Thursday, October 22, 2020

C'mon, give us a little Holmesoween treat!

 Hey, everybody! Let's all get published!

Yes, yes, you can get something printed in a collection of essays or short stories pretty handily these days. But you know, even the most hungry of editors and publishers have some gateway level of quality and length required, and who has the time, self-esteem, and talent to spend jumping over that bar of entry. Writing is great fun, and you shouldn't have to be good just to practice, let it flow, and just enjoying discovering what words are in your head.  What you do need, most times, is just an excuse!

So here's your excuse.

Our good friend Paul Thomas Miller is publishing Holmesoween short stories on the Doyle's Rotary Coffin site like filling a trick-or-treat bag with candy. There are already eight tales of "terror" out there, having something to do with Sherlock Holmes and/or Doctor Watson, and this being the web, there's room for a whole lot more.

At 2500 words or less (but not even strict about that), and seven more days until the final Holmesoween deadline, you couldn't ask for an easier writing task. We're not talking Nanowrimo, which starts a few days later, and it's 50,000 word goal. Heck, this could even be your Nanowrimo warm-up exercise, if you're planning to hit that. And you don't even have to submit it to Doyle's Rotary Coffin at DoylesRotaryCoffin@outlook.com with your real name attached. Use a pen-name, if you're concerned about ruining your future career as a Pulitzer prize winning novelist or diverging wildly from your expected output on AO3.

The whole point of this Holmesoween writing effort is to have some fun and fill Doyle's Rotary Coffin's trick or treat bag with literary candy. It doesn't have to be good for you at all, just something that brings a moment or two of joy in the giving or the getting.

Because it's HOLMESOWEEN! And writing is fun! Also reading!

That's https://sites.google.com/site/doylesrotarycoffin/home/articles/holmesoween-2020 !







Saturday, October 17, 2020

The Universe without the Voice

 The good Paul Thomas Miller has set out another little writing prompt for Doyle's Rotary Coffin -- "Holmesoween" tales for October enjoyment. And, as anyone who reads this blog now and then knows, I can't help but put words together -- furor scribendi, my old neighbor used to call it. But as I set out to come up with something for the DRC this time, I really noticed a problem area I have.

The story I started writing, and may yet finish, was a more traditional pastiche, written as Dr. Watson. It's the path the other three contributors to the project have followed, and it's the more traditional Sherlockian path. These stories are the source of our pleasure, so why not imitate them? Makes perfect sense.

And yet as long as there have been Sherlockians, there has been a struggle to capture Watson's written voice. Something that came so naturally from the original author is nigh impossible to replicate. It's why we're all not Stephen King or Jane Austen or Ernest Hemingway -- every writer's voice is their own.

And yet Sherlockians struggle and struggle to replicate Watson.

During the Left Coast Sherlockian Symposium, one of the speakers raised the question: "Is it easier to write in someone else's fictional world?" Most of those present said "yes." But I suspect the difference between those who said "yes" and those who said "no" was that they were answering different questions.

Is it easier to write a story that takes place in a universe someone else has already fully formed? Well, the mass of work that fills Archive of our Own should answer that question. Of course it is. You can move right to creating the story, without worrying about characters, settings, or timeframe. Writing a story based on a world created by a television show is wonderfully convenient for such work -- you get the world to write in, but no existing prose to compare it too. We don't expect a story to feel exactly the same as watching a TV show or movie, so the writer gets a bit of a break.

Sherlockians, however, have traditionally set themselves an impossible task -- not just writing in the world that Conan Doyle created, but writing in his voice -- Watson's voice -- as well. Why do we torture ourselves so? Even the most successful and skilled among us will still get their best work met by a "Well, it's not Conan Doyle" from some grumpy Gus. It's like our love of those sixties stories has put a curse upon us: "Ne'er will ye write that which ye so desire!"

Fans of Star Trek were never cursed this way. Those who came through the BBC Sherlock door after 2010 have less of this curse upon them. Their Sherlocks get to be mermen or rock stars or whoever they feel like being and their stories wind up being better stories. I mean, I'm sorry if I offend anyone here, but if you take all the BBC Sherlock stories and match them against all the ACD pastiches ever written with some fairly objective way of measuring quality . . . I think the former would win hands down. Their writers did not start the process shackled by trying to speak in a voice not their own.

