The Sherlock Holmes School of Writing

Develop your writer's investigative powers with this excerpt from Barbara Baig's How to Be a Writer.
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You see but you do not observe.
—Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson, A Scandal in Bohemia

Sherlock Holmes, the famous fictional detective, wrote only rarely for publication about his cases; he left the writing to his friend Dr. John Watson. But in solving the strange and complex crimes that came his way, Holmes regularly used all of the writer’s powers you’ve been experimenting with. He astonished Dr. Watson at their first meeting by telling the good doctor, quite correctly, “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”9 Close and precise observation was the foundation of Holmes’s method. Then he would draw his inferences based on those observations. (As he later explained to Dr. Watson, he observed him closely when they were introduced, noticing that Watson’s face was tanned, though his wrists were pale, and that he was holding his arm stiffly as if it had been injured. From these and other details Holmes rapidly concluded that Watson had been a medical doctor in Afghanistan, where English troops were then engaged.)

When inference alone did not suffice, Holmes would search his memory for expertise he had acquired which would give him the information he needed. Though Holmes never graduated from college, he educated himself in the areas he knew would help him in his work: He made chemical experiments; he carefully studied footprints; and he made a scientific study of pipe, cigar, and cigarette tobaccos, so that he could identify at a glance a bit of ash left behind at a crime scene. He was a relentless collector of information about people and things, and had in his sitting room what amounted to his own personal encyclopedia. So, for example, when the King of Bohemia came to consult him about the adventuress Irene Adler, Holmes had only to look into his files to find her biography “sandwiched between that of a Hebrew rabbi and that of a staff-commander who had written a monograph upon the deep-sea fishes.”10 And when he did not have the information he needed already, Holmes knew how to direct his curiosity to give him the right questions; and he knew how to do research—at a newspaper office, for instance—to get the information he needed.

Holmes also knew how to use his imagination to put himself in the place of the criminal and imagine how he or she had proceeded. Imagination, he often remarked, was essential to a good detective, and he scorned the Scotland Yard detectives who frequently consulted him for their lack of it.

No one who has read any of the Holmes stories can fail to notice that Holmes knew how to use his subconscious. Time after time Watson describes him as withdrawing into a kind of waking dream-state, half-dozing on his couch or idly scratching at his violin. And it was after he had meditated in this way upon all the material his other faculties had given him that he would suddenly come to himself and state—to his friend’s amazement—“Ah, Watson, I have it now.”

Though not a writer himself, Holmes is a model of a person who kept his powers sharp through constant exercise, and who knew how to bring them together to solve particular problems. (Apparently Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes’s creator, based him on a real person—Dr. Joseph Bell, a surgeon in Edinburgh who had been one of Conan Doyle’s teachers in medical school.)

As you gather and develop your own material, you will naturally use more than one of your powers. You may also enjoy the following practice, a writing “game” inspired by Sherlock Holmes, to get you in the habit of allowing your different powers to collaborate.

PRACTICE: Be Sherlock Holmes: Use All Your Powers

Begin with making some observations in a particular place. (Write them down in your notebook.) Then consider, on paper: What do your observations tell you about the people or things you are observing there? (For instance, if you notice that a person on the street is walking very fast, you might conclude that he is in a hurry, perhaps late for an appointment.)

Now search your memory and your expertise for information that might tell you more about whatever it is you are observing. Bring your curiosity to bear as well: What questions come to your mind about what you have observed? How could you answer them? (Perhaps the man is smoking a cigarette; perhaps that makes you wonder how many people still smoke; perhaps when you get home you will do some research on the Internet to see if you can find the answer to this question.)

You can also bring your imagination to your observations. What does your imagination want to do with the details you’ve collected?

Once you’ve allowed your faculties to collaborate in this way, let your subconscious take over for a while. Let your mind rest and give it a chance to take in everything you’ve given it. Then come back to your notebook and do some writing—see what happens. You can let the writing go anywhere it wants; or, if you’ve gotten an idea for a particular direction you’d like to explore, keep your writing going in that direction.

The goal here is not to come up with a finished piece of writing—though that may happen—but to get used to what it can feel like to allow your writer’s faculties to collaborate.


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