My practice reading and book signing at Merritt Bookstore in Millbrook last month was a success, and if you care to see it, the video is below. I was introduced by friend and fellow author Dave King.
Since last month’s reading, I’ve continued to rehearse, polishing my delivery and the voices of the various characters. The section I read is only about 2,000 words (or 15 minutes) long, but contained in it are 9 characters, and I’m trying to make each of them distinct.
The pressure is on for me because the novel is about a fictional community very much like Millbrook (Wellington, NY), and this is my hometown.
I spent my summers here as a boy, graduated from high school here, was a newspaper reporter here after college, and settled down here again about 8 years ago. I’m a fixture at the diner, the post office, the library, and the Chinese restaurant. Every day I bump into someone with whom I went to high school.
The point is, I’m going to have to show my face around the village after this, so it better be good.
This evening, I did my first-ever LIVE radio interview, and I’m very pleased with how it turned out. Host Pam Stack asked me some thought-provoking questions and gave me the opportunity to give detailed answers.
There was also a wonderful, unexpected call-in—my friend and colleague Hillary Leftwich, who praised my new novel, One Hundred Miles from Manhattan, and asked me, “If you could have dinner with only one of the characters in the novel, which one would it be?” It took me a good minute to think of my answer. To hear it, you’ll have to listen to the podcast below. :)
I really enjoyed Pam’s conversational style; after the first 10 minutes, I relaxed and felt as if we were having a conversation in her living room.
Anyway, I think I did a good job on this, my first LIVE radio interview. I hope you enjoy it as well.
Well, as a corollary to that interview, Pam’s co-host, Lucie Dunn, does a written interview with authors appearing on Pam’s show and publishes them to her Authors in the Spotlight page on Facebook. I thought Lucie asked some terrific questions, so I wanted readers of this blog and the internet at large to have access to this interview.
Lucie’s questions are presented in the bolded text, and my answers appear below each question. I hope you enjoy it.
Yesterday I had the distinct pleasure of doing a written Q&A interview with a very articulate and intelligent man. His most recent novel, One Hundred Miles from Manhattan, was released at the end of March, 2014. He has the first two novels in his acclaimed Dakota Stevens Mystery Series published and I am told he has enough ideas stored for quite a few more. He comes to us from New York but is a true New Englander having been born in Maine. I present to you Chris Orcutt!
OK, first question: Were you always a reader?
Absolutely. This is going to sound apocryphal, but I taught myself to read at age 3. The story is that I walked into the living room and started reading out loud from Time magazine. My parents were dumbfounded. So, yes, I’ve always been a reader, and I enjoy reading the very best writing. I’ve also read my fair share of junk over the years, but over time I learned that life is short and you can’t waste your time reading the junk when there are so many masterpieces to read.
Very true! How old were you when your first manuscript idea came to you?
Well, if by “manuscript” you mean stories, then I began writing them at about age 12 and would read them aloud to my friends on the school bus. I serialized the stories so every day, or every other day, there would be a new installment. I still remember some of the characters I created. One was a James Bond-esque spy, another was a detective.
Is this the detective that went on to become Dakota Stevens?
No, not at all. Dakota came much later. I got the first name of my detective, Dakota Stevens, when I learned that a girl I went to middle school with had named her boy Dakota. I filed that away. “Cool,” I said to myself. Then I wrote a humorous story with a PI named Dakota Perez—a story that mirrors the short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Anyway, the first glimmers of what would become Dakota arrived on the scene in my early 20s, but it wasn’t until I was in my early 30s that I decided I wanted to start a PI series. I was laid up for weeks with a back injury and did nothing but read Chandler and Parker novels, and that’s when I said, “Hell, Chris—you can do this.”
And you did!!! Are you working on book three, assuming there will be a few more?
Yes, I’ve already written the first drafts of what I think will be books 3 and 4, and I’ve been taking notes for book 5. Honestly, I have more than enough ideas for a dozen Dakota titles. To me the ideas have always been easy; it’s the execution that’s hard. The writing and polishing of the work takes the most time. If I were content to simply publish my first drafts, I could have a dozen titles out in no time, but I’m not content with that. I want everything I write and publish to be the very best work I’m capable of.
That just means you take total pride in your craft. And there is nothing bad about that.
