The View from Sherlock Peoria (5)


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The Canonical Characters Club . . .

Part of the fun of being a Sherlockian is the occasional chance to be involved in some new venture, be it a new society, a new publication, or a new event, or sometimes all three at once. Sherlockians love forming clubs, coming up with clever names, putting out a club publication and a club pin, and gathering together to celebrate their newly founded association. This week I set about trying to start one more club, based on an idea that Sherlockian webmaster and scholar Chris Redmond passed on to me about a year ago.

In a way, this new club seems like a natural extension of the old Dangling Prussian, which you can read about in the Sherlock Peoria archives, where real Sherlockians had fictional adventures in the Victorian London of Sherlock Holmes. This time we’re going to try to take it one step further, as real Sherlockians take on the personas of characters from the Sherlock Holmes Canon and wander off-stage in a world they are already present in.

But, I’ve explained enough about this already this week, so I’ll let the invitation and preliminary proposals for the group stand for themselves.

First, the invitation, as send to the Hounds of the Internet and WelcomeHolmes lists:

For some time now a few of your fellow Sherlockians have been contemplating the idea of ongoing Canonical role-play as a new branch of Sherlockian activity. I say "new" even though this idea has been with us in one form or another for some time, because we're thinking of something a little more ambitious than has been done in the past.

The web has given us the chance to form on-line communities of sorts, Hounds-L, WelcomeHolmes, etc., and as web technology moves on, we're eventually going to see more and more on-line habitats for those communities. At this point doesn't take much imagination to envision a day when a Sherlockian can move thru a virtual reality Canonical environment, interacting with the characters of the sixty stories. And while that day may still be a long ways away, every advance must start somewhere; every boat that leaves the dock has to have passengers waiting to get on if it's ever going to carry anyone.

With this all in mind, I'd like to submit an initial call for anyone who might like to take part in the beginning steps of such an activity. What I'm proposing here is starting a group of people on-line who would take on the roles of Canonical characters, much like the historical re-enactors do at historical sites like Plimouth Colony or Connor Prairie. This wouldn't be John Jones calling himself "Jabez Wilson" and still acting like John Jones -- this would be an actual attempt to get into the persona of Jabez Wilson and then responding as Jabez would when Violet Hunter comes in the pawn shop to tried to pawn a chunk of her hair. A little Canonical research, a little historical research, and a little creativity all combine to create a sort of living pastiche. (But since a good Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, Mycroft, Mrs. Hudson, and Irene Adler are hard to find, I think those major characters would best be left off-stage for the time being.)

It will probably start simply, as one more e-list, with all e-mails written totally in character. Where things develop from there will only be limited by imagination, enthusiasm, and technology. The idea has been floating around for a while now, and it seemed time to test the waters. Anyone wanting to join in the start-up group or discuss such a thing in more detail can e-mail me off-list at

A handful of responses came back, which is about par for such ventures. Most Sherlockians like to sit back and take in the scene, and will happily sign up for your newsletter or sign up to your e-mail list as a lurker. But mention a little writing or research, and the numbers drop very quickly. Those Sherlockians who are into such things tend to find themselves well occupied, and among those who aren't, a great many suffer from "I could never do that!" syndrome. As a result, the responses one does get from such a call can be of pretty high quality. I saw it twenty years ago in the formation of the Dangling Prussian, and I could see the same thing here.

And so, with a few stalwarts in line, I sent out a longish ramble on ideas, proposals, and general questions for the starting of said society:


Proposals for a New Sherlockian Game (Hold on, it’s a long one.)

Welcome to step two of the forming of a new branch of the Sherlockian community. Step one was the initial invitation, and your responses to same. Step two will be obtaining a general consensus on basic directions for the group to go. Peruse the following bits when you have a little free time to muse and let me know what you think.

First, a little history:

Last June, at a symposium in Minneapolis, Chris Redmond brought up an interesting proposal. "Sherlockians need a new game," he said, and whether or not this is true (several of us disputed the point, but let him continue), he went on to explain just what he thought that new game might be: role-playing. It’s a growing trend both on the web and in the real world, in various other areas of historical and fictional endeavor, so why not in the Sherlockian realm as well? We’ve got both history and fiction going for us. The next day, Chris spoke on the future of the Sherlockian internet at the symposium, and visions of virtual Sherlockian environments, where such role-playing might take place, among other Sherlockian explorations.

