Sherry Thomas has won accolades for giving Sherlock Holmes a fresh look by taking the famous detective and turning him into Charlotte – a disgraced woman who stays in the shadows and can’t reveal herself.
Hi there I’m your host Jenny Wheeler and today Sherry talks about the day she got so mad with an author of a romance she was reading, she decided to write one herself, and about being a best selling USA today romance author.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- How many years it took Sherry to find a publisher
- Why she loves historical mystery
- Falling in love with writing
- The role Benjamin Cumberpatch played in launching Lady Sherlock
- Where she got the idea of making Sherlock a woman
- The fun she’s having with her Mulan project
Where to find Sherry
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to important mentions.
Jenny: But now, here’s Sherry . Hello there Sherry and welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us.
Sherry: A pleasure to be here.
Jenny: Beginning at the beginning – was there a “Once Upon A Time” moment when you decided you wanted to write fiction? And if there was a catalyst, what was it?
Sherry: Mine was exactly like that, actually. But it’s a bit of a funny story. At the time, I was a very young stay at home mother. I think I was maybe 23, and I had a one and a half year old and I was not very good at being a stay at home mother because I was too young, and too disorganized. I was always running behind, so I had very little time to myself.
One day, I went to the library with my son, and I got a romance- a historical romance by an author that I had enjoyed very much when I was in my teenage years. I bought it home, put my son down for a nap, and started reading.
That book disagreed with me on every possible level. I did not finish it. In fact, when I laid it aside I was very angry, which has never happened to me in a book before or since. I was very angry because I had so little time, and that book took all my free time that day, and didn’t give me any pleasure.
Jenny: Oh really! We’re not going to name this book!
Sherry: We’re not going to name this book, because the author is still alive! And because she did give me a lot of pleasure when I was young, and she gave me a career! So this is the woman who has benefited me the most my whole life, after my mother.
Jenny: What was it that made you mad about the book?
Sherry: It was just the decisions the characters made. They were entirely incomprehensible. I think it was just one of those things where I read the wrong thing at the wrong time. Had I of read it at a different time, maybe I would have enjoyed it, or not have minded it so much. But I think it was just the wrong book at the wrong time. So that very day, I’m not sure if I can remember the epiphany, but between noonish and my husband came home that evening, I had made up my mind. I said “hey, guess what! I’m just sitting here at home anyway, I think I can write some historical romances and maybe make some money from it”. In the back of my head, I was thinking I couldn’t do any worse than this book! That was basically what I was thinking.
Jenny: Give me a little bit of a clue as to what decisions other people were making; was it that the women were too submissive or something like that?
Sherry: No, actually it was too riotous. She was acting in a way that I didn’t think was at all possible for a genteelly raised young woman to act. Like in a way that I wouldn’t even know if she’s had governesses around her; where would she have learnt to do those things? It was never told in the book. All of a sudden. she’s just acting in a way that as I say, perhaps I could have enjoyed at a different time. It was just wrong for me at that particular time.
Jenny: It kind of sounds like she was acting out of character, and there wasn’t any particular explanation given as to what would have prompted that particular behavior.
Sherry: I mean, there’s a reason for that particular behavior; I think she was trying to impress a man in the wrong way, and make him not want to marry her. But I was like – this is going way too far!
Jenny: So did you start with historical romance?
Sherry: I did. And I have to say, it’s a lot easier to say that I can write a better book than this, than to actually do it. It took me a very long apprenticeship. So I think the reason I started was all wrong, I think I must have fallen in love with writing. That’s why I continued, because a grudge couldn’t have carried me on!
Jenny: How long did it take you to get published- tell us a little bit about that journey.
Sherry: It took me eight years I believe. It took me eight years to get a contract for my first book, before self publishing was a viable option. So New York was the only way. It took five manuscripts and three rounds of queries before I got my first contract.
Jenny: That requires a lot of dedication to keep going like that, doesn’t it? It really shows the determination.
Sherry: It wasn’t so much that when I got rejected, I had to gather myself up from the ground or anything. I was like, oh well. Let’s go onto the next thing then.
Jenny: And did some of those manuscripts get to see the light of day later on- did you manage to rework them?
Sherry: They did. Of the five completed manuscripts I had written, three of them were later rewritten. In fact the first book I published was because when I accidentally stumbled upon my first manuscript. It’s been like feeding bookworms in a corner of my office for a long time, and it happened to be the only hard copy of a manuscript that I had.