Writing is my life. It’s ALL I do.
You have a great resume though. A High School History teacher for instance. Are you a history buff?
I do enjoy U.S. history and am fairly knowledgeable on the Civil War and WWII—especially D-Day. I’ve been to Normandy, stood on Omaha Beach, and I’m in total awe of what those men did. I’ve walked the long walk up to Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg and been in awe of both the Union and Confederate soldiers. I enjoyed teaching history for a couple of years—the students I had were wonderful, talented, bright kids (and I stay in touch with some of them!)—but other opportunities came along and I pursued them.
Well as a reader, I’m glad you did.
Thanks! I especially enjoy going to historical sites, because I’ve always believed that there are certain things you can’t know about an event unless you’ve been there. For example, when I went to Omaha Beach, I got there at low tide, just when the U.S. soldiers landed, and let me tell you, it’s a LONG way from the water to any kind of shelter from the withering fire they endured.
It’s at least 300–400 yards. At least.
So tell me about reading The Great Gatsby. You have read that several dozen times. They say that you never really read the same book twice. After reading The Great Gatsby that many times were you able to walk away with a different perspective than you came away with the prior reads?
The Great Gatsby, in my opinion, is an absolute gem. I have a framed version of the book from this terrific little company Litographs, which prints the entire text of the novel (and many other novels) on a poster, in a nice pattern. It hangs in the hall outside my bathroom. Let’s put it this way: Every time I come out of the shower, I stop and point at a random place on the Gatsby print, and every time I see something new: some new metaphor, some delicious use of an adverb, some joining together of words that you’ve never seen before. Original.
When I was first publishing the Dakota books on Kindle, I weighed epublishing vs. traditional publishing, and the touchstone I used was Gatsby.
The question I asked myself was this: Are the words of The Great Gatsby any less poetic and utterly perfect presented in e-ink than they are in print? No. In fact, I submit that you could paint those words on a dark cave wall and they would still be as great. Great writing is great writing, regardless of the medium in which it’s published or who decided to publish it.
One point to add to that: Each time you reread a book (and we writers do a lot of re-reading), you see different things—and you especially begin to understand how the writer does what he does. I wrote a [loving] spoof of Gatsby titled “The Magnificent Murphy,” which I’m very proud of. It’s in my [short story] collection The Man, The Myth, The Legend.
How did you come up with the ten men and their professions for The Man, The Myth, The Legend? I particularly enjoyed the homicidal violinist.
What can I say? I didn’t come up with them. These characters just arrive on the doorstep of your brain and insist that you write about them. They start talking to you. You ask “What if this? What if that?” a lot.
The African big-game hunter, Buck Remington came from reading some armchair safari books. The road sign engineer came from speculating about what such a man (and woman) would be like. As for the homicidal violinist, that came out of a summer when I had been fantasizing a lot about finding a bully from my past and confronting him. Not killing him, obviously, but confronting him. Instead I saved that energy for the story. I had been listening to Beethoven’s “Kreutzer Sonata” over and over all summer long, along with eating a watermelon a day and hacking into the watermelon with a big Henckel’s chef’s knife. It’s the “bits of string” idea that Nabokov talks about—these stories and novels come from the collecting of these little bits of string and fluff.
I loved Buck Remington’s name, being a hunter and having Remington as your last name is just so apropos for a hunter.
That was exactly why I gave him that name.
It was a great read and I am not generally one for short stories.
Thanks! One of the things I try to do in my short stories is to actually give the reader what I call a “distilled novel” experience. Finish the thing and feel like you’ve experienced a novel, but it didn’t take you days to read.
I like that, “distilled novel.” Tell me about your first two books, Nick Chase’s Great Escape and I Hope You Boys Know What You’re Doing. I am thinking I would definitely love to read the latter.
I wrote Nick Chase and I Hope You Boys back in my mid–late 20s, and they were the best I was capable of at the time. They’re well-written, humorous stories—Nick Chase is a comic novel; I Hope You Boys is a collection of mainly humorous stories—but not only has my writing advanced profoundly since then, I as a person have evolved and deepened. When you’re young, Life hasn’t beaten you down very much, but as you get older and have some bad things happen to you (and some good things), you gain perspective.
