Today we are doing a tag team interview with Stephanie Osborn, author extraordinaire and one of our all-time favorite guests. Below is a transcription of our conversation with Stephanie. It's chock full of great information, and I broke it into two intriguing parts to make it more manageable. You won't believe the things you'll learn about this amazing woman!
Thank you, Dora and Stephanie, for taking part in this, especially because today is SHERLOCK HOLMES birthday! Stephanie has created multiple books about our beloved hero which will rocket you back in time and to the present again along side the most famous detective of all time. (see links below)
Dora: Today is Holmes birthday. Overall, what do you think are his character's contribution to fiction? And why is he such a transcendental, epic character?
Stephanie: Yes, today is the date generally accepted as Holmes’ birthday, and the date I use in my books. I think Holmes — well, we know he wasn’t the first fictional detective. But he actually probably set the formula for fictional detectives. He’s just that much persnickety and eccentric to grab people’s imaginations, and he changes over the course of the stories, too. Plus there’s the friendship with Watson, which over time, readers realize is a “still waters run deep” sort of thing. So he’s like a real person. And I think that Holmes, overall, is a “still waters run deep” kind of guy, which is how I’ve portrayed him in general. I think, for instance, that the hints of humor we see in Doyle’s canon are only the tip of the iceberg — Holmes had to have a truly excellent understanding of human nature in order to do what he did, to predict behavior and interact with client, Irregular, and social underbelly alike. And let’s face it — the street urchins Holmes used as his Baker Street Irregulars, his go-anywhere, do-anything spy force, kids like that pick up on BS readily. If he’d been putting on a front with them, they’d have twigged to it soon or late, and they’d have called him on it and walked away. Instead we have the same Irregulars working for him throughout their childhoods, and hints of a few that may have continued to provide information as adults. That tells me a lot about him as a man, as a person.
And I think that’s the key, right there. Fiction or no, he IS a person. And I do sometimes wonder if my theory in the Displaced Detective series, that there are characters we believe only fictional, who are real people, somewhere Out There, is the overarching reality of the multiverse...
Aaron: Stephanie, I’ve just read your new book, Sherlock Holmes and the Mummy’s Curse. I absolutely loved it! Tell me, what inspired you to write about Egyptian tombs, pharaohs, and such exotic topics as these? Most of us know how learned you are in many fields, such as science and mathematics. But how did you learn so much about this subject?
Stephanie: There’s actually another book I want to write — it’s probably more apt to become a series, as I don’t think I can cram everything into one book — that is basically a kind of semi-historical fantasy with quite a few ancient civilizations, known and presumed, in the overall plotline. I realized that I could pull some concepts from it and make a rather unique mystery, especially if I involved Holmes, so I did.
You’re correct in that I have degrees in astronomy, physics, chemistry, and mathematics. (Blame Star Trek. I always wanted to be Spock. It wasn’t until years after I finished my schooling that I realized I’d subconsciously mimicked him.) Most people don’t know, however, that I have an undergraduate minor and a graduate subspecialty in geology, nor that I have been on a paleontological dig myself. I have long had a fascination with archaeology and ancient civilizations — hence the idea for the other book. It might surprise you to know that I didn’t have to do a whole lot of actual archaeological research to write Mummy’s Curse, only refresh my memory a bit.
Aaron: Wow. I AM impressed. I should have known you’d been on a dig. The details of the experience felt so real, I suspected you’d actually been there. And by the way, you have probably made Spock very proud, Stephanie! I’d love to read that new series when you write it.
Stephanie: It’s probably going to be awhile before I write it. There’s so very much I have to research! It’s very intimidating and rather overwhelming, the amount of work it’s going to take just to get to the writing stage. I think I’m going to have to do something I don’t usually do, and plot out the entire story arc in advance. Oy.
Aaron: I was very impressed with your linguistic skills in this book. You included phrases from many languages including Portuguese, French, and Arabic. Are you multilingual? And how did you research these speech patterns if not?
