Sherlock Holmes, My Dad, and Me

Guest post

By Anna Elliott, co-author of the Sherlock Holmes & Lucy James Mystery Series

It took me seven years to land my first publishing contract— which is actually not terrible by industry standards. But it meant that I’d had the dedication on my first novel picked out for at least that long: To my dad, who taught me to write.

When I was in my last year of college, required to complete a thesis for honors in English, my dad effectively told me,Write a novel, then drove me to the computer store, bought me a laptop, and walked me through the writing process from the outlining stage on.  But actually, my dad’s lessons in writing— and in life— started much earlier. While I was growing up, we had two unspoken requirements for membership in our family: a love of the written word, and a love of a good mystery. Both were easy as far as I was concerned; I’d had my nose in a book practically from the moment I could recognize words on the page, and graduated from the mystery aisle in the library children’s section to reading Agatha Christie and other classic British mystery greats before I was out of elementary school. I almost never read Sherlock Holmes stories— arguably the greatest British mysteries of them all— by myself, though. Those stories were special; they were for my dad and me.

When I was very young, my dad supported our family as a full-time novelist. He was— in my obviously unbiased opinion— great at it. But unfortunately that old truism about it being hard to get published but even harder to stay published was in his case entirely true. Through no fault of his own, his publishing house went through a major restructuring, his editors left, and his books were largely abandoned. That was life— and writing— lesson number one: the dream comes easily; the reality is paved with setbacks, a lot of hard work, and sometimes even having to put the dream itself up high on the shelf.

I’m sure it was hard— much harder than I was fully aware of as a child— for my dad to set his writing aside so that he could support our family. But he landed on his feet. He went back to law school, working the grueling hours of both a full-time job and a full-time course load. But even still, he always made time for me— and he always had time for Sherlock Holmes. I think I was seven when my dad, reading to me at bedtime, read me the fateful opening of ‘A Study In Scarlet’ — Chapter One: Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

From that moment on, Sherlock Holmes became my bedtime story reading of choice. I was captivated by the world of Victorian London: hansom cabs and cobblestone streets, gas lights and ladies in elegant, sweeping gowns. More than that, though, I was captivated by the figure of Sherlock Holmes himself: his staggering intellect, his almost magical ability to deduce the solution to a mystery from the scantiest of clues.

Of course, that’s hardly surprising; for more than a hundred years, since the first Holmes stories were published, millions of readers have been fascinated by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous consulting detective. The Guinness World Records lists him as the “most portrayed movie character” in history. The 1942 film Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror starring Basil Rathbone opens with the words:

Sherlock Holmes, the immortal character of fiction created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is ageless, invincible and unchanging. In solving significant problems of the present day he remains – as ever – the supreme master of deductive reasoning.

Conan Doyle himself described Holmes as “a calculating machine,” and no one can read the Holmes stories without being aware that there is something more than slightly inhuman about Holmes, who declares in ‘The Sign of Four,’ “Love is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things.”

Yet I think what fascinated me most about the great detective wasn’t the sense of almost alien otherness that many readers get from his character. Rather, it was an odd sense of familiarity— because for me, my dad was close to Sherlock Holmes. I don’t mean that he was cold or unfeeling or unaffectionate; he certainly was none of those. But being with my dad, I always had the sense of being in the company of an amazing intellect— I imagine in something of the same way Watson must have felt in the company of Holmes.

All the time I was growing up, I can’t remember my dad ever answering, “I don’t know,” to any question I asked. He could explain anything, from a question about algebra homework to one on Renaissance art— and he had Sherlock Holmes’ ability to be endlessly curious, endlessly interested in the world around him. Thanks to my dad, I noticed the moments in the Holmes stories when the great detective shows a glimpse of humanity beneath the reason and logic. Moments such as when Dr. Watson is wounded by a bullet, and writes of Holmes’ frantic response: It was worth a wound; it was worth many wounds; to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask.

Or in ‘The Adventure of the Cardboard Box’, published in 1892, when Sherlock Holmes asks, “What is the object of this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must have a purpose, or else our universe has no meaning and that is unthinkable. But what purpose? That is humanity’s great problem, to which reason, so far, has no answer.”

I was absolutely delighted when— after putting me through college and doing good work that mattered over the course of a successful career in real estate law— my dad felt inspired to write his own homage to the Sherlock Holmes character:The Last Moriarty, published by Thomas & Mercer in 2015.