Chris brought me in on the idea because of a little experimental society I ran in the eighties called "The Dangling Prussian," in which real Sherlockians interacted fictionally at a Victorian London watering hole where it was always 1895 . . . literally, and the amateur press association which followed, based in the same fictional setting. But when I got home, things got even more interesting . . . while I was in Minneapolis, my wife was in Plymouth, learning just how far historical reenacting has come at places like "Plimouth Colony" (sic) where it is always 1627, and people can learn about the past by actually interacting with its denizens. (And no one seemed to learn more about the past than those people portraying those denizens.)

Fast-forward to today (bypassing an appearance in Peoria by "John Clayton" and an ongoing murder mystery in The Holmes & Watson Report as "Neville St. Clair," "Violet Hunter," and "Jack Smith" are still trying to solve the murder of Lady Beatrice Falder), and the possibilities for the formation of a Sherlockian role-playing group.

Part One: The Place of Residence

This one gets a bit interesting in the case of Mr. Sherlock Holmes. If one takes the role of a Canonical character, is the world one lives in our historical past or a fantasy world? Is one then a historical reenactor, a fantasy role-player, something like a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, or what?

Here’s one possibility for three precepts such a society might be based on:

1. The recognition that Terra 221B, while a close parallel of our Terra Firma, possesses some unique differences that must be acknowledged. Society members should endeavor to clearly delineate facts that were the same on both Earths, and those that occur only on Terra 221B.

2. The knowledge that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, seeker of truth and explorer of other planes, did establish the first and best contact with Terra 221B within his 60 chronicles, also known as "the Canon," and that his work is the standard and absolute reference on Terra 221B.

3. The acceptance and encouragement of Parallel Canonical Entities, those beings who can cross the void between worlds using their powers of research, extrapolation, and imagination. Parallel Canonical Entities (or PCEs) can be observed in their native Terra 221B via the written word and other mediums, and in their occasional manifestations on Terra Firma.

The discussion point we end Part One with, then, is this: Does that set of principles cover it? Should we go more historical? More fantastical? Or come up with some other "mission statement" to cover Holmes’s reality in a less science fictional sounding, more literary tone?Part Two: The Society Members

Any society has to set basic membership guidelines, even if it’s just "Pay your annual dues and we’ll send you the newsletter" or "Play nice." While the members of this society would not have ranks to raise one member over another, it seems like certain basic areas of accomplishment could be recognized and celebrated. Here’s what I’ve come up with thus far:

The new member.

New members who have decided to join, but are pondering what role to play, could be referred to as John or Jane Doe, and basically looked upon as amnesiacs trying to recover their identities. These poor souls might benefit from a sponsor or guide among the current membership, to help them find their place in Canonical society.

Full members of Canonical society.

Full members of Canonical society have discovered their role in the Canon, and, perhaps, made some small demonstration of their understanding of that role (a short biography based on purely Canonical details, a statement of their character’s opinions and view of the world, a brief written demonstration of that character’s abilities).

Learned members of Canonical society.

Once a full member begins to study his or her personage through extra-Canonical means (looking into details of that character’s native geography, occupational or domestic background, class culture, etc.). One could become a learned member by something as simple as publishing a paper on their character that includes non-Canonical research, and learned members could even garner additional honours by further works.

Corporeal Transition.

While definitely not a requirement, it might behoove the society to cheer on any member who actually manages costume and character in a Terra Firma setting.

Genius Loci, or Location Manifestation.

Similar to "Corporeal Transition," a member who was ambitious enough to actually deck out a sitting room, miniature room, or web site recreation of same for his or her character probably deserves recognition as well . . . not that we’d ever expect anyone to reach this level of devotion. )It’s always nice to have the mountain top to look at, even if you never scale it.)Well, those are some ideas anyway. Discussion points to end part two are: Should there be some initial requirement to attain full membership, such as a very short paper? Is celebrating additional levels of accomplishment worthwhile, if it doesn’t lead to social rank? And what sorts of limitations do we want on personas? Being an actual human being who appears by name (first or last) in the Canon is a good start, but shall each member be limited to one role throughout their membership in the society? And once a character has been taken, should room be allowed for a second version? (Especially if Jabez Wilson wanders off, as tends to happen in Sherlockian venues . . . would a Jabez Wilson II be allowed?)Part Three: The Mechanics of the Role-Play

Victorians who exist on the internet have some unique challenges put before them. While a historical re-enactor who sees a plane flying overhead can pass it off with a statement like "I’ve not seen that manner of bird before . . . back to butter-churning " the web-Victorian is actually using a seemingly science-fictional device to communicate across the ether. This could be dealt with in different ways:

Total denial.

