Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Elementary, my dear Watson

By Tamara Passey

Yes. I’ve been reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It’s been an unexpected read, but one I’m enjoying. I should explain what I mean by ‘enjoy.’ Not ‘this-is-exactly-what-I-love-to-read’ kind of enjoy, but the ‘hey-this-is-different-from-my-usual-diet-and-it’s-waking-up-parts-of-my-brain’ enjoyment. I confess I picked it up after I noticed my initial resistance to it. (This is part of my ongoing effort to “broaden” –it’s a creativity thing that I plan to blog more about soon.) This doesn’t always happen when I read books I was leery of in the first place. But Holmes has not disappointed.

First, a few things I’ve learned:

In print, Sherlock never said the aforementioned phrase (see title). Maybe the rest of the world knew this, but seriously – this is one of the most famous, identifiable sentences – and he didn’t say it?! Well– he said “Elementary” and he would say, “My dear Watson” just not together. It sprang from one of the first film adaptations.

Second shock, Mr. Holmes had a cocaine habit. Also something the rest of the world probably knew. Keep in mind that I haven’t seen any movies and really hadn’t read anything about him. So, you can imagine my surprise upon reading this character description in the first short story.  I did some quick research and learned how it wasn’t illegal at the time and not well understood. The things you learn when you open a book!   

Those were the little things. I’ve been thinking about deeper issues, too. Likely because his stories are so well written. What do detectives, lawyers and writers have in common?  The need to understand peoples’ motives. We have to know and understand why people and our characters want to do what they do – in order to do our job well.

Characters with motives can make the story believable, or not. The right motives can help a reader relate to the character, too. My MC (main character) might be a princess (she’s not – but I’m thinking of an example on the fly) and as a princess, maybe she has a life of ease. Not something I’d readily identify with. But she’s also lonely and seeking companionship – who hasn’t felt lonely in their life? The right character motives can bring all the pieces of the puzzle into place. This is what Doyle used over and over in each of his cases for Holmes. Readers didn’t get tired of the pattern. He wrote Sherlock’s adventures for thirty years! It might be a mystery why a stepfather would plot the death of his stepdaughter –until the reader learns he’ll lose a fortune if she leaves and marries. Or who would think a new bride to a royal Lord would skip town until it’s revealed she’d been married to a poor miner back in the US who said he’d come for her when he struck it rich.

I don’t have the perfect formula for how to give your characters the right motives. I’m working on it myself. But I think reading great writers, seeing it done on the page, is the best instruction.

I want to share one other random, or maybe not so random, occurrence this week. And yes, this is a true story but the real names have been changed. Okay, more like made up, but that’s because I never asked what they were in the first place, but the story is true!

While grocery shopping a few days ago, these Sherlock issues were on my mind. In the produce section I thought, “Who makes inferences about a person’s entire character from one stray article of clothing.” And  through the checkout line, I took notice of the small details of people and chuckled inwardly about potential meanings. “It doesn’t work like that in real life,” I told myself.

Then I got to the parking lot and I think I met MRS. Sherlock Holmes. Not really. But I finished putting my groceries in the trunk and I pushed the shopping cart into the parking lot Cart Return. As soon as I finished, this elderly yet energetic woman, standing beside her car, yelled to me, “You must be from out of state!”
“Well, as a matter of fact, I grew up in Massachusetts. But what makes you say that?” I asked.
“I knew it.” She said. “I’ve lived in a lot of places and the people here don’t put their carts back – in other places they do, but here - no.” Then she proceeded to point to carts shoved up onto the curbing and one sitting just yards from the cart return. Go figure.

So driving home I reminded myself that there are plenty of people from ‘here’ that do return their carts. And who knows if my reason for returning my cart had anything to do with the state I used to live in or if it was for fifteen other different ‘motives.’  Her reasoning was too general, I insisted. Yet, I had to admit – at least that time, she was right. Maybe it is that elementary. 

If you're interested here's an article on motives: What Do Your Characters Want?

And one way to add a little mystery to your summer:


  1. So cool. I had picked up a Sherlock holmes book once, only to put it down. I had a hard time getting into it, I didn't want to think that hard. But your right, we need to read the things that do make us think and broaden our horizons. Thanks for that.

    BTW--People in AZ don't put their carts back because it's too flinging flanging hot!! LOL!

  2. I adored Sherlock Holmes. I devoured them in high school, and again about 10 years ago. But I definitely agree with relating writers to detectives. I notice things all the time, and wonder how and why it came to be. Great Post!

  3. GREAT Post. I'm a mystery fan myself--love "who-don-its", but have never read Sherlock Holmes. I might just have to go pick up a copy.

  4. Nikki - LOL - Yeah, I blame the heat for a lot of things - no dinner? too hot to turn on the oven. no clean clothes? too hot to turn on the dryer! Ok - just kidding. But I think you are right about the carts.

  5. My dad is a big SH fan, but I too have never read them before. I'll have to give it a try.

    For the record, I'm an AZ native and I put my carts away! :)

  6. Years ago my son quit his first job as a grocery bagger because he couldn't stand picking up carts in the "flinging flanging" heat!

    On another note I have a story idea where a girl bases her whole impression on a guy because he does return his cart. Does that mean I need to set the story in AZ because in other states it's common practice and the guy wouldn't stand out for doing it?

    BTW, I sometimes always put my cart away.

  7. I've never read any Sherlock Holmes. I think I might give it a try.

  8. I agree habits, idiosyncrasies, and motives define characters. BTW I return my cart 80-90%of the time but I would not want the job of gathering them up in this hot as Hades heat.

  9. Nice post, Tamara!! I return my cart to. (More often then not). It's interesting what you can pick up from a person just by watching them. If you go to a mall and sit down and watch them, you'd learn alot how they think, act, feel and behave by the way they dress, express and interact with others around them. ;)

  10. I'm sure I read Sherlock Holmes as a teenager since that was one of my favorite genres - maybe I need to add it to my "to read" piles. (Yes, that's piles with an 's').

    As for the little details, the writer in me notices them and thinks, "I should use that for one of my characters." Then I promptly file it in my subconscious and forget all about it. Do you think people would notice if I started writing it all down in a notebook as I go through the grocery store?

    BTW I park as close to the cart returns as possible so that I can return the cart. The only time I do not return it is if I have to walk a mile in the blazing heat.



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