Thursday, December 31, 2009

Writing a Sherlock Holmes Pastiche

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


The following is from some pieces I wrote for the website of my book, The Pandora Plague. I thought it might be of interest to writers in light of the release of the new film, Sherlock Holmes. While this is about novel-writing, rather than screenwriting, it offers some points that are common to both disciplines when it comes to recreating another author’s style.

I saw the new Holmes film over the holiday weekend, and, it may surprise folks, I liked it. Let me first state that it took all kinds of liberties with the original conception of the characters, not to mention the Holmes story template, but I knew that going in, and, to quote Alfred Hitchcock, “It’s only a movie.” Remember how incensed some people got with the re-makes of Psycho, The Thing, and The Day The Earth Stood Still? Well, those films are all receding from memory, and the originals are undiminished. So, f’geddaboudit!

As a movie for today’s super-hero-crazed adolescent audience, Sherlock Holmes fits right in. The critics, in many cases, are wailing about the thin or simple plot, but they tolerated such simplicity when it came to films like the Iron Man franchise or the Batman films. We tend to forget that, with the exceptions of the Knights of the Round Table, Robin Hood, and maybe, Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, Sherlock Holmes was the first super-hero since Thor and Hercules. But Holmes’s super-powers tended to stay mostly within intellectual boundaries.

Still, he knew the martial art of Baritsu (sourced in the actual hybrid martial art of Bartitsu, created by an English engineer inspired by ju jitsu - Doyle mis-spelled it). And he was a proficient single-stick fighter, swordsman, and bare-knuckle boxer. So Holmes was no slouch when it came time to take out his opponent.

As for the plot, the same as in my own story, it’s merely a contemporary thriller disguised as a period adventure. Had they delivered a Holmes tale identical in style and template to the originals, it would have had to show on television rather than in the multiplexes, as there would have been too little audience to support a feature film. And, indeed, we have the original approach in the Jeremy Brett series that has played on PBS for over twenty years. So, again: get over the need to be true to the original. Queue up a Brett episode (or a Peter Cushing or Arthur Wontner film) on Netflix.

Unlike the Guy Ritchie film, my novel, tried to stay closer to the originals. This is because I didn’t have to appeal to a majority audience of video game players. Mine were actually Holmes fans, familiar with the original Holmes canon, and expecting something that both fits in and surprises. So that’s what I set out to offer them. 

A "pastiche" is a literary work based on another writer's work(s) or style. Essentially it is like a forgery, except that the writer does not claim it is by the author from whom it is drawn. Instead the writer "comes clean" and admits his/her authorship (1). In the art world, it would be like producing a Van Gogh painting, but admitting that you, as the painter, faked it. There's not much market for such things in that world. But in the literary, the world of books...

Writing a pastiche of another writer's famous work is a difficult and unique exercise. It has the advantage of its own story full of twists and surprises to add to the attraction of having a new work in the style and spirit, and with the characters of the original. It's not seen in a single viewing, a glance, like a painting, but rather read over time, a "bigger meal," if you will accept the allusion.

This is only possible if the writer of the pastiche has the approval of the original author or the author's estate, or if that author's work has entered the "public domain," that point in the life of any copyrighted work when its subject and/or characters are no longer protected by copyright law. So, should a writer devise a story worthy of the original author's works, and that writer is able to "mimic" the original author's style sufficiently well to create a reasonably accurate imitation, then that pastiche can be an enjoyable reading experience. It even has the added effect of helping to keep the original works in the public consciousness such that their own value is enhanced and extended.

When I wrote The Pandora Plague I little realized the advantages a book trading on the pedigree of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes would have in the market-place. I had seen the success of Nicholas Meyer's best-sellers, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, The West-End Horror, and The Canary Trainer, but I knew that a number of other writers had followed with their own pastiches soon after those books, and the market was threatening to become saturated. Still, for myself, I believed that I had a viable project, and at least a worthy start to a writing career.

But what I failed to realize was the "boost" producing a book in a bona fide genre and with classically-famous characters would gain for an unknown author. Where most naïve new writers produce wholly original works and have to fight and scrap for every smidgen of attention and recognition they can get, I had a work that fit squarely on one of the most popular bookstore shelves, and thanks to my last name's spelling, right beside the Meyer books in the very same fiction section (mystery) as the originals. Buyers would know exactly what they were holding once they saw the cover. And aficionados of the genre would buy it in a heartbeat, knowing that, at the very least, it was a new story with their favorite detective in it. This was "golden" for a new writer trying to get established.

