Monday, December 5, 2016

Post Holmes

I finished my Sherlock Holmes story and it was a lot of fun to write.  The whole thing is on Wattpad if you care to read it; I claim no special skill at mystery writing and clearly am no comparison to Arthur Conan Doyle.  But it was an interesting experiment, and I learned something about writing in the process which was the whole point.

I set out to write this partly out of the fun of writing a Holmes tale, but mostly for several other reasons which were mostly about experimenting and learning.  I wanted to develop Watson as a more rounded and intelligent character, so I had to figure out what there was about him that Doyle had hinted at and mentioned which gave him more substance.  I wanted to demonstrate that Holmes and Watson were essentially modern day knights battling in a different war than the old time ones.  

I wanted to examine how to portray intelligence so that I can write a character much smarter than everyone around them more easily.  I wanted to write a mystery to determine how its done; I'm still not sure if that worked or not.  

The problem with writing a mystery is that as the author, you know the whole plot.  Its no secret to you.  Once you've read a Sherlock Holmes story, you know the entire secret and what happened.  You know the snake climbs down the bellrope and kills the person sleeping in the bed.  You know why the dog didn't bark.  So now when you read it again, the solution is obvious and easy.  The author starts out that way, wondering if perhaps this is too obvious or boring a mystery.

In my previous novels, there's been a mystery of sorts in each one.  In Snowberry's Veil its not clear what Lord Valance is up to or why at first.  In Old Habits, something is going on in the keep that Stoce is in the middle of and its not clear what until almost to the end of the book.  In Life Unworthy, its not certain what's going to happen to Cezar, and what Vladimir is up to is murky until the end.

That's because most of my writing style comes down to asking questions: what happens next?  Why did he do that?  Who is that girl?  I have a vague idea what the basic plot is, then dive in and start asking and answering questions as the story unfolds.  So there's always an element of mystery.

But in writing an actual, intentional mystery, the entire story is focused on that one plot point: the secret behind what happened.  All of the book serves the purpose of unfolding that mystery.  Yet a "fair play" mystery has to give enough clues and information that in theory the reader can figure out what is happening.

So its a balance between telling enough to be fair, but not enough to make it obvious.  And the mystery in this case has to be one that only someone like Sherlock Holmes can puzzle out soon enough to catch the criminals, while surrounded by other people who are trying to solve the case as well.

That was the challenge and I honestly don't know how well it worked.  I was told by one reader that he hadn't figured it out, which is promising, but who knows?  For the author its all so stupidly obvious and blatant that you feel like taking clues away and throwing red herrings in just to protect the mystery.

Another element involved was keeping the story within proper character and time.  I had to research a few things (different neighborhoods in London, how hard it is to get into the British Museum, what a Brit at the time calls a prybar, etc), but most of it was just trying to recall how Doyle portrayed the characters and told the tale.

I wasn't trying to duplicate Arthur Conan Doyle, but I wanted a sense of continuity between the stories, so it felt like it fit in.  I think I did all right with that, given my own twist on things.  I made Holmes a bit less of an arrogant jerk and Watson a bit less of a fumbling credulous dupe, with the presumption that Watson did that as literary devices rather than honest accounting.

I have read a lot of articles about writing intelligent characters, and some were pretty useless (equating "intelligent" with "technologically savvy").  But one in particular had some great ideas, and sadly when my hard drive blew up I lost the link.  He noted that the really intelligent character has easily and quickly figured out what the other characters take time to understand and work out.  They have it in a flash of brilliance, a combination of intuition and fast thinking.  The others have to take time to puzzle it out.  Another aspect is that the really intelligent person is able to connect things that seem unconnected or are not apparently tied together, into something new and useful.

This is important for me, because at some point I want to write a story about a mage, a wizard, and he necessarily must be very intelligent.  I want to portray that rather than just have him throwing fireballs about.  And to do so convincingly and usefully, I need to present the mage as being not intelligent because he has a pointy hat and casts spells, but because he'd be smart anywhere.

I'm reading Father Brown short stories right now, one before bed each night.  G.K. Chesterton does a brilliant job of showing Brown as being catastrophically more intelligent than everyone around him.  He sees, understands, and connects things that nobody around him can, instantly, and completely.  Almost no mystery goes by without Brown immediately knowing what is going on from the slightest clues, then working out how to save the person before they get worse.  That's been informative as well.

So, there you have it; the mystery and why its done.  Hopefully it's an enjoyable read and helps me write a better book next time.