So-called Palmistry ……..backstory

Research on the behalf of historical fiction is a perk. Often, I find something that serves me just as a writing prompt might. I recently got hold of a 127 year old London newspaper. I wonder, who might have been first to scan its pages?  

December 1893. Holmes and Watson walk into the Criterion. They let the young man at the door take their heavier outwear and find places at the bar. Watson unfolds the latest copy of the London Illustrated News, spreading it on the bar, as Holmes questions the bartender about the “fellow who just left, the one with grey hair and a Greek accent.” Watson is distracted, finding that on page two the Illustrated is attempting to sell soap by means of palmistry. 

Watson learns that:

  1. Students of Palmistry rely on the left hand.
  2. Each line and bump may be interpreted. For instance the Line of Apollo runs from the Life Line to the third finger. If straight and clear, it indicates fame in the arts, or wealth. (He checks himself.)
  3. You cannot absolutely tell your future by means of palmistry, but you may be certain of “less labour and greater comfort by the use of Sunlight soap.”

Holmes is ready to leave. He asks Watson what he learned from the paper. “Nothing I didn’t know.”






What is it About Holmes?


And I don’t mean Benedict Cumberbatch, though he’s a fine actor. I mean the whole thing. The address on Baker Street, the brother at the Diogenes Club, the archvillain, the lesser villains, the pipe, the violin, the needle. I’m asking myself because I’ve been working at a Holmes story, myself, and almost in spite of myself.

I have taken my work to my gang of wonderful critical readers at U Penn’s Kelly Writers House. The first thing I heard was, “I don’t read this kind of stuff.” Then, as they began to read some of it, several said, “I actually downloaded one of the real stories.” Now they wonder aloud if  Watson would really do what I’m proposing, and why isn’t Holmes in more of the scenes–and “Isn’t he supposed to be doing morphine, too?”

My reasons for writing about Holmes:

1) A chance to participate in a legend, contribute my own runt-of-the-litter imaginings. In some quarters this is called fan fiction and seen as a low order of creative expression. On the other hand, I’m in good company. Though other-than-Conan Doyle-Holmes stories run the gamut, I think some are better than Doyle’s: Julian Symons’ A Three Pipe Problem or Nicholas Meyer’s Seven Percent Solution, for instance. The best don’t’ simply give the reader another mystery, but contribute something that engages us even more fuller in the world of 221B.

2) The challenge of historical fiction. I like the research and meeting new people as I ask questions pertaining to my storyline. I am  currently reading, How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide  to Victorian Life by Ruth Goodman. I now know how they dressed from the skin out, how they went to the privy, how they exercised, ate or didn’t eat, had sex or didn’t. It’s a wonderful, readable book with ephemera a writer might miss–and stumble over, otherwise.

3)  The dynamic relationship between Holmes and Watson. I find them equally attractive as characters. Exploring the energy in their friendship leads to all kinds of questions. I ask myself if I’ve ever witnessed such friendship between men. The answer is no. Even what we call “buddy” films or stories don’t quite capture it. Perhaps it’s a thing of the past. Or unAmerican. An informal poll amongst guys has shown that such friendships do exist in the military.

4) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s allegiance to the Queen. It’s just sweet. I’m sure if I were living under that long and mighty reign (63 years, 7 months, 2 days) I’d be squirming, but the fiction that there could be such an all good and powerful government is comforting. If they’d just had penicillin . . .

5) I’m wondering if  Holmes and Watson together are a duel protagonist. Together they serve as a target for a more completely human, and yet preeminent, detective. He’d be both mysterious and accessible. Holmes has a special relationship to evil that allows him to understand and overcome it. Though he has a good excuse, he is sly in his many disguises. He can’t be trusted when he lets Watson believe he is dead. He is mean when he encourages the housemaid to develop a crush on him in order to get into the villain’s home. Watson fits into all the places that Holmes doesn’t take up. He is open, good natured, long-suffering, honest, and kind. Watson defaults to the stolidly traditional, but he can be convinced to “stretch.” Together they make a sphere. Other characters “bounce off” by the end of each story. Lestrade. Morstan. Mycroft. The Woman.

I see more as I go. My new motto is, Scriptora facit Scriptor. (The writing makes the writer.)

