Passion. It’s what drives us as writers. It can come in many forms: music, food, art, and of course, books.
What I love about today’s W.O.W. with Brittany Cavallaro is she used her passion for Sherlock Holmes to write a Young Adult manuscript where the main character is the great-great-granddaughter of the famous sleuth himself. The idea of taking one of mystery’s greatest detectives and transforming his adventures into a modern day tale where his relative is now the lead is fascinating. It’s this passion that made her book, A STUDY IN CHARLOTTE, a standout, eventually attracting the attention of an agent and editor.
Many thanks to Brittany for sharing her writing journey today…
At what age did you truly know you wanted to be a writer?
I knew pretty young. I was always scratching away in notebooks, writing poems about ridiculous things (I have an actual notebook filled with poetic dialogue between Mulder and Scully; I have no shame), writing stories. I was really lucky that my parents paid attention to what I loved to do and supported me. Because of them, I took creative writing classes in the summer and eventually applied for and won a scholarship to go to an arts boarding school. In a way, I almost regret my single-mindedness, since it would have been really fun to chase down some other dreams at some point along the way (painting! marine biology!), though I’m sure I would have come back to writing eventually.
When did you complete your first manuscript?
Not until my MFA in poetry, actually. I’d written quite a bit before that, but I’d never compiled my poems into a manuscript. As for writing novels, other than a misfire when I was in high school, I didn’t attempt one until my twenty-fifth birthday. I remember lying on the couch, thinking about the summer stretching ahead of me—I was, and still am, in grad school—and kicking around an idea for a scene set against Lake Michigan, at my favorite waterfront dive up in Wisconsin’s Door County, and I began to imagine the disaffected, badass girl that tended bar there. That became my first manuscript, and the one I queried agents with.
How many completed manuscripts did you query before one garnered agent interest?
I was lucky. The first manuscript I queried agents with landed me mine (the incredible Lana Popovic at Chalberg and Sussman). She had such smart, incisive ideas for revision; I felt like we were speaking the same language. I also showed her the first forty pages of A STUDY IN CHARLOTTE, which she was excited about too, and I loved that she was interested in my other projects. This was back in fall 2013. We’d been planning on going out with that first full manuscript but decided in the end that I should finish writing CHARLOTTE, which I did in six crazy, obsessive, caffeinated weeks. That other manuscript is in a drawer; I’m not really sure if I’ll pull it out again. Though I loved it, it was definitely a starter novel.
Are you one of those people who has an easy time writing a query or does it take several tries before you land on the one you want to send?
My first stab at a query made me sound pretty stupid, I think, but I was lucky to have some agented and published friends who were willing to help me whip it into fighting trim. I listed comps to things I adored (Laini Taylor, Buffy) but that, until I actually wrote a query, I hadn’t realized had influenced my manuscript as much as they did. Thinking about those influences was a really useful exercise when I sat down to revise.
I love how you talk about Sherlock Holmes in the bio on your website. Did you always know somewhere deep down you’d write something involving him one day?
Oh God, yes. I’m a passionate Sherlockian and have been since I was a kid, though the most recent iteration of that obsession took root about five years ago, when I rediscovered the stories, the wonderful BBC radio adaptation, and the Jeremy Brett Granda series all in the same summer. I sort of walked around in a Victorian fugue state for months. That period spurred my writing a Sherlock Holmes murder mystery in poems, because I loved the language of the stories so much and wanted to steal some of it for my own work. And then, as the television adaptations began to come out, Sherlock and Elementary, etc., I began to think more about the process of adaptation. I love both those shows, but I got increasingly frustrated that none of them were willing to cast the genius role, the Sherlock, as a girl. I started writing A STUDY IN CHARLOTTE as both a love letter to the original stories and as a fix-it to address that frustrations.
Can you give us a short summary of your call with your agent, Lana Popovic? How did you know she was the right fit for you?
I knew absolutely when I got her long editorial letter before I’d even signed with her. It was like she was inside my own head, but smarter. She was able to pinpoint what I did well and what parts of the manuscript were broken and needed fixing. I revised and resubmitted, and though I had interest from other agents, I sort of said ‘yes!’ the moment she called to offer me representation. It just felt like an incredible fit from the get-go, and she’s been my best reader, and my stalwart champion, since.
The writing process is grueling and querying even more difficult. What one piece of advice can you impart to aspiring writers to encourage them to keep working towards their dream?
Don’t be afraid to take a step back, if you need to, and recharge. After I finished the first draft of CHARLOTTE and a quick, intensive revision, I was sort of artistically useless for months. The best thing I did during that time was read for pleasure. I read everything, from the fantasy novels I loved as a kid to really fabulous new literary fiction, and I wouldn’t let myself analyze it critically or compare my own work to it. I just let myself enjoy it, and when I felt full and happy again, buoyed by all that reading, I was ready to go back to work.
The last thing sixteen-year-old Jamie Watson–writer and great-great-grandson of the John Watson–wants is a rugby scholarship to Sherringford, a Connecticut prep school just an hour away from his estranged father. But that’s not the only complication: Sherringford is also home to Charlotte Holmes, the famous detective’s enigmatic, fiercely independent great-great-granddaughter, who’s inherited not just his genius but also his vices, volatile temperament, and expertly hidden vulnerability. Charlotte has been the object of his fascination for as long as he can remember–but from the moment they meet, there’s a tense energy between them, and they seem more destined to be rivals than anything else.
Then a Sherringford student dies under suspicious circumstances ripped straight from the most terrifying of the Holmes stories, and Jamie and Charlotte become the prime suspects. Convinced they’re being framed, they must race against the police to conduct their own investigation. As danger mounts, it becomes clear that nowhere is safe and the only people they can trust are each other.
Brittany Cavallaro is the author of A Study in Charlotte, forthcoming from Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins in March 2016. She is the author of the poetry collection Girl-King (University of Akron) and is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. She earned her BA in literature from Middlebury College and her MFA in poetry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Currently, she’s a PhD candidate in English literature at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She lives in Wisconsin with her fiance, cat, and collection of deerstalker caps. Find her at her website, brittanycavallaro.com, or on Twitter @skippingstones.