Tim Symonds was born in Hampstead, London. He grew up in Somerset, Dorset and Guernsey. After several years working in the Kenya Highlands and along the Zambezi River he emigrated to Canada and then the United States. He studied at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in Political Science, and in Germany at Göttingen. He writes his novels in a converted oast house in 'Conan Doyle country', near Rudyard Kipling’s old home Bateman’s in East Sussex and in clement weather among the trees and hidden valleys of the Sussex High Weald, on two occasions polishing the final draft on the tiny Mediterranean island of Gavdos (see photo, seated on a fallen tree).
He first thought of writing novels when he was 12, watching his uncle Elleston Trevor (‘Flight of the Phoenix’, ‘The Quiller Memorandum’ etc) in Guernsey at the time Elleston Trevor was struggling to get published. During his undergrad and grad days at UCLA Tim spent the summers deep down in Mexico at a near-abandoned village by the name of San Blas, trying to write a novel based on his own adventures in Africa a few years earlier. He continued working on the story in Jamaica, Versailles, a tiny island off West Africa by the name of Fernando Po, and in Oxford. The unfinished typescript is still lying around in some dusty cupboard unpublished.
The author’s detective novels are published by Steve Emecz at MX Publishing, the world’s largest publisher of Sherlock Holmes stories. They include Sherlock Holmes and The Dead Boer at Scotney Castle (now into its second edition), Sherlock Holmes and The Case of the Bulgarian Codex, Sherlock Holmes And The Mystery of Einstein’s Daughter and Sherlock Holmes And The Sword of Osman. The Mystery of Einstein's Daughter is based on a real-life event in the life of Albert Einstein circa 1903. (Einstein and Holmes were, of course, near contemporaries). His fifth is expected out in the summer 2016, with the provisional title of Sherlock Holmes And The Empress of China - once again, for geopolitical reasons, Britain's esteemed foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey has asked Holmes to help a decaying Empire survive for a while longer, this time the Qing.
Q. You are noted for your meticulously researched Sherlock Holmes novels. How important is it for you to get all that detail correct?
I like to get details correct mainly because I feel my readership has an enquiring mind and can take it in, as long as I don't overdo it. One of the joys of doing the research is the way people at the top of their game are ready to provide information - scientists, historians, botanists (including specialists in plant toxins), guns and explosives experts, and Conan Doyle specialists such as Roger Johnson and Jean Upton and David Marcum, and top librarians like Catherine Cooke who manages to get me the most bizarre information, most recently on the size of printed Chinese ideograms for my next novel.
We live in a period where more people have become literate and knowledgeable (especially with Google and Wikipedia at their fingertips) than in all the history of the world. In Sherlock Holmes And The Mystery Of Einstein's Daughter I brought in some background on how Albert Einstein at age 26 came up with his staggeringly important theories (including E = mc 2) while at the same time an event was taking place in Serbia concerning him that has never been solved - the greatest mystery in the world's greatest physicist's life.
It pays for all novelists to get the research right or you will get a correction from some of your readers. I remember a novelist-uncle of mine, Elleston Trevor ('Flight Of The Phoenix', 'The Quiller Memorandum' etc) writing a war book at an early stage of his writing career. He was in Guernsey where I grew up. In those days it took a fortnight or more to order library books from the Mainland (England), and doing research was really tough. In his novel he mentioned the Tommies using a certain weapon. As soon as the novel appeared, a retired Military chap wrote a scornful letter to the publisher saying that 'while that weapon did go into service later that year, at the time the novel is set it was still in the testing stage'!
Elleston sent him a very pleasant note saying he would like to check such military matters with him in the future, nicely getting the Colonel on-side.
Q. I noted with pleasure the sale of your 'Sherlock Holmes And The Dead Boer at Scotney Castle' adventure in the gift shop at...wait for it...Scotney Castle! That must be enormously satisfying to you as a local resident.