What I would say about those first two books is that I’m glad they’re out there in limited quantities (they’re no longer published) as a record of my early work, but if readers want to read fully matured work, read my latest four books.
I think the I Hope You Boys appealed to me because I am a Mom, and I could just picture saying that to my older son and his friends…MANY TIMES!
Let me tell you where that title came from…
My friend Carl and I were “landscaping” for a very old woman (her son hired us), and our idea of landscaping was this: When in doubt, cut it out. Every so often the old woman would come out on the porch and yell at us, “I HOPE YOU BOYS KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOIN’!”
Ok, last question. I think I know what one part of the answer will be, let’s see if I’m right. Every writer has a “toolbox.” You know, things that you must have or must do when you sit down to do some writing on your work in progress. What is in your toolbox?
For me, it’s a thorough knowledge of grammar, punctuation, syntax, and storytelling principles. Because you don’t want a lack of knowledge of these things to slow you down. And when you know them, when you know the rules, you know when you can break the rules.
Also in my toolbox is desire. Desire not merely to become a good writer. There are plenty of good writers. I want to become a great writer. My heroes are Chekhov, and Fitzgerald, and Cheever, and Hemingway, and Chandler, and Fleming, and Nabokov. The desire is a major tool because it gives me something to strive for. Sure, I’d love to be selling my books by the bushel, but it’s more important to me to write work that will last.
Oh, and COFFEE and REALLY GOOD PENCILS!
I would like to thank Chris Orcutt for his generosity and time! It was definitely a tremendous pleasure chatting with him! I invite you all to go and check out his website at www.orcutt.net and if you would like to pick up any of his awesome books you can find the links on his website. If you would like to pick up his latest novel, One Hundred Miles from Manhattan, here is a direct link to the Kindle book: http://amzn.to/1fo9hdY, or if you prefer a paperback: http://goo.gl/RqQkxy.
Please forgive the cumbersome title of this piece. I’m still sick and a little delirious, but I don’t want to put off my readers any longer. I also wanted the title of this to be easily noticed by search engines and such.
This is just a short announcement to let you know that, after months of waiting, I’m finally releasing my new novel One Hundred Miles from Manhattan. You can learn more about the novel, including why and how and I wrote it, here.
Last Monday, March 17, I said that I was going on a little “vacation” because I had exhausted myself while finishing the novel. The novel had exhausted me, but contrary to what I and others might have suggested, I did not go to a cabin in the woods, nor to a remote, sun-dappled island.
The truth is, I have been in a psychiatric hospital for the past week.
I have had bipolar disorder (manic depression) for over 25 years, and have been diagnosed with the disease for about twenty. For the past two months I had been experiencing what’s known as “ultra-ultra-rapid-cycling”—extreme swings in mood from low to high that include sobbing, irritability, impulsivity, anger, laughter, etc., with changes in mood coming sometimes within time spans as short as an hour.
These mood swings are triggered and/or exacerbated by periods of intense stress, lack of sleep, poor eating habits, or, in my case, all of the above, coupled with working to exhaustion on making my new novel as perfect as I could make it.
The hospital I went to lured me in with photos of a finely-appointed parlor, fireplaces, swimming pools and walking trails; but once I got there, I discovered that those amenities were for the celebrity-centric detox program, not the “Acute Care Unit” with its 24-hour lockdown, which is where I was put.
For a week, I was given new medication and observed around-the-clock by psychiatrists and nurses. My only communication with the outside world was via a pair of monitored telephones in the hallways; I had no access to the internet or any electronic devices.
On the plus side, I collected some great material for a future book. I learned a lot about myself and came to respect my fellow patients for their bravery and support. We watched The Shawshank Redemption (“Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’”), plotted coups involving TV usage, played chess and Scrabble, strolled the euphemistically-named “deck” (an Alcatraz-like exercise yard in miniature), ate meals together, debated the merits of various medications, took side bets on minutiae including when the kitchen would open, gave each other nicknames (like “Green Lantern,” for a guy who wore only a Green Lantern hoodie) and shared our experiences in group discussions.
The photo shown is of a typical hospital room. Alexas described the hospital in general as “a Travelodge with nurses, full breakfast, group meetings and 15-minute bed checks.” The rooms, as well as the entire hospital, are designed to be low-stimulus, low-stress. Miraculously, however, I did manage to get a little writing done at the desk in my room.
