How to Edit a Sherlock Holmes Novel

How to Edit a Sherlock Holmes Novel

Crime is perhaps one of the more finnicky genres to edit, and a character like Sherlock Holmes will try their hardest to make matters worse. Coming up with the deductions, as anyone who’s done it will attest, is a bit of a nightmare, but going through them again and finding all the loopholes that the great detective never told you about in the original stories… Let’s say it’s best to have something by your desk that you can kick without breaking a toe. On the other hand, there’s nothing more dissatisfying in a crime novel than a resolution that doesn’t make sense, and nothing more disappointing than seeing your favourite detective material mistreated. I can heartily recommend not writing a Sherlock Holmes novel, but if you do, as one does when one has been told otherwise, here are some things I’ve learnt while kicking a pillow under my desk and cursing a consulting detective.

1. Keep notes of your red threads

No matter how well you think you know your story, it just gets too big at some point for you to remember everything you’ve written. Plotters will probably make notes of their red threads, their plots and subplots in advance, but no matter how well you’ve planned them, or if you haven’t at all, you will probably lose sight of a handful of questions you left unanswered in a first draft. Crime novels are especially bad places to leave questions unanswered unintentionally, so when you edit your text, the most important thing to do first, is to identify any plot holes. It is also important to note down if you can think of a place to be tie things up. These probably are the biggest structural edits you’ll be making, so it’s vital to get them out of the way first, so everything makes sense.

2.Track your characters’ development

Sometimes we write scenes out of order, and then our characters develop into a different direction by the time the story hits. Especially characters from the Sherlock Holmes universe have a tendency to do things their own way, like when Conan Doyle thought he had killed Holmes off and then had to bring him back. Sometimes, we expect characters to act in a certain way, but when it gets to the actual scene, our initial conception of them just doesn’t make sense anymore. Make sure, the characters progress through the story in a logical way by taking notes of how they have developed along the way, even if that means you have to edit your whole plot. If Sherlock Holmes has learnt to understand people and become more human over time, don’t make him accidentally provoke an action that he could easily have predicted. It makes sense for someone studying people for so long, to become more like them. Don’t turn back the clock on those developments to make a plot point happen. If that plot point needs to happen, it will need to be brought about in a different way.

Baker St wax figures
Wax Figures at 221B Baker Street

3. Research your clues

If, like most Sherlock Holmes adaptations, your novel is set in reality, be that historical or modern, things need to be realistic. They might be far-fetched in some cases, and that’s okay, but only if they are possible, otherwise the Sherlock Holmes in your world can’t rule out the impossible and he’ll short-circuit. For any of his cases to be impressive, they really need to be as well-researched as possible. If you think that Sherlock fans won’t go through your book and google things that seem unlikely to them, you’re much mistaken. This is a hard fandom to please, but when it all adds up, it’s one of the best fandoms to be a part of. A lot of the time a quick google can be enough to solve your problem, but if it isn’t, don’t shy away from diving a bit deeper, reading some academic literature or asking an expert. Do you know a chemist, a policeman or a paramedic? Having real-life experience in your book can make a huge difference to your world.

4. Doublecheck your deductions

Making sure your deductions make sense might be one of the worst editing tasks known to man, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. I’ve seen countless Sherlock fans (and writers!) complain about books that either don’t do the deductions or write some generic ones that could have hundreds of alternative solutions. Deductions belong with Sherlock Holmes more so than the silly hat. You can’t write him without them, whichever universe you set him in. Deductions are proof that Sherlock is really there in the text.

If you want to edit your deductions then, you need to make sure the following things are the case: they need to be logical, one deduction always has to follow from the one before, and they have to exclude alternative explanations. Only then can you be certain that Sherlock is right and he will be (almost always), trust me.

5. Edit Your Pacing, Senses & Setting

In and amongst all the action which drives the solving of our crime forward, it can sometimes be hard to remember external things like time, place and sensory experiences. These are all incredibly important to make your world come to life, though, so when editing your draft, it pays off to check if enough time has passed between events to justify emotional developments, add a smell to a food that’s being served or describing the route Sherlock and John are taking to a crime scene. In the original stories, as well as many adaptations, London is almost an equal character to our Baker Street boys. Conan Doyle planned out every route over a map, while he wrote in Edinburgh, so why shouldn’t you? The best way to add a real sense of the place and of the smells, tastes and sounds there, is of course to go and visit it yourself. Make sure you visit the exact streets featured in your novel, even if they’re not near any sights. Write what you see, take notes in the moment, and add them to your novel.

221B Baker Street Ground Floor

6. Make sure Sherlock’s voice is there

If you’re writing a novel about Sherlock Holmes, no matter how different the world is, his voice has to sound the same to the readers. Can you imagine your favourite Sherlock actor performing your dialogue? Do you recognise the character even when you don’t look at the context? This can be a difficult thing to figure out when you’re just in your own head, and ultimately, like most of the points before will need beta-readers and a good editor to get fully right. For your very first edit though, I recommend leaving a bit of time and then spot checking you dialogue, putting on Sherlock soundtracks and seeing if the words fit into that world, and perhaps even trying to read the lines out loud to see if they feel right for the character. We read stories about Sherlock Holmes, because deep down, we really want him to exist. Make him exist in your world.

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