A pastiche is the ultimate method of honouring the fictional character of your choice. It is also a great way of learning the craft of writing. You already have a template of sorts to guide you, some familiarity with the characters, and a ready-made readership.
When I was in my early teens, I read a number of Star Trek pastiches. They ran from the inventive and faithful to the series, to the what-were-they-thinking. There are pastiches based on The Lord of the Rings, Twilight, and James Bond and many others. For me, though, it’s all about Sherlock Holmes.
I’ve been a Holmes fan for more than fifty years. I love the characters, even the villains. I love the Victorian London setting. I love the quirkiness of the plots. I love the wit and the humanity of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. All of which leads me to my first pastiche-writing rule:
You have to love it
Seriously, there’s no faking here. You can toss your head back and squeal and bang on the table a la Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally, but a real fan will know if you’re faking it. In recent years, we’ve seen a spate of ‘affectionate’ films or TV shows based on Starsky and Hutch, Hawaii Five-O, The Man from UNCLE and, of course, Star Trek. Having grown up with all of these shows, I have to admit I’ve been underwhelmed by these 2.0 versions. If you really are a fan, then why would you destroy all that made the story work in the first place? I don’t want to see the characters completely altered. Don’t blow up Vulcan. Don’t make Spock a romantic hero. Eww! Give him his dignity, man. These changes smack of commercialism, not affection. Thanks, but I’ll pass.
Know your source material
If you have holes in your knowledge, prepare to fill them because, I promise you, your readers will know this stuff. If you call Mrs Hudson Mrs Huston you’ll earn some wrath. If you love Sherlock Holmes, then for pity sake read Conan Doyle. Don’t watch Sherlock and think you’re an expert in the canon. You may be an expert on Sherlock, but that’s not the same thing.
Assuming you’re writing Sherlock Holmes stories there’s another, more fundamental reason why you need to go to the source. Spelling. Someone once sent me a Holmes story they’d written in which Holmes’s name was misspelled all the way through. Oops.
Finally, the original tales allow you to delve into the mind and character of Holmes and Watson in a way that even the best films and TV series cannot. You need to have a sense of the cadence of narration, and the way language is used. These are things the telly can’t tell you.
Do your research
We don’t live in Victorian England so there are things we don’t even know we don’t know. What did those streets smell like? How hard was it to get from one end of the city to another? How long did the journey take? It’s hard enough for those of us who have spent years of our lives living in London to imagine, but how much more difficult must it be for Holmes pastiche writers when they’ve never set foot in the UK? Despite the obvious difficulties, some of them do so remarkably well. They reflect the society, replicate the mode of discourse (sorry, I mention Victorian England and, poof! I’m there), and share fascinating insights into how people lived in that world.
The careful pastiche writer will know that the Victorian age lasted more than 60 years, and the London in which Holmes lived was significantly different from the age of Dickens. If you don’t know the difference, then you need to learn.
You need to avoid making really dopey mistakes. While they are very entertaining to some readers, they also destroy your credibility. One pastiche writer spoke of Holmes pulling a £100 bill from his wallet. If you don’t know why that’s laughable, you need to hit the books. Mind you, that was still preferable to the Victorian lady who dabbed her eyes with a paper tissue…
Even if you’re lucky enough to live in London, or able to visit with some frequency, you must know that the modern city has changed a lot since Conan Doyle’s day, what with that little contretemps called World War II flattening big chunks of the city. You can find photographs and paintings of the period, though, and you can read accounts of what Camden Town or Whitechapel looked like. The idea is to immerse yourself in that world. The more real it is to you, the greater your chances of making it real for your reader.
Take it seriously
Last weekend I watched an interview with one of my favourite actors, the late Dirk Bogarde. The interviewer asked if he felt slightly embarrassed about his early, fluffy films. Certainly not, Bogarde replied. “I’m an entertainer, and if people were entertained by those films, I’ve done my job.” He explained that his ‘Doctor’ films (Doctor in the House, Doctor at Sea, etc.) had helped many people overcome their phobias about hospitals. Children and the elderly felt a hospital was safe because his character, Simon Sparrow, was a kind and intelligent doctor. Furthermore, people had met their future spouses at Bogarde’s early films. “I’m responsible for four generations of families,” he said, “I’m very proud of that.”
The point is, while many people won’t understand why you feel drawn to pastiche writing, all that really matters is that you enjoy it and approach it with a determination to do your best. If you take it seriously, others will, too.
Don’t go too far off-piste
If you want to move Holmes to New York, fine. If you want to make him gay, also fine. Just try to limit how many changes you make from the canon otherwise you’re liable to ruin everything that people love about the original stories.
In my novels, I had the temerity to give my Holmes a wife. I also tell my stories in the form of the detective’s diaries. My reasoning was I wanted to get inside Holmes’s head and heart and both of these changes furthered that end. However, everything else– Baker Street, Mrs Hudson, the violin, etc.–remain sacrosanct. You can get away with a few changes, but the rest of that fictional world must be recognisable.
Think twice, even three or four times, before you decide to kill off a major character. Remember, you are expecting other fans to read your story. They won’t take it kindly if you kill off Doctor Watson, for instance, especially if Watson is their favourite.
Avoid the Hackneyed
For some reason, a lot of new pastiche writers seize on a ‘novel’ idea, assume they are the only one who ever thought of it, and end up writing the 45th version of Sherlock Holmes meets / kills / IS Jack the Ripper. To coin a phrase: Boring.
If you have an idea that makes you tingle, then at least do a little research before you get started. Google ‘Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper.’ My Google search brought up 384,000 results. It’s a fair bet this is a story that’s been told. Repeatedly.
If you really have got a variation on this theme–Mrs Hudson is the Ripper, or the story is told from the Ripper’s point of view–at least continue to search and see if this approach is unusual enough to warrant your time writing and my time reading.
Read the Best
Go to the source. Read every book and story in the original collection. If you’re a fan, that shouldn’t be a hardship. Don’t forget to read other pastiche writers. I have lots of favourites, Nicholas Meyer, David Marcum, Molly Carr, Dick Gillman, Kim Krisco, Richard T Ryan, and many more besides. See how they handle things like dialogue, plotting, and characterisation.
You might want to start with an anthology. MX Publishing has several volumes that include tales by some of the best in the business. A new 2-part collection is due to be released by MX Publishing next month.
Pastiche-writing can teach you so much about fiction as well as give you an insight into how your favourite writers crafted their tales. If at some point you decide you want to try writing a novel or a short story that’s completely your own, you’ll find the lessons you learned from this sort of writing will stand you in very good stead.