We're all better when we just write with our own voice. And, yes, mimicking another is a great way to start out in finding your own writer's voice. I couldn't tell you all the times I tried to imitate a writer I admired in voice but not world. Dashiell Hammett, William Goldman, Andrew Vachss . . . the more distinctive a voice one admires, the more one has to try to mimic. And in that case, it's usually attempting to use the voice without borrowing the universe, so no one knows it's fan fic unless both your pen and their reading ear are good enough to communicate style.

Writing is hard at the start, and it's interesting when we choose to make it even harder by trying to do Watson. For Holmesoween, I got lazy, threw Watson out, and just wrote in the universe without his voice. I'll probably go back to my little Watson-voice experiment for the holiday celebration, but, man is that the harder route to go.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Plane trees, wooden gates, and bow windows

One of the problems with being a rabid Sherlockifan like myself is the distraction.

Paul Thomas Miller almost sabotaged the start of my workday with the revelation that he was in agreement with Bonnie MacBird's theory on the location of 221B this morning, and my inner old Sherlockian immediately went "Harrumph, I say! Gray Chandler-Briggs, burfle, burfle, burfle!"

Paul liked Bonnie's evidence of the plane tree in a particular yard, which sent me into researching plane tree longevity and finding that London had its own particular variety of pollution resistant plane trees called "London Plane tree." So you know, head canon immediately gravitates to that one for Mrs. Hudson's backyard tree out of sheer London-loyalty.

Gray Chandler-Briggs, in addition to sounding like a character from TV's Friends, hinged a lot of his own  theory on a wooden gate leading to his theoretical location for Camden House, Moran's chosen sniper post.

Plane tree or wooden gate? And what about that thrice-damned bow window?

And that yellow brickwork across the street with the sun shining so brightly off it that the yellow brick had to be on the west side of the street.

Was 221 Baker Street really 72 Baker Street? 111 Baker Street? 61 Baker Street?

Ah, the simplicity of Watson being wounded in shoulder, leg, both, or neither. Only four options.

Baker Street was a whole street.

And it's a rabbit hole that I've managed to avoid, even though I fell a long way down the chronology one, probably for one reason and one reason only . . . the thing most of the Alices for this particular rabbit hole have in common? They've been to London. The Baker Street that exists there is a real thing to them, as in they've felt the solid pavement under their seats. They believe in London's city plans.

I'm just still not convinced that 221B Baker Street wasn't just 221B Baker Street, and I'll tell you why.

Consider Sherlock Holmes, a man who came to London and went, "I'm not doing into the existing profession of doctor, Scotland Yard inspector, government clerk, musician, artist . . . no, I, Sherlock Holmes am going to create my own unique role in this great metropolis!"

If anyone in the world was going to move into Baker Street and go, "These are nice numbers, but I need to have 221B as my home address. Here's a few extra pounds, Mrs. Hudson, buy two twos and a one and put them on the door. A couple of days and the delivery men will know where we are," it was Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

And, y'know, if I published a book titled Watson Does Not Lie, I might have a little faith in that fellow and his choice to advertise Sherlock Holmes's address in The Strand Magazine as 221B Baker Street.

Of course, I guess we would still have to discover which house on Baker Street that Sherlock Holmes decided to designate as 221. Well, FUUUUUU . . . .


Saturday, October 10, 2020

The room party

 There's a thing that happens at Sherlockian weekends that's never on the program, sometimes planned, sometimes spontaneous, sometimes big, sometimes small . . . the room party.

A few friends decide to gather in someone's hotel room after the official program is over, do a little Sherlockian gossip, and just chat with a few like-minded folk, often into the wee hours. And while our newfound Zoom-based weekend programs have replicated the cocktail hour with some free-form chat rooms, nobody has really come up with a substitute for the room party yet.

