The Big Idea: Claire O’Dell

A dash of fan fiction, a smidge of authorial inspiration and a dollop of a world-famous investigator adds up to a brand-new concoction in Claire O’Dell’s novel A Study in Honor. How did this all come about? As O’Dell will tell you, it was elementary.


A Study in Honor is all Jim Hines’s fault. (Except for the parts that are all my fault.)

Back in 2014, Jim wrote a blog post about his experience writing fanfic. I’d never felt the tug of fanfic before, but after reading about how satisfying and involving it was for him, I decided to take a stab at writing some myself. After all, fiction is a conversation with itself, and what else is fanfic but a very intimate conversation?

Right away, I knew I’d want to write a Watson and Holmes story, but with a few changes. For one thing, I wanted to make them both black women. Why? Several reasons. Most (though not all) of the pastiches I’ve come across show Watson and Holmes as two straight men, or one man and a woman. And in those same stories, Holmes is always a white man.

So, Dr. John Watson became Dr. Janet Watson; Sherlock Holmes became special agent Sara Holmes. Both black. Both queer. One wealthy, and one who needed all her stubbornness to achieve a medical degree.

But the top reason is because of the other changes I made in the story. It’s the mid-twenty-first century when Dr. Janet Watson steps off the train in Union Station in Washington, DC. She’s newly discharged from the war–not the war in Afghanistan, though that would be plausible, but the New Civil War–a New Civil War that came about because the alt-right rebelled against equal rights for people of color, for gays, for women. The right viewpoint for such a war and its consequences logically belongs to a black queer woman.

I also wanted to do a deep dive in Janet Watson’s character, to make her more than an accessory to Holmes. This is a woman who has lost nearly everything in the war. Her parents died in a terrorist bombing. Her beloved abandons her. A sniper’s bullet shattered her arm when the enemy overran her medical unit, and the replacement prosthetic is unreliable.

A surgeon needs two reliable hands, she thinks. Not one of flesh and one of metal and false memories.

Her plan is to argue with the VA for a more modern device, so she can resume her career as a surgeon. She expects to stay in DC only a few days, a week at the most.

Her plans get upended the next day. The war has wreaked havoc with the economy on both sides, the VA tells her, and prosthetic devices such as Janet needs are scarce. She will have to wait her turn. Jobs aren’t easy to come by, however, and housing costs more than she can afford. When a friend tells her about someone who needs a partner to share the rent, Janet reluctantly agrees to meet the person.

That person turns out to be special agent Sara Holmes, a quirky, brilliant woman somewhat given to ignoring boundaries. The apartment in question is #2B at 2809Q Street, in an upscale neighborhood. Janet has reservations, but oh, the apartment would make a lovely refuge.

All of that poured out of me as fast as I could type. By the time I had three chapters written, I knew Janet would not let go of my imagination until I finished her story. She is stubborn and smart and defiant. The war might have left her wounded in body and mind, but she’s not going to give up. As she writes in her journal:

I will have my victory. I will have my life back. I swear it.


A Study In Honor: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s page. Follow her on Twitter.

32 Comments on “The Big Idea: Claire O’Dell”

  1. Sold. This sounds like it hits several of my favorite themes; I’m a sucker for good Holmes & Watson fan-fic, and I love the idea of recasting them as black women.

    I know what I’ll be reading this weekend.

  2. Wow, I’ve seen a lot of Big Ideas that have made me want to check the book out, but it’s not many where I’m like I NEED TO READ THIS BOOK IMMEDIATELY on an related note I’m off to now bye

  3. I dunno, Holmes as a government agent? Seems a bit of a major shift for the character…

  4. The original Holmes would occasionally undertake, discreetly, work for the British government. Plenty of scope for conflict there, too. Colour me (pun intended) intrigued.

  5. Interesting comments. Frankly, my reaction was totally the opposite. I’ve been reading Holmes and Watson for 50 years and this is not Holmes and Watson. I’m not, as a rule, an aficionado of fanfic either, so this is an easy pass for me.

  6. Holmes and/or Watson as queer black women? Cool!
    Holmes and Watson in the cyberpunk future? Cool!
    Holmes as a government agent? Could be interesting…
    Holmes in a relationship with Watson (possibly)? Kinda dislike removing the ace/aro aspect from one of the only well-known characters who is, but okay…

    All of the above together, though? At this point, I wonder why it’s being associated with the Holmes stories at all. I mean, I read the excerpt, and it’s *good* — I want to read more — but why isn’t it just its own thing?

