Sherlock Holmes and the Mind

Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes was a favorite of mine growing up. However, the story “A Study in Scarlet” rubbed me the wrong way. I shared Dr. Watson’s shock about Holmes’s lack of knowledge about the world around him. When an incredulous Watson discovered that Holmes wasn’t even aware of the Copernican model of the solar system, Holmes objected he couldn’t be bothered by such facts:

“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently: “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

Clearly, I decided, Arthur Conan Doyle failed to grasp that an educated, well-rounded individual (as Holmes surely was) had to master the big picture before he could understand the little one.

But this article in Scientific American suggests Arthur Conan Doyle was on to something about the quirky intricacies of the human mind:

Many of the etchings by artist M. C. Escher appeal because they depict scenes that defy logic. …

In 2003 a team of psychologists led by Catya von Károlyi of the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire made a discovery using such images. When the researchers asked people to pick out impossible figures from similarly drawn illustrations, they found that participants with dyslexia were among the fastest at this task.

Strong readers are necessarily skilled at focusing visual attention. But a trade-off is involved: when focusing on detail, the brain suppresses awareness of its surroundings. Poor readers may be unable to focus attention in this way. They would therefore be more globally aware, which could lead to advantages for performing tasks, such as discriminating impossible figures. (Emphasis mine)

Amazing, isn’t it, how literature captures so much truth about the human condition that we’re just now able to appreciate?

The real drug chief from Aztec Midnight

Aztec Midnight

This in-depth report from Bloomberg Business examines the aftermath of the arrest of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. “El Chapo” was not only the real-life figure I modeled my character Hermanito on for Aztec Midnight, he also inspired the name of the book’s Mexican drug cartel that Hermanito led, the Chapos. Guzman combined peasant shrewdness with naked savagery to run his empire:

U.S. and Mexican authorities hailed the capture of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman in the Pacific coast town of Mazatlan as a major victory in their war on drugs. A year later the power vacuum caused by his absence is fueling chaos on the streets of Chicago and Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso. …

Guzman secured his near-mythic status by escaping from prison in a laundry cart in 2001 and later unleashing an assassination spree of rival drug lords. Afterward he controlled much of the narcotics entering the U.S. His nickname—“Shorty” in English—belied his outsize reputation. A grade-school dropout, he transformed the drug trade by centralizing everything from warehousing and distribution to collection and transport of money back to Mexico. Five months before his arrest, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s top official in Chicago at the time, Jack Riley, called Guzman “a logistical genius.” Guzman instilled such fear that he could enforce his rule in northern U.S. cities far from his heavily guarded compound in Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains.

Brilliant, daring, ruthless, and ambitious — what more could you ask for in a fantasy/thriller villain?

INFOGRAPHIC: A Map of the Literary Genres

ElectricLit has a downloadable map of all the literary genres plus representative books for each category. A few designations may be confusing — I’ve never thought of Southern Gothic as a branch of horror, and some may question putting C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe under Christian rather than fantasy (most Christian novelists and readers would reject the magic in both Lewis’ and Tolkien’s works). But you’ll have a blast rambling around and even getting lost in this maze of literary geography. Enjoy!

Why would a character do that?

Over at Kill Zone, editor extraordinaire Jodie Renner discusses a fault she sees all too frequently in manuscripts she reviews:

Have you ever been reading a story when suddenly the protagonist does or says something that makes you think, “Oh come on! Why would he do that?” or “This is crazy. Why doesn’t she…?” or “But I thought he…!” or “I didn’t know he/she could [insert extraordinary ability].” The character seems to be acting illogically, to be making decisions with little motivation or contrary to his personality, abilities, or values.

Renner is right — there’s no better way to lose a reader than to force a character to do something brainless or out of character just to advance the plot. But it happens, and some writers get away with it. In my opinion, the worst example of a character suddenly behaving both out of character and illogically is in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.


Lisbeth Salander, a plucky computer hacker, figures out that Martin Vanger is the serial killer she and journalist Mikael Blomkvist have been trying to identify. Meanwhile, Blomkvist has also figured out Martin is the killer, but the wily Martin captures Blomkvist and prepares to torture and kill him in his dungeon. Fortunately, Lisbeth sneaks into Martin’s dungeon just in time. Martin, who’s coldly and methodically killed dozens of victims, totally panics and RUNS AWAY from a 90-pound girl armed with — a golf club. Now, Martin’s in his fortress, with guns and other weapons all over the place, but for some mysterious reason, he decides to abandon it by running upstairs and out of the house to his Volvo. Okay.