While I was in the hospital, I debated whether or not to tell everyone the truth about where I’ve been and why it’s taking me a little longer than I’d hoped to release One Hundred Miles from Manhattan. And then while inside I met a remarkable young woman (she’d just been diagnosed bipolar; she had been rapid-cycling; and she was mature, talented and intelligent beyond her years). It was she who convinced me to “lay it out there, Chris.” She said I should do whatever I can to reduce the stigma. So, that’s exactly what I’m doing.
However, my doctors’ orders include sleeping, eating better, and not driving myself as hard in my work. So, please be patient with me as I work (gently) to release the new novel. I just want all of you to understand why it might take me a little longer than I originally promised. The hospital stay helped, but I am by no means “cured,” and I need to learn to take things easier.
Recently I completed work on a book that began as a collection of stories, and which ended up being what I term a “modern novel.” The book is now with my ebook formatter, Lisa DeSpain, and, barring unforeseen complications, will be available for purchase sometime in the next couple of weeks.
The title of the novel is One Hundred Miles from Manhattan. It tells the story of a fictional wealthy community in Upstate New York, where the village and the surrounding rolling hills conceal tales of love, lust, tragedy and small wars.
The novel provides glimpses into the lives of wealthy “hilltoppers” and modest townies. There are lavish estates, horses, guns, Wellies, weekenders, Range Rovers, redheads, contractors, a country club, a train line, a diner and much more.
Now, some of you might be wondering why I call One Hundred Miles from Manhattan a “modern novel.”
Well, because it’s told from 10 different points of view, and because the timeline is segmented.
Basically, you know how the movie Pulp Fiction is one story, but it’s chopped up and the scenes are presented out of order?
That’s what I do with this novel. It’s the story of one year in this community of Wellington, New York, but the events are presented out of order. The book starts with a chapter that begins in the late spring/early summer, then goes to the early spring, then the fall, etc. It is not in chronological order.
Each of the chapters is from the POV of a different character, and so we see a small part of Wellington through that character’s eyes. Many characters overlap between the chapters, and so do the events. The POV characters include a trophy wife, a medical doctor, a single mother, a contractor/local Casanova, and a Manhattan book editor.
The reason I wrote it this way is because as much as I admire the single POV novel—e.g., Pride & Prejudice, The Catcher in the Rye, and The Great Gatsby—in today’s ultramodern society, where everyone is a star (or considers himself one; Facebook, Foursquare, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat), everyone’s story or POV contributes to the story as a whole. Nowadays, it doesn’t make sense that any one person would be capable of telling the complete story of a town.
Also, the community of Wellington, like some other wealthy communities we know, is highly stratified, and there isn’t a great deal of interaction between the wealthy and the poor, or even between the old money and the nouveau riche.
I first got this idea of writing a novel about a wealthy community 22 years ago, back when I was a reporter in a small town similar to Wellington. But at the time, I could only envision the story being told from the POV of the local reporter. I’m so glad that I waited to write this book, because I think the 10 points of view gives the reader a richer, broader experience of the town, and because 22 years ago, my writing skills weren’t even close to what they are now.
Here’s a brief excerpt from the novel. In this scene, a Manhattan book editor is driving into Wellington for the first time, so we see this rarefied community through an outsider’s eyes:
Although I’d had several authors from Wellington over the years, including a former editor pal turned bestselling mystery novelist, not one of them had deigned to invite me to so much as a cocktail party up here. Creeping through the village that Saturday morning in a rental car, I passed a shiny aluminum diner and myriad antiques dealers and continued on through a hamlet mysteriously called Rabbitsville (although I didn’t see a single rabbit to warrant the name). From there, I followed sandwich boards pointing to Fox Hill.
The road ribboned out in front of me, over rolling green hills and miles of black wooden fence. The sky was a soft summer blue. In the hollows, pockets of thin fog hovered over the grass. The whole countryside had a vaguely mystical aura, like Mr. Darcy’s Derbyshire.