Life and writing lesson number two: The seemingly fairy tale-esque success stories aren’t just fairy-tales. They do happen. Of course there are no guarantees, but at the end of the day, great things can happen if you keep your writer’s heart nourished and don’t give up on the dream.

I loved my dad’s unique take on the Sherlock Holmes character— which I think is built on absolute love and respect for the original Sherlock Holmes canon, and yet gives the reader a few more glimpses of that humanity hinted at in the Conan Doyle stories. In ‘The Last Moriarty’, Sherlock Holmes is confronted by a problem quite different from any he’s encountered in the course of his detecting career: a daughter. A headstrong, beautiful, and brilliantly intelligent daughter who challenges all his Victorian sensibilities about the rightful place of women and throws his cold, logically-ordered world into disarray.

In 2016, my dad asked me whether I would think about turning my own experience as an author of historical fiction to giving Lucy James— Holmes’ daughter— her own voice. The result was ‘Remember, Remember’, and I can truly say that writing it was one of the most fun, joyful, effortlessly delightful writing experiences of my whole career.

My father isn’t Sherlock Holmes, not really, and I’m not Lucy James. Yet it was tremendous fun for us both to not only dive into our shared love of Sherlock Holmes’ world, but also to write that father-daughter dynamic. To be a father-daughter team, writing about a father-daughter team. We’re separated by miles, living hours away from each other in different states, and by the inevitable busy-ness of my having a family now and three young children of my own. But writing with my dad still feels like coming full-circle, back to the magic of that first moment when he sat down next to me and read the unforgettable words:

Chapter One. Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”

~Sherlock Holmes~ 

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A Word for These Times

Frodo:

“I wish the Ring had never come to me.

I wish none of this had happened.

 

Gandalf:

“So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide.

All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

 

~ J.R.R. Tolkien~

The Lord of the Rings

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Noah’s Ark Sails Again

This is the story of Noah and his ark full of animals.

He saw that people were not being nice to one another and were very bad.

But one man was good.  His name was Noah.  He loved God very much.

One day, God said to Noah, “I am sad that there are so many bad people.  I will send a big flood to cover the earth.”

Okay, okay.  You know the story.  But this just released book isn’t for you.  It’s for little ones who have outgrown board books but aren’t yet into traditional easy-to-tear picture books.  With padded covers and thick, durable pages it is perfect for little hands.  But that’s not the best thing about The Story of NOAH’S ARK.  It’s simplified text fits right in with Helen Dardik’s  playfully stunning art.  Not art to capture Mama’s or Grandma’s attention–though it will surely do that– but to appeal to little ones.

The Story of NOAH’S ARK, the first book in a new series of vibrantly illustrated Bible stories for young children, is being released this month  by Running Press.  (You can visit them on the web at www.runningpress.com.)  They are the same good folks who publish TINY BLESSINGS, a series of board books that introduce gratitude.

“I always liked the story of Noah’s Ark and the idea of starting anew by rescuing the things you like and leaving the rest behind.”

Zach Braff

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Sorry, Blog Malfunction

A number of you have sent me messages telling me my last two blog posts won’t take LIKES, and the last one won’t even take COMMENTS. I’m really sorry, because your responses are so important and encouraging to me.

Thank you all!

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Message For Today From President Abraham Lincoln

President Abraham Lincoln penned these words in the closing days of  the Civil War and delivered his famous Second Inaugural Address to Congress on March 4, 1865.   And ever since, his words have inspired Americans to rise up and be their better selves.  Oh, how we need these words now.  Listen, Congress!  Pay attention, Mr. President!  Consider what’s at stake, citizens!  Take heart, immigrants and visitors and neighbors north and south!  Listen, and hear these words. 

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.

It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not, that we be not judged.

The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.”

If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, we are to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. 

“The greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonorably.”

Novelist Julian Barnes

 

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Oh, No! The Circus is gone~

What?!  The Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus is gone?  Forever? My circus?  How can that be?

I knew that circus well.  When I was young,  school started on the Tuesday after Labor Day. The next week we had a holiday for California Admission day. The week after that, we had a field trip to the San Francisco Cow Palace to see “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

Oh how I loved it!

