In this installment of our Q&A series, Minerva spoke with Sarah Remy about the pros and cons of fanfiction tropes, writing fanfic while parenting, and how reading fanfic has improved her professional writing.
Minerva Mag: What is your fanfiction penname? How did you come up with it?
I write on [Archive of Our Own] as otp221b, but most of my followers know me as Sarah. I fell into the fanfiction rabbit hole late in life and via the Sherlock Holmes fandom, and I wanted a pen name indicative of my niche. OTP (one true pairing) 221b is about as straight forward as it gets. I’m rabid. I drive a Baker St Mini Cooper and own first editions of Laurel K. Hamilton’s Mary Russel series
MM: What type of fanfiction do you write? How long have you been writing for that fandom(s)?
At the moment, exclusively BBC Sherlock. I’ve been a Holmes aficionado since I was a child, read the canon stories over and over again, then moved on to pastiches. Up until a few years ago I had no idea how much Sherlock Holmes fanfiction was out and about on the interwebs – I was remarkably naïve!
I started writing for the fandom in 2014.
MM: What led you to fanfiction?
Fanart. There’s some absolutely astounding BBC Sherlock/Elementary/canon Holmes artwork and graphics out there. I’m a visual person and I’m also completely incapable of drawing even the simplest stick figures – I go full squee over my favorite characters brought to life as art of any kind. Some of the pieces I ran across were inspired by fanfiction. I was curious, I clicked on the links, started reading, and that was that.
MM: What was the first piece of fanfiction you ever created? What did you learn from it?
It was a post-BBC Sherlock Season Three ‘fix-it’, and I made the mistake of writing it the same way I write my profic. I jumped in with both feet before reading enough of the classic fic authors and learning how it was done. Honestly, I had no clue. My first piece was written in first person [point of view], which can be a huge turn-off for many fanfic readers.
MM: To what extent does your family know about your fanfic writing? Does your 12-year-old read any of your work? Does it change the way you write knowing that your child could be reading it someday?
It’s not a secret. I get teased a lot, but that’s okay, it’s friendly teasing. I get teased about my professional fic, too. I get teased because as a writer I have my head in the clouds more often than not, day dreaming or plotting. My 12-year-old has no interest in reading anything I write. My 15-year-old reads Elementary, Harry Potter, and Bones fic. We’re open about what I consider ‘appropriate’ fic ratings for a high school sophomore, and both my children know I do random screen checks. It’s not so much that I worry about what they read, but that I trust them to move away if something makes them uncomfortable.
When I was in high school I was an avid scifi and fantasy reader. My father disapproved of both genres and eventually forbade me reading it. I had to sneak into the library to read people like Le Guin and Tolkien and Philip K Dick, which of course I did. Because when you’re sixteen and you’re a book nerd, nothing stops you from getting your hands on your favorite authors. My husband’s grandmother threw Catcher in the Rye into the family outhouse because she considered it inappropriate.
Am I comparing fanfic to Catcher in the Rye? Not really. But I don’t write worrying about who will someday read my stories and whether or not they’ll be tossed down the family outhouse.
MM:Are there “rules” for writing for fanfiction? What are the standards that you like to follow?
There are tropes. But you’ll find tropes in most genres, right? Tropes in romance, horror, fantasy, military fiction. Often, professionally, you want to avoid over-used tropes. But tropes can also be comfortable, familiar. They’re like genre sign posts – you know you’re in the right universe. It’s the same with fanfiction. You and write Sherlock Holmes and beekeeping twenty different times in twenty different fics and it’s still all good.
MM: Which tropes do you use in your Sherlock fanfic? Which tropes do you try to avoid?
I like the ‘John-is-a-bamf-beneath-that-everyman-facade’ trope. Also the ‘John-keeps-Sherlock-fed-and-rested’ trope – that one’s often used in Sherlock fanfic, but doesn’t actually occur in the BBC series. You never see John make Sherlock tea in the series, yet somehow John making Sherlock tea and toast is almost a constant in Sherlock fic. ‘Sherlock-as-clueless-about-emotion’ is a useful trope, but Virgin Sherlock is a popular trope I try to avoid. Also, there’s a lot of Sexually Confused John out in fanfic world, and I can’t see myself ever writing that trope.
MM: How has writing Sherlock fanfic changed the way you watch the show?
Good fanfic rings true to character. No matter where you write Sherlock and John – contemporary London, or 1895, or into a Harry Potter crossover – you need the characters to be recognizable. When I watch or re-watch the BBC series I’m always paying attention to characterization. What makes BBC Moriarty recognizable as BBC Moriarty? Moffat and Gatiss’ writing, and Andrew Scott’s acting. Moftiss’ dialogue and Scott’s inflection and body expression all bring the character to life. So then, if I’m writing something around BBC Moriarty, I need to do my best to reproduce that individuality in a discernible manner, because that’s what readers expect of good fanfic.
So, yes, when I watch the show, I’m watching characterization.
MM: How would you describe the fanfiction community to a friend who’s unfamiliar with it?