Most of the drive from Manhattan, however, had been tedious. Droning along the empty and wooded Taconic Parkway, still half-asleep, I had started to question the wisdom of traveling two hours upstate for a young woman with whom I had done nothing but have inordinate sex—and that only in her favored cowgirl position. To be fair, we had managed to squeeze in a few substantial conversations—about books (for a young woman of prodigious sexual appetites she was surprisingly well-read, Chekhov’s stories being her favorites); about technology (she embraced the useful, citing her automatic lights and a robotic vacuum cleaner that perpetually crawled around the apartment); and about lifestyles (she adored simplicity bordering on the Spartan; every room in her apartment contained minimal furniture and absolutely no knickknacks)—but since those conversations invariably took place before or after sex, I considered them suspect, and not representative of how we would relate under less sybaritic circumstances. For that reason, the weekend was a test, or, as she had put it, “a trial run for us.”
— from One Hundred Miles from Manhattan by Chris Orcutt
I will post again when the novel is released, and I hope you buy it and enjoy it. Without question, it is my best writing to date.
This book has taken a great toll on me physically and emotionally, but I think the result is worth it.
*The author has permission and/or Creative Commons rights to use the following photos from Flickr on the cover of this book: “Hunters Wellies CARNABY BOA…” and “Turquoise and Brass Earrings and Necklaces…” by Maegan Tintari; “DSC_1255” (the fox hunt) by Bethany; “Fall Foliage” by Kimberly Vardeman; “Rape Seed Field” by Les Haines; “Mansion on a Hill” by Lucas Wihlborg; “Just a Perfect Day” by Alison Christine. The photo “Wellington Sign” is by Karen Kruschka.
Today my interview on the Murders, Mysteries and Mayhem program (part of the Authors on the Air Global Radio Network) aired, and it was a terrific success.
The show is hosted by the friendly, knowledgeable and engaging Stephen Campbell, and as I mentioned a few days ago, I was taken aback by how well-prepared he was (he had read all of my work), and the penetrating questions he asked.
Using the SoundCloud player (below), you can play the interview right here on this webpage, or you can download a copy of the interview and play it on your computer offline.
I hope you enjoy it, and if you do, please leave me your comments! I’d love to hear from you.
IndieReader, the trusted and informative web-zine about all things indie publishing, has included my book of short stories, The Man, The Myth, The Legend, on their list of the Best Indie Books of 2013.
(Mine is near the end.)
Back in July, IndieReader (IR) gave the collection a 5-star reviewand the distinction of being one of their “IndieReader-Approved” titles.
And now, this.
Out of the thousands of indie titles published in 2013, The Man, The Myth, The Legend was voted one of the year’s best. I’m overjoyed.
What makes it even more special is that, like a good Christmas present, I had no idea it was coming.
And the icing? The fact that 9 out of the 10 stories in the collection were submitted to, and rejected by, dozens of literary journals and magazines over the past three years before I decided to publish them on Kindle myself.
Since early 2012, IR has given both of my Dakota Stevens mysteries 5-star reviews as well—a fact that I posted about earlier this year. I’m grateful to them for their support of my work, but I’m also grateful to them for the work they’re doing on behalf of all indie authors.
By identifying and promoting the best indie work out there, IR is doing a marvelous job of dispelling the myth that indie writing and ebooks in general are junk.
As a writer who spent many years in the gauntlet of traditional publishing, trying to find a home for his books, I am glad to now have this opportunity to reach readers through epublishing.
As I’ve said before, I knew that if I could just get my books into the hands of actual readers (not jaded publishing professionals)—I knew that readers would enjoy them. And they have.
Thank you IndieReader, and all readers of indie-published books, for your support. I hope you all have a great 2014.
You can buy your Kindle copy of The Man, The Myth, The Legend at Amazon.
I haven’t heard the completed, edited version yet, so you can bet I’m going to tune in to hear how I did.
If you’re interested in hearing about the Dakota Stevens Mystery Series, my fiction, and writing in general, tune in today (Thursday, Dec. 19) at 6:30 pm (Eastern time) to the Murders, Mysteries and Mayhem program on the Authors on the Air Global Radio Network.
The show is hosted by the friendly, knowledgeable and engaging Stephen Campbell.
I hope you’ll tune in, or if you can’t hear it live, that you’ll check it out afterwards, when it becomes available for streaming. Thank you.