Five brothers started The Ringling Brothers Circus way back in 1884.  In 1907 it acquired the Barnum & Bailey Circus, then merged the two together.  In 1919 they formed Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus.  (No, I don’t remember it! I learned all this from trips with my family to Sutro’s swimming pools perched on the rocky point of a high cliff overlooking the San Francisco Bay.  The Ringling Brothers circus museum was right next to it.  Sadly, it’s not there any more.  It burned to the ground some years ago.)

I can still see the circus in my mind.  Including the Flying Wallendas striding above us on impossibly high wires, and grinning tigers obediently performing tricks below.  Silly clowns cavorted on the sides of the room ready to do a distracting performance should something go wrong with the high wire act or the grinning tigers.

It makes me so, so sad to say “Good-bye.”  But times change.  So do social mores.  And now the circus is gone.  Over.  Kaput.  Lots and lots of people will never know the excitement, the belly-laughter, the bricks of red candy-coated popcorn, with a real, big-time circus.

“Keep the circus going inside you, keep it going, don’t take anything too seriously, it’ll all work out in the end.”

David Niven

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Hooray for Orange Sweet Potatoes!

When I was in Sudan, two young sisters caught my heart.  They were so sweet, laughing, and loving.  They were also blind.

“Vitamin A deficiency,” one of the workers told me.  “That’s what happens when children live on meal.”

Yes. In sub-Saharan Africa, more than 43 million children under the age of 6 are vitamin A deficient.  And that leaves them vulnerable to blindness, as well as to a host of other serious health threats. Pills are available, but not enough for large areas, let alone entire countries.  A better plan is to grow vitamin A.  Especially in the form of sweet potatoes.

The best plan of all is biofortification, developed by the International Potato Center and HarvestPlus.  What it means is cross-breading locally grown sweet potatoes with deep orange versions of sweet potatoes especially rich in vitamin A.  Over time, the new locally grown sweet potato crops are able to provide enough of the necessary vitamin A to eliminate the children’s deficiency.  The new sweet potatoes are also bred to be more virus and drought resistant.

Sweet potatoes used to be known as a crop to feed the poor.  Now they are known as beautiful deep orange vegetables that save lives.  And that allow little ones to see.

“The world cares very little what you or I know, but it does care a great deal about what you or I do.”

Booker T. Washington

 

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Does Truth Still Matter?

I recently read an interview with President Trump in Time Magazine (Is Truth Dead?).  Asked about his mounting pile of falsehoods, Trump shrugged off all responsibility.

  • His claim that President Obama wiretapped the Trump Tower phone?  “I didn’t mean the wiretapping part literally. It was just a good description.”
  • His accusation that Ted Cruz’s father was linked to JFK’s assassin?  “I’m just quoting the newspaper.” (The National Enquirer)
  • He says he usually follows his gut instinct, which he insists is almost always right.  “Hey, look, I can’t be doing too badly, because I’m president and you’re not!”

The Guardian called the Time article helpful, because it gives a guide to Orwellian “Trumpspeak” which has become our national chatter:

  • You can’t be accused of lying if you’re simply repeating what someone else says, even if it’s something printed in a supermarket tabloid.
  • A statement doesn’t need to be completely accurate.  “Close and maybe are good enough.”
  • His supporters keep cheering him on, so what he’s saying must be true.  “Hey, I went to Kentucky two nights ago and we had 25,000 people!”

Sooner or later, the real truth will catch up with him.  That’s all well and good, but what he is saying is affecting us today…every single day!

“If you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to be a horrible warning.”

~ Russian Empress Catherine the Great~

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Remembering Beyond

My first day in the refugee camp in Sudan is seared into my memory: Scorching heat. Endlessly blowing sand. Flimsy lean-tos. The young girl who stared up at me and asked, “Are there trees where you live?” I smiled ad nodded. “Are there flowers?” Yes, I told her. Lots and lots of flowers. “Trees and flowers,” she said dreamily. “Do you live in heaven?”

Wars, poverty, famines, disasters. Thanks to the internet, we know a lot about the world’s suffering. Pictures and videos make us feel as though we’re right there in the midst of it. But we aren’t there. Not even close.