As a group of enthusiastic readers and writers who use old ideas to tell new stories, or new ideas to retell old stories. The community is inherently kind and appreciative, also very passionate and talented. Like any fandom, it has its ups and downs, but it’s definitely a creative community I’ll always stand behind and stand with.
MM:How does the instant feedback you receive from reviewers affect your writing? Have comments ever changed what you planned for a story?
I love the instant feedback simply because it makes me feel part of a friendly literary community. Readers and writers comment, discussions pop up, author fics may be recced or, for instance, an offhand comment might lead to an entire thread dissecting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s characterization of Irene Adler.
I can’t think of any instance where a reader’s comment has changed a storyline. I generally go into a fic knowing what tale I want to tell, and I’m OC enough to stick to my original plan. I’m also not unused to feedback. I’ve been writing a long time. I get good reviews and bad reviews professionally, I don’t take either personally.
MM: How is writing within the fanfiction community different from writing for traditional publications (literary journals/websites, etc.)?
In my experience, there’s very little difference. Serious fic authors put a ton of work into their work. They generally have one or more beta readers lined up to edit for spelling, grammar, canon compliance and even, in case of Holmes, says, to ‘Brit-pick’ if needed and check local idioms. Fic writers will also often have self-imposed deadlines, and stick to them. Fic writing is as much a labor of skill and love as writing in any other fictional genre.
MM:Has anything you wrote as fanfiction turned into something more, such as a novel?
No, I’ve sort of worked backwards. I was a professional writer before I authored any fic. Sometimes I’ll test a profic idea in a fanfic AU, not so much to see how readers respond to the plot bunny, but more as a technical exercise for myself.
MM: How has writing for fanfiction affected your other writing?
Not so much the writing fanfiction, but the READING fanfiction has improved upon my profic the same way reading any other fiction does; there are some fantastically talented authors out there, and I learn the craft of writing by reading those who have more skill than I. Many times I finish a fic thinking: “God, I wish I could write like that.”
MM: What do you think was the biggest lesson you took away from reading fanfic? How does it show up in your writing?
How to write in the present tense. I don’t write present tense in my professional writing, and it was really difficult to make it work. My brain’s wired to write differently. But it’s a fun exercise. Maybe someday I’ll try it in a pro story.
MM: What fanfiction story of yours would you like us to highlight?
Oh, I don’t think there’s a particular one. Testudo Horsefieldii is a sweet little kidlock AU. Many of my fics are locked to non-AO3 users, because I tend to write adult themes, and as a parent I’d hate to have my 12 year old Google ‘Sherlock Holmes’ and run up upon a drug use fic. Yes, I know I’m being naïve again, but it’s just how I roll. It’s important to me that fic readers are educated, that they understand the tagging system and don’t accidentally stumble upon something triggering or just uncomfortable. In my opinion AO3 does a good job with the tags, and I feel as though I can write safely for registered users.
MM: What fanfiction story (other than one you created) would you recommend?
I won’t, because I don’t think it’s fair to put a fic author in the limelight unless they’ve volunteered. There are a ton of trolls out on the interwebs, and there are people who simply don’t understand or enjoy the fandom ficcing community. It sets up the possibility for all sorts of bad things if a fic (even an excellent fic) is presented as an example outside of fandom. You’ve maybe seen this happen with fanart in the media. It’s really never a comfortable thing, and I’m very protective of fandom.
There are, however, easy ways to find a good fic on your own. Again, look at the tags – make sure it’s the fandom (Marvel, Avengers, Agent Carter, LOTR, etc) that you’re interested in. Check the tags, double check, be sure there’s nothing listed that might turn you off. Then look at the kudos or likes. Tons of up votes usually means a classic and well written fic.
Oh, oh, wait! I do have an excellent Sherlock Holmes fanfic rec, A Study in Emerald.
MM: If you could tell Sir Arthur Conan Doyle one thing to change about his Sherlock Holmes series, what would you tell him?
I wish he hadn’t retired Sherlock away from London and John Watson.
In 1994 Sarah Remy earned a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing from Pomona College in California. Since then she’s been employed as a receptionist at a high-powered brokerage firm, managed a boutique bookstore, read television scripts for a small production company, and, more recently, worked playground duty at the local elementary school.
When she’s not taking the service industry by storm, she’s writing fantasy and science fiction. Sarah likes her fantasy worlds gritty, her characters diverse and fallible, and she doesn’t believe every protagonist deserves a happy ending.
Before joining the Harper Voyager family, she published with EDGE, Reuts, and Madison Place Press.
Sarah lives in Washington State with plenty of animals and people, both. In her limited spare time she rides horses, rehabs her old home, and supervises a chaotic household. She can talk to you endlessly about Sherlock Holmes, World of Warcraft, and backyard chicken husbandry, and she’s been a member of one of Robin Hobb’s longest-running online fan clubs since 2002.
Featured image via Joel Montes de Oca. Author photo courtesy of Ms. Remy.