Yes, it's nice to have a modicum of recognition in one's own home territory - people at the wonderful Bistro at my nearest railway station at Etchingham are friendly and interested, and the owner, Paul, has put up a large colour poster of the cover of Sherlock Holmes And The Dead Boer At Scotney Castle on the wall. In the plot, I deliberately used two famed National Trust properties in East Sussex, partly because I go to Scotney Castle and to Bateman's, Rudyard Kipling's old home in Burwash, regularly for a walk and a cuppa and a chance to sit reflecting in the famous gardens, but also because umpteen thousands of people from across the world come to see those two properties and might like to read a Sherlock Holmes adventure set in the very place they're visiting.
Q. Is it hands-on research? Do you travel to the places you set your works in?
My research is both hands on in the sense I find Google and Wikipedia absolutely essential - wouldn't my uncle Elleston Trevor have loved having all the information in the universe at his finger tips in those faraway days in St Peter Port - and, yes, from visiting the setting of my plots. I live in deepest Sussex which is where Conan Doyle spent many of his later years and where Holmes retired to tend his bee-farm (near East Dean). I had also visited Istanbul (the 'Stamboul' of my 'Sherlock Holmes And The Sword of Osman') several times before deciding to use the old city for the plot. I'm hoping to have my next novel - the one set in Peking circa 1907 - translated into Mandarin to try out the Chinese market. If it does sell there, I plan to visit Peking as well as other parts of China mentioned in the novel - including the Eastern Qing Tombs. As yet, my now considerable knowledge of the last of China's Chinese Dynasties and the extraordinary Empress Dowager Cixi has come from reading a pile of books at my shoulder so high they threaten to collapse on me and end my writing career.
Q. Where do you do your writing? A quiet room? The fields of Sussex, Sussex weather permitting?
Through the winter I do the writing in a small room in the converted oast house (see photo attached) where I live with my partner Lesley Abdela. In fact I displaced her from a small room she set up as a painting room complete with easel. During the afternoons, whatever thetemperature, I take a book and step out straight into the High Weald, a wonderland of trees and deer and bird sounds, including four buzzards which circle above with their weird cry. I have about 5 canvas chairs placed strategically around the woods, hidden from ramblers (andpoachers). Even when it's in the depth of winter, hidden by trees from the cold winds, I can spend a very happy hour or so doing my research. On some unseasonably warm mornings the badgers come out and sniff around my Wellingtons. Ditto rabbits, like Watership Down. The crows are around all the time, raucous lot. They are said to have the intelligence of a 5 year old human. I haven't had much experience with young kids but I bet it's true. A crow is at the centre of my next plot so I've been in touch with some of the world's experts on the Corvid family. As I say so often, one of the wonders of writing when you have at least one novel 'out there' (e.g. 'available from all fine bookshops') is how amazingly willing the greatest experts are at advising you. The unfortunate crow in my next novel carries a black powder firecracker strapped to its leg. I sought advice on black powder from Britain's top explosives' expert.
Writing is not really seasonal. Autumn comes and goes, so does Winter (Winters are long and really noticeable living in an isolated English valley far from the diversions of a town). And then Spring - mostly still inside the workroom. In Summer I fire up a lap-top and take it up into the hills to continue the novel, though as yet there isn't enough signal cover in my neck of the woods for me to use a dongle, so no wiki up there. Even my iPhone finds it hard to get a signal.
For three years in succession I rounded off the final copy on a tiny island off Crete called Gavdos. That's where I completed 'Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of Einstein's Daughter' and also 'The Sword of Osman'. There's no doubt it pays to do a final run through in a completely different location. As I say in my Acknowledgments, given the tremendous competition among authors of Sherlock Holmes tales for readership, I would not be able to complete any of them if it were not for the hard work of my partner. She's a world expert on post-conflict reconstruction and peacebuilding and goes into truly dangerous regions, in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa etc.
