Sherlock Holmes: “Never guess. It is a shocking habit.”

Once again it’s time for a Sherlock Holmes quote about writing (even if he didn’t know it) based on my mug from the Philospher’s Guild: “Never guess. It is a shocking habit, destructive of the logical faculty.”

Holmes, of course, guessed all the time. He’d hear an account of the case and formulate a theory by the time he got to the crime scene. I’d say that counts as informed (at best) guessing. And frequently he got it wrong, as in The Yellow Face; what he guessed was a case of blackmail was actually a woman hiding her mixed-race child from her second husband.

As to writing, I think of it two ways. Only one is good advice.

The good advice applies to getting our facts right, one of the topics I panelled on at Illogicon last weekend (more on that tomorrow). If it’s important to the story, don’t guess about what the law is, how doctors treat a stroke victim, how they played chess in the 10th century (the queen was a weak piece, moving one square diagonally in all directions). Get the answers. For Southern Discomfort I had a scene in the final draft where St. Luke’s Hospital is dealing with a string of paralysis cases. I’d assumed they would treat them as a mysterious plague of strokes. My friend and MD Heather Frederick said no, they wouldn’t automatically assume that. Figuring out a more plausible response vastly improved the story.

Sometimes guessing is the only option. We don’t know much about what life was like for our earliest ancestors. We don’t know what Lincoln’s own plan for Reconstruction would have been. We can only guess what JFK would have done in a second term as president. According to one of my co-panelists, there’s no floor plan for the Bedlam asylum, so he was free to make it up (within reason).

Doyle himself was often sloppy about the Holmes canon. As he admitted later, he wrote Silver Blaze with zero knowledge of horse racing; people who did wrote to him afterwards and said most of the characters would have been banned from racing for life after what they’d done.

Now, the bad advice: when we’re drafting or plotting stories I think it’s perfectly okay to guess. I’m not sure it’s even possible to avoid it.

Unless we’re writing something based very closely on true-life incidents, we’re making it up as we go along. Even if we outline everything before we write, that doesn’t mean “Shelob captures Frodo” follows automatically from “Frodo enters Mordor.” We have to think of potential options and guess or intuit what the right one will be. Sometimes we’re wrong and have to go back and fix or rewrite or replot. Sometimes we’re spot on.

But even when it feels perfect, we can’t be sure there’s not a better option we didn’t even think of. As Henry Petroski says, engineers can never be sure their design is perfect. It’s always possible there’s a better one. Same with writing. I’m pleased with Southern Discomfort but it’s possible there were twists or scenes that would have worked better than the ones in the finished volume. I’m guessing there weren’t but I don’t know for sure. As Petroski also points out, money and time limit design options: to get anything finished, at some point we have to say “this is it,” or “this is good enough” and not worry about what might be better. And hope it is, indeed, good enough

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2 Comments

Filed under Sherlock Holmes, Writing

2 responses to “Sherlock Holmes: “Never guess. It is a shocking habit.”

  1. Fraser, you are great at asking for expert advice, and I’ve seen your stories become great because of it!

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