Friday 11th November marks the launch of Holmes Volume 2. This is the second instalment of short stories where author Mel Small herald’s the return of Boro’s greatest detective Sherlock Holmes. The world famous double act of Holmes and Watson have been set in 21st century Middlesbrough. Holmes swaps his deerstalker for a Boro scarf. He is an arrogant, sweary, beer swilling Boro lad, who enjoys a bit of ethical computer hacking. When I say beer swilling, it is craft beer he necks, in the Baker Street micro pubs he haunts.
I loved the first volume of stories so much that I was really ecstatic when author Mel Small offered to serialise a specially written Holmes mystery adventure through this season’s fanzines. So far it has proven really popular.
But back to Volume 2 and reading the sleeve notes it seems Holmes could be in trouble with the law. His friend and narrator Doctor John Watson must somehow bail him out of Holme House Prison or this book will not get off the ground at all.
I met Mel in the Twisted Lip, to talk about the new book, publishing and much else besides. The micro pub is one of several Baker Street locations that feature in the stories, along with Baker Street Kitchen, The Slater’s Pick and of course Sherlock’s, renamed in his honour.. apparently.
Here goes with the interview and remember Holmes Volume 2 is out today (Friday 11th November)
Q: Were you really happy with the way the first book was received?
Mel Small: Yes I think so. The feedback has been phenomenal. The most interesting I think was from a guy in Nevada. He posted on Linked In does anyone want me to review a book. I said me please, not knowing where he was from. He said, can you send it to Canyon Road, Nevada. That cost me £7.50. I was thinking will it translate to American sense of humour, and Nevada, a western state. He said I have read 342 books and this is in the top ten. So, I have sent him the next one, obviously.
Q: You have set Sherlock Holmes in contemporary Middlesbrough in Baker Street, where we are sitting now sipping a drink in the Twisted Lip. This has now become a hip and trendy place.
MS: I don’t think that has got anything to do with me. I think it was well on its way..
Q: But it has happened. That is surely an acid test then from the guy in Nevada, someone with no link to Middlesbrough appreciates your Teesside twist to Sherlock Holmes.
MS: Yes. Because half of it is made up and half of it is real places. Some people outside of Middlesbrough won’t know that the Twisted Lip is real. If I posted a picture on twitter or facebook I might get replies, Oh right, I thought it was made up. The drink Engineer’s Thumb was made up. It was one of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock short stories. When I was looking for a name for a craft beer I thought I would steal something. That seemed to be the most apt thing to steal. People think that exists and have googled that. But it doesn’t. It would be good if it did.
Q: Maybe one day, life mimicking art etc. You told me that you were planning at first to put more stories in your first volume.
MS: Yes my plan originally was to put twelve in the book and complete the whole thing. When I spoke to the publisher guys they said, that is quite a thick book. It averages about 12 000 words a story. Times twelve you are talking about 150 000 words. They said split it. There have been a lot of fortuitous things along the way. It just happened that at the end of the sixth story it was quite a good point to end it. It that wasn’t planned but I thought that kind of works. I think I had written about ten by that point and knew where eleven and twelve were going. So the second volume was almost written when the first volume was published. It was split up really for the practicalities of the paperback.
Q: You gave a chance for your readership to read and digest and want to know more, really.
MS: It gives you something else to talk about. You publish a book and there is only so much you can do. Then really you need another book. You can only talk about it for so long or people start to get bored. Splitting it up into two gives you the two bites at the cherry.
Q: Following the Conan Doyle Sherlock short stories approach does this mean you don’t have to spend time recapping on what has gone before. That can be a problem I presume for people writing more than one volume of a book. Would you say people can dive into your Holmes stories at any point?
MS: Yes and no. The plan was to do stand alone stories that you could read in any order. But there is an arc that runs through them and the characters tend to build and there are things going on in the back ground that culminate at the end of the last book. So, yes and no. Plus you don’t have a lot of words to set scenes and the characters do need to build throughout the stories. That is how it ended up I don’t know what the conventional thinking is for a short story writer.
Q: So, could someone buy the second volume without reading the first?
MS: They could but it probably would not be as good. There are a few reminders in there, saying remember this … but there are a few seeds planted in the first volume that grow in the second volume. You can read it as a novel or as short stories. It should work both ways.
Q: You work in computers and IT. Do you bring that approach to your writing with your meticulous planning?