Stephanie: Well, I am multilingual — or I used to be; I haven’t had to use many other-language skills in some years! (I take that back; I did have to do some English-Spanish document translation while consulting for a tech firm a year or so ago.) None of the languages I’ve studied were used in this particular book; I’ve studied Spanish, Latin, Greek, some Hebrew, Cherokee, and believe it or not, Tolkien’s Sindarin and Quenya. I’ve also dabbled a bit in Star Trek’s Klingonese, just for fun.
But I find that once you have the structure of languages down — which study of several languages allows — it enables you to understand how languages “work,” how they’re constructed overall. And once you understand that, then you can start dabbling in other languages, studied or not, and have a reasonable chance of making yourself understood. This isn’t the first book in which I’ve inserted other languages; I did so in the 5th Displaced Detective book, A Case of Spontaneous Combustion, as well. I’ve bookmarked several reliable translation websites, and make use of them. I also have several friends and colleagues with skill in various certain languages of whom I make use. The only thing I cannot vouch for is euphemistic speech and slang, though I do try to accommodate that as well, as best I can. (You’d be amazed what you can find when you websearch “[language] cursewords”!)
I seriously debated about NOT using other languages in these books. However, 1) I’d already used alien languages in the Cresperian Saga books, and 2) Doyle used foreign languages in places in the original Holmes stories...and he didn’t even translate them! I think that European nations tend to be a bit more poly-linguistic than Americans. So I went with his example.
I will admit to making good use of an author friend, for some of it. Sarah Hoyt is from Portugal originally and speaks fluent Portuguese, as you might guess. Having studied the Romance languages, I do pretty well with those, but I have always found that Portuguese, being an offshoot of Spanish with some other influences, “skews” a bit for me. So I chose to ask her advice as regards those translations, and she was a huge help in ensuring it was authentic.
Aaron: Oh, to have a brain like yours. I studied French for four years in high school, a semester of Spanish, a semester of Latin, and then I learned German (conversational only) for my work at Kodak in my early years. But you leave me in the dust, lady!
Stephanie: Nah, not really. It’s kind of a hobby, is all. I would love to have had the opportunity to study German and Russian, but my high school didn’t offer anything but Spanish, French, and Latin, and my university didn’t either, that I’m aware of. By the time I got to graduate school, I could have taken it, but no longer had the time, due to focusing on my principal studies.
Aaron: You purposefully used unique spelling of words that belong in the early 1880s. For example the word clue was spelled “clew.” How did you research the older spellings?
Actually that was easiest of all, because I was already familiar with those from reading many books of the period, including the original versions of the Holmes stories. Doyle himself used “clew,” and “bowlder,” and “to-day, to-morrow, and to-night,” and such like. Shortly thereafter they became archaic forms of the words, but for the time I was writing, they were appropriate. It’s easy enough to verify when certain spellings were in common usage, though, by using the etymologies of the words in online dictionaries (I find online dictionaries have relatively more etymological info than print ones).
Aaron: Well, as an author who shamefacedly admits that he doesn’t do much research, except maybe for details of locations I haven’t been, this is amazing to me. Kudos on your thoroughness and authenticity to your time period.
Thank you most kindly. It sort of comes naturally, after years of scientific research, I suppose.
Aaron: Did you have to research Victorian standards for social etiquette? I found many interesting details about what was “allowed” and what would be “scandalous” between a man and a woman under the circumstances that Holmes and Watson found themselves. For example, a man and a woman alone in a tent with the flap closed would be absolutely unforgiveable, according to these standards.
Stephanie: Oh heavens yes. I have several books to which I turned for that sort of information. (Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, a HUGE period nonfiction tome, is invaluable for stuff like this, as well as numerous other things I needed to know.) All kinds of things had to be kept up with, from British Victorian proprieties to Islamic Egyptian protocols. I only hope I didn’t miss anything. There were a few instances where proprieties were deliberately violated because of something more important going on, but I think I didn’t actually miss anything. I hope not, anyway.
