Author Interview: Heidi J. Hewett on The Curious Case of the Clockwork Doll

People rarely realize how short the Sherlock Holmes novels are.” James Bojacuik, CEO Dubois of 18thWall Productions said. “A Study in Scarlet and The Valley of Fear are short novellas (padded out by long passages about the Wild West), and The Sign of the Four is an ordinary novella. Only The Hound of the Baskervilles is, as they say, feature length–but even then it is a very short feature indeed. Yet when I look at my Sherlock Holmes shelves, it is overwhelmed with three-, four hundred page novels and dozens of short story collections. Something has been lost–a happy medium between brevity and Holmes’ “Data! Data! Data!”

We sought to restore this experience.

The Science of Deduction is a year-long celebration of the Sherlock Holmes novella. Every month on the 15th a new release will be available. The Curious Case of the Clockwork Doll is the first in this series.

This 18thWall Productions’ M.H. Norris, and we’re setting down with Heidi J. Hewett to talk about her book.

M.H. Norris: How did you discover Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes?

Heidi J. Hewett: The Granada Television “Sherlock Holmes” with Jeremy Brett aired when I was a teenager–my hat’s off to Benedict Cumberbatch, but Brett is still the definitive Holmes for me–and I got deeply into the Doyle mysteries as a result. My parents gave me the William S. Baring-Gould Annotated Sherlock Holmes for Christmas one year, and I loved the wealth of information and detail there.

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MHN: Is there a particular story of his that sticks out to you?

HJH: That’s a difficult question! I’ve always liked “The Sign of Four” best of the four novels. My story, in fact, originated in Watson’s whispered exclamation, “Holmes, a child has done this horrid thing.” I’m especially fond of “The Solitary Cyclist,” and “The Dancing Men,” out of the short stories, because of their heroines.

MHN: You write in an unusually brilliant imitation of Doyle’s style. How did you perfect that?

HJH: This was just fun. I started with the original cases and atomized them, tagging objects and key phrases. Then I built something, a homage to Doyle really, back up out of the component parts. Of course, there was also a lot of period research to flesh it out, but my hope is that fans of Sherlock Holmes will have fun spotting details from the real cases, like the bust of Athene in the study and Elsie Cubitt’s crocodile-skin hand-bag.

MHN: What inspired various aspects of your case?

HJH: Many of the Sherlock Holmes cases begin with Baker Street and a mysterious visitor, of course, and I got hooked by the idea of a veiled lady who turns out to be something else. The final motive came directly out of Watson’s line to Holmes in “The Sign of Four,” a child has done this deed, which has always haunted me. So that was my frame story, but it is a story about failure–there is a way in which Martha is a kind of blind spot for Holmes because they are so alike–and so I needed a mystery for Holmes to solve, using all his abilities, in between.

I used as many elements from the original cases as I could, with trains and bicycles, cigar ash and secret compartments. I also wanted to bring in old friends and enemies, and George Burnwell, the charming master con-man of “The Beryl Coronet,” is one of rare the villains who got away, so this case gives Sherlock a second chance at catching him.

I think Doyle does have a strong Gothic element, which is in tension with but also complements, his master detective’s fundamentally Rationalist worldview. Step outside of Baker Street, and there are pockets of darkness like Stoke Moran or the ancient farmhouse of “The Sussex Vampire.”

MHN: Was there any particular part of writing The Curious Case of the Clockwork Doll that you found particularly difficult?

HJH: I write in passes, so the very first draft might be mostly just dialogue with a lot of placeholders. Then I’ll go back and start adding layers of detail until it gets whittled down to the last, maximum-detail-requiring-the-most-research bits. The opening section, where Holmes ‘reads’ Watson’s mind, I remember as being particularly hard. I wanted to include something like this because Holmes does it twice, in “The Cardboard Box” and in “The Dancing Men,” but it was tricky to connect the dots while working in what might almost be a statement of theme: the use and misuse of invention to create new kinds of slavery and warfare.

One of the most fascinating things for me was doing research into domestic staff around the turn of the century, and you find the language of automation and industrialization: the division of labor into repeatable component parts, the ideal house which “runs like clockwork,” the ideal servant who does not speak, or listen, or have emotions.

MHN: What was your favorite part of writing a Sherlock Holmes mystery? Least favorite?

HJH: I adored immersing myself in Doyle’s world. I love these characters in all their iterations, and I love thought-puzzles and mysteries, so that was just a sheer joy. In trying to match Doyle’s style, I did miss writing in my own voice, although I would like to think there is a lot of me in Watson.

MHN: And lastly, any advice for other writers?

HJH: Writing is a solitary activity, and most writers I’ve met tend to have a strong introverted streak, but one of the best things I’ve found has been being part of a writer’s group, particularly one in which you feel you can share unpolished work. That perspective and early feedback from other writers is invaluable. You learn from reading other people’s work-in-progress. We all benefit from the support and encouragement of other writers during the process.

The Curious Case of the Clockwork Doll is available on Amazon. You can follow Heidi at her website, A Reading Diary.

1 Comment

  1. Ms. Hewett is a brilliant writer who perfectly captures the Doyle mystique. Her command of the canon shows throughout her novella. Sherlock fans will have fun spotting the direct references as well as settling in for a cozy read. This interview demonstrates the research and craft that went into creating this work. Brava!

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