Today’s guest blog post, on the subject of fan fiction (fan-fic), is brought to you by Drew Black.
A Holmes of Your Own
Last month an Illinois state circuit court declared Sherlock Holmes public domain and in a single ruling transformed thousands of works of questionable fan-fic into questionable fiction of the regular sort.
Obviously the instant response of any writer who’s not already busy contributing to the Ctulhu Mythos must be to embark on an officially court-sanctioned interpretation of the Great Detective. This is self-evidently a great idea ripe with possibilities and guaranteed critical and commercial success but there are some important caveats to consider and what follows is an unqualified guide to writing your own Sherlock Holmes story in accordance with the new legal climate.
The Case of the Two Sherlocks
The first consideration is probably the most important and that’s the granularity of the ruling itself. The estate of Conan Doyle argued that although the bulk of Holmes’ exploits date to well before the end of copyright protection, the ten stories published after 1923 constitute part of a whole and extend copyright retroactively over the entire library. The judge disagreed and, I’d like to imagine, smiled derisively when he characterised the position as a “novel argument”.
Never-the-less the ruling effectively splits Sherlock Holmes in two — a pre-1923 public domain Sherlock and a smaller and slightly more racist Sherlock still safely under lock and key at the offices of Sutin, Thayer and Browne. For the appropriating writer, this means that certain characters and characteristics and events and environs remain off-limits.
You can freely refer to Holmes and Watson, of course, and Mrs. Hudson and LeStrade and Irene Adler and the Baker Street Irregulars and Toby the crime-sniffing Lurcher mutt and pretty much every character you’ve ever heard of in relation to Sherlock Holmes, including and in particular Moriarty. You can freely place events at 221B Baker Street and Scotland Yard and an opium den, if you like, and even Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland, if you want to take your turn proposing a back-story behind the Lost Years. Feel equally free to add your spin on any of the mysteries from A Study in Scarlet and The Hound of the Baskervilles all the way to the not particularly problematic Problem at Thor Bridge.
You will, however, have to craft a tale that somehow manages to steer clear of Watson’s unnamed second wife. Tread carefully.
The Canon’s Roar
Just because you’re now free to lift elements wholesale from the pre-1923 Holmes doesn’t mean that you’ll necessarily want to. You’ll at any rate want to keep a sharp eye on the thin line between re-interpreting Conan Doyle and re-typing Conan Doyle.
On the other hand if you depart too far from The Canon you risk rejection by the diehard purists. Essentially you need to decide if you want to keep your Sherlock Holmes in the same “universe” with the original, like Godfather II does with Godfather I, or disregard the canon altogether, like Godfather III. It calls for fine judgement but amounts to simply not contradicting Holmes’ timeline and staying within the period and probabilities of the original stories. Say you want to conjecture what Holmes was doing that delayed his arrival at Baskerville Hall, that’s fine and within the Holmesian universe. Same story but all the characters are woodland creatures? Not Holmesian universe.
The Holmesian universe is as wide as was the known world in Victorian times, which is roughly as wide as it is now, and there were no cell phones nor DNA nor CCTV images which can be enlarged indefinitely. Some writers may find these factors liberating. Others may feel constrained by a Holmes without Google and Youtube and spiderweb shoulder tattoos.
The Father of Deduction
If you haven’t the energy to perform the level of laborious data-mining necessary to keep the Sherlockian nerds off your case you can do what countless writers have done in the past and bring to life a member of the infinitely vast Holmes family.
This time-honoured alternative to actual work was probably started by American humorist John Kendrick Bangs in 1906 with the introduction of Raffles Holmes, the issue of a tryst between Sherlock and the daughter of A.J. Raffles, the gentleman thief. Raffles himself, incidentally, could be considered a part of this tradition, having been created in 1898 by no less legitimate a voice than that of E.W. Hornung, Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law, as a deliberate archetype to Sherlock Holmes.
Since then the adventures of older brother Mycroft have been chronicled, naturally enough, as have those of even older brother Sherrinford (the name Doyle originally favoured for Sherlock) and little sister Enola. And Raffles isn’t the only offspring attributed to the notoriously unromantic detective who of course had to produce a son with Irene Adler; Auguste Lupa would ostensibly, after a distinguished turn as a WWI spy, go on to become Nero Wolfe.
That still leaves plenty of scope to examine the lives of half-brothers and sisters and cousins and who knows what jolly adventures Mr and Mrs Holmes had in the run up to the Crimean War. And that’s assuming you want to confine yourself to the decidedly narrow view that Holmes’ abilities are entirely genetic and not learned, unlike not one but both of Watson’s wives, each of whom has had a whirl as a private detective.
Fifty Shades of Sherlock
You could take inspiration for your Holmes pastiche from the mashup — a lively trend which combines one or more roughly compatible characters or situations from fiction or reality with Holmes. Such efforts have placed Holmes in opposition to Dr Jekyll and Jack the Ripper and Dracula and Fu Manchu and, on more than one occasion, himself. He’s teamed up to fight evil with partners ranging in probability from James Bond and Batman to Sigmund Freud and Charlie Chaplin.
Holmes arrives too late to stop the French version of Raffles in Sherlock Holmes Arrive Trop Tard and in a single outing with the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen he collaborates with Captain Nemo, Allan Quatermain and the Invisible Man.
All of which might leave one with the not unreasonable suspicion that every mash-up with Sherlock Holmes that’s worth doing has been done, plus the one with Jabberwocky. The field narrows further when you bear in mind that your mash-up partner must also be in the public domain but that still leaves obscure fictional characters like Friar Tuck, Nicholas Nickleby and Paris Hilton and here-to-fore unexploited historical events, like the discovery of thymo-ethyl-diehylamine, the first effective antihistamine.
A Detective For All Time
So rather a lot of ground has already been covered, particularly if you mean to remain roughly within Holmes’ timeline. A timeline which you could escape altogether by making Holmes a time traveller if that, too, hadn’t already been done in All-Consuming Fire, in which Holmes meets up with Dr. Who to frustrate the machinations of a cult led by a telepathic slug. Or perhaps you could bring him into the modern age and beyond with, say, a youth serum, like that employed in A Time For Sherlock Holmes. If that’s too silly, even for someone who’s read this far, there’s always the reliable cryogenics option which in Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century sees Holmes preserved in honey in the basement of Scotland Yard.
In short, go nuts. You’re not going to breach any copyright limitations and you’re certainly not going to push the envelope of verisimilitude any further than it has been already. Just avoid anything from the last ten stories — neatly organized, incidentally, as the last ten of the twelve entries in most editions of The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes — and the sky’s the limit. The only consideration you need to give now to your Sherlock Holmes mashup with Great Expectations and the moon landing conspiracy is that there’s an excellent chance it’s already been done. Dibs if it hasn’t.
That was fascinating. Thank you, Drew.
Drew Black fronts for Indefensible Publishing, a very niche venture preoccupied with e-pulp fiction, working that wary narrow alley where the cheap charm of penny-awfuls overlaps with the economies of electronic publishing.
Indefensible’s first project is the novella ‘Blank’, which puts a new spin on an established genre of dystopian fiction by asking what would happen if we all forgot, in a moment, everything.
You can find ‘Blank’ and details of Drew’s site at www.indefensiblepublishing.com.
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