An e-mail list becomes the great mantlepiece over the fireplace in the clubrooms of the society. Letters, telegrams, notes and other written materials are affixed there with jack-knives for the other members to read at their leisure. Copy-carrots with copied quotes from previous e-mails, smiley-faces, and all that other e-mail effluvia ares done away with, and e-mails are required to use all of those antiquated forms that we used to know and love. Salutations, actually referring to other notes with paraphrasing and the like, brief telegraphic messages in a standard form (where all caps is no longer considered "shouting"). A chat-room encounter takes place in whatever imaginary venue has been predetermined for it, and if a member refers to some visual detail a bit wrongly, well, sometimes our eyesight isn’t too good. Members who insist upon making references to the modern day and unashamedly foisting anachronisms on the other members will, of course, be seen as madmen, and eventually carted off to Helston in the black carriage if they don’t stop babbling.

Victorian science fiction.

The Victorian world was definitely a place of innovation and imagination, and one could exist in the period using terms of the day to refer to the amazing machines we find ourselves using to communicate with. Of course, then we leave the Canon a bit and start moving into the world of Professor Challenger.

At present, good old ad-filled YahooGroups seems the easiest and cheapest way to establish an e-group and have chatroom facilities, at least to begin with. Eventually, I’d like to move things to a web site with a bulletin board and a chatroom feature, but my web skills are only starting to develop, so that’s at least six months down the road or more. Any suggestions from those more experienced in the ways of the web would be appreciated.

Discussion points to end part three are, then: Denial or sci-fi? YahooGroups to start, or better ideas?

Part Four: Activities of the Society

As this will be a smaller group than the large e-groups, and most of us are already active many other places, we might run a schedule like this:

Monthly or bi-monthly meetings at a public-house in the neighborhood of a given Sherlockian investigation (chatroom) would be the climax of each story-cycle. Say we decide to look at the events of "Empty House" on May 2. In the month or so prior to that gathering, members post letters, telegrams, and notes on things their characters have discovered on the Adair murder and its subsequent investigation. Whether they post observations made from their own point of view, details of that time and place in Victorian London (pertinent or not), whether they just read about the murder in the Times or happened to have a sister who knew Adair’s fiancee – it all gets posted on that mantlepiece that I mentioned earlier (whether it’s in a regular clubroom, or on the public-house of the month, is another choice to make). The nearest public-house is, of course, the "center of country gossip" and gossip we shall, keeping each other posted until we can finally convene to discuss our findings (or lack of same).

Background checks, local history . . . when Canonical characters start investigating a Holmes investigation, who knows what they’ll come up with. If it’s a case your character is involved in, you might just be pleading for innocence or respect. The results might even be worth compiling in a dossier for publication, if all agree.

Time itself enters into the set-up of the society: Do we proceed through the cases on a chronological basis? Would it be too much to try to think of what your character’s situation might have been during the events of Speckled Band, if the story you were in doesn’t occur for another ten years? Or does that just make it more interesting? (That might be as interesting to hear as thoughts on the case at hand, actually.) And if your character gets killed in a tale, you’d better come up with a good explanation for your continued existence in all ensuing stories (actually, that does sound like fun).

Whose chronology do we prefer? Baring-Gould’s? Block’s? Keefauver’s? Or should I circulate a sixty-story multiple-choice survey, let the members gleefully zip through the list circling their favorite dates, and compile those dates into a unique (if flawed, but nobody’s perfect) club chronology? Or does anybody even care . . .

Is your head spinning yet? It’s all downhill from here.Part Five: The Name of the Society.

Any and all ideas for naming this club will be gathered and presented to the membership next week, for a general vote. Deadline for names is 5:00 Central Standard Time on Friday, July 5. By then, perhaps we’ll have nailed down a few of the details discussed above, and be about ready to start this ball rolling.

Hope you are still finding it of interest, and I’ll be interested to hear any ideas you want to throw in the cooking pot as this role-playing idea gets to simmering. Let me know what you think, and maybe we can get this thing served up by mid-July.


A few helpful opinions and suggestions on the above have come back already, but things are just getting off the ground . . . and that's really an enjoyable time in the creation of something new on the Sherlockian scene. If any of this appeals to you, there's still room to get in at square one, so let me hear from you at


Your humble correspondent,
Brad Keefauver