AMA about secrets of time-travel – back to 1894 with Sherlock Holmes

Hugh Ashton
Dec 6, 2017

Hugh Ashton has been described by critics as "today's Arthur Conan Doyle". His many books of Sherlock Holmes short stories, published by Inknbeans Press are regarded as being almost indistinguishable from the originals.

He will be answering questions on Sherlock Holmes, writing detective fiction, and on how to travel back in time to re-create the past.

In addition to his Sherlock Holmes adventures, Hugh has written acclaimed historical science fiction novels, alternative histories, and contemporary thrillers. He will be happy to answer questions about these as well.

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Conversation (53)

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Are you going to publish this for free?

Dec 8, 8:03PM EST0

Publish what? The book whose cover is on this page is for sale as a paperback on Amazon, and has been for some time now (it's about the 10th in my Sherlock Holmes titles). I have published another book since it was released, but not Holmes. If you want a free book of mine, Beneath Gray Skies is currently available as a free download from my publisher.

Let me add something - why should a book be free? If you look at the questions here on this AMA, a good number are about how to make a living as a writer.

Last edited @ Dec 9, 3:40AM EST.
Dec 9, 3:18AM EST0

What is the most effective way to promote a new book in your opinion?

Dec 8, 9:30AM EST0

I'm still looking. Twitter can get you a lot of followers, but ultimately you want people to actually buy the books you're writing, not just to get nice warm fuzzy feelings for  being an author. Personal appearances at literary events, talks, readings, signings, etc. seem to work pretty well, but depending on where you live, there won't be many of them. So I'm afraid there's no magic bullet - hard work seems to be the only way (and while you're doing these things, you're not writing the next book, are you?).

Dec 8, 9:59AM EST0

When writing “historical novels”, is accurate knowledge of history important or can I just invent my own “history”?

Dec 8, 6:34AM EST1

Excellent question. When I am reproducing a Sherlock Holmes adventure, I take great care that I am accurate – much more so than Sir Arthur was, in many cases. My readers are more informed and have much easier access to knowledge than his did (and are probably more likely to complain if I get it wrong).

I also did a lot of research for my two alternative history novels, and also for my Untime series (Paris 1890s). However, for my latest historical sci-fi, Angels Unawares, I did some general research on late medieval/early Renaissance Italian cities (combined with my existing knowledge), as well as the state of the Muslim world at that time, but ended up setting the story in two fictional cities, which combined elements of different real cities.

On the whole, if you are writing a historical novel, I think it's important to get general facts correct. I go down to what stations Holmes and Watson would have used to take particular rail journeys, for example. But at the same time, you can add elements of invention – for example, in my short story, The Adventure of the Red Leech, I invented a South American parasite with no parallel in the real world, and even gave it a Latin name (Doyle did the same or similar). You can even just take the atmosphere of a past age and write around it.

So, no definite yes or no on that one.

Dec 8, 7:25AM EST0

Is there any way to schedule a one-on-one session with you so that I can learn how to write novels from the master himself?

Dec 7, 8:19PM EST0

I'm flattered that you think I'm worth learning from. But I think that if I was to do any coaching, it would be in a series of writing exercises, with feedback via Skype or something like that. What sort of novels are you writing at the moment?

Be warned, I would probably have to charge a little money for my time, though.

Dec 8, 3:27AM EST0

Would you recommend today’s young authors to quit their office jobs in exchange for writing full time?

Dec 7, 5:31PM EST0


Want more ? Look at the number of titles sold on Amazon, and ask yourself whether your book would even get into the top million (and for that, you need about three sales a year).

Dec 8, 3:24AM EST0

What are some of the basic skills needed for someone to become a successful author?

Dec 7, 12:16PM EST0

We're talking fiction here, I assume? First of all, you must have an imagination. Unless you really are exceptional, and most people, by definition, are not, you need to tell a story which is not about you and nothing else. Obviously it helps to write about something you know about, but push your imagination into new areas.

Then you need a certain amount of discipline - to get your thoughts in order, and to turn them into grammatical, logically flowing words.

Patience, as either agents and publishers reject your pride and joy, or if you're going the self-publishing route, family and friends rip it to shreds.

And luck - luck and hard work are the only way to success. Some people work hard and never have much luck, some are lucky and hardly have to work. But success depends on a mixture of the two, I would say.

Dec 8, 3:23AM EST0

Is pefect grammar a must for writing a book or can one rely on editiors?

Dec 7, 10:54AM EST0

You are far more likely to attract the attention of an agent or publisher if your manuscript contains as few spelling and grammar errors as possible. If you're self-publishing, then get an editor to go through your work, but an editor will charge more if she has to go through and correct elementary "mechanical" mistakes, than if she has to do a more high-level edit.

