Category Archives: Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes: “One should always look for a possible alternative and provide against it.”

Sherlock Holmes was, of course, talking about double-checking your deductions when he said that: is there another explanation besides your theory? But I think it’s another of those Holmesian lines that applies well to writing. Because the last thing we want is for our readers wishing we’d done something different.

It’s bad if they read our writing and start correcting it (“There’s a much smoother way to say that.”). It’s worse if they start questioning the plot logic: wouldn’t it make more sense if X had done Y instead of Z? And it’s really bad if they finish and think “That’s not how it should have ended!”

This is not a new problem. People have hated the ending of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe for a couple of centuries (sticking with what was historically plausible, Scott has his hero marry the bland Rowena rather than the more interesting but Jewish Rebecca). Only in the 21st century, everyone can get together online to vent or Tweet their displeasure at you, which I imagine feels worse. In the Internet age, even a small group of dissatisfied fans can kick up what seems like a storm of negative criticism.

I doubt it’s possible to write a book so perfect nobody has problems. But I do think/hope it’s possible to write one good enough that the people looking for alternatives are only a minority. And that the majority is enough to make our work profitable.

At the words level, I like Kaye Gibbons’ advice: write and rewrite until the next word feels inevitable. I don’t always manage it, but I know what she means. At the plot level, it includes avoiding idiot plot: nobody should do something dumb just because that’s the only way to make the story work. They should have a very good reason for putting themselves at risk. The ending has to pay off on the story’s beginning; it has to be logical; and it has to be emotionally satisfying as well.

For an case study, let’s look at YEAR OF THE UNICORN, the fourth (others say third) book in Andre Norton’s Witch World series.

The protagonist, Gillan, is an orphan (one of her parents has Witch blood) in the Dales, across the ocean from Estcarp. The Dales have just emerged from a war with Alizon, which they won with the help of the shapeshifting Were-Riders; in return, they’ve agreed to provide the Riders with thirteen brides to take home. Frustrated with life in a monastic sisterhood, Gillan contrives to become one of the brides. She winds up paired with Herrel, as much an outsider among the Riders as she felt in the Dale. Unfortunately the unattached riders resent Herrel’s success and distrust the magic in Gillan’s blood. They replace Gillan with a magical clone and abandon the real woman to die. Can Gillan survive?

Norton made a number of surprising choices. She breaks with books one and two to give us a completely different part of the Witch World, one she wouldn’t return to for years. Year was her first story with a female protagonist. Rather than fantasy adventure, it’s a Gothic romance with a Beauty and the Beast element. As it’s first-person POV, the wording is archaic, almost stiff at times (but it does include the delicious line “He kept smiling. It was enough to make one dread all smiles.”). And in contrast to many romances, neither of the leads is stunningly good-looking — attractive, but not godlike.

These choices don’t work for everyone. The Gothic romance element when I first read the book turned me off. So did Gillan’s long quest to catch up with the Riders; it’s an interesting, eerie journey (That Which Runs the Ridges is a very ominous monster), but it’s a solo act, with no-one to talk to or interact with for chapter after chapter. And the point where Gillan recoils from Herrel’s shape-changing feels like she’s acting out of character to advance the plot. While I think most of Norton’s other choices were good, not everyone agrees.

But that’s the risk we all take when we write.

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Sherlock Holmes: “Any truth is better than indefinite doubt”

Like some of the other Holmes quotes I’ve blogged about this one’s getting two interpretations. One for writing, one for the real world.

If you’re curious, the quote comes from the short story The Yellow Face (art at left by Sidney Paget). Holmes’ client is convinced his wife has some terrible secret, possibly an affair; it turns out she’s caring for a mixed-race daughter, having married a black man back in the U.S. Holmes reassures his client at one point that getting a definite answer will make him feel better than worrying endlessly about what’s going on.

I think it’s true in life in a lot of ways, such as getting a name put to your health problems. Or knowing for sure whether your job will survive the next round of firings; one of the things I learned writing Leaf business articles is that when management doesn’t say anything, rumors fly and people expect the worst.

In writing, it’s simple: sooner or later we have to make a decision. Working on Only the Lonely Can Slay I realized I needed more tension and pressure on my protagonist, Heather. So I decided a couple of drafts ago to have someone accuse my protagonist of murder. That didn’t work. But now I know it didn’t work and I’m trying something else. Sitting and debating which way to go just isn’t workable — we’ve got to put something down or there’s no story. Unlike real life, we can always take it back.