Having a private online party might come across as gatekeeping to some, which is a big difference from the "whoever happened to be around" sort of gathering at a hotel-based event. You aren't expected to announce to the whole joint, "Hey, everybody! Party in my room!" because that could just be a disaster. Plus, you've suddenly hit cocktail party level again.

Sooooo, it you're going to the Left Coast Sherlockian Symposium today and you're reading this blog, I'm going to invite you to my room party after the symposium is done. I want to record a little audio for the Watsonian Weekly on the symposium, but the recorder isn't going to be running the whole time, as there are always things to discuss we don't want on the record. I'll be starting my little room party at 8 PM Central Standard Time, and I'll send you the Zoom details if you email me. If you don't know my e-mail address, you can try "podcast at johnhwatsonsociety dot com." (Not making this easy, am I?)

This is something of an experiment, to see if we can get just the right number of folks for a proper post-symposium room party. There's a few hours of cocktail party chat before 8 PM CST, so I don't think most folks will feel the need for more. Heck, nobody at all might show up. I have no idea how many people are going to today's event, what time zone they're in, or who reads this quick enough to know this is going on.

But, hey, that's what make these things fun, right? And we're all still figuring out the tools for remote Sherlockian connection that we'll probably be using long after this pandemic is over.

So, long distance room party? Let's see what happens.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Oh, yes . . . Irene . . .

 One of the most annoying things about the modern comic book industry is multiple covers upon a single issue of a comic book. Have I bought a comic a second time, thinking I missed an issue? Yes. Is my collection of Titan Comics Adler a incoherent mix of variant covers? Yes.

Peoria is not a town where smaller comic titles are well stocked, and something as specialized as Adler has to come in from your pull list to make sure you get it, and you get what you get. The first two issues had as little cover art on the version I got as a 1970s Baker Street Journal. (Really! Just one small silhouette as the only actual art on a tiny part of the cover.)  The third issue's artist had a style that didn't really suit the rest of the book, and the fourth, while closer to the interior art, wasn't the one by the guy who draws the comic itself, which is all I really want from a comic book.

Nobody wants to start reading a comic pissed off, as the form is short enough that it takes one great story to change your mood in the time allotted. And as I can't remember reading issues two or three at this point, this seemed like a good time to sit down and read all four issues of this Irene Adler book.

I remembered Adler as being League of Extraordinary Gentlemen done with literary ladies. Irene doesn't show up until eight pages in, with Miss Havisham introducing battlefield nurse Jane a few pages later after Irene is done beating up one of Moriarty's assassins. Sherlock Holmes and Watson are off in Dartmoor dealing with the hound of the Baskervilles, so it appears Irene and Jane must fill similar roles.

But the tale soon forgets about Sherlock Holmes, veers sharply away from the familiar Holmes Canon, and gives Moriarty an underworld full of Sherlockian and non-Sherlockian crooks . . . until they aren't Moriarty's any more. There's an overabundance of characters in this book, and we see so much of them that if the comic was titled Havisham or Ayeesha, one might not know the difference.

After four issues, I'm still not sure who Irene Adler is, other than "fighting adventure gal" and none of the characters has really stuck. Ayeesha is kind of an evil Victorian Wonder Woman who is very proud of her abs. Miss Havisham comes across as a brothel owner/scientist. And in 2020, you really have to wonder why a comic book full of women from literature and history isn't being done by female creators.

Enola Holmes has come along and set a new bar for Sherlockian spin-offs since Adler first began its action-movie styled run, and, well, you just don't bring in Jack the Ripper in issue two for a cameo and then . . . kind of just ignore him? (They kill a random cabbie a couple of issue later that I think might have been him, but this comic just has a lot of random things going on.)

I don't know if Irene Adler would be helped by a good adaptation at this point, or if we should all just quietly back away and let her lead her happy wedded life with Godfrey Norton. (Who does not appear in Adler, like Sherlock Holmes, btw.) She's been through enough, and a good deal of it in Adler.



An unsung hero of Sherlockian publishing

 We've seen a few Sherlockian publishers come and go. Publishing has never been the best of businesses, and Sherlockian publishing? Not the best of markets. It's a tribute to Wessex Press that they've lasted as long as they have -- probably in part because they didn't start as writers trying to publish their own stuff, as some others have.

