The Pastiche Problem

I thought it about time that I put down exactly what I think is wrong with a lot of Sherlock Holmes pastiche stories that come out. I’m referring to those which are Victorian set rather than more contemporary efforts.

This is all totally obvious of course but it is often the case that the obvious needs to be said.

When Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories he was writing them as contemporary adventures. He was writing about a time that was both familiar to him and to his readers. Even when he was writing Victorian set Holmes stories in the 1920s he was still writing them for an audience that understood the era from personal experience. As a result of this he used terms, that don’t mean much to us today, without explanation as they were familiar to his readers.

A pastiche author writing Sherlock Holmes stories today lacks that first-hand experience of the Victorian era and his/her audience does too. This is where, in my opinion, most pastiche authors go wrong. They feel compelled to explain the Victorian terminology to their readers which has the effect of immediately making the style overtly different from that of Doyle.

To give an example; I read in one pastiche a section where Holmes was described as taking out his “half-hunter watch” to note the time. Why on earth would you write such a thing, why not just refer to his watch as a “watch”?

If you were writing a contemporary story about a private detective you would not say “he looked at the Casio chronograph on his wrist and noted the time” you would say “he looked at his watch and noted the time.” In the Victorian era a watch was simply a watch. Unless its value, make or style was material to the story it would not be mentioned.

The point is that to stand a chance of writing a Victorian-set Holmes pastiche in a style that even remotely matches that of Conan Doyle you need to not only write as though the Victorian era is second nature to you, you need to assume it is the same for your readers even when you know it isn’t.

Plenty of people read the original Holmes stories today and the fact that those stories presume familiarity with the Victorian world has done them no harm on the popularity front. People interested in Sherlock Holmes are likely to be a lot more familiar with the Victorian era than you might think having been given plenty of exposure to such Holmes series as the Granada series with Jeremy Brett or non-Holmes stories such as those by Dickens.

Morals may have been different; fashions were different, technology was different and some expressions were different but, other than that, there were not huge differences between the 19th century and now. People still have the same motivations for crime – revenge, greed, lust, power etc. Stop treating it like it is another country and your audience like children to whom every last thing needs to be explained.

Then I think you stand a good chance of coming up with something good.

For more information on Arthur Conan Doyle and his time at Undershaw please refer to my book, An Entirely New Country which is available through all good bookstores including Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Classic Specialities, and in all electronic formats including iTunes, Kobo, Nook and Kindle .

The Norwood Author is available from all good bookstores, in many formats worldwide including Waterstones UK, Amazon UK,  Amazon USA, Barnes and Noble, Amazon Kindle, iBooks for the iPad/iPhone, Kobo Books, Nook.

Close to Holmes is available from all good bookstores, in many formats worldwide including Amazon USABarnes and NobleAmazon UKWaterstones UKAmazon KindleKoboNook  and iBooks for the iPad/iPhone.

Eliminate the Impossible is available from all good bookstores, in many formats worldwide including Amazon USA, Barnes and Noble, Amazon UK, Waterstones UK, Amazon Kindle, Kobo, Nook and iBooks for the iPad/iPhone.


  1. I personally have more of a problem with writers inserting modern day concepts into stories playing in another century which, sadly, many of them do. For me the past *is* like another country and I'm more interested in reading about philosophies and customs then and there then in having nineteenth century characters trot out contemporary political agendas.

  2. Hi Alistair,
    great post! It rings true for many stories (not only SH) set in the Victorian era and is one of the things I don't like - when writers over-describe every day stuff. On the other side, it seems that a lot of readers enjoy these over descriptions, almost as if anything Victorian (and older) starts to turn into a fairy tale and the setting needs colorful desciption to put the reader into that "fantastic world".
    Also - readers' minds are often so set on "what really happened back then", with their knowledge coming mostly from other works of fiction. Heck! After reading stuff like "My Secret Life" by Walter, I stopped believing that all Victorians had identical brains (slightly exaggregated...)