Sherlock Holmes and the Art of Writing


I read a book review this week of The Scientific Methods of Sherlock Holmes by James O’Brien ( The article reminded me of similarities between great detective work and good writing.

sticker,375x360FINGERPRINTS.     An author can easily leave fingerprints all over a manuscript. A detective like Holmes used fingerprints to identify a suspect, but I try to mask my fingerprints so I don’t remove readers from my stories. I want readers to relate to my characters, so strive to remain invisible — just like the thief that makes off with a van Gogh, or the Pink Panther jewel syndicate that “lifted” diamonds at the Cannes Film Festival this year. I believe an author shouldn’t leave fingerprints.

TYPEWRITTEN DOCUMENTS.     Holmes knew each typewriter had a unique signature; that typewriters don’t produce exactly the same “type.” Especially in the internet age, false facts can infiltrate truth and corrupt research. When I do background work for each manuscript, I cross-reference to ensure I’m getting a factual consensus instead of a one-off opinion that can discredit my entire tale. I believe an author should validate his or her sources, then triple check them.

HANDWRITING.     Like a typewriter creating a singular typeface, I work to ensure the “handwriting” of each character is unique. Physical characteristics, speech patterns, vocabulary, reactions — all these bits of “handwriting” lead readers to my character’s place of birth, education, gender, or station in life. These facets enable a reader to understand how the character relates to the tale, and why he or she reacts in certain ways. I believe an author immerses readers by building complex, thoroughly believable psychological profiles for each major character.

FOOTPRINTS.     My characters leave footprints even when absent from a scene. I think of footprintsimg-thing as an action in a previous chapter setting up the next. Or an interaction between characters pulling the story forward — even if I leave one character behind in the progression. Just as Holmes relied on old footprints to solve crimes, readers rely on characters’ footprints to understand the story and context. I believe an author should leave a trail of footprints to lead the way through a manuscript.

CIPHERS.     Foreshadowing is a cipher. So are imagery and leit-motif. These literary tools (and others) convey important aspects of a story by alluding to them instead of presenting them in a direct way. I beleive the literary cipher, in this sense, is a wonderful way to “show and not tell.” 

DOGS.     Holmes and dogs — a perfectly English match made in heaven. The detective used common things in uncommon ways, such as employing a dog to determine if a woman in a carriage is a dog’s owner, or an imposter. By doing the unexpected, Sir Auther Conan Doyle tricked his reader into complacency before surprising them with a story twist. I believe an author should reveal the unusual in the everyday.

Are you a Sherlockian? I certainly am. It’s … elementary![subscribe2]

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