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For Ethel 1895-1986

What’s this doing here? For many years, I exchanged long letters with this lady, my father’s mother. I was in California; she in Iowa, but she kept my letters and quoted me to myself in her long responses. She made reading and writing vital skills. She’d been a one-room school house teacher who rode a horse to school, tried to teach me to darn, and memorized poems, the longer and funnier, the better.


“I knew you forever and you were never old, soft white lady of my heart.” Anne Sexton, “Foreign Letters”

She is sixty-eight, me eight—
oldest and youngest
of our line, we sit enthroned
at the tongue-red Formica table
under a deep-silled window
in a yellow house
in a square town in a square
county in a square state.
We are of ourselves.
Orange juice is brought
before us—and Sanka
for her—and cornflakes.
We snap and toss stories
like green beans.
We rub them same
as we shine apples
against our aprons,
before deciding
which will go
to Ed’s pigs, which
to pie and which
to solemn Mason jars
awaiting summons
in the damp basement.
We are of ourselves.
We glance aslant
at the 1917 photo
of her husband leaning
on a lamp post—in Paris,
she says—watching
the Paris girls go
bye-bye. We approve
him to live. We decree
the turning on of the radio,
serving up feed and seed,
the price of wheat and corn
and the weather, the weather,
the weather for those who
care—not she, not I.
We are of ourselves.
Out the window, we oversee
the numbskull neighbor
stooping, planting
blue plastic flowers
at the edge of her front walk
and her dog
following, tearing
them out. We agree
we will be kind
about the flowers
as we process
to the library, later.
We will declare delight.

Susanne Dutton

Easy to Get To!

It’s out there. Zimbell House Publishing’s new anthology on the theme of “The Neighbors” is now available on Kindle and in paperback on I am just one of the twenty authors whose works are featured, all on the subject of “those people next door.” In my story, “The Burglar of Light,” thirties-something Garren Wade, a cosmetics saleswoman, finds herself tempted to “take a little something” when she makes deliveries and sets up a whole new second business. Until one night . . .

Feedback Should Be a Crystal Ball, Not a Wrecking Ball

Great pointers for what makes for helpful critique!

Bane of Your Resistance

feedback canstockphoto13060881 (2)

Judy Reeves, author ofWriting Alone, Writing Together, offered this comment to my first post about feedback:

“Thanks for this post, Rosanne. I know from personal experience how criticism can do harm, but I also know critique is valuable to me as a writer and to those writers I work with. I wanted to pass along a list of what I found the differences to be between critique and criticism.”

The distinctions Judy offers come from Writing Alone, Writing Together in a section aptly titled “The Difference between Critique and Criticism Is Like the Difference between a Crystal Ball and a Wrecking Ball.”

writing alone book 12074“Criticism finds fault
Critique looks at structure

Criticism looks for what’s lacking
Critique finds what’s working

Criticism condemns what it doesn’t understand
Critique asks for clarification

Criticism is spoken with a cruel wit and sarcastic tongue
Critique is positive (even about what isn’t working)

Criticism is…

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The Heat Exchange of Stories


My mother, who lives on the other coast, has memory problems. If I can manage to get her on the phone, there are two ways to communicate because there are two places in which she lives. One is the absolute present. If I ask about her life, she will tell me about the moment in which I find her.

She’ll say, “Well, I’m just sitting here. I’ve been painting a bit. It must be about lunch time. There’s a beautiful old tree just outside the window. I think I’m going to take a walk.”

The other place she lives is the past. If I want to go there, I simply ask a question. “Didn’t you tell me once that your grandmother came to live with you by December 1st because the Nebraska winters were so harsh? And because she had no electricity in her farm house?” In other words, I inaugurate her as the storyteller. Then she’s like a wild horse let out of a barn. She can go on for quite a while and following her is wonderful. I hear how that poor lady sat in a straight-backed chair in the kitchen window, waiting for signs of spring, so she could get out of the city. I ask about her uncle who smoked all the cigars and I hear about how he ran for the state legislature and won. She remembers that it was a big deal when he came to her First Communion and what a good joke teller he was. Most of all, it’s an image that stays with her: The man had a rosary from Italy, with wood beads carved like bumble bees.

Psychologist Carl Jung had something to say about this.

“It is well known that old people live in their memories and love to speak of their former deeds; this “warms” them. Warmth kindles (the listener) and thus the old storyteller gives the first impulse to the (referring to the tribal) dance.”  (Collected Works 8, The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche)

I like to think that writers and readers are like that: The shared story warms both teller and listener, but also energizes the whole community.


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