cases and others, however, readers seem to be responding to the brevity of the source material. Margaret Mitchell only gave us one book about Scarlett O’Hara, and Jane Austen only wrote about Mr. Darcy one time. Holmes, on the other hand, stars in story after story.

In my view, it’s not so different. Sir Arthur gave us many stories about Holmes, but told us very little about the private man. What we learn, we glean between and around and under the lines, trying to grasp whatever morsels we can find. The short story format, in particular, facilitated this, each tale providing just enough room for a case, with personal details wedged in here and there.

Though ACD wrote much more extensively about Holmes than Jane Austen did about Elizabeth Bennett, there’s still such a lot we don’t know about him. It seems, as we read, that our minds are always wanting to move outward, to know more about the personal side of the detective and his world and more about the tantalizing details the author only wafted in front of us, such as the immense intrigue of Mycroft Holmes, a character so fascinating in his brief canonical appearances that entire books have been written about him.

The reason I write about Sherlock Holmes, which I believe I share with others, is the need to know more about him, whether about his work or his character or his world. ACD revealed just enough to keep us hooked, but never quite enough to make some us feel satisfied with the amount of Holmes we have. That’s why I pastiche.

How about you?

The Detective and The Woman: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available through Amazon, Amazon UK, and The Book Depository (free shipping worldwide).