Inventing Sherlock Holmes

By Teri White


At first glance, the title of this essay might seem just a bit nonsensical, because, of course, Arthur Conan Doyle (he of sainted memory) did quite a good job of inventing Sherlock Holmes way back in 1887. Logically speaking, no one should feel the need to do so again.

But it seems logic and love have very little to do with one another in this particular instance and nor have they done so  for a very long time. Or maybe forever. What might have been the first Holmes’ pastiche, My Evening with Sherlock Holmes, appeared in 1891. It was written anonymously by J.M. Barrie just four months after the first short story appearance of Holmes and Watson (A Scandal in Bohemia) in the Strand. Since then, innumerable authors, both professional and fannish [although I am not convinced there is a difference between the two groups, at least not one that matters very much] have worked to present a Sherlock Holmes of their own devising. Creating or recreating the man to suit their personal vision or the time in which they live. Or quite possibly as a retreat from a world that wears us down.

The variety of those creations is endless. Some hew to the original, filled with the infamous pea souper London fogs, the clip-clap of horse hooves on cobblestones and a society redolent with Victorian/Edwardian mores, while others explore different times, different places, other realities. There is scarcely a genre that has not been layered over the characters of Holmes and Watson through the years. Many well-known authors, from Poul Anderson to Neil Gaiman, Anthony Burgess to Mark Twain have penned Holmes tales. Some are carefully constructed homages to the original and others are parodies. Today there are publishing companies occupied solely with the creation of both new stories and scholarly studies devoted to the occupants of 221B Baker Street.

Given all of that, it stands to reason that the universe of Holmes and Watson fan fiction is  equally vast and diverse, as  well as endlessly fascinating. As of three minutes ago, there are almost 98,000 “Sherlock Holmes” stories listed on Archive of Our Own, the fan fiction online archive. While most are in English, there are also many in other languages and, truthfully, the word ‘diverse’ scarcely begins to describe the variety of tales being told. Some could slip quite easily into ACD canon, perhaps playing off the Granada version, others fit into the RDJ film franchise interpretation and many belong to the BBC universe created by Moffat and Gatiss. Others play with time, place, gender, even species to create tales that might well make Sir Arthur blanch. On the other hand, that good gentleman did give us permission to do with Holmes what we like. Many of us have taken those words to heart and run with them. And what fun it is!

My own journey into that universe has been a long and winding one, as I have come to explore the invention of a Sherlock Holmes of my own mind and heart.

That journey began over sixty years ago, when I first discovered Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson, 221B Baker Street, and the glories of solving mysteries in a dark and foggy London. It was those tales that turned me into a lifelong Anglophile as well as a devoted Holmes and Watson fan.

Oddly, although I became a professional writer and also dabbled in various fandoms, including creating some fan fiction in them, I never ventured into writing for my two favourite characters. Perhaps the notion of working within the milieu of Victorian London was intimidating or possibly just the idea of daring to take on the characters I loved so much made me tremble a bit. Whatever the reason, I never felt as if I had the courage to tackle Holmes and Watson, to make them my own. Except within my own secret thoughts.

All my hesitation ended, however, when the BBC Sherlock series arrived. Here were the characters I adored, faithful to my vision in so many ways, but operating in a world that felt familiar to me. (Although I am American, I spend as much time as possible in London.) My fear vanished and I jumped with both feet into writing stories of a 21st century Sherlock and John. I loved it. As with so many before me, I took what Moffat & Gatiss had given us, seasoned it with nods to canon (as they did in the series) and I made stories of my own.

Part of making the characters mine included fleshing out the scanty histories we had from both canon and BBC. To present a character as truthfully as possible it is necessary to understand what made them as they are. It is great fun to take the clues we have and weave a new tapestry that illustrates one’s vision in all its colours and fine details. Since a fan fiction author must suit no one but herself and hopefully her readers, that history and tapestry can change with every story and still feel valid.

One of the very appealing aspects of writing Holmes and Watson is the way an author can create a completely alternative universe (AU) and if the characters are true, make that universe work. There have been wonderful stories in which John and Sherlock are baseball players, Olympic athletes, cowboys, space travellers, knights, princes, creatures from faerie land. Or penguins. The list is endless. I have played in this arena as well, in one story making Sherlock an artist and John a writer. It is always the characters that matter, the relationship, not the milieu in which they are placed.

So there I was, happily scribing my very own Sherlock and John stories, quite contented, vaguely amused by the fact that I had written more than twice as many stories about them than had Doyle himself. (Which, of course, is the only metric by which I would dare compare myself to Sir Arthur!) But, as so often happens in life, there was one more surprise awaiting me.

Appropriately, that surprise arrived during the holiday season. The Abominable Bride aired and I jumped again, finally feeling able to write Victorian-era Holmes & Watson. If writing the 21st century version was wonderful, I loved writing the 19th century as much or maybe even a bit more. Luckily, I am one of those odd creatures who delights in doing research, although many years of being fascinated by the era has served me well. Writing what you truly love is always good advice and I have followed it enthusiastically.

What I have enjoyed the most, however, is shaping those venerable characters to suit my own particular vision, while still trying to remain true to the original. This is especially the case while exploring the relationship between these two extraordinary men. That relationship, not the mysteries solved, is the real reason these two characters have remained popular for over one hundred years. What is rather fascinating is how much that vision today is still the same one I saw as a ten-year-old reading the canon for the first time all those years ago, even if I did not really have the language to explain what it meant to me at the time. Over six decades later, I still find myself fascinated by the world of Holmes and Watson, as evidenced by the fact that I now have over 200 of my stories posted on AO3, both modern and Victorian. And I have no intention of stopping, because playing the game is just too much fun.

One fixed point in time, for me at least, is Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson, together forever in 221B Baker Street, where, as the famous Vincent Starrett poem says, ‘it is always 1895.’

Even in the 21st century.