What I learned: The Return of Sherlock Holmes, by Arthur Conan Doyle

I’ve now read them all. Whether chasing Professor Moriarty or doing his own breaking and entering to solve a crime I’ve read Dr. Watson’s retelling of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I’m all the more equipped for party conversations about great literature. People have those, don’t they?

I’m thankful people worked to preserve the great works of literary art over the years. It would be a shame to be unable for subsequent generations to read the gifted writers of previous eras. A couple of things stand out when I reflect on what Doyle’s writing taught me. (Before going on, let me say I was impressed with Conan Doyle as a creative writer. If you missed them I shared some of his Poetic Prose here, here, and here.)

You don’t have to write a novel to spin a good yarn. Each of the stories was around 9,000 words, contrasted with the more than 100,000 words in today’s novels. Stephen King said novels should be upwards of 150,000 words. Doyle’s works came out in serial format over the course of years and he had readers waiting like Ralphie Parker at Christmas for each new episode. Perhaps with today’s short attention span culture this would be a good medium to explore for us writers. I enjoyed the short story format and it was a good reminder that there are plenty of ways to tell your story, or stories.

Our language has sure changed over the years. The stories of The Return of Sherlock Holmes were released in 1903 and 1904. Time and again Conan Doyle used phrases we would never use today. The most glaring was how he described enthusiastic, sudden verbalization with “ejaculated.” Here’s the entry from the 1828 edition of Webster’s dictionary,

To throw out; to cast; to shoot; to dart; as rays of light ejaculated. It is now seldom used, except to express the utterance of a short prayer; as, he ejaculated a few words.

This sure isn’t how we use that word today which is why I winced every time I read it, and he seemed to include it in every story. I’m reading “The Hobbit” (circa 1937)  aloud to my boys and I’ve come across similarly evolved, or devolved depending on your perspective, language.

A great character makes for a compelling story. Conan Doyle had a creative mind and put together some intriguing plots, but the reason I read them was to see what Holmes would do. The great detective’s almost super-human intellect and quirky idiosyncrasies kept readers thirsting for more stories and kept me curious to see what he would do next.

These were good concepts for me to learn, but I’m sure they are “elementary” to you, my dear reader.

By the way, who are some of your favorite literary characters? I’m thinking of becoming acquainted with Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as my next adventure in literature.

Keep Discovering Writing.

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