Category Archives: Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes: Incidental vs. Vital

Looking over my Sherlock Holmes mug this week, I came upon a phrase that’s relevant to my rewriting of Oh the Places You’ll Go!: “It is of the highest importance in the art of detection to recognize, out of a number of facts, which are incidental and which are vital.” (I don’t know which story it’s from, sorry).

As a “pantser” my initial draft of any story is usually far off the final version. When I revise the first drafts into something usable that requires figuring out which arethe vital elements I want to keep and which are incidental. In One Hand Washes the Other I started with a teenage protagonist, then aged him about 15 years. In Peace With Honor I flipped from Vietnamese male and American female protagonists to the other way around. In both cases I knew the basic plot concept was sound, but my initial concept of the protagonist wasn’t vital.

With Oh the Places You’ll Go! — which involves people who can use old maps to travel to the past — I want to keep the protagonists pretty much as they are and restructure the plot around them. My core cast are best friends Charlotte and Michelle and their respective kids, Nora and Kurt. Both kids, as sometimes happens, think the other’s mom is so much cooler, why couldn’t she be my mom instead? By the end of the story, kids and parents have managed to more or less bridge the generation gap.

While one of my writing group loved the story as it was, most felt it needed a lot more, both in exploring the setting and adding some tension. Much as I’d like to agree with the dissenter, I think they were right: the conflict is so low-key it almost fades into the paper. It needs more. But I also think the family dynamic and some elements of the plot — Kurt and Charlotte in the past, Michelle and Nora in the present — are essential, so I have to find some way to keep them.

For this draft, I tried adding some action involving a McGuffin everyone is after, but that didn’t work — it’s definitely not an action story. So I’m looking at it as a character story, primarily. That fits with my original concept but it requires more of a character arc for my quartet. I haven’t figured out what that is yet, but I suspect it may be vital.

Up to this point I’ve set the “present” of the story as now, but I think that’s incidental. There’s a plot element I consider vital, involving a map from the future, but my writing group said it wasn’t that interesting a vision of the future. If, say, the present of the story is 1972, I could use a map from 2020 or 2025 (the thought of someone traveling through time and arriving in the Trump presidency is so depressing it makes me favor the latter). It’ll be an amazing future to my characters (Montenegro is a country again, Rhodesia is now Zimbabwe, no U.S.S.R. and East and West Germany one country) and it’ll be a lot easier for me.

We’ll see if any of this helps with the actual writing, but I’m optimistic.

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Sherlock Holmes: “Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

The Holmes quote on my mug says that it’s a mistake to theorize in advance of the facts (though Holmes did that quite a bit), but I think his reason why is much more applicable to writers. In fiction it’s perfectly fine to theorize about your story (plot, character, twists) before you write it. The trouble comes when what we have in mind doesn’t work for the story on the page, but we don’t admit it.

Case in point, my original concept for No One Can Slay Her was set in the 1930s. Jenny was harboiled instead of aristocratic; her wife was a Nisei instead of a beatnik; the opening of the story involved a foreign agent putting her under a sleeping beauty-type spell.

Trouble was, as I fleshed out the main concept it didn’t hold up. The rationale for the spy enchanting Kate didn’t make sense, neither did Jenny’s response. Even after I changed the characters to their current, 1950s versions, the villain’s scheme still seemed pointlessly convoluted. So I rewrote pretty much the entire plot until it worked.

The alternative is to twist your story or your characters to suit your concept. One of the things I hated about Lost was that maintaining the mystery required massive amounts of idiot plot: Locke makes a cryptic comment about what the island wants, everyone looks thoughtful but nobody ever grills him about what, exactly he knows or intuits. In the mystery novel Have His Carcass the murderer’s plot is absurdly complicated because that’s the only way Sayers’ can justify her opening, in which Harriet Vane finds a fresh-bleeding corpse on a beach at low tide with nary a footprint around it.

Avoiding twisting can require changing the original concept, but it may be your characters or your story has to change. Every cozy mystery is built around the concept of an amateur detective investigating a mystery; as mystery novelist Barbara Ross says, that requires giving your protagonist a very good reason for investigating instead of leaving it to the cops. If you don’t have a good reason (and some novels don’t) you can’t drop the murder investigation so you have to change your character or your plot to provide one.

I had the same problem, as I’ve mentioned before, with Southern Discomfort. My protagonist Maria really didn’t have a good reason to help Olwen McAlister avenge her husband’s death, and I kept trying to find one that would make her stick around Pharisee and fight. Turns out there wasn’t, so I had her do what most normal people would do when threatened by a supernatural killer: run. Only it turns out this isn’t an option … This makes Maria considerably less heroic than I wanted, but there’s no way around it.

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Sherlock Holmes: “The emotional qualities are antagonistic to clear reasoning.”