Americans are a caring people. When we see others suffering, we want to help. But we have been burned so many times by scams and cheats that we have become cautious and suspicious. If we give, how do we know our donation will reach the people? And even if it reaches them, will it truly help? I wanted to know. So I interviewed the heads of various organizations. Partners International offered to open its files and let me follow gifts from donors’ pockets to the recipients, and see for myself. Here are a few of the stories I heard:

North Africa: Imagine living in a village so ancient that no records tell of a time before it existed. Now imagine using the same crude water source for all those centuries. It was a hole dug deep into the ground. But so many children and fallen in and drowned that a stone wall was built hundreds of years earlier. Villagers were often sick because of the contaminated water. Girls couldn’t go to school because they spent so much time fetching water. for the family.  Most worrisome of all, the water level in the well was sinking fast. But with donor help, and PI’s work, the well was replaced and every family in the village got clean water piped into their house. Never before had there been enough water to wash hands. Never before had anyone even attempted to brush their teeth.

India:  The horrific persecution that rained down on Orissa, India, shocked the world. Christians killed. Pastors burned to death. The goal was to purge Christianity from India. The people targeted were also the poorest and most marginalized. Now they lost their homes, their churches, their work. Pastors who survived tearfully told of their helpless-ness. As they struggled to work with their own villagers, pastor-less survivors in other villages begged them to come to them, too. But the villages were miles apart. Which meant hours of walking, heartbreaking work, then hours of walking home. One pastor told me about the motorbike he had received from someone in the U.S. “It saved us all,” he said. “Because without it, I couldn’t have gone on. Without it, they would have no help at all.”

China: I watched the children as young as six making their way down the mountainside on narrow, treacherous trails to attend school. Until recently, isolated mountain hamlets knew nothing of education. But when the government, intent on gleaning better crops, sent each hamlet a barrel of fertilizer. With no person to read the danger warnings, people mistook it for a barrel of rice flour. Many died of poisoning. But a city teacher gave up his well-paying job to work for almost nothing in the village at the bottom of the mountain. So the hamlets each chose a promising child to send down to learn, then to come back to read and write for the hamlet. They made the long trek—some for six hours or more—burdened down with packs containing enough dried beans and rice and water—to last them for two weeks. When they ran out of food or water, they had to make the trek home to get more. When PI sent out word of the need for a reservoir for the school, generous donors purchased the materials, and the villagers went to work. No longer do children have to carry two weeks worth of water on their backs. A sign hangs on the reservoir that reads in Chinese: “Christ is the spring of the water of life.”

Is your gift worth giving? Yes. Oh, yes! For today, and tomorrow, and for eternity.

“To whom much has been given, from him will much be required.”

~Jesus~

(Luke 12:48)

 

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Quest for a Perfect Password

I love the internet.  (Thanks, Al Gore.) Except when I hate it.

Who knew something so helpful and exciting could turn on us and nurture our arch-enemies, the hackers?  No more simple, easy-to-remember passwords.  Not with hackers armed with sophisticated software that can run literally millions of combinations of letters and symbols in no time at all.  So now the pros are telling us to set up our computers to use something far safer than 1,2,3, 4, 5, 6.  Something around 20 strokes long, and with capital letters, and symbols. It’s not just inventing a password.  It’s coming up with one that can’t be easily figured out by the bad guys. And that you won’t forget.  Something you never used before.

So, after much reading and studying and frustration, here are the safety tricks I plan to use:

  1. Come up with a sentence known only to me.  Something I can remember.  Something like:  My old black cat was an ornery brat#  (Note the symbol in place of a period.)  I’ll remember the sentence because it’s true.  And no one knows it but me…and you…and everyone else who reads this blog.
  2. Get double authentication.  Double authentication means many times the safety.  You can simply log into an account with your password, then you get a code sent to you via text or phone. Only when you enter that will you be allowed in. Check twofactorauth.org  for a list of websites that will give you this option.
  3. Vary Your Passwords. That’s what everyone says.  I know they must be right.  If all your passwords are the same, and hackers managed to get into one, it’s all over for you.  So start thinking of more sentences that only you will know.
  4. Change Your Passwords often.   I know, I know.  You’ll need to come up with even more sentences, and they will be even harder to remember, and you’ll get discouraged and give up and go back to using Password123 on all of them.  Okay, but at least keep your important accounts fresh.  Like the proverbial peas and carrots, it’s for your own good!

Do this and  you can crumple up your concerns and go back to loving the internet.

“It’s better to look ahead and prepare, than to look back and regret.”

Jackie Joyner Kersee

 

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