Of course this is a lot tougher with novels where my “that doesn’t work” sometimes comes 40,000 words in and forces me to change everything that came before. But again, it’s better than leaving the story unformed in my head forever.

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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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A whole lot of Watsons (and Holmeses): A Study in Charlotte

As I’ve mentioned before, stories of modern-day Sherlock Holmes were a thing long before Sherlock and Elementary. By making Charlotte Holmes a descendant rather than simply a modern-day version though, A STUDY IN CHARLOTTE by Brittany Cavallaro is able to put a fresh spin on the concept. Dan Funderburgh

Not a unique spin. The 1990s’ Adventures of Shirley Holmes gave us another female descendant and the 1980s’ Sherlock Jones and Proctor Watson gave us a miniature Holmes-clone in the present. Nonetheless, Cavallaro gives us something Sherlock or Elementary can’t, a world where the canon still exists. In the worlds of those series, there was no Arthur Conan Doyle writing stories of the Great Detective, nor a Dr. Watson writing first-hand accounts. Charlotte’s universe retains the original Holmes canon, the Basil Rathbone films, the works (maybe not the current shows, I guess).

The narrator is James Watson, a teenage descendant of John. He’s been sent to a stateside private school on a rugby scholarship and hates it, but he’s intrigued that Charlotte Holmes is also a student there. Not that every Watson and Holmes hangs out with each other, but the legend does give Jamie a fantasy that if they met, maybe they’d be the newest team.

Even before that point, Jamie defends Charlotte’s honor when a dickhead fellow student claims to have slept with her; Jamie later learns the guy raped Charlotte while she was strung out on oxycodone. When the guy turns up dead, both Charlotte and Jamie become prime suspects. The real killer taunts them by patterning his murders after Watson’s stories, for example a plastic blue diamond stuffed down someone’s throat to choke them (based on The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle).  Trying to clear themselves, Holmes and Watson become the team they were obviously destined to be.

I really enjoyed this Y/A but I did have a couple of problems with it.

Charlotte’s a brilliant detective because her parents trained her from birth, to be the same kind of observing and deducing machine as Sherlock. All the kids in the family go through this. But why? Do they figure, like Doc Savage’s father, the world needs heroes? Is it just a family tradition? Some explanation would have been nice.

Second, it turns out Charlotte’s been less than ethical in her past. Her tutor in her early teens was a Moriarty, one of the good ones, and she developed an insane crush on him. When he didn’t reciprocate (he was an adult) she manipulated him into scoring her some drugs, then got him busted for it. That feels less like an anti-hero and more like the “high functioning sociopath” Cumberpatch’s Holmes always claimed to be.

Third, Charlotte has serious drug issues. Holmes was primarily a recreational user relying on cocaine when he couldn’t get stimulation from life; Charlotte’s a hard-core addict (you can primarily blame Nicholas Meyer’s Seven-Percent Solution for elevating Holmes’ drug use into a defining part of his character). As one Goodreads review pointed out, nobody seems inclined to provide the teenage addict with any sort of support or treatment. It’s just accepted that a Holmes does this crap and that nobody’s going to make Charlotte stop if she doesn’t want to. Since Cavallaro made the point of front-and-centering this stuff, I think it could have been handled better.

And I definitely could have done without working rape into her backstory.

Despite the flaws I look forward to reading the sequels eventually.

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The little things: Georgia O’Keefe and Sherlock Holmes quotes

“Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.” — Georgia O’Keefe (creator of the painting illustrated here, The White Flower).

“The little things are infinitely the most important.” — Sherlock Holmes

Any writers reading this know detail is a big part of what we do. Which ones we need to include. Which ones we have to include. Which ones we should leave out.

Detail can make or break a story. Details can bring a character to life — the scars on their back from fighting dinosaurs, their passion for playing chess by mail (yes, that used to be a thing), their freaky tattoo or being nitpicky about other people’s grammar. They can also bring settings to life: the smells, the flavors, the music. The minor details of alternate timelines, such as Leslie Howard and JFK still being alive in the film Quest for Love. Or the slightly different wording of the song “Teen Angel” in my Atoms for Peace (“That fateful night the saucers came/We were caught in their attack.”). For historical fiction or fantasy, the fine points of slang, culture, attitudes and politics can make the period vividly real.

Or take the throwaway line in Monty Python’s crunchy frog skit where a chocolatier points out the repellent ingredients in his chocs are all listed on the label — lark vomit comes “right after monosodium glutamate.” It makes the grotesque premise (there really is a small dead frog in “crunchy frog chocolate”) that much more vivid.

