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Talking to the creators of "A Study in Velvet and Leather"

For IP's Spark writing newsletter, we talked to both writer K Caine and illustrator Avid Branks about their new book—and Improbable Press' latest book—A Study in Velvet and Leather.

* K, why did you want to tell this particular Sherlockian story?

I have, canonically, so many questions about Irene Adler. Where did she come from? How did Arthur Conan Doyle conceive of the relationship between Sherlock and Irene? What's the overall role of women in the canon Sherlock universe? When you're talking about women in Sherlock, Irene Adler is one of the first ones that come to mind, but there's so little information about her.

I was doing research on her in the early stages of thinking about writing this book, trying to find out what story I wanted to tell, and what kind of things I cared about, and I came across the canonic description of Irene Adler as a "well-known adventuress".

Later on, as I continued researching, I realized that the term was frequently used synonymously with "courtesan", and it really got me starting to think about what kind of roles ACD thought Irene was filling in the story—and then what kind of roles Irene herself would fill—and then, finally, what would happen to the dynamic between Irene and Sherlock if they were both women, and the story developed organically from there. It was important to me to write a story that tackled some of the questions about sexuality—what do we do when our sexuality is broad, and what do we do when our perception of it changes?

* K, what helped you get the story down on the page?

The thing that assisted me the most in getting the story on the page was thinking of it systematically. I started with 100 index cards, and a copy of the canon, and I started sorting through to pick out the kinds of things I wanted to portray. What sorts of things about Sherlock's life would shift most if she were a woman? What wouldn't change much at all? What scenes did I know I wanted to be in there? Once I had a handful of scenes down, I started rearranging the cards to get them into a particular order–Avid can speak to that, she got to see me in the midst of my index card piles with a stack of highlighters, pointing at things Charlie Day style.

After that, it was just about sitting down and getting it done. I found that, for me, the "easiest" way to get a 221B completed was to write all the way to the B, and get the B to work—and then to edit up or down to make the wordcount happen. Once the B was in place, it was really just about arguing with the rest of the words until they fell in line. Nothing felt better in edits than a 300 word section or a 150 word section that ended with a "B"—and nothing felt worse than a 221 word section where the last word started with an "M".

* Avid, what was your most interesting challenge in creating art for the book?

I had a vision of creating manicules (the pointing hands) for section breaks, based on 19th century steel engravings. I wasn’t about to use a steel plate, because I knew the drawings would be small in the finished book, and it would be silly to go to that trouble.

So I tested a few techniques, linocut, ink, paint...and in the end, I used a drawing program on my iPad I was barely familiar with, so I could draw and redraw for precision. And there are no shortcuts, each one of those lines were carefully drawn and shaped to appear as if they were carved with an engraving tool. (Don’t ask how long I spent fussing over them.)

The result is something that looks like I just stole some clip art, but they’re very specific to the book—there’s an inside joke to them I don’t want to spoil here!

* A question for you both: Has fandom been important to you as a creator?

AVID: Fandom has resurrected me as an artist. I earned a couple of art degrees, then found a great job in the arts, but my own art took a distant back seat. Soon enough, I was out of practice, and the thought of making art again was discouraging because I was used to making Serious Art.

Enter fandom, which gave me a reason to make throwaway art. I didn’t have to worry about making something for a future exhibition...I could just post a drawing on an anonymous fandom account. It introduced me to people I wanted to make art for. I didn’t have to agonize over concepts, because there are brilliant writers churning out inspiration by the boatload. It’s fun to find ways to amplify another person’s tease out parts of their writing for other people to appreciate.

K: Fandom has been absolutely fundamental to me as a creator. I've been writing and telling stories for a very long time, but I was spinning my wheels for most of it, and couldn't figure out how to focus. Fandom guided me and showed me the way, and it absolutely changed my life for the better.

Buy A Study in Velvet and Leather, and check out K Caine's website, blog, and more.

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