Somewhere, however, deep inside, I knew that whatever I wrote would have to pay its audience back for plopping down that cover price. Along with the recognition of the famous characters and series pedigree, there would be an expectation by the reader of the book that it would be a worthy entry into the series. Here I felt my basic story premise was perfect, for it fit the world of the original source quite well and it had the advantage of also fitting a modern audience. It had a story that had the requisite mystery tropes; it had actual famous historical characters in magician Harry Houdini (2), 19th Century actor and playwright, William Gillette, and Nobel Laureate scientist, Madame Curie; and it was a big-event, contemporary-styled suspense tale. I saw it as a modern thriller disguised as a Sherlock Holmes adventure. So the only reasons it would fail to satisfy a buyer was if the writing failed to match the standard set by the source, or it failed to meet the reader expectations set for suspense-thrillers.

Therefore, it was of primary importance to me to meet those expectations. I re-read the entire Sherlock Holmes series of books: 56 short stories and 4 novels. Then I read from among the scholarly books "about" the Holmes stories. There is a large body of scholarship on Sherlock Holmes, and I studied the best of it, making detailed notes. Next I studied Holmes's creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, reading several biographies and specialized studies. I did the same for my other character, magician Harry Houdini, and his profession of magic. I even read a psychological biography of the magician in order to get beneath the surface and render him completely, warts and all. Then I researched subjects from among which my book would draw its story, including anarchism, biological weapons, nuclear radiation, Madame Curie, and Holmes-portrayer, William Gillette. Eventually I produced an invaluable card file of data that I retain to this day. By the end, I had read over 60 books, and because of the intensity with which I attacked these subjects, I was forced to begin wearing eyeglasses. But, at this point, I could effortlessly write in the Doyle style. I was familiar with the streets of London, the English train schedules in 1902, the frequency of mail delivery in central London (5 times or more a day!), and hundreds of other bits and pieces of 19th Century British minutia. But that wasn't enough.

I had determined that I wanted to re-create Doyle's style so completely that I could produce whole stanzas that he might, himself, had written had he ever gotten around to it. So I looked at what might be called Doyle's "meta-patterns." These might be described as particular scenes and situations, as well as narrative patterns Doyle repeatedly employed in the construction of his stories. I conceived and structured my story with many of the same scenarios, many of the same patterns. Then I got down to the "granular-level." I developed a database of his characteristic sentences, sentence patterns, and word choices. I devised parallels to these, employing his rhythms, his word choices, his sentence construction. I wove these things into my narrative at key points throughout the book, so that Doyle, himself, might have wondered: had he written the tale, but forgotten? Friends told me that I had even begun talking like Sherlock Holmes or someone from England a hundred years ago. Finally, aware that Doyle had, here and there across the length and breadth of his stories, employed a distinctive, 19th Century style of British humor, I worked to re-create this, also. By the end of this process, I felt I had a novel that so closely resembled Doyle's originals that it would be indistinguishable to every, but the most informed reader.

Once these details were in place, I then made it a goal to reduce the material to the point that it was a fast read, at the same time that it offered new insights to and details for the principle characters. This was so that it offered new and fresh things to even those "in the know," but wouldn't lose those who just wanted a good old adventure. The actual writing came about like this: I had a collision of thoughts in which, while reading a Holmes story at the same time that I had been researching old magicians for a documentary film I wanted to make, I wondered what might have occurred had Sherlock Holmes ever met Harry Houdini. As I will thoroughly examine in my forthcoming book, Lateral Screenwriting: Using the Power of Lateral Thinking to Write the Great American Movie, this was the result of a kind of lateral collision of ideas, a creative mechanism that I believe is responsible for most or all of creativity (and which one can cultivate and develop so that it can be employed "on-demand"). I was seized by the thought of this combination of two characters, one real and one fictional. It was akin to Nicholas Meyer’s pairing of Holmes and Freud (3), but with an energy and milieu - the world of magic - that offered richer visual possibilities. It had much greater dramatic potential - no "additional" adventure need be tacked on as in the Meyer book (4). It seemed to me that it couldn’t miss to find a willing reader, perhaps eventually a willing movie audience.