Recently I did a radio interview with Stephen Campbell, the terrific host of “Murders, Mysteries and Mayhem” on the Authors on the Air Global Radio Network. The interview went very well, and it is slated to be available as a podcast sometime in the next few weeks. I will of course post an update about the interview the moment it becomes available.
The reason I mention this interview is that it got me thinking about how all storytelling was originally done orally. I also had an excellent microphone my friend loaned me just sitting around, and I thought about my new short story collection, The Man, The Myth, The Legend, and how some people might enjoy having one of the stories from it read to them.
One of the problems with the “Look Inside This Book” feature for Amazon Kindle books is that we authors cannot offer readers more than a few pages of a book as a free sample. I really wish they’d allow us to give readers more—especially in the case of my story collection, since readers can’t get a very clear idea as to what the book is about on the basis of half of one short story.
I thought about simply posting another story from the book on this website, as a means of giving you more of a sample, but then I thought about reading the story to you.
Read aloud, the 5,000-word story is about a half-hour in length. I recorded it on my iMac, using Garageband software, and since I know nothing about audio production, and since I am not a professional voice artist (like a friend of mine, Jill Cassidy), there are some small glitches in the recording and occasional hitches in my voice.
But the story itself is pretty damn good, and if you have half an hour to sit back and have a story read to you, maybe you’ll think so, too.
If this works out, I might record an excerpt from the current Dakota Stevens work in progress. We’ll see. For now, I hope you enjoy “The Magnificent Murphy”—my homage to one of my favorite novels, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
2. If you are someone who prefers to read stories before listening to audio versions of them, I strongly suggest that you not play this. Buy the book first—about the cost of a Starbucks latte—and listen to my reading of the story later.
“The Magnificent Murphy” by Chris Orcutt—read by the author:
Thanks to the thousands of readers of my Dakota Stevens mysteries, in the past 18 months I’ve been able to fulfill two lifelong dreams.
The first was going to Paris, spending two solid weeks exploring every inch of that gorgeous city, and walking in the footsteps of my literary idols—including Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Flaubert and Maupassant. (You can read about that trip here.)
The second, which I fulfilled only two months ago, was driving through all of England and Scotland, seeing the castles of my ancestors in the Scottish Highlands, and visiting the iconic locations associated with my favorite works of English literature: the Chatsworth estate (the basis for Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley in Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice), Stratford-upon-Avon (the birthplace of Shakespeare), and 221B Baker Street in London.
This last location, of course, is the residence of the most famous detective ever—Sherlock Holmes. A detective so famous that some people don’t realize that he and his partner, Dr. John Watson, were entirely fictional—the creation of Arthur Conan Doyle, a medical doctor himself.
From the time I was 10 years old, well into my late teens, I was obsessed with Sherlock Holmes. I read all 56 short stories and four novels multiple times. I collected Sherlock Holmes encyclopedias and books about Victorian London. I read biographies of Doyle. I read textbooks about criminalistics and forensic science (this was many years before the CSI TV shows). And I went to college to study forensic science, with the original intent of graduating and working at the FBI crime lab.
My plan to get a degree in forensics and work for the FBI lasted two semesters. Through one of my courses—Criminalistics and Crime Scene Investigation—I met a forensic scientist from the state crime laboratory and shadowed him. I visited his lab, interned for a few hours a week, and accompanied him when he testified in court. Doing these things, I began to realize that I wasn’t cut out for the largely tedious work involved in forensic testing, nor would I enjoy being grilled on the witness stand by needling lawyers second-guessing every test I performed.
By then I knew that I didn’t want to become a forensic scientist, and I had decided that the sciences were boring; ultimately the answers (or at least some of them) were in the back of the book. Besides, I had discovered that I was more interested in questions than answers, and I enjoyed literature and storytelling too much to give it up for what I perceived would be a humdrum life of science. So I changed my major to philosophy, expanded my reading of the classics, and began doing seriously something that I had done since I was 11 years old—writing stories.
But it all went back to Sherlock Holmes. Even though I didn’t write a mystery of my own for many years, the richness of the Holmes character, and the verisimilitude of his world (as described by Watson) had made a deep impression on me. I knew that whatever the subject or genre, my goal was to write stories as entertaining and compelling as Doyle’s, with characters that were equally strong and larger-than-life.
