Taking On an Icon
An Introduction to Fan Fiction
by Liese Sherwood-Fabre
In an article from The Guardian in 2012, Ewan Morrison noted that if fan fiction is defined as “reworking…another author’s characters,” the concept only developed after laws regarding copyright and intellectual property appeared—along with the printing press and mass production of fiction. Prior to the Statute of Anne, drafted in the 18th century, creators of original compositions had no protection from the publication of any derivative works. Even Miguel de Cervantes was unable to stop the publication of an unofficial sequel to the first volume of Don Quixote. He did, however, refer to it in the second volume—and mock it in the process.
The development of the Internet has provided a much larger platform for those interested in expanding story lines or involving fictional (and non-fictional) characters (from print or other media) in new situations, and perhaps one of the most popular and enduring of such efforts involves Sherlock Holmes. The fanfic site Archive of Our Own boasts more than 127,000 stories based on this character—second only to Harry Potter (at more than 253,000). Shortly after Arthur Conan Doyle penned his last tale in 1927, American teen August Derleth asked Conan Doyle if he could continue the series. While the author declined, Derleth did develop his own stories about a detective Solar Pons who seemed uncannily similar to Sherlock Holmes—down to having a brother named Bancroft.
A few years later (1934), the detective’s fans created formal societies in honor of their hero. The Baker Street Irregulars meets once a year in New York and oversees a network of societies, or scions, dedicated to Conan Doyle’s character. In addition to reading and discussing the original works, referred to as “the Canon,” fictional and non-fictional pieces are shared among members and published in local newsletters as well as national and international journals.
A recent survey in Britain found 20% of respondents identified Sherlock Holmes as an actual, historical figure. Pressed for details, most would likely describe him as wearing a deerstalker hat, smoking a pipe, and carrying a magnifying glass. My own research into the detective uncovered very little about Sherlock’s origins. Other than mentioning his ancestors were country squires and his brother was named Mycroft, Sherlockians have filled in some gaps (such as his birthdate), but how Sherlock Holmes became Sherlock Holmes was never fully explained. Conan Doyle mentions Sherlock developed his “methods” while at university and gained some notoriety among his fellow students there, but his motivation was never fully delineated. My curiosity piqued, I decided to provide just such an origin story for the world’s most famous consulting detective.
Given the popularity in addition to the well-organized Sherlock Holmes fan base, an author does not approach such a subject lightly. His personal knowledge and traits were supplied in the first work, A Study in Scarlet, (a whole list is provided in the second chapter) and other habits appear throughout the Canon. Moving forward with this project, then, meant keeping true to the spirit of the original Holmes, but with skills not as refined as he would have as an adult.
The base and heart of Sherlock’s popularity was—and is—his ability to apply logic and science to solving mysteries. When originally written, many of his methods were just being applied to solving true crimes, and some even anticipated actual application. Both Sherlock and Mycroft had exceptional intellectual abilities, but someone had to nurture these traits. Following research into the Victorian period and my own imagination, I chose their mother to be both teacher and mentor in such areas. During the Victorian period, the mother was in charge of the household, including the children’s education. At the same time, they led very restricted lives. I developed a woman with a mind as keen as her sons’, but without the outlet the boys were offered. In addition, because country squires served as local magistrates, I included their father to serve as an inlet into the law and criminal activity. Given such an environment, the rest was—fictional—history.
I have penned the first three of “The Early Case Files of Sherlock Holmes,” to some very positive reviews. Bestselling author Gemma Halliday has called it “a classic in the making.” Kirkus Review describes the second (out at the end of August) as “a multifaceted and convincing addition to Sherlockian lore.”
This series developed because I wanted to answer a question about a fictional character, leading me into the realm of fan fiction. For others interested in doing something similar, here are some things I learned along the way (as well as advice drawn from other fan fiction writers)
- Be true to the character. Read the original works and understand the characters’ personalities and traits.
- Be true to the time and setting. Unless set in an alternate universe, be certain to keep to the original historical period.
- Based on the above, have fun! Put the characters in new situations, or at a time and place before or after what is known.
- Be aware of any copyright issues. Anne Rice does not allow fan fiction. J. K. Rowling does, if not for profit. Some sites allow posting of unauthorized stories/characters without the original author’s permission. Others do not. As I was writing the first book, a copyright case was brought against another author, and thanks to that case, all but the last ten Sherlock Holmes stories were considered in the public domain. As long as I did not reference items appearing only in the last ten stories, the Conan Doyle estate would not be interested in my origin tales.
- Share your work (based on the caveat above). Some of the more popular sites include:
- Archive of Our Own (most popular)
Who knows? Your work may make you the next E.L. James!
Liese Sherwood-Fabre knew she was destined to write when she got an A+ in the second grade for her story about Dick, Jane, and Sally’s ruined picnic. After obtaining her PhD from Indiana University, she joined the federal government and had the opportunity to work and live internationally for more than fifteen years. After returning to the states, she seriously pursued her writing career and has recently turned to a childhood passion in the tales of Sherlock Holmes. A recognized Sherlockian scholar, her essays on Sherlock and Victorian England are published across the globe and have appeared in the Baker Street Journal, the premiere publication of the Baker Street Irregulars.
The Adventure of the Murdered Midwife
After only a short time into his first year at Eton, Squire Holmes calls Sherlock and his brother back to Underbyrne because their mother has been accused of murdering the village midwife. The two women had, after all, been in a very public argument only days before, and it is Mrs. Holmes who finds the woman stabbed in the back with a pitchfork. From her gaol cell, Mrs. Holmes commissions her younger son to find the true killer before she hangs.
“[Dr.] Sherwood-Fabre makes her conceit of a teen sleuth work. Sherlockians open to plausible extrapolations from the canon will enjoy this.” – Publishers Weekly
The Adventure of the Murdered Gypsy
What’s a holiday without surprises?
It’s Christmas 1867 at Underbyrne, the Holmes family estate. The house is filled with family, relatives, and three unexpected arrivals—all ready to celebrate the holidays. That is, until another uninvited guest appears: dead in the stables. The discovery marks the beginning of a series of bizarre occurrences: Sherlock’s young cousin reports hearing footsteps outside the nursery, Mycroft suddenly falls head-over-heels in love, and the family learns more than one person under their roof harbors secrets. Is someone in the household a murderer? Sherlock must discover the dead man’s identity before another unwelcomed body materializes.