Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars Q
Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars is such a creative and fun idea for a series of middle-grade novels. What inspired you to write this series?
Michael: Until I was eleven years old, I had hardly ever picked up a book, and then my father gave me his Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I quickly became a mystery fan and a reader.
The one thing that always bothered me about the "Canon" (the original Sherlock Holmes stories) is that the Baker Street Irregulars are mentioned only four times. Here is a group of children that aided the greatest detective of all time, and yet, so little has been shared about them. We wanted to remain loyal to Holmes and his world, and at the same time, open it up to younger readers without washing away any of the character or color of the Canon. From the beginning, we pictured our books as an entrée into the originals, and hoped our readers would eventually seek them out.
Tracy: Michael and I had always wanted to collaborate as writers. Since we both loved mysteries as kids, that seemed like a logical place to start. We passed different ideas back and forth for years, none of which felt quite right. Then one day, Michael came home from work excited and suggested the Baker Street Irregulars. We re-read the two short stories and two novels in which they appear, and we both knew instantly that we had hit upon our subject.
You write this series as a husband and wife team. Tracy, you are an award-winning writer; Michael, you are an attorney as well as a long-time Sherlock Holmes fan. Please tell us about your collaborative process, and how you divided the work to write the books.
Tracy: Since Michael is the Holmes aficionado, to begin, I had to bring myself up to speed on the Canon and read the stories. I had actually never read a Sherlock Holmes story before I met Michael, so this was a great education for me. He, too, went back and re-read all the stories and also read the commentary in both The Annotated Sherlock Holmes and The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes (by William S. Baring-Gould and Leslie S. Klinger respectively). As for the writing, we had been brainstorming and talking about the characters and set up for so long that by the time we sat down to write, we knew so much. Still, there were challenges and it took us a while to figure out how to write together. We tried various scenarios and had several false starts, but then somehow we hit upon the voice and found a stride together. We also outline the stories in detail, so we have already agreed at the outset where the story will go (not that there aren't surprises along the way, especially with respect to character). Then Michael writes the first draft of each book. He passes the manuscript to me-sometimes chapter by chapter, sometimes in chunks-and I have carte blanche to re-write as I see fit. Then I pass the manuscript back to him, and he, too makes any necessary changes. We keep doing this until we feel the chapter (or group of chapters) are finely tuned.
THE FALL OF THE AMAZING ZALINDAS and THE MYSTERY OF THE CONJURED MAN, the first two installments in the series, take place at the end of the Victorian Era in London. Both books contain vivid details, historic references and the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes. How did you perform the research to make the details and the sense of time and place seem so real? What were some of the resources you used?
Michael: In my work as an attorney, and in general, I enjoy research. Before going to law school, I had entertained the idea of becoming a librarian in part so I could spend my time reading and researching. In addition to the annotated Sherlock Holmes volumes (cited above) some of my favorite books that I read to prepare for writing the series were: London Characters and Crooks by Henry Mayhew, Victorian People and Ideas by Richard D. Altick, Sherlock Holmes: The Man and His World by H.R.F. Keating, and The Sherlock Holmes Scrapbook edited by Peter Haining.
Tracy: My hands-down favorite was Seventy Years a Showman by "Lord" George Sanger, a wildly colorful and entertaining first-person account of circus life written by the Victorian England's own P.T. Barnum. But the best research, by far, was going to London with our (then) 18 month old daughter, visiting the Sherlock Holmes museum, pub, hotel, strolling down Baker Street, and just soaking in London-a city we love and spent lots of time exploring when we were college students, studying in England (me in London, Michael in Stratford-upon-Avon).
The characters of the Baker Street Irregulars are unique and memorable. Even Shirley, Wiggins's ferret, is unusual. How did you come up with this charming cast, and did any of them take over the story or surprise you during the writing process?
Michael: In the Canon, the only Irregular mentioned by name is Wiggins. Other than a physical description, not much else is shared. In creating the characters, we started files for each of them with various details of their back stories. Since we had read a lot about late Victorian England, we had learned about the day-to-day life of children, particularly the poor and the homeless. There are many photographs and grim accounts of young boys and girls from the era, depicting them on the street without shoes, wearing ragged clothing, and with little to eat. We also researched the various jobs children held, such as street sweepers, rat catchers, mud-larkers (people who scrounged the riverbed of the Thames for valuables), and apprentices and gave them to the Irregulars where it felt appropriate to their characters. But what really helped us bring these kids to life had nothing to do with Victorian England.