I run an entirely paper free office, so I had only printed out that one copy many years before to give to a friend to read. After she read it, she kindly gave it back to me to give it to someone else to read, which I never did. That was the reason I had it, and I used to print recipes on the backs of the pages. So even today, as I open my recipe collection and start flipping through the pages, on the back of the recipe there will be a love scene!
Jenny: So you’ve written a lot of historical romances- we’ll go into those a little later in our chat- but what really drew my attention in your work was your Lady Sherlock series. I think one of the other writers that I’ve spoken to recommended them to me, and I thought they were such fun. You started with a great premise; what if Sherlock Holmes was a woman. What made you move onto mystery from historical romance?
Sherry: Well, I don’t think that I’ve necessarily moved on from historical romance. Next time I have a good idea, I still plan to write more. I have never thought of myself strictly as a historical romance writer- in fact, even from the very beginning I thought, OK, I’ll get a foot in the door by starting with historical romance because it seemed very popular, and then I was going to write science fiction romance. You know, stories set in space.
That never came to be until quite recently. But just to give you an idea, the fact that I kept writing historical romance is also a sign that I was following along with historical romance. By that time, I had already written a young adult fantasy trilogy while writing historical romance too. I think the first time I thought I’d ever like to write something, I thought I’d like to write a Sherlock Holmes prequel?? check
It was when I read Laurie R King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. That was such a fabulous book, and I thought I’d love to write something like that, with the tremendous female characters and Sherlock Holmes.
That was kind of like a nebulous idea. But then BBC Sherlock came along. Almost as soon as I watched a single episode, I was like Wow! I think the fourth season suffered a bit, but in the beginning it was so energetic, so stylish and everything was just done so perfectly. I was like huh, they’ve completely modernized it.
I know in another modern adaptation in the CBS’ Elementary series they made Watson a woman, so I thought the only thing to do now would be to make Sherlock a woman. So I actually proposed this idea first to my young adult publisher, and they said that actually mysteries do not do very well in young adults.
But I’m pretty sure at the same time as the Lady Sherlock books came out, there was actually a young adult Sherlock adaptation also, featuring Sherlock Holmes’ great granddaughter. Since that didn’t work, I turned around to my adult publishing house and said “hey, I’m running out of ideas for a historical romance- how about I test some historical mysteries?” My timing was good.
At the time, self publishing was greatly on the upswing and publishers- especially romance publishers- were having trouble retaining authors who were leaving to do it by themselves. So I was like, I’m wanting to stay with you guys, but I’m wanting to write more historical mystery instead of historical romance. They took a chance and said yes!
Jenny: Oh that’s great, that’s wonderful! Have you enjoyed doing them?
Sherry: I have enjoyed doing them very much, although they are as hard to write as anything else!
Jenny: In the Lady Sherlock series you’ve been highly praised for giving up a fresh take on the famous detective….with the interesting device of making Sherlock Holmes a woman – a disgraced woman who stays in the shadows and doesn’t reveal herself. The Hollow of Fear, Book Three in that series is in October isn’t it?
Sherry: October 2nd is when The Hollow of Fear is out, yes.
Jenny: Charlotte Holmes is fascinated by ciphers and puzzles – so much so that I suspect you must share her passion for deciphering? Would that be right?
Sherry: In the first book there are some, but in the second book there’s probably more. I think in the second book, the plot revolves around the number of ciphers that she either accidentally comes across, or has to go and seek out. I’m actually not good at ciphers. I’m not that good at them beyond your basic, logic puzzle. Once I see someone starting starting to do groundwork, I’m out of there!
In the second Lady Sherlock book, A Conspiracy in Belgravia, Charlotte tackles a Vigenère cipher which is so tough in the days before computerized ciphering, when your software programs could try all the possibilities for you. It was basically mind cracking work, and you have to be not only smart, but have a ton of patience and a ton of perseverance. I find it’s much more fun to read about other people deciphering things, than doing it myself!
Jenny: I must admit, I listened to that book in the car as an audiobook. I find the cipher part fascinating, but it did kind of fly over my head a little bit! As I say, I was driving a lot of the time but it was fun! I thought, Wow- someone who really understands this stuff, that’s really impressive!
Sherry: Yes, I understand it- I just cannot do it!
Jenny: The Lady Sherlock series has the slow burn of the strong attraction between Charlotte and her benefactor Lord Ingram – but no sex. Some of your other historical romances though really turn up the heat level. Do readers get confused at the difference?
