How to Be A Super-Duper Writer Sleuth
"I'm not a psychopath, Anderson. I'm a high-functioning sociopath. Do your research." This said by Sherlock in the eponymous British crime drama TV series.
I love this line as it encapsulates Sherlock's personality and his belief in getting the facts right. If you do the legwork, the heavy lifting, the research, then whatever comes from that will be based in reality as opposed to some airy-fairy fantasy of how you think things are or should be. This is key when fighting crime and it's also important when wrangling a story you're writing.
And, by the way, this applies to any creative pursuit, as representing what you observe around you is as important to a painter and fashion designer as it is to a writer.
But Lissa what if I’m writing fiction? Can’t I just make it all up?
To which I’d respond, no, definitely not when writing fictional stories—especially not then! Are you familiar with the quote by Stephen King that “fiction is the truth inside the lie”? And another by the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge about the willing suspension of disbelief? Essentially these two quotes refer to the idea that fictional stories ARE true, yet you have to make people believe them.
It’s in painting the scene as well as you can, based on the evidence before you that allows a so-called fictional story—whether it’s fantasy, science fiction or auto fiction--to come to light and move readers.
Getting it right doesn't only mean that you're Googling things and reading umpteen scientific studies. It means paying attention to your surroundings and to people you encounter right down to a woman's broken heel or the way a man removes his hat to scratch his head. You know, things that ONLY Sherlock would notice. This is the flesh-and-blood stuff for creating plausible characters.
Especially with fiction you must take from reality all those human quirks and characteristics that most people wouldn’t even notice, but that make the story real.
Like the way the lady with her dog on her lap on the bus parts her hair. Or how the line between her eyebrows curls at the top like a question mark. Or how the man in front of you crosses his legs and strokes his beard every time he turns the page of his book.
Describing your characters in a 'Sherlock' way allows your readers to experience them as if they know them intimately. Not only that, but it also adds to your story’s meaning.
Just as Sherlock scans a person’s body and watches her mannerisms for clues about her role in the crime he’s investigating, what you put into your story must propel the narrative in some way.
Why are you describing the nervous tic of the man who continuously checks his phone? What are you trying to tell the reader about his character and his role in the story?
What do those quirks and attributes say about who he is? About society? What do they symbolize?
With Sherlock, his messy apartment in spite of spinning very tidy thoughts, shows us that he has no use for the day-to-day. He lives in the world of ideas, leaving the dreary tasks like washing up and dusting, to others. So in that instance showing his messy apartment becomes an extension of his character, as it’s through this detail that we come to know him.
Why would a woman with lots of money wear cheap jewellery? Why is there dirt under her fingernails when she clearly gets weekly manicures and presumably doesn’t garden? What does this say about her and how does it add to your narrative?
"You, being all mysterious with your cheekbones and turning your coat collar up so you look cool,” says John Watson, Sherlock’s sidekick.
The famous detective plays the part of a sleuth flawlessly, and we love him all the more for it. So, why not play the part of a writer and become a super-duper sleuth to make your stories come alive?
Here are 5 top traits of a sleuth that you can apply to your writing (or creative) life:
Self-discipline. This is important when solving crimes because if you don’t have it you won’t get very far. You’ll become sloppy and forget things that may be important to solving the case. Sherlock is physically fit and his mind is orderly even if his apartment isn’t. This order helps him arrange his thoughts and solve cases. As a writer, you need self-discipline to complete a writing project. Ideas are a dime a dozen. I’ve many half-finished stories stowed in my digital drawer, yet I’ve also completed a few. These published works have taken a lot of focus and continuous work that I couldn’t have done without self-discipline. Eating healthy and getting plenty of exercise has also helped to reach my writing goals.
Honest. When trying to solve a case detectives count on a handful of allies to give them the straight goods about what they know. If you want people to be honest with you then you must be honest back. When you interview people for your researches and ask honest questions, for example, they eventually open up to you. This helps you to depict characters in a more holistic way. And, for the story to ring true to your readers it's important to depict real people with real challenges to overcome. Be honest about what a person looks like and how they move through the world. Unearth the truth of a situation and write about it honestly so others feel it in their bellies. There’s no need to make anything up as everything exists in human nature!
Resilient. You must be able to bounce back and land on your feet after a writerly or other artistic setback. Say your story gets rejected and it makes you want to quit. Being a resilient detective or writer is the difference between failing and succeeding. To build up your resilience, try writing shorter pieces first and sending them out for consideration. Write up a schedule of pieces you’ll send out when and to what media, agents or publishing houses. Fashion some pitch letters that you can alter depending on the publishing channel. Sending out shorter pieces first will help to build your resilience. Think of this as a muscle you work out to become better at what you do.
- Creative. Be open to possibilities and consider all the options just like a real detective would. A good sleuth doesn’t make assumptions and doesn’t make a decision about a specific case before all the information’s in and verified. As a writer, prepare to go in a different direction if the story demands it. Allow the narrative to lead you and to surprise you. Withhold judgement and follow the muse where she leads.
- Observant. The apt sleuth is constantly looking for clues to add to her story and to build a solid case. Clues are everywhere and so it’s important that you stay alert to the possibility that the ideas for your characters and elements for your story may come together when you least expect it. Be observant, especially on those non-writing and non-creating days!
Photo by Monica Silva.