But as O’Keefe points out, details can also distract and confuse us. The classic example is dialogue. Real human speech is full of pauses, mumbling, distractions and repeated words (one of my friends used to use “like” in sentences as a punctuation mark). Even when quoting people as a reporter, I trimmed that stuff out.

Too much visual detail can bore or frustrate readers (it’s TYG’s biggest complaint about the Game of Thrones novels) as much as a lack of any detail. Some people love the nitty-gritty details of how magic systems work. I usually find them boring as all get-out (as long as the magic feels right and stays consistent, I’m fine with not knowing the details). Errors in factual details can make readers stop taking a book seriously. For example, a nonfiction work I read some years back that mentioned in passing that research into identical twins has proven our personality is 100 percent shaped by our genes. Um, NO.

Of course some readers or viewers will treat any inaccuracy or error as a fatal flaw that ruins the entire work. When Stage Crafters did A Glass Menagerie, we got a note from the audience that the pillows had those “do not remove this tag” tag on them even though they weren’t around at the time of the story (late 1940s). How could we make such an utterly incompetent error? Given that Tom, the protagonist, specifically states at the beginning this is a subjective story and not a literal retelling, that seems really pointless nitpicking. But for some people, the nits wreck the story.

So that’s part of the challenge. What some people see as a distracting detail, others are going to find fascinating and fundamental. There’s no perfect level of detail that works for every writer, every story, every reader.

But hey, nobody ever said our gig was easy.

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Sherlock Holmes: “It is easier to know than to explain why I know.”

Yep, time for another of the Great Detective’s insights into writing: “It is easier to know than to explain why I know.”

Holmes’ point was that it was much easier to make a lightning-fast deduction than to break down his chain of thought for Watson or Lestrade. I’ve often had the same experience writing: at some level, my unconscious mind knows what the story needs even if I can’t explain why it’s right. Sometimes I can’t explain what it needs, only that it’s not what’s on the page.

I think the first time I had the experience was writing my second novel. I’d had a big major fight scene midway through the book, and it was decent, but then I found I couldn’t write the next scene. My gut seemed to clench up and obstruct me every time I tried. Finally I realized it was because what I’d written was wrong. Oh, it was perfectly adequate, but there was a better alternative, if I could only find it.

Eventually I did. It was a lot better. The book didn’t sell, but it was still a better novel.

I’ve had that sense of “something’s wrong” since, though not usually as strongly. And more generally I find a lot of choices and decisions I make in writing are intuitive: choice A simply feels better than choice B. My gut is a good guide.

But unlike Holmes, not a perfect guide. In writing new drafts, I spend a lot of time thinking and studying the previous draft’s structure and pacing. And after I’m satisfied that a story feels right and the logic holds up, then I go get feedback from my writer’s group or other beta readers.

For example, when I wrote The Savage Year I thought a lot about the story’s structure, giving Diana and Artemis multiple encounters with the villain. I thought about the talismans that would make logical sense for him to hunt for. But I also trusted my feelings about the story. As I was dealing with quasi-Lovecraftian horrors, I felt the sensations the magic triggers in Artemis needed to be weirder and more horrible. So I wrote at one point about how the magic made Artemis feel like rats were running around in her stomach, and trying to climb out. Other magical efforts triggered similar unpleasantness.

Then I showed it to the group and got lots of feedback. Including that the bad guy needed to come on stage sooner and that the effects of his magic weren’t creepy enough. I took those suggestions both into account. Eventually the story sold to Lorelei Signal (unfortunately the web site’s been down so long, I wonder if it will ever come back up).

I don’t know if this is true for all writers, and it doesn’t need to be. Everyone’s got their own method. As long as the story works for readers (or listeners, or viewers), it doesn’t matter whether we get it by following a formula or improvising based on intuition.

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Sherlock Holmes: “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact”

I’m not sure how many quotes off this mug I can mine for posts; the one at the bottom about footprints doesn’t seem to lend itself to writing. But “there is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact” applies to writing, science, politics, life.

It’s hard not to accept an “obvious” fact that everyone knows is true. It’s easy to resist facts that contradict that obvious truth or to embrace someone who insists that in spite of all evidence, the “obvious” fact you want to believe (white people are naturally superior! A woman’s place is in the home!) is true. Even science can get mangled. The Victorian scientists Cynthia Russett describes in Sexual Science thought their analysis of why women were the weaker, dumber sex was totally objective. Spoiler: it wasn’t; they were blinded by taking women’s inferiority as a given.

