This month I’ve been watching Granada’s “Sherlock Holmes” television series from the 1980s starring Jeremy Brett.
While I’ve enjoyed numerous different screen adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s mystery stories (including Cumberbatch’s modern spin on the detective), I love how this series seems to bring the stories to life exactly as Doyle envisioned them, including his Victorian England. Jeremy Brett is absolutely fantastic as Holmes, portraying him to the letter.
Here’s a clip from one of the episodes (you can find many of the episodes on YouTube).
I also love how this show makes me want to dive back into the Holmes books all over again (I read them long ago when I was a little kid). Stay tuned! I might be typing up a blog post soon filled with writing techniques gleaned from Doyle’s stories.
But, today, I have an interesting find to share with you.
While reading about Doyle and the Holmes stories online, I stumbled across a short article by Doyle titled “How I Write My Books”. The article first appeared in The Strand Magazine in 1924.
It’s always fascinating to get a peek at the writing process of a famous author.
Here are my top three takeaways:
1. Forget Factual Accuracy, Focus on Dramatic Effect
Sometimes when I’m working on a piece of fiction, I worry over whether I’ve made any factual errors. Yes, it’s fiction, but the piece might be based in the real world.
Maybe one of my characters works in a profession that I don’t have any personal experience with. That’s when I start Googling for hours, and I might still worry that I’ve made errors once I finish the piece.
Has that happened to you too? Doyle says not to obsess over getting every little detail correct. He admits that he often made factual errors when writing his Sherlock Holmes stories. He writes,
In short stories it has always seemed to me that so long as you produce your dramatic effect, accuracy of detail matters little. I have never striven for it and have made some bad mistakes in consequence. What matter If I can hold my readers? I claim that I may make my own conditions, and I do so. I have taken liberties in some of the Sherlock Holmes stories. I have been told, for example, that in ‘The Adventure of Silver Blaze,’ half the characters would have been in jail and the other half warned off the Turf forever. That does not trouble me in the least when the story is admittedly a fantasy.
Doyle emphasizes that your main concern should be making sure that your story holds the attention of readers.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do any research at all. If an error makes the story unbelievable, that will ruin the dramatic effect. But, in most cases, readers will overlook tiny errors in fiction pieces if the story is entertaining.
The bottom line is to concentrate on telling a gripping story. And don’t let your worries over factual errors stop you from sharing your story with the world.
Now, Doyle does believe factual accuracy is necessary if you’re writing historical fiction. That leads into takeaway #2…
2. How to Research
Doyle notes that he researched extensively when writing historical fiction,
It is otherwise where history is brought in. Even in a short story one should be accurate there. In the Brigadier Gerard stories, for example, even the uniforms are correct. Twenty books of Napoleonic soldier records are the foundation of those stories. This accuracy applies far more to a long historical novel. It becomes a mere boy’s book of adventure unless it is a correct picture of the age.
Essentially, Doyle is saying that if you want your readers to take seriously your historical piece (an article, essay, biography, memoir, etc.), devote time to research.
Doyle shares his system for researching that will be helpful to any writer who is working on a research heavy project:
My system before writing such a book as “Sir Nigel” or “The Refugees” was to read everything I could get about the age and to copy out into notebooks all that seemed distinctive. I would then cross-index this material by dividing it under the heads of the various types of character. Thus under Archer I would put all archery lore, and also what oaths an archer might use, where he might have been, what wars, etc., so as to make atmosphere in his talk. Under Monk I would have all about stained glass, illumination of missals, discipline, ritual, and so on. In this way if I had, for example, a conversation between a falconer and an armourer, I could make each draw similes from his own craft.
3. How to Become a Successful Writer
Finally, Doyle shares his secret for success as a writer: a strong work ethic.
As to my hours of work, when I am keen on a book I am prepared to work all day, with an hour or two of walk or siesta in the afternoon…Twice I have written forty-thousand-word pamphlets in a week, but in each case I was sustained by a burning indignation, which is the best of all driving power.
I love that Doyle broke his writing sessions up with a long walk. I wrote about how walking can stimulate your creativity in my blog post here.
Even though many of us probably can’t devote entire days to writing, Doyle’s amazing dedication to his craft is inspiring. Just like Doyle, we can try to make writing a priority in our schedules each day (even if some days that means only an hour or even just twenty minutes).
Steven Pressfield writes in The War of Art,
This is the other secret that real artists know and wannabe writers don’t. When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.
Doyle also points out that it’s easier to find the motivation to write when you are working on a project that you love,
From the time that I no longer had to write for sustenance I have never considered money in my work. When the work is done the money is very welcome, and it is the author who should have it. But I have never accepted a contract because it was well paid, and indeed I have very seldom accepted a contract at all, preferring to wait until I had some idea which stimulated me, and not letting my agent or editor know until I was well advanced with the work. I am sure that this is the best and also the happiest procedure for an author.
Doyle’s picture of the happy writer is a fantastic goal to work towards. Many of us who are working writers are probably not yet at that point where we can write solely for pleasure alone. We need to take on projects that will pay the bills and put food on the table.
However, even at this point in our writing life, it’s important to make sure that we don’t abandon the writing that feeds our souls.
Do you have an idea for a story or a blog post or a book that’s tugging at your heart? Maybe you’re not sure if you should write it, if it will be successful, if your audience will enjoy it.
Write it anyway. The world needs to hear your story. And, as Doyle says, it will make you happier too.
I hope you found these three writing tips helpful! Again, you can read Doyle’s essay in full here. And if you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy my blog post about Doyle’s struggle with perfectionism.
Leave a comment below letting me know what you think. I always enjoy hearing from you.