We've had the notoriousness of Jack Tracy and the quality of David Hammer, but I don't think either had the importance to Sherlockiana of Magico Magazine, run by Rabbi Samuel Gringras out of New York City. Full disclosure time: Magico published my first three books way back when, but that's not the reason I'm singing his praises this morning.

When Paul Thomas Miller and Rob Nunn got into a Twitter discussion of Moriarty as a horse, it immediately put me in mind of Robert S. Morgan's "Spotlight On A Simple Case, or Wiggins, Who was That Horse I Saw With You Last Night," a privately printed monograph from 1959. These days you can find it on AbeBooks for fifty bucks. In the 1980s, though? Good luck!

Yet I have a copy of this rarity due to Magico Magazine reprinting it during the 1980s.

While Magico did print a goodly number of new things, like my own magnum opus of my beginning years, one of the best things they did for us was making all those rare classics of Sherlockiana available in reprint form. Without their work, the field of Sherlockian chronology would be practiced by even fewer than practice it now. (Would that be a good or bad thing? I'm not sure.) 

Mysterious Press would come along and later reprint some of our hobby's classic books, but the little monographs and things like Julian Wolff's maps weren't anything a book publisher would touch. Items like that Morgan monograph would never have been seen by most Sherlockians just twenty years later without Magico's sizable catalog of works. Their main output may have been books on stage magic, a field where the enthusiasts might even by more ardent than Sherlockians (and able to attain a little more fame and fortune in their top tier), but we never got slighted in Magico's output.

The publisher had its critics -- all publishers do, working with such a sometimes persnickety breed as writers, but they provided a service to Sherlockiana that few have matched. Were I to have to choose between all of Magico's reprints and all of the BSI manuscript series, I would have to say I'd definitely take the former, as prestigious as the latter might be. They've been an important resource in my Sherlockian life since they came out, one I might not have otherwise had, putting so much into circulation that otherwise might have been reserved for the wealthy or determined few.

There were those who used to xerox old Sherlockian stuff and quietly pass those pirated copies among their friends, even going so far as to bind the xeroxes like a book if they had the resources. Sherlockians are a hungry breed. But occasionally someone sets us out a fine table to feast upon, and Magico Magazine was one of those someones. And for that, I think they deserve a great many more plaudits than they have gotten to date, but hopefully that day will come. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

How important is Sherlock Holmes?

Let's  start with a statement that might be a bit controversial:

One thing any fan does, from the most sticker-laden convention-goer to the most footnoting academic, is  to exaggerate the importance level of their chosen fandom over the other parts of life. 

Of course, I'm not talking about you or me, just those folks. You know the ones.

We can get a bit carried away. 

Over the last century, Sherlockiana has been lightly compared to a religion time after time. We have our sacred text. We let our following of Holmes makes certain life choices. We have our little "cults" and, definitely, our fanatics. Yet none of us would outright say "It's definitely a religion!" because we know, in our hearts, that Sherlock Holmes was a story created by a man named A. Conan Doyle, not a messiah.

And yet, the parallels between our hobby and a religion are often useful. For example, when debates over religious freedom come up, the same arguments apply to controversial Sherlockian topics. Does our Sherlockian fervor allow us to freely have a negative impact in the lives of other people?

Can you be a real jerk, but it's okay because you're such a devout Sherlockian?

It's an interesting question, as our community, like many a church, is welcoming and accepting. We often welcome and tolerate Sherlockians whose social skills might be appalling enough to get them rejected from a normal social circle. They scratch their back with a fork at the dinner table or persistently smell of unchanged cat litter, and yet no one tells them they can't come to our banquets or meetings. But in that tolerance, we often have tolerated assholery along with the merely off-putting. Because . . . well, Sherlock Holmes.

As Sherlock Holmes, his legend, and lore all serve as a necessary diversion in our lives, we can become a little too diverted. We can dive our head into that rabbit hole like a cartoon ostrich and lessen the noise that's just too loud around us. And that's okay at times. We need that for our mental health.