So the answer is not that it's an absolute must, but it's very strongly recommended that you get the manuscript as highly polished as possible before you let others see it.

Dec 7, 11:30AM EST0

Do you have any plans of releasing new books that you can self-publish online?

Dec 6, 10:19PM EST0

No, because I am with Inknbeans Press, and I now see no advantage in self-publishing. 

Dec 7, 2:11AM EST0

What would you consider your favorites in today’s modern novels?

Dec 6, 2:33PM EST0

Do you count Ruth Rendell as modern? I like her stuff. Elmore Leonard is a master of dialogue. John le Carré is a genius. I like a lot of Salman Rushdie. Almost too many to list. 

I read as much or more non-fiction (mainly history) as fiction. 

Dec 6, 2:41PM EST0

Was writing your primary source of your bread and butter or did you have any other jobs throughout your life?

Dec 6, 1:58PM EST0

Writing of some kind (non-fiction)  has always been my job, but writing fiction has never been and still isn’t my main source of income. 

Dec 6, 2:23PM EST0

What advice would you give to your younger self who is just beginning to write books?

Dec 6, 12:50PM EST0

Don't get discouraged, even though the first few novels you write are going to be rubbish and will never get published. They're part of learning the craft of being a writer.

Dec 6, 12:51PM EST0

Do you think it’s possible for a book author to work on writing while having another day job?

Dec 6, 12:38PM EST0

I certainly do. But then I write fast, both in my day job as a technical writer/journalist, and as a fiction writer. But yes, it is perfectly possible, even if you don't write fast.

Dec 6, 12:41PM EST0

Let me add to that - there are some day jobs which are so demanding that it is impossible to get the energy to write on the same day that you work. However, if you make (say) Saturday your "writing day", then you may manage it. The author of "Q&A", which got turned into the movie "Slumdog Millionaire" described to me once how he set aside a day or a day and a half per week for writing, and that what he did. Nothing was allowed to interrupt it. His day job (Indian Consul in Kobe, Japan), was hard enough and demanded so much of his time that he couldn't write on work days.

Dec 6, 12:45PM EST0

With so much achievements and recognition under your belt, why are you still generous enough to share your thoughts in this AMA?

Dec 6, 11:23AM EST0

Because I'm a nice guy? Seriously, though, I'm not all that famous really, and I'm still learning. I think I have something worth saying, and I think other people also have something worth saying to me. I'm hoping that some of the discussion will teach me things I didn't know.

Dec 6, 12:19PM EST0

If you were given the chance to write for movies or TV, would you do it?

Dec 6, 7:08AM EST0

In a flash, yes! I'd love to take some of my existing stories to the screen. No-one's asked me yet, and I'm not in the film or TV worlds, so I'm unsure of how to break in.

Last edited @ Dec 6, 12:22PM EST.
Dec 6, 7:15AM EST0

Aside from these Sherlock Holmes books, did you ever publish other books that you’ve written on your own?

Dec 6, 6:57AM EST0

Yes - my first three books (Beneath Gray Skies, At The Sharpe End, and Red Wheels Turning) were self-published, and they were all non-Holmes books. However, after I signed to Inknbeans, I transferred the titles over to Inknbeans, and they are no longer self-published. I have about 10 adult non-Holmes titles now, but none are currently self-published. My latest is a medieval science fiction novel - Angels Unawares. Just search for my name on Amazon, etc.

Last edited @ Dec 6, 7:27AM EST.
Dec 6, 7:17AM EST0

I’ll be releasing a new book next year. I’m a new author who knows no one in the industry. What’s the best way to promote my book?

Dec 6, 4:37AM EST0

When you find out, let me know. Seriously, much depends on genre. With my Sherlock Holmes books, I can tap into a fan base, both of the originals, and the more modern adaptations. With the other books, because they are relatively minority genres, it's more difficult to isolate the targets.

Social media helps, but it's not the only answer, I am sure. I do occasional readings and publicity events, which help to spread the good word.

Dec 6, 7:29AM EST0

Have you stirred any controversy in the past due to the alternative histories you’ve written?

Dec 6, 3:21AM EST0

Oh yes! One review of Beneath Gray Skies said that pay-per-view sales of my burning in effigy should be made to pay off the US national debt (I was glad that she added "in effigy"). She also called me a "flaming liberal". But Beneath Gray Skies was definitely written to express a particular political viewpoint – it wasn't intended to be neutral – and if it annoyed or shocked unreconstructed Southerners who still want to to defend a slave-owning society, it succeeded in its purpose.

And of course, there are always those who will find fault with the real historical details that I provide in my histories, as well as the direction in which I take my alternative histories.

Last edited @ Dec 6, 3:30AM EST.
Dec 6, 3:29AM EST0

You’ve written several historical science fiction novels - have you written any that are in a modern setting instead?