MS: There are a couple things in software engineering about essentially breaking things down. Like a tree with subdivisions and subdivisions until you get to the point where you can understand it. That is how I plan some of the stories. I say what needs to happen in this chapter, what is involved in that. I will divide and divide and that allows me to write in the wrong orders. So, I can write the end, the middle and then the beginning. If I think of something funny, I will think that sticks in with that part of the plan. So it is not written start to end. It is back and forwards. It is a bit like programming as well in that you can change something and will upset something somewhere else as well and so you have to do some reworking in order to catch up with what you have done.
Q: Does that approach help you with working around your job.
MS: Well, I left my job last year. What I have been doing is working with Sixth Element, my publishers, to build an online portal for independent authors. It is 92% complete now.
When I started doing the books what strikes you is that all the other guys doing it are really helpful. eg have you talked with WH Smiths? Have you checked out Guisborough book shop and things like that? I thought, wouldn’t it be nice if you could get that community that seems to be developing, the independent author world and do something with it. Obviously there is facebook but this would be something dedicated.
What we are building has got a bookshop, social network but also an element of crowd funding. Independent authors don’t get the big advances, all the editing etc they tend to pay for. You can write a book up to manuscript and then you get all your mates to say I will have a copy. That helps you financially to do it. They all get their book.
Q: Put their names in the back of the book etc.
MS: Yes. And the philosophy is and then it is the author’s book. There are other examples but they will take rights etc. It is essentially pre orders. You have written a manuscript, you need some editing and some cover design and typesetting etc. People need to get paid to do those jobs. You could pay them out of the books that you sell to your mates but it the wrong order.
Q: A cash Flow problem.
MS: This gives you a chance to finance it.
This focuses on the independent world. Big publishers tell people what to read. They have the marketing budgets. They can scatter the London Underground with banners and give away thousands of books. They are dictating what people are reading. Whereas to me it should be a meritocracy. If it is good people should read it. But being good and lots of people reading it doesn’t necessarily happen.
Q: Even when you go into a national book shop the top ten and even what books are out on tables rather than on shelves is dictated by the big publishers isn’t it?
MS: Yes and all the reviews in the Sunday supplements will stay with the big five publishers. There is this whole machinery around the publishing industry and to my mind it is not about the quality of the writing. It could be Vampires are the thing of the moment.. or Harry Potter, then they want books about wizards. They are trying to tap into the thing that sells rather than something that might be original.
Every now again you get that odd story. Andy Weir released the Martian for free on facebook and people wanted it to become a book. In the end a publishing house picked it up. There is the odd story but I think they are few and far between.
Q: You can see the parallels with the music industry. The Indie scene has flourished for many years in music.
MS: Yes and it is gaining more credibility in terms of literature as well. Once upon a time if you wrote your own book it was called vanity publishing whereas now you are indie authors, we are doing our own thing, we are indie authors. Not pandering..
Q: It can be easy to self publish. But can there not be a problem with lack of quality control.
MS: Yes, that is part of the idea behind the portal where the prominence of the books is all to do with how popular they are, how many people have bought them, how many people have fed back and liked them. I have designed an algorithm, almost like a page ranking in google, where the most popular books will come up first in the searches. So the community should be feeding back into itself and anything that is in the old vanity publishing will sink to the bottom and disappear. The cream should rise to the top.
Q: Looking at Sixth Element Books (Billingham based publisher of Holmes books) they are obviously a “proper” book, from the covers, to the type face and the lay out, everything.
MS: Yes, Sixth Element are really particular about producing something that has the quality level of every other paperback on the shelf. Even the paper has to be the recycled paper that you always get in paperbacks. It has got to look like a proper paperback.
Q: Their books are meticulously proof read. Again, that is essential I would say.
MS: Mine was proof read five times by friends. Even when they had all proof read it, we still found the odd thing here and there. We made quite a few changes considering it had been read by so many people, including an English teacher as well.
There is also whether a character could not possibly know something. I wrote a big scene set here in the Twisted Lip where I said something like that Holmes followed her in unnoticed by anyone else. One of the proof readers said if he is unnoticed by anyone else than how has Watson (the narrator) noticed?
Q: So is that the case that the mystery has to be plausible/possible?
MS: You cannot just pluck things out of the air. You have to leave those bread crumbs. You cannot just say that something you are totally unaware of happens. With a Scooby Doo ending.
Q: You could write some of the story backwards. For the reader they can suddenly get that lightbulb moment when they get to the ending.
MS: I think actually Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did this. He wrote the big reveal first and then reverse engineered it into the story and planting all those seeds or clues earlier on in the story.
But you don’t always do that. Sometimes it is not a whodunnit. It is a knockabout adventure. I am still trying to write a different style for each story. I don’t want to just do the same format where it is bang, bang, bang and then all the potential antagonists sit around a table and we select the one…
Q: Like Agatha Christie. We should say again that you are not rewriting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are you?