Once again it’s time for seeing how a Sherlock Holmes quote applies to writing. With this line from Sign of Four I think Holmes is letting his ego get in the way.

The quote was his review of Watson’s first published account of Holmes’ exploits, A Study in Scarlet. Holmes grumbles the story should have been little more than a true-crime monograph, showcasing Holmes’ deductive genius. Instead Watson drags in all those dramatic, emotional details to make an entertaining yarn, thereby muddying the sublimity of Holmes’ intellect.

Though supremely egotistical, Holmes was, of course, as brilliant as he thinks he is. But he’s dead wrong. It’s the emotional stuff in Watson’s stories that makes them stand out: his banter with Holmes, Holmes’ own arrogance, quirkiness and intense emotional drive, the plight of the clients at finding themselves inexplicably imperiled. The logical stuff is secondary. Jacques Futrelle’s Augustus Van Dusen, AKA “The Thinking Machine” was a titan of logic, but that’s all he is; he’s devoid of any of Holmes’ passion or personality. Futrelle’s mysteries are fun to read, but they don’t stick with me the way Doyles’ do. Neither do the excellent Dr. Thorndyke mysteries of R. Austin Freeman or the mediocre Martin Hewitt mysteries by Arthur Morrison (Hewitt and his sidekick are exceptionally bland).

That’s not to say that clear reasoning isn’t important. To write the best stories we can, we have to apply reasoning to the plot, the characters and the editing. Even if people’s reactions are irrational, they have to make sense. The ordinary character who confronts supernatural horror or tries to solve a mystery needs a very good reason for sticking their neck out. Nobody should do something stupid just because the plot needs it; I’ve seen more than one story where a careful, calculating villain becomes inept and ineffective when they have to kill the hero. Or the romance has no motivation beyond “they’re the protagonists, they should get together.”

But the emotional quality of the story probably hooks readers more than story logic. If we care about the characters, that’s a plus. Or if we don’t but the story makes us feel strongly anyway: Lovecraft’s protagonists aren’t particularly engaging, but his best work conveys a definite feeling of horror.

As for Holmes, it’s possible that underneath his indignant dismissal, he was happier with Watson’s work than he admits. Holmes usually let the detective on the case take credit in the papers; Watson’s stories must have been excellent publicity for Holmes’ business in the early years. Holmes periodically recommended one story or another as suitable for Watson to adapt. The stories undoubtedly grew Holmes’ legend (they had to be at least as popular in-story as in reality) and his ego could hardly have objected to that.

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From Mystery Island to Mauthausen and all points in between: movies

MANHUNT OF MYSTERY ISLAND (1945) is a fun serial from Republic Pictures, despite Richard Bailey’s ineffective performance as ace criminologist and nominal hero Lance Reardon. To make up for that we have veteran serial villain Roy Barcroft scowling as Captain Mephisto, who’s imprisoned a brilliant scientist on Mystery Island to steal the secrets of his invention for broadcasting electrical power wirelessly. On the good guys’ side we have Linda Stirling (who appeared the year before in Republic’s Tiger Woman), who’s not only more fun than the hero, she’s extremely capable, saving him a half-dozen times and proving she’s a crack shot even with her arms bound. Like many serial villains Mephisto has a secret identity, created by using a “transformation machine” to change back and forth from one of the owners of Mystery Island (some sources refer to this as reincarnation or time travel but no, it’s just a physical change by pseudoscientific gobbledygook). Definitely fun if you’re into old-time serials. “It’s dangerous — but we’re all in danger, every moment that man lives!”

DRESSED TO KILL (1947) wraps up Basil Rathbone’s run as Holmes (horrifying fans at the time) with a reasonably ingenious mystery. Patricia Morrison plays a female schemer strangely determined to collect three music boxes by fair means or foul, but what secret do they contain that she’s willing to kill for? This has some nice touches like Morrison setting a trap for Holmes by leaving her distinctive cigarette at a crime scene (“I’ve read your monograph on distinguishing 140 types of tobacco.”). “So fearfully awkward to have a dead body lying around, don’t you agree Mr. Holmes?”

TYG recently bought the DVD of DADDY’S DYING … WHO’S GOT THE WILL? (1990) which I’d vaguely assumed was a lowbrow Southern comedy. It’s actually a well-done dramedy about a family (wild child Beverly D’Angelo, frustrated Tess Harper and abusive jerk Beau Bridges) showing up at their dad’s deathbed alongside various partners (most notably Judge Reinhold as D’Angelo’s hippy boyfriend). I don’t like it as much as she does, but I did enjoy it. “I don’t think it’s God’s will you have six husbands before you’re 40.”