Sherry: I don’t think so. I think readers understood pretty well that these were not romances. In fact, even my publisher got confused at first. When we turned in the first Lady Sherlock book, they were like “OK,, so for the next book, you’re going to pair somebody up with Mrs Watson right? And also in this book, can we solve the romance between Charlotte and Ingram right here?” I was like no! That’s not what I told you!
So we made them understand, and if we could make them understand, in turn we could make everyone else understand what to expect. These are not historical romances with mystery elements, but mysteries with romantic elements. I have had readers say “I like those books, but man I wish you’d write more historical romance because that’s what I love!” I have no problem with that, because I also wish I wrote more historical romance. But nobody has ever come charging into my inbox, saying “I bought these books expecting a lot of heat, and I did not get that!”
Jenny: I wondered if it may be the other way, if somebody read your mysteries and then went to your romances and thought, this isn’t quite the same thing! I’m sure people do have the sense to know.
Sherry: Right. And I think you can look at the cover and pretty much know it’s not the same kind of book. I have some old fashioned covers!
Jenny: I love the Belgravia cover. There’s a real sort of mystery about it, it’s lovely.
Sherry: Yes. It’s very atmospheric.
Jenny: Where do you see Lady Sherlock going? Are there more books coming in the series?
Sherry: I don’t know. In fact, I don’t know from book to book what I’m going to write about, which can be a real problem. I remember being on tour for Book Two last year, and people asking me that question. For a couple of the stops, my editor was in the audience. I had to answer honestly. I don’t know. I’ve thrown out what I’d written for Book Three, and I had to restart. There were only a couple of months left to write it, and I said basically I was going to steal a plot from Book Five. Which is why if you read Book Three, you’ll see suddenly that the romance heats up because I had to steal the plot from Book Five. I thought this would be a much slower burning series, but it turned out not to be! Book Two also stole it’s plot from Book Five.
Book Five is now tapping it’s feet and waiting for me to come and go, you took everything from me! Now I’ve got nothing left to give you! So yes, it’s reliving an adventure. My husband actually said to me, “I’m surprised you can write novels because you were incapable of long term planning”.
That is absolutely true. I’m so incapable of long term planning. If I were busy with my work, and he calls me and tells me to tell him what I need for groceries, I cannot even switch my mind around to give him a proper answer. So day to day stuff is all I can handle. I have no idea what I’m going to do six months from now, or next year. So my books are also kind of like that, which is fun in a way because then I have to look back to see what I’ve written, and kind of see whether I can suss out the parts of these books.
Jenny: So just going back a bit – you’d mentioned you’d borrowed it from Book Five. You must have had a little bit of a structure there of what books one to five were going to cover, didn’t you? How did that work?
Sherry: No, I just start. I wouldn’t make Lord Ingram’s marriage the primary focus of where the mystery has come from until later. Of course I had no idea what to write in the meanwhile, so after looking around a bit, I was like well I guess you’re it!
Jenny: You’re a USA Today best selling author in historical romance with several series – the Fitzhughs, the London Trilogy – published. What do you enjoy about historical romance?
Sherry: I don’t know why I tend to focus on the historical area. It’s because I read for escape, and the past just seems a bigger escape than the present. That’s not to say that the present cannot be a great escape, but the past is further away! I’m a big fan of fantasies, and science fiction. So you know, I like to be elsewhere. That’s probably the main reason.
Jenny: You mentioned that tantalizing little hint earlier of a space series- have you worked on something that’s set in space?
Sherry: Yes I have. I wrote a little novella a long time ago. I had this idea that I would write one paragraph, and ask a few of my friends-so four of my friends would all start on this one paragraph- which begins at a ball, and we each spin off from it and all write something that is not historical romance. So in the end, it took me seven years to get around to it, but in the end I wrote mine. It was a space ball, a weightless ball. So I had a lot of fun writing that little novella.
Jenny: And do you think there’s any more space stories coming?
Sherry: I would like for there to be, because I think science fiction was actually my first love in reading. There was science fiction, and Chinese martial arts, romance and then fantasy.
Jenny: And then you have your Young Adult fantasy series The Elementals? Would it be fair to conclude you write as much for your own entertainment as that of your readers and that you enjoy variety?
