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Monday, October 24, 2011

Quintessential Quote #22

"My dear fellow, life is infintely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent."
-- Sherlock Holmes, "A Case of Identity"
Ain't it the truth?

As a fiction writer, I often struggle with the advice that "the truth is no excuse." In other words, just because something happened in real life, that doesn't mean you can use it in fiction. It could be real, but still implausible and therefore not believable.

Here's an example of a somewhat implausible day in my own life: My wife and I, residents of Cincinnati, Ohio, in the American Midwest, were visiting the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, four years ago. I thought I saw a familiar head from the back, so I followed the fellow into a gift shop. Sure enough, it was a priest we knew from home.

Later that day, on the street, we ran into another couple that we know from Cincinnati and spent most of the next day with them. They knew the priest as well.

Coincidences like this happen all the time in real life, but fiction writers shy away from them because of the implausibility factor. Which brings me back (finally) to Sherlock Holmes. It seems to be that some of the canonical Holmes stories are vitually impossible -- but none are implausible.

How did that snake survive inside a locked safe in "The Adventure of the Speckled Bank"? What happened to all the dirt from tunneling into the bank in "The Red-Headed League"? It doesn't matter.

Somehow we believe these stories anyway because, as Vincent Starrett incomparably put it, "Only those things which the heart believes are true."

1 comment:

  1. You're absolutely right. As a writer, I shy away from those coincidences, otherwise it seems like lazy writing. As a reader, I don't like it for the same reason. But in real life, it blows me away every time.

    I think Doyle made it work because he sort of skimped on some details that we really didn't need. We accept the fact that the dirt was taken care of and assume the guy let the snake out for air and whatever else he needed. It wasn't necessary to mention it in the story. (Sometimes those details are the hardest in editing - do you keep them or assume the reader will accept that something happened behind the scenes? Does it leave a hole if left out or drag the story if left in?)