Alfred Hitchcock again — EASY VIRTUE (1927) is what The Hitchcock Romance would classify as an ironic romance, in that the obstacles triumph over the lovers. A beautiful divorcee (another example of Hitch’s Innocent Accused trope, in this case accusations of adultery) finds new love only to have it slip through her hands due to the hostility of her husband’s family turning him against her (it’s already doomed by the time her past comes to light). This filmed adaptation of a Noel Coward play interested me even less than The Lodger but the heroine’s relentlessly hostile mother-in-law is very much the forerunner of countless nightmarish mother figures in Hitchcock’s later works. “We married because we loved one another — no explanations were necessary on either side.”

THE PHOTOGRAPHER OF MAUTHAUSEN (2018) is a Spanish docudrama set a Nazi-run camp for Spanish communists shipped there by Franco. One of them becomes assistant to the camp photographer relentlessly documenting the brutalities around them; when he realizes the Nazis will want to destroy the evidence someday, the assistant sets out to preserve as many photos as possible. Effective at showing (as the director Ernst Lubitsch once put it) that it no more takes sadism to run a death camp than it does a laundromat; the callousness with which the Nazis deal with their charges is chilling. “The party is paranoid and it needs to clean up its mess.”

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Be he never so humble, there’s no place like Holmes

When I stopped by the library a couple of weeks ago, I found seven of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes films on sale and snatched them up. All I’m lacking now are Sherlock Holmes in Washington, Passage to Algiers and House of Fear. So naturally I launched a binge of Holmesian viewing, mixing in the DVDs I already had.

Rather than start with my Hound of the Baskervilles, though, I began with the first of my purchases, THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1939). Even though I rewatched it not that long ago, it rewatches well as Moriarty cunningly distracts Holmes from his promise to guard a priceless jewel by throwing a bizarre mystery (albatross drawings! flute music! Ida Lupino in fear of her life! Chinchillas!) in his face. George Zucco is a delightfully icy Moriarty and Watson is actually competent here, constantly chiding Holmes against getting distracted. “The kind of woman I think you to be would rather stake everything on one venture than live the rest of your life in the shadow of doubt.”

The series jumped to Universal and WW II for the next installment, SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE VOICE OF TERROR (1942), in which the eponymous radio broadcasts terrify England by predicting acts of sabotage and warfare before they happen; can Holmes (who has a really weird hairstyle here) restore the public’s faith by exposing the face behind the Voice?

Even though I’m no stranger to contemporary-set Holmes films, this is so very contemporary it feels quite anachronistic. It doesn’t help that it’s such a poor film, though interesting for its Screen Enemies elements (the Nazis, it turns out, started planting sleeper agents in England in 1919!). Evelyn Ankers plays a plucky lowlife who inspires the other waterfront riff-raff to rise up and fight for England! “Do you really think we are so blind, that we would strip this coast of defenses because of a voice on a phonograph record?”

SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SECRET WEAPON (1943) is a much inferior production in which Holmes struggles to protect an inventor and his cutting edge bombsight from falling into the hands of Moriarty, who will cheerfully sell the tech to the Axis. Lionel Atwill is very bland as Moriarty and Bruce’s Watson is really dense (taking a nap while on guard duty, which doesn’t end well) and the story feels padded (Holmes convincing Moriarty to kill him slowly instead of with a bullet is the kind of thing the Austin Powers films used to mock). On the plus side, it makes good use of the cipher from The Adventure of the Dancing Men and introduces Dennis Hooey as Inspector Lestrade. “This is no ordinary crime you contemplate, Moriarty — it is a staggering blow against crown and country!”

SHERLOCK HOLMES FACES DEATH (1943) when he arrives at Musgrave Manor to help Watson figure out who just murdered the current head of the family. Is it one of the shell-shocked WW II veterans resting up there (proving again Vietnam did not create the cliche of the crazy veteran)? Could it be the drunken butler who Knows Too Much? And what does it have to do with the archaic Musgrave Ritual that each member of the family has to memorize? A strong adaptation of the source material. “Who first shall find it, better dead/The next to find it/imperils his head.”

THE SPIDER WOMAN (1943) remains probably the best battle of wits in the Rathbone series as Gale Sondegaard and Basil Rathbone dance through multiple scenes in which they both know each other has a hidden agenda but don’t say so out loud. Investigating the mysterious “pajama suicides” leads Holmes to suspect a female killer (“The method is peculiarly subtle and cruel — feline, not canine.”),but Sondergaard’s Adrea manages to stay one step ahead of him until the uninspired finish (she seems too smart to fall for Holmes’ request she kill him with imagination instead of just a bullet in the head). Overall, though, excellent, and with lots of canon references to The Devil’s Foot, Wisteria Lodge and the giant rat of Sumatra. Followed by Gale Sondegaard in The Spider Woman Strikes Back which is not really a sequel. “One of us had to be eliminated. The choice was not too difficult.”

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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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