Dec 5, 11:53PM EST0

Not science fiction, but I have written contemporary thrillers, at least one of which has a science fiction element. Both At the Sharpe End and Leo's Luck fall into that category. I used to live in Japan, so it was actually easier for me to write about the past than the present-day UK.

Dec 6, 3:26AM EST0

Do you think kids of today should still be exposed to books that were written in the past?

Dec 4, 6:53AM EST0

I'd turn that round the other way. Should children today be exposed to contemporary writing? I can think of no reason at all why they shouldn't read books written in the past, if only to see how our world views have changed over the years. Added to which, most books we read now which were written in the past are better than today's (simply because they have survived, while their weaker brethren have perished).

Last edited @ Dec 6, 3:31AM EST.
Dec 4, 8:57AM EST0

Do you offer any workshops for aspiring authors so we can learn best practices from you?

Dec 4, 5:01AM EST0

I don't, but if there was enough interest expressed, I might consider it. I'm flattered that you consider me worth learning from!

Dec 4, 5:40AM EST0

Would you consider writing a financially rewarding job that can support a small family?

Dec 4, 1:55AM EST0

In a word, if you're talking about writing fiction, no. You might strike lucky and be one of the very few who manage it, but the odds are against it.

For non-fiction, the answer may be a little different – if you can choose a current subject, and make it interesting and attractive, and if you are very lucky to get a good word from an influential group connected with the subject, you might make some money out of it.

Dec 4, 3:16AM EST0

Do you believe that even younger aspiring authors can still achieve as much as you did in the publishing industry considering how easy it is to self publish a book these days?

Dec 4, 12:23AM EST0

Self-publishing is not an instant road to riches or fame. The main advantage of a publisher is that they will help to promote you and your work. If you self-publish, you must do everything yourself. Every minute you spend promoting yourself is a minute you are not writing. You need more than one book, really, if you are going to make a mark as a writer.

Of course, as a self-publisher you don't just have to do the publicity. All kinds of other things – editing, layout, cover design. Not to mention shipping, invoicing, chasing bad payers, taking care of ISBN and copyright issues.

Remember, Amazon is not the only game in town, though some people seem to think that uploading a Word file to Kindle makes them a published author. It doesn't.

Dec 4, 3:19AM EST0

How long have you been a writer?

Dec 3, 7:14PM EST0

Since I was about 8 years old, over 50 years ago! But my first self-published novel was Beneath Gray Skies, which I released in 2006 (it seems a long time ago). I released two more novels, At the Sharpe End, and Red Wheels Turning, after that, and then was taken on by Inknbeans Press, who have re-published these three and all the other books I've written since then.

But before Beneath Gray Skies, I'd written many other stories and novels which had not been published (and never will be), and I'd written a lot of non-fiction – user manuals, magazine articles, industry reports, and the like.

Last edited @ Dec 6, 10:23AM EST.
Dec 4, 3:11AM EST0

Why does Inspector LeStrade have a French Name when he is so obviously British in personality?

Dec 3, 7:03AM EST0

Not sure - but don't forget that Holmes has some French blood (a grandmother related to the artist Vernet). Lestrade (spelled without the capital S) could be an old Huguenot name, of course.

According to Wikipedia (fwiw): "Doyle used the name of a friend from his days at the University of Edinburgh, a Saint Lucian medical student, Joseph Alexandre Lestrade."

Last edited @ Dec 4, 3:25AM EST.
Dec 3, 7:14AM EST0

What do you think of stories which depict Holmes as being incapacitated by drug addiction?

Dec 3, 7:02AM EST0

To portray him as being "incapacitated by drug addiction" is overstating the case. Holmes only takes the drugs when he is not involved in a case, in order to alleviate the boredom he feels when he is not working.

If he were indeed an addict, he would be taking drugs all the time, not just in idle moments, and it does seem that Watson cured him of even the recreational occasional use of his drugs.

The main drugs to which he is addicted are ones which are still currently legal: nicotine and (to a lesser extent) alcohol. Neither is incapacitating, in the quantities that Holmes takes them, anyway.

Last edited @ Dec 7, 4:37AM EST.
Dec 3, 7:15AM EST0

What made you decide to do this project?

Dec 3, 12:18AM EST0

Which project do you mean? The Sherlock Holmes adventures? It came out of a game of Clue/Cluedo I was playing with a friend and his children. Someone was talking about Sherlock Holmes, and we mentioned his smarter older brother, Mycroft. I then made a joke about no-one ever mentioning Sherlock Holmes' smarter younger sister, and the next day I wrote "The Odessa Business" in which I introduced Evadne Holmes, headmistress of an academy for young ladies, author of mathematical papers refuting the theories of Professor James Moriarty, and adviser to the British government through her elder brother, Mycroft.

Dec 3, 5:10AM EST0