In writing, the “obvious fact” can trip us up in multiple ways. For example, our perception of how people behave. Suppose a writer assumes that any female character really wants marriage and a family more than anything, so her career is just an unimportant stop-gap until The One comes along. That’s going to lead to some implausible female characterization. Or if a writer believes a woman who has sex before marriage is a slut, and his writing reflects that judgment. Or that every senior citizen just sits and watches TV all day. Or believes the countless stereotypes about disabled people.

Another way the obvious can trip us up is if we assume that the obvious, formula resolution to a story is the only one possible. Or the only one your audience will accept; I’ve read multiple accounts over the years of writers being told some variation of “Well, I’m not a sexist/homophobe myself, but lots of the audience will put down the book if you show your female lead is happy without a man/one of your lead characters is gay.” Or that you can’t do X because nobody’s done X before. An article in Romance Writers of America’s newsletter some years back pointed out that Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander broke a shit-ton of rules. Time-travel romance before that was a subgenre. Protagonist is already married when she falls for the male lead. Said lead is a younger man, much less experienced sexually. Yet it was a smash hit.

For another example, consider TEMPER by Nicky Drayden. A fantasy set in an alt.Africa untouched by Europe (apparently India has staked out a foothold), the premise is that twin births are the norm, with the Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Cardinal Virtues divided up between each set of twins (though not exactly matching Western Christianity’s version. Doubt is one of the sins, for instance, and vainglory and temper substitute for pride and wrath). Society looks down on “lesser” twins with the larger number of vices; Auben, a rarity with six out of seven and one virtue, has to deal with that on top of being a poor inner city kid.

Unfortunately that’s the least of Auben’s problems. It turns out the imbalance between him and his sibling Kasim is caused by/causes them to become avatars of Icy Blue and Grace, the Lucifer/God analogs. Kasim doesn’t find being pushed to be really, really good much fun; Auben finds himself driven to shapeshift into a beast and kill.

This is familiar stuff in some ways (although the setting makes it feel different) but none of it plays out the way I expected. And given how long I’ve been reading, I’m hard to surprise. This ranges from how Drayden handles the good/evil dynamic to the disgruntled scientists with their own agenda; secularists in a religious culture, they’re PO’d to have hard evidence Grace and Icy Blue are real.

Of course it’s possible to be original and completely awful — I’ve seen that a few times — but that wasn’t an issue here. Outside of one confusing scene (I kept waiting for the explanation, but it didn’t come) this was first-rate.

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Delivering on the hook: A Study in Honor

Claire O’Dell’s A STUDY IN HONOR shows the pros and cons of a story having a strong hook. If this hadn’t been billed as “gay female black Watson and Holmes in near future setting” I probably wouldn’t have paid it any attention. But the price of hooking me is that I not only judge the novel on its merits but as a Holmes and Watson variant.

The same problem crops up in Silver Age DC, where it was routine to design a grabber cover, then write the story to fit. Sometimes (as in the Gil Kane cover here) it worked; sometimes the strain to work the hook into the story was obvious. I’ve also seen it in nonfiction articles, like one that starts off somewhere in the Iowa cornfields … and then jumps to a nearby office where the interview is taking place. The cornfields added nothing except some color and some wordage.

In short, a good hook is a wonderful thing, but only if it pays off. I don’t think O’Dell delivered on hers.

In the opening, Dr. Jane Watson returns to DC from service in America’s next Civil War, triggered by the alt.right (as common with dystopian fiction, the future reflects the present). She’s burned out, stuck with a poorly fitted prosthetic and unable to squeeze a new one out of the VA bureaucracy. Her lover has dumped her. Jane does land a cool apartment with eccentric Sara Holmes, but Sara’s eccentricities drive Watson up the wall. After we watch Jane suffer for half the book, one of her friends in the VA medical system is murdered. To her surprise, Sara takes an interest in the crime …

And that synopsis captures the reasons this didn’t work for me. When I read a Holmes and Watson story, I expect Holmes and Watson, the team supreme. I expect a mystery, with them working to solve it. I don’t expect half the book to focus on Watson’s personal issues, with no mystery and almost no Holmes. O’Dell says she wanted to make Watson more than just Holmes’ sidekick, and if she’d been writing Doyle’s Holmes and Watson that might have worked. But she’s writing two people who are merely claiming the mantle, so I’m less forgiving.

