We’ve put together 10 tips for writers from Sherlock Holmes.
Since Sherlock Holmes first appeared in 1887 in A Study in Scarlet, the four novels and 56 stories featuring him have never been out of print. He has become the most-played movie character in history, with 200 actors having played the role.
Other writers have created memorable characters who solve mysteries with reason. But Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is the detective who has truly captured the world’s imagination.
To celebrate the anniversary of Arthur Conan Doyle‘s birthday (he was born 22 May 1859, and died 7 July 1930), I thought I would put together 10 things writers can learn from the world’s most famous detective.
10 Elementary Tips For Writers From Sherlock Holmes
Master your craft: Writers have to learn the rules before they break them. Sherlock Holmes is a master of deduction, but this did not happen overnight. Although he is intelligent and talented, he constantly works on improving his skills. He is a big believer in learning the basics before you rush into something complex. Holmes says, ‘Before turning to those moral and mental aspects of the matter which present the greatest difficulties, let the enquirer begin by mastering more elementary problems.’
Pay attention to details: Great writers are observers. They watch and they listen, they notice things that others miss. When Holmes first meets Watson, he says, ‘You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.’ He is not a psychic. As he goes on to explain to Watson, he sees that the doctor has been ill, that he has suffered an injury, and that his face and hands are tanned. He fits them together and deduces his history from his appearance. Holmes focuses his faculties. He listens and he will not allow himself to be distracted.
Obsession works: Most writers who succeed do so because they want it more than anything else. They try harder. They are prepared to make sacrifices to achieve their goals. They love writing for the sake of writing. Holmes is equally obsessed with solving puzzles. In fact, he is prepared to do it without a fee. The thrill of solving a crime is enough for him. ‘They say that genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains. It’s a very bad definition, but it does apply to detective work.’
Take time to think: Good writers switch off distractions and find a place to write and, more importantly, to think. They know they need solitude and quiet. Watson says, ‘I knew that seclusion and solitude were very necessary for my friend in those hours of intense mental concentration during which he weighed every particle of evidence, constructed alternative theories, balanced one against the other, and made up his mind as to which points were essential and which immaterial.’ Distractions derailed his focus.
Use all the senses: Good writers make use of all the senses when they write. Real people do not just see things. They taste, smell, hear, and touch as well. Sherlock Holmes is a big believer in making use of the senses. As he says, ‘There are seventy-five perfumes, which it is very necessary that a criminal expert should be able to distinguish from each other, and cases have more than once within my own experience depended on their prompt recognition.’
Become an expert on body language: Good writers know that it is not just what their characters say that matters. How they say things, how they move, what they wear and how they wear it is just as important. The solution is often right in front of us. Sherlock Holmes trains himself to notice the obvious, the irregularities, and the obscure. He studies body language in order to find out the whole truth.
Learn about the industry: Keep track of how publishing is changing. Instead of fighting it, work out ways that you can use this. Holmes studies everything and only looks at what the evidence suggests. He says, ‘It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.’
Create worthy villains: Good writers know that your hero is only as good as your villain. Sherlock’s nemesis, Moriarty, the seductress Irene Adler, and blackmailer Charles Augustus Magnusse are all fascinating, frightening, and complex. They are worthy opponents for his brilliant talents. Holmes says of Moriarty, ‘He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organiser of half that is evil and nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order.’
Look for help: Great writers ask for help when they need it. You may need to take a course, study writing techniques, or ask a mentor for help. Sherlock Holmes needs Watson. He knows that he has certain skills that help him solve cases. He also needs a sounding board. He says, ‘Nothing clears up a case so much as stating it to another person.’
Use your imagination: Good writers are creative. They put characters together who would not normally meet. They twist situations. They invent scenarios from a series of ‘What ifs’. Sherlock Holmes looks at the ordinary and pieces it together in an extraordinary way until it forms a story. He is constantly learning – which stimulates his brain. He has ideas because of this. He trains himself to be aware and in doing that, he notices moments of genius that others miss. ‘Education never ends, Watson. It is a series of lessons, with the greatest for the last.’
Read more about the creator of Sherlock Holmes in this post: 17 Things You Probably Never Knew About Arthur Conan Doyle
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© Amanda Patterson
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