MS: No, I started off with the first one. Scandal in Boro was along the same sort of lines as the Scandal in Bohemia, which is his first story. But after that I have taken a tiny little bit from him, maybe taken the same character names but have done something completely different. I started making it up.
Q: But as you said with the name of the craft beer etc. Anyone that knows Sherlock Holmes will recognise little things in your stories, won’t they?
MS: Yes. There are some subtle nods and winks here and there. You could easily read past and it wouldn’t affect the story. But if you do know the originals.. Ah yes I know that..
In one of my stories he refers to all the youths around town as an Irregular Army in Sherlock Holmes there are Baker Street Irregulars
Q: I take it you were very much into Sherlock Holmes?
MS: More the tv but I have read the books since. I am a bit of a Jeremy Brett fan but I have read the stories as well.
Q: Sherlock Holmes is being constantly being reinvented, set in the past, set in contemporary London or New York. Every generation seems to try and put a new twist on the characters.
MS: There are Tom and Jerry cartoons. Gene Wilder does Shelock Holmes as a comedy. It is massive really. It is something that doesn’t go away. There is not much like it. Maybe James Bond and a bit of Agatha Christie. Not many things have that longevity.
Q: Going back to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He couldn’t finish off Holmes because of public demand.
MS: Yes, he had to bring him back. He wrote so many other things but nothing caught the imagination quite like that.
Q: I notice you have the Transporter on the cover of Volume 2. You alluded to that didn’t you on the cover of Volume 1?
MS: Yes, that was something that the publishers did. They were mad keen to get the Middlesbrough iconography so we put the shadow on Baker Street wall. We have the Sherlock Holmes silhouette as well. My mate thought of that. I think I prefer this cover. We did well with the weather. The sun came out.
Q: If we were to meet up in a year’s time would you be looking at a third volume of Holmes stories?
MS: I am going to write something else now I think. I have already started to write a Sherlock Holmes novel but before that I am going to write something else that is nothing to do with Sherlock. It probably won’t be in Middlesbrough either although the key character I think will be from Middlesbrough.
I am writing about 3 or 4 novels at once. If I think of something funny and wonder which it feeds into I just type it into my phone. It is all in the Cloud.
Q: So as well as your themes do you flesh them out with things you see, think and hear from life?
MS: Yes, there are things that you will just see, funny phrases etc and I think, I am having that. There are a few things that people have said to me that are in this book. I just tap them into my phone.
Q: I must ask you about the Boro season so far?
MS: It has been a bit of a shock really. To come away with a point at both Arsenal and City I didn’t expect that, especially when City went ahead. I thought that is done for now. But to score and bring it back level especially in injury time.. Chelsea next, bring it on.
Q: So, are you enjoying the Premier League then?
MS: I don’t know whether I enjoyed the Championship more really. Even 2-0 up against Bournemouth it was are we going to throw this away. It is a bit more nerve racking.
Q: How about the fact that Sherlock Holmes is running through the season serialised in Fly Me To The Moon fanzine?
MS: I will have to do something next season. Maybe, one of our players is missing. That story I thought would be difficult to do but I wrote maybe over 5900 words in one day, it just happened. I had written it within a week.
Q: Books would be serialised in Victorian times, wouldn’t they?
MS: Sherlock Holmes first appeared in The Beeton Christmas Annual, Mrs Beeton’s husband I think. Then it was serialised.
Q: Was it difficult to write a cliff hanger nine times or whatever through a season of fanzines?
MS: No. I don’t normally do that but I wanted to hit a good point every fanzine. Especially as it could be a month between each issue. It is good that people are reading it.
It must be original in the fanzines of the country having a serialised story running through the season.
Q: The Launch is today, where can people buy the book?
MS: I will take a batch to WH Smiths, Teesside Park. Also Drake’s bookshop in Silver Street, Stockton. Then in the past Guisborough bookshop and Book Corner Saltburn have stocked volume 1. It will also be on Amazon and you can walk into any bookshop and order them. It is also out as an e book.
Holmes Volume 2 – Melvyn Small – www.melsmall.com
Sixth Element Publishing
Holmes Volume 2 is available direct from 6e Publishing or online from Amazon both paperback and Kindle ebook.
Boro’s greatest detective can be purchased from the following outlets:
WHSmith, Teesside Retail Park
WHSmith, Wellington Square, Stockton On Tees
Drake, The Bookshop, 27 Silver Street, Stockton On Tees
Book Corner, Station Square, Saltburn-by-the-Sea