Q. What do you think of Conan Doyle's Holmes?
I must confess I admire Holmes's qualities immensely while not finding him a deeply likeable character - but he doesn't ask to be liked, either in my novels or in Conan Doyle's original stories. However, Dr. John H. Watson does want people to like him, and I do. I have made sure that while he is still baffled, bewildered and staggered by the speed and clarity of his comrade-in-arms' mental faculties, he is himself far from the doddering twit early motion pictures portrayed him. As I reported in the Author’s Notes in my novel ‘Sherlock Holmes And The Sword Of Osman’ I was on a train to Charing Cross from deepest East Sussex when I read a description of an English countryman which struck me as the epitome of Dr. Watson in middle age. It was in ‘The Crooked Scythe’ by George Ewart Evans, an anthology of memories of men and women of a past era—farm labourers, shepherds, horsemen, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, sailors, fisherman, miners, maltsters, domestic servants. The introduction to ‘The Crooked Scythe’ was by a David Gentleman who described the author George Evans as follows:
‘George was in his mid-fifties when I first saw him… upright and vigorous, with an open and friendly manner and a clear, piercing gaze. He looked the part of a countryman, in a tweed jacket, a hat also of tweed, drill trousers, and stout brown shoes. As I grew to know him, I discovered that he was sympathetic and generous with help and encouragement. He was intelligent and shrewd; his judgments, though seldom sharply expressed, were acute and rational. In conversation he was tolerant and unassertive, but it was soon clear he held independent views with firmness and conviction.’
I’m certain this is how Watson’s many friends at the Junior United Services Club and at the Gatwick races would have viewed him too, a man of ‘gentility though of limited means and no property’.
Q. How old were you when you first encountered Sherlock Holmes?
I must have been around 12. My single-parent mother put me in a boarding-school in Guernsey by the name of Elizabeth College. The college had been paid for by Elizabeth Tudor circa 1600. It had turrets and looked like a castle but it was what is known as 'domestic' in that any ship's cannon down in St Peter Port's harbour could have wreaked havoc. I was in 'the long dorm' in the main turret with 6 other boarders. When the house-master or prefect came along to switch off the lights and tell us to shut up, some of us retrieved our cats-whisker radios or a torch and read for an hour or so. I was the principal story-teller in the dorm, charged with bringing adventures like 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' back from the Summer holidays, to read out aloud to the others. Conan Doyle's stories were wonderful company until the batteries ran down.
Q. And what next for you?
My next 'sherlock' should be ready for the market this Summer. After my latest Holmes-and-Watson adventure which saw them keeping a shaky Ottoman Sultan on his throne in Stamboul in 1906 at the urgent behest of Britain's Foreign Secretary (Sherlock Holmes And The Sword of Osman), the duo get asked by His Majesty's Government to help prop up another shaky regime, the Emperor and Empress Dowager of the Qing Dynasty in faraway Peking. Neither Holmes and Watson nor Sir Edward like autocracies but for important reasons to do with the bellicose German Kaiser and other predatory Great Powers, Britain needs these Empires to hang on for a while. I haven't got a title for it yet. I like to start the titles with 'Sherlock Holmes And…' so it could be something like 'Sherlock Holmes And The She-Dragon of China' or 'Sherlock Holmes And The Empress of the Purple City' though I'm definitely open to suggestions! As I mentioned, I'd particularly like to explore getting this adventure translated into Mandarin to test out my style in the vast Chinese market.
Q. Do you have a website for news about your novels?
Belatedly, after publishing my first Sherlock Holmes five years ago I have just forked out for a dedicated website which will be simply timsymonds (probably .co.uk) though I'd have liked something to do with Sherlock Holmes or Dr. Watson in the domain name. If anyone knows of existing Holmes and Watson websites they consider cleverly-constructed and easy on the eye and welcoming, do let me know so I can pass the suggestion on to the web designer to look at. Ditto advice on how to get potential readers to come to it.
Q. Do you have any unsolved 'mysteries' about writing your novels?
I do! The question I grapple with all the time as I write is - how do we as authors identify our principal readership, our target audience? I asked the Editor of The Author journal and he didn't know either. We all have an image in our minds - perhaps the readers are mostly over, say, 45, reasonably educated - but maybe they're really between 20 and 35 and all young techies escaping the 21st Century for a few hours. Or would another culture - say, German - take to my stories; if so, is it worth getting my novels translated? Although I understand it can be a minefield, I do intend to get my next novel translated, the one set in the Forbidden City as the Qing Dynasty totters to its end (hence my question to Catherine Cooke on ideograms).
Thank you very much, Tim. Good luck with all new ventures.