Burrowing into our personal Sherlockian lairs has become an effective tool in a time when we need to limit contact to protect our communities from the spread of a pandemic, I think. The percentage of Sherlockians struck down by Covid might hopefully be less than the general populace due to our bookish natures? I don't know. But even if that were the case, we still have to use those Sherlockian powers for good.

We have to pay attention to people and things that aren't Sherlock Holmes related. This may seem like a really stupid statement to the average person, but for some of us? Well, speaking as someone with two Sherlockian podcasts, a blog, a journal to edit, and a book in the works . . . occasionally I need a splash of cold water or a friendly hand from outside the Sherlockian world to pull me out of my burrow and engage the rest of the world.

Was there a point that this little morning ramble was coming to? If there was when it started, I don't remember it now. But I will say this, if you haven't heard it enough already:

Figure out how you're going to vote, if you're American, and get out and then do it. If there was ever a moment to forget about Sherlock for long enough to get a thing done, this is it.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

The Adventure of the Dying Defective?

 Last month, our local story discussion hit "The Adventure of the Dying Detective," and just a week later, I find a friend or two, as well as one documentary film-maker, suspect someone they think is very clever is pulling the Sherlock Holmes maneuver from that story.

If you recall, as surely you do, Sherlock faked an illness that has been fatal to others in order to inspire a confession from one Culverton Smith, who had been letting that disease kill people on purpose.

In our discussion of the story, we came to the conclusion that Sherlock Holmes's clever ploy was actually quite flawed, depending upon a whole lot of other people behaving exactly as they needed to, and a whole lot of things just had to work out perfectly.

And that is exactly the flaw with so many conspiracy theories. For the proposed theory to be true, a whole lot of things would have to work perfectly and a whole lot of people would have to cooperate in perfect harmony . . . which people don't often do. It's the plain truth that hits me in the face every time I watch one of the National Treasure movies: The heroes find some immense repository of treasures that took hundreds of people to build, and we're expected to believe those hundreds of people all managed to do the required work in complete secrecy, with all of them being entirely competent in a crazy level of engineering and not keeping a map or any of the treasure for themselves.

Perhaps it's my view of humanity's general level of ability en masse that might affect my lack of belief in most conspiracy theories. The real conspiracies out there are usually by an established group working together, like a business or other enterprise operating in the open with nobody paying that much attention, often something we eventually know is happening, like gerrymandering, but are unable to stop.

And one of the most common conspiracy theories of late has been that we have a Moriarty-level mastermind manipulating everything around him while having problems reading, judging what a basic human response to a question might be, and generally seeming like a windbag with nothing to offer and no one close to him willing to even point out the toilet paper is stuck to his shoe.

Ah, but that toilet paper stuck to his shoe was the detail that proves his true genius, wasn't it? Staging minor goof after minor goof takes a truely disciplined actor beyond even Sherlock Holmes's level, and, wow, isn't it amazing that he's thinking that many steps ahead.

Even Sherlock Holmes in "The Dying Detective" couldn't get Mrs. Hudson, Dr. Watson, Billy the page, and Inspector Lestrade to all fake having the same deadly disease along with him, just to throw his rivals off the scent. What a genius someone must be to pull that off!

But, as we all know, even if we knowingly pretend not know it, Sherlock Holmes was fictional. Not a real human being, which is actually how he accomplishes a lot of what he does -- his author bends reality to make his schemes work. Because in a fictional reality, there is an order to the universe that was placed there by the hand of a single being.

There's a certain faith behind conspiracy theories, a faith that the universe is an ordered place, where improbable things are happening through someone's plan. It's almost like that need for an ordered and plotted universe transcends the need for belief in a higher power, or that the higher power behind the order in the universe is this person or group. Even when one wants to deny the actual, perfectly logical ordering of the universe.

Sometimes, people who don't do the common sense things get sick. It's the way the world works. Sometimes, "a cigar is just a cigar." And somebody out there is is more clever than Sherlock Holmes himself?

Pshaw.