Then there’s the first meeting between Holmes and Watson. As usual, Sara knows everything about Watson, instantly … because she Googled Jane. No, I’m sorry, that’s just not Holmes. Sure, Holmes would use computers (he does on Elementary) but for an initial demonstration of deductive genius, that’s not enough. I want Holmes to do something us Googlers can only dream of.

If O’Dell hadn’t made her heroes Holmes and Watson, I don’t know I’d have liked the book anyway. It’s not quite my thing, and O’Dell’s writing style is really stiff. But without the hook that failed, it would have stood a better chance.

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Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself

So the Holmes mug I picked up a while ago is covered with quotes from the Great Detective. So I thought where they seemed relevant or interesting, I’d take an occasional post to discuss them. This time, it’s “mediocrity know nothing higher than itself. Talent instantly recognizes genius.”

When I was younger and doing community theater, I’d look at every role I might conceivably have been cast in and think how I’d do it. I could usually see how to do it better. Or so I thought. But sometimes I’d see a performance so good I’d realize no, I couldn’t have done it that way. Couldn’t come close. Not necessarily genius-level performance, but definitely very good. Definitely better than me.

Humbling, but this is part of the process for improving our craft. As Fred Clark points out in looking at Kirk Cameron’s career, if you can’t see that other people are better, if you can’t imagine a higher level of craft to shoot for, you can’t get there. The same applies to writing.

In a parallel to the Dunning-Kruger effect (where the less you know, the more you overestimate how much you know), mediocrity doesn’t see quality. Recognizing genius, or at least quality, is essential to talent, or even competence. If you don’t imagine “better” is possible, it’s hard to achieve. Or if you’re already convinced you’re absolutely awesome!!!!, like that one author who bragged about his amazing strong woman protagonist. Or Scott Bergstrom, who bragged about how his book The Crueltywould show all the other Y/A authors how to do it (Bergstrom’s book at least got decent reviews). Or pretty much anyone who announces their book transcends the genre.

Surprisingly I’ve had less problem with this as a writer than as an amateur actor. My parents were both into theatre so I was involved in amateur theatrics  from childhood. By contrast, I was reading for years before I decided to try writing. I already knew there were better writers than me. Like many writers, I tried copying HP Lovecraft; it’s not as easy as I imagined. Heck, it’s impossible; Lovecraft’s prose is overwrought and purple but Lovecraft could make it work. I couldn’t (I’ve had much better success with reworking Lovecraftian ideas).

Of course, we can be inspired by mediocrity too. Lots of writers have told stories of seeing something crappy in print and deciding “Well if that can get published, I should be able to do it!” I don’t think there’s a contradiction.

And comparing ourselves to the best can be crippling too. Veteran mystery writer Lawrence Block in one of his old Writer’s Digest columns wrote about authors who define “great writing” as “whatever I can’t do.” For example, the successful action author who feels inadequate because he doesn’t have sensitive, complex characters, the talented wordsmith who berates their inability to write suspense, etc., etc. I’ve had attacks of that sometimes, but I’ve learned to ignore them, focus on what I do well, and keep going. Comparing ourselves to others is bad if it cripples our self-confidence; as Samuel Johnson said, anyone who works as a writer must have the wit of a courtier, the assurance of a duke and the guts of a burglar.

A little humility doesn’t hurt though.

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Sherlock Holmes, tea and schedules

Back at Mysticon I saw a mug from the Philosophers Guild covered with Sherlock Holmes quotes (my favorite is “Mediocrity acknowledges nothing higher than itself. True talent always recognizes genius.”). I didn’t have space in my luggage, but I finally got around to ordering it a couple of weeks ago. It now alternates with my usual German porcelain stein as my tea mug of choice.

In other (and completely unrelated) news, I’m finding the last 90 minutes of the day becoming frustrating. It’s probably the lowest point of my work day so I’ve been using it for low-intensity stuff such as proofreading and email. But if I don’t have any of that to do, I often find it difficult to switch to something more creative. Particularly if Plushie’s been in my lap a lot. I’m not sure if it’s the way I have to sit to manage him and a computer or the feeling that I’ve had no personal space all day, but my brain wears out.

I could take the time off and resume work in the evening, but a lot can depend on TYG’s schedule, whether she wants to chat, and whether the dogs are really fidgety. So I prefer to avoid evening work.

But perhaps I need to change that. I’ll give it some thought.

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