Sherry: I am a very slow writer. So I also have to consider the economics of the equations. If somebody has paid me to write, then whatever they have paid me for takes priority over what I would like to write for fun. Recently, I branched out because one day my agent said, “hey, I’ve got an editor who is interested in a young adult’s adaptation of The Ballad of Mulan”. There’s never been a young adult’s novel adaptation of it done in the English language.
With the Disney Live remake of Mulan coming up, they wanted to take advantage of the timing. They asked me if I was interested, and I was like I’ve never given Mulan a thought in my life! But I was intrigued. With the original ballad, it’s a very short poem. It really makes no mention of what she did in the army all those years- it’s like two lines.
This is not related to Disney, so I cannot write Disney’s movie as a book. It basically requires a whole scale reconceptualisation. But we were able to do it. She liked my original proposal, and we went in and I just got finished with it, in fact. I’m quite pleased with it. If people wanted to pay me money,I’m willing to write all kinds of things!
Jenny: Wow, that sounds interesting!
Sherry: I’m not as much of an artist as I should be!
Jenny: It sounds like you can turn your creative powers to anything.
Sherry: It’s not so much “anything” but I do feel that a lot of writing is execution. People tend to put a lot of emphasis on ideas, but I always feel that if I bend my mind to it, I can execute just about anything to my own liking.
Moving to a more general focus, away from specific books to your wider career
Jenny: Is there one thing you’ve done in your writing career more than any other that’s been the secret to your success?
Sherry: I don’t know- I think it is that attention to execution, because I have had the good fortune of having either tough editors, or a very tough critique partner looking at my books. They have been very unsparing in telling me what the heck is wrong with all of that.
I have always payed great attention to what they said, and I’ve always taken the time to think it through, and to think OK, what can I do?
So it both addresses their concern and will end up being something that is my work. I have never hesitated in throwing away drafts, half drafts or whole drafts when it turns out it wasn’t good, or that I could just do better.
Basically, every book has been written till I cannot do it any better, and for me, that’s how I see it. Whether I do it particularly well, that’s for other people to judge. But this is all I can do at my end.
Jenny: Yes, so you’re really saying you’re a disciplined craftsperson. That’s how it comes across to me.
Sherry: A lot of people wouldn’t use the word “disciplined” to describe me! But I feel like for all my books, I have done the maximum that I can.
Jenny: You’ve published a stunning array of international editions of your work. How many languages are you published in – and do you find different nationalities respond differently?
Sherry: I think 13 or 14 languages, so obviously not as many as I could be published in! But I think I did four books in German, and I paid for the translation myself to be self published, because my good friend was doing it at the time. Usually I take a passive view to publishing abroad, which is basically waiting for other publishers abroad to bring their inquires to my agent, and for my agent to pass it on to me and ask if I’ll accept it.
So I haven’t had too great a hand in how many languages I’ve been published in. But as for what people respond to in each language- I’m very grateful to the French. They have bought all my romances. Romances have been the most popular; my historical romances have been the most popular choices for publishers abroad. I think because romances are stand alone, typically. They’re not having to invest in three or four books at a time. Or maybe there’s just a large readership.
I think the Spanish are very passionate about my first book. From time to time, I’ll get these desertion of letters that I feed into Google translate to see what it means! And oddly enough, the Spanish have bought my first two books, and it’s always the first book that inspires that kind of reaction. Then they read the second book, which is quieter, like a book with more longing. Whereas the first book is more of a passionate confrontation.
Jenny: You sound like you’ve got those in the right order!
Turning to Sherry as reader
Jenny: The series is called “The Joys of Binge Reading” because I see it as providing inspiration for people who like to read series . . . .So – turning to your taste in fiction who do you “binge read” ?
Sherry: I don’t know if I’m the classic definition of a “binge reader” in that I will go through an author’s whole body of work in one go. Although there was one stretch of time when I was on really tight deadlines, and really stressed.
For some reason, whenever I would stop working at night, I would go and check out electronic copies of the old Agatha Christie work from the library. Like almost every night, because they were short and you could count on them to be well written and they don’t require too much emotional investment.
But I do very much enjoy Louise Penny’s Inspector Armand Gamache series. I do very much enjoy- and I’m not sure if I’m getting her name right- Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series, which is a young adult series. I am one book behind on that. Very often, I tend to read in a much more “buffet” type. Style rather than “binge read”.
I am binge reading, but I’m binge reading widely. Like right now, I am reading Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. I want to read a heist book, and that is a heist book. I just finished A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin, which I tried in middle school and high school but got a little too scared and halfway through I didn’t finish for some reason.