And it wasn’t just the social etiquette, either. Trying to find out what the proper “thing” needed to be, or what the right term for it was, proved a bugbear. Because if you don’t know what the thing is called, you can’t really look it up — at least not readily.
I had no clue, for instance, regarding Victorian camping-out! In the desert like that, the latrines were outside the camp. For an established camp, such as the dig site, there would be established latrines. But for a transient camp, such as we find with the camel caravan early on, you carried a camp shovel and you went outside camp, dug a hole, did your business, buried it, and went back to camp.
But what if you got sick? Transient camps didn’t have chamber pots. If you’re going to barf, you don’t always have time to run outside camp and dig a hole! So I actually ended up utilizing social media! I determined that a back-of-the-desert Egyptian campsite was probably not state-of-the-art Victorian anyway, and asked around online for some Civil War re-enactors to answer my questions. They were able to tell me, for instance, about the ash buckets kept in tents for the smokers of pipes, cigars and cigarettes — this protected the flammable canvas material of the tent itself. And I decided that, with barf imminent, the campers wouldn’t be picky! Grab the ash bucket!
Aaron: That is priceless. An ash bucket would certainly do. Amazing the things Civil War re-enactors know. I worked with a gal once who was a re-enactor, and the level of detail to which she was committed astounded me. Of course, she sewed her own clothes and those of her son who went with her on these expeditions. Only period accurate “everything” was allowed. You did a wonderful job of making me feel that I was not only back in time, but in the desert. ;o)
Stephanie: Good. I worked hard on that!
Some years back I visited friends in Oregon and got to go camping, Civil War style, in the Deschutes National Forest up near Bend, OR. That was a lot of fun. Oregon doesn’t have the kind of insects they have around here in Alabama, though, so I suspect it was a lot more pleasant than a similar camp would have been around here! (We also brought along a few more modern amenities, such as horse trailers and camp toilets.)
Aaron: Your dialogue and your phrasing is all so different from our generation and it really does sound absolutely like the writings of someone from the 1880s. How did you become so proficient at this? Were there specific novels or sources you accessed from that era to educate yourself in this element?
Stephanie: Not particularly. I’ve read a lot of Victorian stories and novels in my lifetime. I tend to really like what was done with storytelling during that era. When I feel I’m losing it a bit, I just go reread some of Doyle’s stories. And I always know I’ve got a handle on Holmes if I can hear Jeremy Brett delivering the lines in my head.
Aaron: Love that answer. ;o)
Stephanie: Heh. Well, the question actually caught me off guard. But it’s true. All I have to do is to shift into Victorian Holmes mindset, and it flows. Since I’m talking about a Victorian-era story, it’s actually been very difficult for me to answer your questions consistently in American English, actually. My brain wants to trip over into Victorian British English, and I can’t be sure I haven’t done so, somewhere.
Okay, folks, that's the end of Part I! Stay tuned for Part II, which will be coming live in a few days.
--> Stephanie Osborn, the Interstellar Woman of Mystery, is a veteran of more than 20 years in the civilian space program, with graduate and undergraduate degrees in four sciences: astronomy, physics, chemistry and mathematics, and she is "fluent" in several more, including geology and anatomy. She has authored, co-authored, or contributed to more than 20 books, including the celebrated science-fiction mystery, Burnout: The mystery of Space Shuttle STS-281. She is the co-author of the Cresperian Saga book series, and currently writes the critically acclaimed Displaced Detective Series, described as "Sherlock Holmes meets The X-Files," and the exciting new Sherlock Holmes and the Mummy's Curse, book 1 of the new Gentleman Aegis Series. In addition to her writing, the Interstellar Woman of Mystery now happily "pays it forward," teaching math and science through numerous media including radio, podcasting and public speaking, as well as working with SIGMA, the science-fiction think tank.
Stephanie’s Author Page