What makes a short story work for me, as its writer? I’ve been thinking about this in light of the recent publication of my short story, “A Brick Through the Window,” in Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery – 1885. Now that my short stories have been published more than 40 times, what’s the engine that drives a more successful writing project?
Most important, I like to key off facts. I’m in awe of writers who can develop a character and plot out of thin air, but it helps me to have something real to chew on. Also important is my emotional investment; I write a better story when I’m mad (!) or excited about something. My favorite one involved rural ne’er-do-wells planning to stage a fight between a bear and a tiger. As a big fan of Big Cats, I’m sure my blood-pressure was spiking until I reached “The End.” That story was written a few years ago, when many states had few restrictions on the private ownership of Big Cats, and four had none at all—no licensing requirements, no standards for animal welfare or public safety. Thankfully, that situation ended in late 2022 with the passage of the federal Big Cat Public Safety Act.
Two of my stories have been published in these Sherlock Holmes anthologies: the 1885 edition’s “Brick/Window” and the 1884 edition’s “The Queen’s Line.” Both started with real situations.
“The Queen’s Line” (sounds like a new underground service, no?) keyed off the tragic 1884 death of Queen Victoria’s son, Leopold. He was the only one of her four boys who inherited hemophilia, although at least two of her daughters were carriers and introduced this life-limiting condition into various royal houses of Europe. My story keyed off vicious rumors that Victoria was illegitimate, because there was no history of hemophilia in her well-documented family line. (Experts now believe she experienced a spontaneous genetic mutation passed on to some of her progeny.) At that time, she and Prime Minister Gladstone were at loggerheads, and pressure was mounting to allow Irish Home Rule. All those facts (the funeral, the rumors, the politics) came together at 221B Baker Street in “The Queen’s Line.”
For “A Brick Through the Window,” I struck a goldmine of intriguing facts. In July, crusading newspaperman William T. Stead (a true Victorian eccentric, pictured) was focused on the problem of young girls from poverty-stricken London families being sold into “the flesh-pots of Europe.” All true so far. In my story, Stead asks Holmes to help his investigation. Holmes is, of course, a bit squeamish about the details, but there was no denying Stead’s sincerity. (You can read about this real-life journalistic episode here.)
At this point, I erred. I asked the editor about word length, and was told “about 10,000” or so. I should have realized he meant the upper limit, when I had meant the lower. Following my false interpretation meant I had to create a secondary plot of some kind!
In real life, Stead, along with a number of upper-class ladies, had also been active in opposing the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, originally intended to combat the high rate of sexually transmitted disease in the military. Under these laws, any policeman could arrest and examine any woman he “suspected” of prostitution, even without evidence. Working-class and even middle-class women were pulled off the streets and subjected to humiliating examination not by doctors, but by ordinary police. If declared infected, they were confined to a lock hospital until they either recovered (there were few treatments) or they completed their sentence, which might be as long as three months. Tremendous hardship was thereby visited on children and families.
Because men who frequented prostitutes were neither examined nor punished, these laws ignited a debate about unequal treatment of men and women and became an early skirmish in the battle for women’s rights.
You’ll recall that Dr. Watson was a military medical man himself, and in my story, he is aware of the problem of prostitution near military installations and initially supports these laws. But Stead opens his eyes to the resultant abuses. When Watson understands the inequity in the way the law was implemented, he joins Stead and his supporters in advocating repeal. Meanwhile, Holmes collects evidence on the child prostitution problem with help from the Irregulars.
Back to real life: In August 1885, Parliament passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which raised the age of consent from age 13 to 16 and strengthened protections for women and girls; in 1886, the Contagious Diseases Acts were finally repealed. In April 1912, William T. Stead died aboard the RMS Titanic.