Tracy: In 1997, we took a trip to the city of Oaxaca in Mexico. We visited lots of neighboring villages, and in one of them, we met an unforgettable young boy, Raúl. He came up to us one night while we were eating dinner and asked if we'd like to buy some gum. He was only six or seven, but so charming and funny and proud and wise beyond his years, and we invited him to join us. The following night, Raúl found us again, and this time he brought his sister and his cousins, all of whom were carrying boxes of things to sell on the street. They asked us matter-of-factly to buy them things (rides on a carousel, toothpaste, and toothbrushes), but they were very polite and good-natured about it. By the third night, Raúl and about seven other kids toured us all around the village, introducing us to various relatives we'd pass at the zócalo (the town square) and explaining the symbolism of the paintings on the local church's ceiling. In spite of their obvious poverty, they were all so beautiful and dynamic and curious and full of life, as well as bonded to one another. It's the spirit of these kids that we tried to capture and that continues to guide as we write.
At the end of each of the first two books, there is a helpful section called "Facts and Practicals for the Aspiring Detective." I found myself referring to it often and enjoyed learning new facts and phrases. What prompted you to include this section?
Tracy: As kids, we were both a bit obsessive about the things we loved. Michael collected Sherlockiana and attempted to recreate Holmes's famous sitting room in the basement of his house. I thought I was Harriet the Spy, and I started my own spy club called Rat Fink, which consisted of me and occasionally my babysitter, who I wrangled into my schemes. Like Harriet, I would skulk around the neighborhood, spy on the neighbors, and take copious notes. We thought that other kids like us might want a bit more after the story was over (tips on the art of disguise, the science of deduction, and how to create your own cockney rhyming slang, for example), and that's what inspired this section.
Michael: We also have some teacher friends who we knew would love the sections on transportation and food in the Victorian Era, to help round out the period for their students.
In addition to solving the crime and identifying the villains in each book, there are other curious matters afoot. The first curiosity is the identity of the narrator who begins the Preface of each book. The second, and the one I find more pressing, involves Ozzie's quest to locate his great-aunt so she can tell him about his father. Can you give us any hints about what we can expect to help answer these questions in future books?
Tracy and Michael: We are delighted to hear that you are drawn to Ozzie's personal quest and fate. From the first (and much like the original Sherlock Holmes stories), we wanted to make our stories plot and character driven. Ozzie's search for his father-and what he ultimately learns (yes, this storyline is followed through until the end of the quartet)-- is something we arrived at very early on in the brainstorming process. While the plots of all the mysteries stand alone, we wanted readers to feel invested in the characters, particularly Ozzie, and we also wanted there to be a plot line that linked the books. As for hints to the answers to these questions, well...
How has your series been received by fans of traditional Sherlock Holmes mysteries?
Michael: We've received some wonderful feedback from Holmes aficionados. We feel strongly about writing respectfully within the tradition that Conan-Doyle created, and that seems to be well-received by fans and appreciated by readers new to the world of Sherlock Holmes, as well.
Most writers are avid readers who grew up loving books. What were some favorite books you remember growing up, or who were your favorite authors?
Michael: E.B. White, G.K. Chesterton, Rudyard Kipling, and Raymond Chandler.
Tracy: Harriet the Spy, Encyclopedia Brown, anything and everything by Judy Blume.
What has been the most rewarding experience as a result of writing this series?
Tracy and Michael: Sharing the writing experience and together creating a series of books and characters that we care about deeply, as well as the feedback that our books are reaching reluctant readers, particularly since Michael was one of those kids.
What is the best piece of writing advice you can share with readers who want to become writers?
Tracy: Read everything you can, in lots of different genres. Try out different writing styles. And try not to be too hard on yourself. All good writing is rewriting (and rewriting and rewriting!).
Michael: Focus on the development of your characters. You cannot have a captivating plot if the reader does not care about your characters. Strong character development is a catalyst for more interesting action.
The circus is featured prominently in THE FALL OF THE AMAZING ZALINDAS, and the world of séances and spiritualists is the focus of THE MYSTERY OF THE CONJURED MAN. What will be the focus of the next book in the series, and when will readers be able to see it?
Tracy and Michael: Ancient Rome, archaeology, and a rare artifact hidden in underground London! Casebook No. 3: In Search of Watson is coming in November 2009!