I had a magician friend, David Seebach, who had been booked in upstate New York for several small performances that meant that he would not be traveling with his usual company of assistants and props. He asked if I wanted to come along, just for the fun of it. I agreed, and as we headed down I-80, east of Chicago, I began to describe my idea. Soon we were crafting what became the basis for the beginning of the story. Along the way, we stopped in Cleveland and elsewhere to get research materials: books on Houdini and the world of Sherlock Holmes.

Later, David dropped out of the process, attending to his performing career. But I stayed with it. I began to outline my story on 4 x 6 index cards, but by the fortieth card, the outline had transformed into pure narrative. Since I didn’t believe I could sustain the narrative and would eventually fall back into outlining, I stayed with writing it on the cards. The stack grew to hundreds and hundreds of cards. Eventually I had a complete novel-length story, entirely hand-written on index cards! All that was left to do before typing it up was to fix the opening (that part was still in outline format). So, that done, I then transcribed the cards via typewriter - PCs were just appearing at that time - and I ended up with a first draft novel almost three hundred pages in manuscript. Then I re-wrote it, adding to it and fixing it, so that it became almost four hundred pages. Finally, I produced a third draft, and it became the final product. It took 18 months from that first day driving to New York until it was a novel in final draft.

Along the way, I looked for more ways to give the book the patina of authenticity. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had in his stories occasionally referenced other cases Holmes and Watson had investigated. Most of these had extremely tantalizing, even humorous, titles or descriptions (5). So I introduced two new ones in the same spirit: The Adventure of the Caramel-Worker’s Passion, and The Queer Affair of the Demolitionist, Alfred Nobel, and His Renowned Manservant (the last living Neanderthal). Certain Holmes scholars had noticed anomalies or paradoxes in the stories, so I added to them. In one case, where all scholars had agreed about an insight, I "undid" it, so that the ambiguity would be restored. And wherever possible, I attempted to make the story authentic by weaving in real, historical people and incidents. All of this made for a book that I felt would stand head and shoulders above the competition while contributing an adventure that matched the source stories as well as could ever be done.

Most of this goes right over the head of the average reader. But should the story succeed in awakening reader interest in Sherlock Holmes, and should the reader ever return to the book, he/she will then notice these "touches," and get new enjoyment and insight into the tale and its milieu. And for the Holmes fan, the book will meet that fan's more discerning eye, and, with luck, join that fan's list of great Holmes pastiches. But for me, the challenge of writing something with such care that it could fit into the original "Canon" of tales as though it was one of them was the greatest fun of all.

So the process of writing a pastiche is far and away a greater undertaking than merely writing a novel. But as a way to break in, I recommend it because the audience is already pre-sold on the genre and characters of the story, and publishers have a niche in place from which to sell. #

End Notes:

(1) Okay, I admit it. In my Foreword, I tried to scam the reader into believing it was a newly-discovered “lost” adventure. But it was all in fun, using the Nicholas Meyer template (see 3, below), and inspired by Doyle, himself, with the untold tales locked away in that “battered, tin dispatch box” at the bank of Cox & Co., Charing Cross, London.

(2) After my book appeared, another was published with the same basic idea: what if Sherlock Holmes and Harry Houdini had met? This was Sherlockian and magician, Daniel Stashower’s novel, The Adventure of the Ectoplasmic Man. Stashower continued to write Houdini adventures (sans Holmes) in the years since.

(3) The Seven Per-Cent Solution (1974; still in print). This was the first modern pastiche that claimed to be a “found” manuscript, hidden, in part, because of its “shocking” revelations. The ruse was continued in such later books as Richard Boyer’s The Giant Rat of Sumatra, Loren Estleman’s books, Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula: The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes, my own book, The Pandora Plague, and the series of books by Larry Millett covering Holmes’s adventures in America, among others.

(4) The cocaine-addiction cure of Sherlock Holmes by Sigmund Freud was insufficient to the scope of a novel, so Nicholas Meyer created a case that arose involving Freud, his Jewish ancestry amid the Austrians of Vienna, and a political plot to push Europe into war.

(5) The Full Account of Ricoletti of the Club Foot and His Abominable Wife, The Giant Rat of Sumatra (of which the world is not ready to hear), The Adventure of the Amateur Mendicant Society, (whose members held a luxurious club in the lower vault of a furniture warehouse), The Singular Affair of the Aluminium Crutch, and The Case of Wilson, the Notorious Canary Trainer (not to be confused with the Meyer book, The Canary Trainer, a different story entirely), among many others.


Lee A. Matthias 

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