As I believe I’ve mentioned elsewhere, when I was creating the Dakota Stevens series, Sherlock Holmes and Watson couldn’t help but be literary touchstones for me. I wanted a Holmes–Watson dynamic, but I wanted such a duo to reflect modern sensibilities, and I knew that I wanted the counterpoint, the yin and yang, of having my “Watson” be a woman. And so I asked myself, “What would the dynamic of a modern Holmes and Watson—a man and woman detective team—look like?”
And that’s where Dakota Stevens and his “Watson”—the brilliant and beautiful Svetlana Krüsh—came from.
I didn’t get a chance to visit 221B Baker Street until the morning of my last day in the UK. Alexas and I had specifically chosen our hotel because it was in the Bloomsbury neighborhood of London, relatively close to Holmes’s address, and when we exited the hotel early that Sunday morning, we were unsure whether to try and walk there, or take the Underground.
We were fumbling with the map when I glanced down the sidewalk and saw a cabbie buffing his freshly-washed black cab. One of my other, smaller, dreams was to ride in a London black cab, and so I got the idea of fulfilling two dreams at once. I would take a London black cab to 221B Baker Street.
I asked the cabbie if he was taking passengers yet (it was barely seven-thirty), and when he replied, “Absolutely,” Alexas and I climbed eagerly in.
“To 221B Baker Street, my good man,” I said. “And hurry!”
Even though it was early on a Sunday morning, there was considerable traffic on the streets, and it took a good fifteen minutes to reach 221B. During the ride, the cabbie asked me why I wanted to go there, and I gave him an abridged version of everything you’ve read so far. I also told him some of the history of Sherlock Holmes, and how Doyle had based the character in part on a medical school professor, Dr. Joseph Bell. I mentioned that I was a mystery novelist from the States (“Not famous—yet,” I added), and the cabbie said he would buy my books on Kindle (Dakota Stevens #1 & #2). Finally he dropped us off, and I gave him an extravagant tip. I wanted him to remember me as generous so he’d be more likely to buy my books and tell others about them.
With the exception of a few construction workers gathering in front of a building a few doors down, Baker Street was empty and quiet. A single door, marked 221B, sat next to a closed Sherlock Holmes collectibles store. I knew from my reading ahead of time that Holmes and Watson’s apartment on the second floor was decorated and staged as though they still lived there and had just stepped out. I also knew that admission to the apartment was ridiculously expensive, and was sure to be a disappointment—what with having to share the experience with a mob of people who were merely going there so they could check one more item off of a “bucket list.” It was unlikely that the true Holmes lovers, the serious aficionados, would be part of any tour group. They’d all know it was a Barnum sideshow.
Besides, the building, with a Victorian façade on it, didn’t fit with the other buildings on the street. Not only were the other buildings of more modern architecture, the building numbers were out of sync. It was clear that 221B used to be farther down the street, but that building had been torn down and rebuilt, so they created a new 221B Baker Street (in Victorian style) and wedged it in a few doors down.
But it wasn’t about the actual, physical address anyway. It’s not as though Holmes and Watson had really lived, and I was seeing the exact building and apartment where they’d resided. No, it was about the idea of 221B Baker Street. It was about what 221B represented.
As I stared up at the windows, the stories came flooding back to me: “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” (a great TV version here). “The Bruce-Partington Plans.” “The Final Problem.” “The Musgrave Ritual.” “A Scandal in Bohemia.” A Study in Scarlet.The Hound of the Baskervilles.
It was about all of the pleasure these stories had given me since I was a boy, and how Sherlock Holmes had been a constant companion to me through my difficult and awkward teenage years. It was about how these stories had launched me in a certain direction in life, and how they had inspired me to write the best detective novels I possibly could.
Alexas took some photos of me standing proudly in front of 221B Baker Street, and then we took a few of a young Japanese woman who knew that 221B was famous for something, but famous for what, she had no idea.
So often in life, the moment of actually realizing a goal, fulfilling a dream, is a letdown compared to how we imagine it will be. But not this time. Not for me. Seeing 221B Baker Street—the home of my childhood hero—affected me much more deeply than I thought it would. As I stared at it for the last time, I realized then how much I had dreamed of being there, how important the place was to me. And I told Alexas so, and began to cry.