  7. Crane, I must admit I’m more interested in alt.Holmes than if it was alt.person based on Holmes, so I think the choice was smart. Just like Karl Bollers’ black “Watson and Holmes” graphic novel series.
    I think it helps the characters are so distinctive and familiar that they’re recognizably themselves when transformed.

  8. @Crane, I can tell you without spoilers that Watson and Holmes are most definitely not in a relationship.

  9. Great idea. I look forward to checking it out.

    I don’t think of Holmesian stories as fanfiction. So many professional writers have tackled Holmes over the past century, it’s become a subgenre in its own right.

  10. @Claire Oh that’s good!
    I wasn’t sure, but since it described Holmes specifically as queer, that to me implied a divergence from Doyle!Holmes’ asexuality, which is something I never like in alternate interpretations of the character. I feel like Holmes’ lack of interest in romance is a crucial part of the character in a way that his whiteness or his maleness aren’t.

    I’m quite curious to see how this book handles making Watson part of an underprivileged group though — his status as a person of privilege was actually a pretty big feature of his role in the original books in some ways: being able to just ditch his medical practice whenever he wanted, never having to worry about money, being accorded respect and deference even when he was being quite obtrusive… I’ll be interested to see what role Watson can play without those assets.

  11. Addendum: Not to say that ace people don’t fit under the queer umbrella (we’ve got room for everyone!) but rather that I assumed a trait would only be specifically mentioned to highlight a difference from the Doyle version.

  12. For those of you who prefer audio format, it is available at Audible. I just put it in my wish list so I don’t forget to grab it.

  13. @Crane: Ah, I see your point! Sorry about that. Sara is most definitely ace, partly because of the canon, and partly because I wanted the story to be about two queer women as friends, not lovers.

  14. Read the excerpt, bought it (like I need more to read, sigh…). I really like Janet Watson, looking forward to spending more time with her. Can’t wait to meet Sara! (Should probably stop reading Big Ideas for awhile, though.)

  15. @Claire: Oh, that’s wonderful! Thank you so much for taking the time to clarify that. <3

    I also think it's great to have more stories with queer people who *are* just friends, because there is a tendency in fiction (as you've doubtless noticed) for what one might call the "Strong Queer Force": if you bring two queer people into close proximity, sex inevitably follows! And much as I like reading that sort of thing, its prevalence can send a slightly iffy message…

    Anyway, I'm looking forward to reading the whole book even more now. ^__^

  16. Must read now! Also, I love the idea of a Sherlock Holmes genre, and will immediately set one up in my imaginary bookstore.

  17. “The original Holmes would occasionally undertake, discreetly, work for the British government. Plenty of scope for conflict there, too”

    Yeah. But he had to be cajoled into it. If Holmes is a government agent, it’s his job. He’s a civil servant. He’s got a line manager. An HR officer. A pension plan. Annual performance reviews against measurable targets.
    And he will be at it full time – no private consulting work, or not much of it anyway.
    That doesn’t sound like Holmes…

  18. Oh my… I read the excerpt, immediately bought the ebook, continued reading, and have just come up for air at about 75% of the way through the book! And I’m only taking a break to make it last a little longer. Really, really loving this story. Thank you for writing it! I’m counting on there being lots of sequels.

  19. This looks interesting. I have reserved a copy at my local library. I’m afraid that the comments will have closed here by the time I have obtained and red the book, which is a shame, as I’d like to comment based on having read the book. Not that I expect this to be an endlessly open forum. I wonder if Rec.arts.sf.written is still active?.

  20. @Crane,

    I’m a bit puzzled by your assertion that ACD Holmes is unquestionably ace/aro. He canonically has no romantic interest in women–but that’s really not the same thing. After all, the basic conceit of the stories is that they’re written by Dr Watson and published for the entertainment and enlightenment of a Victorian English public. So (using a Watsonian perspective here), if Holmes were gay, the two questions we’d need to ask are: 1) Would he let Dr Watson know and/or would Watson figure it out on his own? and 2) If Dr Watson did know, would he include any hints of Holmes’s homosexuality in the stories he published?

    To which I think the answers are: 1) Probably not, and 2) Definitely not. Ergo, ACD Holmes could easily be gay without contradicting canon.

    None of which is to say that Holmes couldn’t equally well be ace, of course; that interpretation doesn’t contradict canon, either. But it’s just one possible interpretation, not the only possible interpretation.

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