But it gets worse! Lisbeth chases Martin on her little motorbike. As they race down the mountain, all Martin has to do is tap the brakes, and his pursuer would squish against the rear of his Volvo (which I think is Swedish for “Tank for Civilian Use.”) But no, instead our previously calculating and unflappable villain crashes and ends in a fiery wreck.

And millions found this believable? Give me a break!

An Aztec Midnight Reader in Mexico

I received the following email and pics from a reader of Aztec Midnight currently vacationing in Mexico. I thought I’d share them:

Finished reading your book while down here in Mexico, Mike. You did your homework. Great story! And the street scenes are right out of your book.

Mexican Street Scene

In Puerto Vallarta for three weeks. Be back in Iceland, I mean Ohio next week. Going out on my friend’s boat Friday for a two day fishing trip.


Since you mentioned pulque in the book I thought you might like to know we’ve been drinking our own private stock we got up in Guadalajara.


Keep up the good work! John

Thanks, John! I appreciate your comments. Enjoy your trip! (And careful with the pulque.)

Best Fiction and Writing Blogs

The best fiction and writing blog posts from around the ‘net, all guaranteed to make you a literary ninja. Compiled by yukio
James Scott Bell: Top Ten Things You Need to Know About the Writing Life
Publishing Insights: Writing Partnership & Blogging
Graham Moore: How to Write About Characters Who Are Smarter Than You
Tom Knighton: Captain Kirk’s duty and other considerations
Connemara James: 5 Websites to Help Aspiring Writers Publish, Not Perish
Nicola Alter: The 10 Popular Types of Fantasy Movies

Lovecraft and Howard and the Forces of Chaos

I have an article up at the traditionalRIGHT blog:

Both Howard and Lovecraft saw civilization and order as not only fragile but necessarily short-lived. In the fictional worlds these imaginative writers created, the values and beliefs that made life possible had to be defended against forces of chaos that inevitably had the upper hand. What counted was the protagonist’s resolve and dedication.

Read the rest at traditionalRIGHT.

Creative Community & The Fear of Becoming “Normal”

Writing is viewed as a solitary activity. Some writers believe their isolation is what defines them, and even imagine that socializing would not only detract from their uniqueness, but diminish their creativity. Mingle with the herd, and you’ll become one of them. Call it the writer’s fear of becoming “normal.”

But these folks have it all wrong. We are social beings who need to interact with others. What’s more, social contact improves our craft, as this piece from PsychCentral explains:

As creative people, we need others to see the work we do (after all art is meant to be seen), to give us feedback and also to normalize some of the chaos that comes with the creative territory.

Aside from these internal benefits, being a part of a community of creatives can also expand your audience reach, increase the chances of doing collaborative work (in which you can discover a brand new part of yourself and a new method to create) and extend your creative network. A community can give you the opportunity to experience art and creativity from the various perspectives of all the other people surrounding you, at a collective level rather than the individual one you can provide for yourself.

I know I’ve benefited from my participation in the Charlotte Writer’s Club and my monthly critique group, as well as various writing workshops. Even when you’re stuck in the office, you can exchange views and ideas by posting comments on writing blogs.

Naturally, we also need time alone to think and create. The ideal is a balance of separateness and socialization.

Andrew Nelson Lytle advised us to “throw out the radio and take down the fiddle from the wall.” By that, he meant that art, entertainment, and companionship were not meant to be separate things. Art should be a social, interactive endeavor that not only engages everyone who  participates, but beckons all toward beauty and a sense of connectedness.  To me, that’s the ultimate aim of any art.

Quote of the day

“I’m not a really good writer, and I’m okay with that. What I do have is this ability to dissect my emotions and feelings, and write about my deepest secrets, about what terrifies me, about what I hate.” Cristian Mihai 

Now one could counter that the ability to capture your deepest secrets and fears with words is the definition of good writing.

Consider H.P. Lovecraft. His characterization and dialogue could be laughably bad, but his ability to construct scenarios and concepts that thrilled and challenged readers made him a giant among fantasy and horror writers.

Bottom line: We can’t be good at every aspect of life, or even good at every aspect of our chosen craft, but we can focus on what we love and make the most of what we have.