This time I just listen to it all the way through. I’m also listening to Tiffany Haddish. That’s actually probably one more book than I can handle, because I notice that if I’m going for three books at once, I’ll become very distracted in other thing that I’m doing. My brain will be too full of stories, and I’ll be dropping things and forgetting tasks!
Jenny: That sounds great, you certainly have a smorgasbord there!
Sherry: Exactly; a smorgasbord, that’s the perfect way of describing it.
Circling back to the end
(I see this as a bit of a narrative)
Jenny: At this stage in your career, if you were doing it all again, what would you change – if anything?
Sherry: I really can’t say I would change anything career wise, because first of all it won’t happen, no matter how much I wish it! And second of all, I’m OK with how much everything has turned out, because I think at every moment along the journey, I made the best choices I could. There’s usually a bit of regret when I think back to taking one particular contract- I had to leave my publisher in the summer of 2011 I think.
So I moved to another publisher, and I took a lesser contract- more books and less time for less money. Six months after I took that contract was basically when self publishing took off. In another few months, my friend Courtney Milan would bring out her own self published novella and hit the New York Times list right away.
I was locked into that three book contract, and could only look at other people, you know to gamesters given I was a very slow writer, and given that I couldn’t even self publish the books I had under my belt. They were also historical romances, and I had to give my publisher first look at that. They had the option clause. So there was a time when I thought maybe I shouldn’t have done that.
On the other hand, I always knew I wasn’t a brilliant businesswoman. So I wouldn’t have done that tremendously at self publishing. In the end, I have no regrets. I wouldn’t have done anything differently. If anything, I would have just told myself not to worry about it. Just keep going.
Jenny: And you’re happy to stay traditionally published?
Sherry: Because I’m very lazy- not very lazy, but I like my free time and I like doing nothing. My brain kind of shuts down if I’m only working all day long. I think to succeed in self publishing, you have to work tremendously hard and I’m OK I’ll take the tradeoff. Although- I’ll put it out there- a friend of mine told me you have to put your desires out aloud. A bunch of years ago, I think I said aloud to my husband “I don’t ever want an assistant. I don’t ever want to be successful enough to have an assistant”. I think that was the wrong thing to say!
Jenny: You voiced the wrong thing there!
Sherry: Exactly. I should have said, I would like to be successful enough to have two assistants!
Jenny: What is next for Sherry as writer? New projects under development?
Sherry: So the Mulan adaptation will be out this time next year. I have to right now immediately start writing Lady Sherlock 4, because that is due in two months. I said I have to start right, which means I haven’t started yet!
Jenny: Yes, that’s quite tight isn’t it?
Sherry: Yes, that’s quite tight. I have maybe two or three months to produce the first draft. Then it’ll be an uphill fight all the way. At the moment, I’m just fulfilling obligations. I have to wait till Lady Sherlock 4 finishes, and I also have 5 under contract before I can think of what else to do. But in the meanwhile, if somebody else would like to see me write something, and they have plenty of money to throw around; contact me, I’m available!
Jenny: Where can readers find you on line?
Sherry: My website is www.sherrythomas.com. I am on Twitter @sherrythomas, Instagram @writersherrythomas, and on Facebook I’m Author Sherry Thomas.
Jenny: Do you interact quite a bit with your readers?
Sherry: I’m not sure how to judge that. If readers take the initiative to say something to me, I’ll always say something back. I’m not one to go out and look for interactions! It’s that laziness again- I wake up in the morning and it’s just one fewer thing for me to do.
Jenny: Well look that’s wonderful, I’m looking forward to seeing number 3 in another couple of weeks. Wishing you all the very best for your continuing career.
Sherry: Thank you very much, I hope you enjoy Book # Three and thanks so much for having me on your lovely, fun podcast!
Thanks To Our Technical Support:
The Joys of Binge Reading podcast is put together with wonderful technical help from Dan Cotton at DC Audio Services. Dan is an experienced sound and video engineer who’s ready and available to help you with your next project… Seek him out at email@example.com or Phone + 64 – 21979539. He’s fast, takes pride in getting it right, and lovely to work with.
Our voice overs are done by Abe Raffills, and Abe’s another gem. He got 20 years of experience on both sides of the camera/microphone as a cameraman/director and also voice artist and television presenter. Abe’s vocal delivery is both light hearted and warm and he is super easy to work with no matter the job. You’ll find him at firstname.lastname@example.org