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Flat on My Back and Writing in My Head: On Writing My Book After a Stroke (and Believing I Was Sherlock Holmes)

Author Timothy Miller explains how his novel came together as he was recovering from a major medical incident—and how dedication to a story can make miracles happen.

A funny thing happened to me on the way to my first novel, The Strange Case of Eliza Doolittle. Just before I signed the contract, I was hit by a stroke and went into a coma. (First of all, I should assure you this is not a tragic tale. My recovery has been nearly complete. In some ways, I’m even better than before.)

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Nevertheless, I woke up, five weeks later, a little fuzzy in the brain. I had the strange impression that I was really Sherlock Holmes and that Sherlock Holmes was actually me, and there would be hell to pay when someone found out. Luckily, I was sensible enough not to tell anyone, though I was sure it was bound to come out. And luckily, that delusion faded. I am not, nor have I ever been, Sherlock Holmes.

(Timothy Miller: The Alluring Puzzle of Fact and Fiction)

I should explain: The book that I had not signed the contract on yet was a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. I had just finished a second Sherlock Holmes pastiche. And I had been doing research on a third and was just ready to start writing when I—went down. Indeed, you might say I owe my life to Sherlock Holmes, since my sister assured me she didn’t have the plug pulled on me in part because I still had to sign that contract. (And here I should give a nod to my ever-patient editor, Dan Meyer, who had already gone through hoops for me and was perfectly willing to go through more for me until I could sign that contract.)

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Which I couldn’t. Although I had already earned the title of Miracle Man at the rehab clinic for waking up at all, I couldn’t write. Though I could wiggle my toes and move my arms—another miracle, apparently, I was flat on my back, unable to hold a pen or work a laptop with enough tubes coming out of me that they had to make a few extra holes in me to accommodate them all.

And that was a problem. Not because of the contract. In a couple of weeks, I was able to scribble my name and dictate to my visiting sister all the necessary information the publisher wanted out of me, which was several pages worth of work. But I had been taken in the middle of birthing a book. I still had that book in me, and it wanted out—badly. So while I spent the days rehabbing, learning to sit and stand, I spent my nights writing in my head. 

(Put Resilence In Your Writers Toolbox)

This was a completely new experience. I had always been of the “how do I know what I think until I see what I say” school. Writing has always been a tactile experience for me—a collaboration of equals between the mind and the hand, racing ahead of each other. Now I was asking myself to write entirely in my mind. The task was simple: I had six different murders in four different cities in four different countries. Okay, maybe not so simple. Did I have one murderer or two on my hands? Oh, and one other thing—all of the deaths were actual historical events, so I couldn’t re-arrange the time or place of an event. So, each night I’d close my eyes and wander down the dark winding streets of my mind. Those roads were full of dead ends, and then I had to trace my way back and start again. And then during the day, I would annoy any visitors—mainly my other sister, but even my speech therapist (who was teaching me to talk by biting my tongue)—with the story as I saw it that day. When I came to a dead-end or had it tied up in knots (the story, not my tongue), I knew which street I had to revisit, remap, that night.

And then I found it. The hey I had been looking for, a character—well, sort of a character—that I had shoved in the back of my mind, that made every link in the chain, the entire map, logical. I think my niece got the first excited earful of that.

In the meantime, my body was growing stronger. I was transferred to another rehab facility. The tubes fell away, one by one. I could walk with a walker, and my trainers kept telling me to slow down.

(10 Ways to Overcome Lonely Writer Syndrome)

I got a pen and a legal pad and started writing. I couldn’t read my writing, but hey, it was progress. I finally got my laptop and started transcribing my hieroglyphics, rewriting the parts I couldn’t make out. I was eating solid food, or semi-solid, at least. After six months, I confided in my therapist that I had been walking unaided in my room. I was ready to break out. And lucky I was, too, because, in another month, something called COVID-19 would pitch its tent on our shores, and I would not want to be caught near any medical facility. I mourn all those who have been caught, with a hundred tubes in them and no visitors to help give them the courage to pull through.

So, I’ve been pent up for a year and a half now, and I’m still working on the second draft of that novel that I birthed in the dark. There’s a ton of research involved, as there is with any historical novel. If you want to take a trip anywhere in Europe or the Middle East in 1923, or 1912, or 1890, I’m your go-to trip planner. I’m looking forward to writing a novel with just one location—maybe one room. My first Holmes novel, The Strange Case of Eliza Doolittle, drops in January, and the contract for my second has been signed, with almost no drama whatsoever. I hope you’ll pick it up, and enjoy it. It’s a miracle it’s in your hands.

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