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A Cheat Sheet to London

Narrelle Harris non fiction Stuff Sherlock would know

Writing about a city you don’t live in can be challenging, especially when the characters you write about are very steeped in a particular metropolis, the way that Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are so associated with London.

It’s challenging, too, when you might be writing of Holmes and Watson in the London of the 19th Century. London remains very much the sum of its history, but new layers are always being placed over the old, and some of its past was torn down and obliterated in various building booms over the centuries.

The tricks of writing about London (past or present) are intensified when you’re writing about Sherlock Holmes in other ways, too. Here is a man who, in Conan Doyle’s books, prided himself on having an exact knowledge of London. 

Piling hard work upon challenge, too, is the fact that when you’re writing a Sherlock Holmes mystery, you have to write something that’s outré; that is on the lines of the grotesque. Any ordinary crime can be solved by the police. Holmes is often engaged in cases that are not even, strictly speaking crimes, or if they are, they are obscure and bloodless ones.

How then is a non-Londoner writer to become steeped in the city and to introduce obscure but verifiable elements that will help to create stories both peculiar and plausible?

Why, dear reader, the answer is to cheat.

By which of course I mean research.

Here are some of the books and sites I’ve used to get to know London a little better and look for ways to introduce a little blush of reality into the twisting plots of a Sherlock Holmes story.


Londonist delivers great little posts about contemporary London as well as its hidden history. Some favourite posts are:

Odd London History

I have a nice little collection of books with obscure details about London – odd little stories and strange little places that exist still in that great city.

A History of London in 100 Places by David Long

Londonopolis by Martin Latham

London’s Strangest Tales by Tom Quinn

The London Underground

Getting to grips with the London Underground is also useful reading. The Underground first opened in 1863, so Sherlock and John could have been using it from the start of their adventures. It’s not all hansom cabs and shoe leather! And did you know the famous roundel and the term ‘Underground’ weren’t used until 1908? Books and websites I’ve enjoyed and found useful are:

Underground, Overground: A Passenger’s History of the Tube by Andrew Martin

 And on the web:

Share your cheat sheet

I mean, share your research

What books, sites and resources can you recommend for the non-Londoner writing about London?

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  • Narrelle M Harris on

    Dorothy McComb: you’ve sent me on the hunt for a Baedeker. I have a bid on an 1898 edition right now!

    For those interested, the guides seem to be available as ebooks as well, for various years:

  • Anonymous_me on

    Thank you for this list – I am headed to London in February (as a 50th! birthday present to myself) and I am gathering up all the good intel I can get my hands on!

  • Narrelle M Harris on

    The lovely Karen Carlisle was inspired by this list to do a cheat sheet of her own, which has some excellent resources in it, especially for Victorian London:

  • Dorothy McComb on

    Some years ago I had an 1888 copy of Baedecker’s guide to London. It had everything – places to go, maps of the streets and individual buildings, good restaurants … I have no idea where it went (probably lost as a sacrifice to the gods of moving house at some point) but I wish I still had it. Next time I’m in NYC I’m going to hit the Strand and see if they have something from the period. Highly recommended if you can find one.

  • Atlin Merrick on

    Thank you for all these great links Narrelle, this’ll keep me going for a long time and I lived in London for over four years. I’d add my two wee London-centric metas to this list of things that might help those not currently in that fine city:

    London Done Write

    Things to Do In London by John H. Watson and Sometimes Sherlock Holmes

    Thank you again! rubs hands gleefully

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