How Our Novelists Write Their Books

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
The Strand Magazine (december 1924, p. 643)
The Strand Magazine (december 1924, p. 644)
The Strand Magazine (december 1924, p. 645)

How Our Novelists Write Their Books: A Symposium of Eminent Authors is an article published in The Strand Magazine in december 1924, including the points of view of Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle and P. G. Wodehouse.


How Our Novelists Write Their Books

[Below is the text from Arthur Conan Doyle only]

When I am asked what my system of work is I have wandered into many fields. There are few in which I have not nibbled. I have written between twenty and thirty works of fiction, the histories of two wars, several books of psychic science, three books of travel, one book on literature, several plays, two books of criminal studies, two political pamphlets, three books of verses, one book on children, and an autobiography. For better, for worse, I do not think many men have had a wider sweep.

In short stories it has always seemed to me that so long as you produce your dramatic effect, accuracy of detail matters little. I have never striven for it and have made some bad mistakes in consequence. What matter it I can hold my readers? I claim that I may make my own conditions, and I do so. I have taken liberties in some of the Sherlock Holmes stories. I have been told, for example, that in "The Adventure of Silver Blaze" half the characters would have been in jail and the other half warned off the Turf for ever. That does not trouble me in the least when the story is admittedly a phantasy.

It is otherwise where history is brought in. Even in a short story one should be accurate there. In the Brigadier Gerard stories, for example, even the uniforms are correct. Twenty books of Napoleonic soldier records are the foundation of those stories.

This accuracy applies far more to a long historical novel. It becomes a mere boy's book of adventure unless it is a correct picture of the age. My system before writing such a book as "Sir Nigel" or "The Refugees" was to read everything I could get about the age and to copy out into notebooks all that seemed distinctive. I would then cross-index this material by dividing it under the heads of the various types of character. Thus under Archer I would put all archery lore, and also what oaths an archer might use, where he might have been, what wars, etc., so as to make atmosphere in his talk. Under Monk I would have all about stained glass, illumination of missals, discipline, ritual, and so on. In this way if I had, for example, a conversation between a falconer and an armourer, I could make each draw similes from his own craft. All this seems wasted so far as the ephemeral criticism of the day goes, but it is the salt, none the less, which keeps the book from decay. It is in this that Sir Walter Scott is so supreme. I have been reading him again lately, and his work compares to ours as the front of the British Museum to the front of a stuccoed picture palace.

As to my hours of work, when I am keen on a book I am prepared to work all day, with an hour or two of walk or siesta in the afternoon. As I grow older I lose some power of sustained effort, but I remember that I once did ten thousand words. of "The Refugees" in twenty-four hours. It was the part where the Grand Monarch was between his two mistresses, and contains as sustained an effort as I have ever made. Twice I have written forty-thousand-word pamphlets in a week, but in each case I was sustained by a burning indignation, which is the best of all driving power.

From the time that I no longer had to write for sustenance I have never considered money in my work. When the work is done the money is very welcome, and it is the author who should have it. But I have never accepted a contract because it was well-paid, and indeed I have very seldom accepted a contract at all, preferring to wait until I had some idea which stimulated me, and not letting my agent or editor know until I was well advanced with the work. I am sure that this is the best and also the happiest procedure for an author.