How to build a world

alternative worlds illastration

In the beginning, the author created…

When I first began writing historical fantasy, I was inspired by times and places rooted in our own familiar world – but leavened with a dash of the unreal. A world that might have been.

I wrote about locations which might have been identifiable, with greater or lesser ease, as something that had existed in our own history and geography, as we know them – except that I gave such places different names of my own devising, and if I used things that were supposed to have happened in the “true” history of our world I sometimes fudged the precise timing, or the order of events, so that I could create a more consistent story rooted in my own world.

I wrote the book that became “The Secrets of Jin-shei” at white heat, 200,000 words in less than three months. It was set in a China that never was, a mythical land inspired by Imperial China which I named “Syai”.

I’ve been explaining ever since that no, I did NOT set out to write a historical novel, that Syai was a place INSPIRED by China, not China itself.

After I had written “the end” at the conclusion of Jin-shei, the history of Syai and the mythical world in which it existed didn’t stop there. It continued, and it blossomed naturally into the events I wrote about in “Embers of Heaven”, a follow-up and not a sequel to the original Jin-shei book.

It was becoming clear that this was a developing and ongoing story in a developing and ongoing world which had the same kind of timeline as our own did.

While Jin-shei took place in Syai, my world inspired by Imperial China, I moved the the country’s history forward four hundred years for Embers in a time very similar to China’s Cultural Revolution.

A great deal of research was done for both historical periods in our own – our “Real” – world, and my alternate history is built on very solid foundations. In Embers this was particularly important as I was dealing with issues and events which were much more historically recent, and within reach of, if not a living memory for most people, then certainly the memory of a descendant of somebody who had lived through that time. It would have been disrespectful to this kind of recent history and its survivors not to ensure that all necessary research and education had been undertaken, and properly applied to my alternate world that is so very like the China that never was.

This was a real world, to me. It just wasn’t OUR world. It was an alternate universe, with its own rules and laws and history, existing beside and in spite of our own.

Alternate History for a World That Might Have Been

Map where three books were set in Alma's worldMy recent novel “Empress” was set in my alt-historical fantasy of ancient Byzantium, a bit further back in time and in a different part of the same alternate world. Things became looser in terms of what I could do with the material I was working with, in order to make my story flow more smoothly,

I reversed the order in which two documented historical events took place in “real” time and place – but that decision made absolute sense in the context of the world I was creating in my story, a world which was deeply rooted in and inspired by a certain era in the Byzantine empire but which was also a story seen through my own reinvented prism.

I made the studied decision, for example, not to use any known form of a religious faith in this context. That meant working out a complex hierarchy of Heaven and its denizens for the Syai books, with an intricately detailed Great Temple in which these were worshipped (in a manner which was – again – inspired by some real things but which was also organically reinvented for the time and place I was creating.

In “Empress”, I created a system of belief that was similar to, but deliberately not directly using the religions we know as Judaism or Christianity. That meant, once again, reexamining what we think we know as “historical” events or decisions in the light of these newly re-imagined systems of belief.

Just when I became aware that I was literally writing the stories which would build that alternative history into a complete and cohesive whole, setting books in times and places which would somehow fit on the same alternative geo-historical timeline, I’m not entirely sure – but by the time I came to write “Empress”, it was already gelling into that idea. A world explorer in “Empress” talked quite naturally about taking the trade road to a place called Syai. My world was already real enough for that.

More such books are coming. All of them will become integrated into a lush alternative world with its own past, its own current events, its own future. I am literally rewriting the (fantastical) history of our world, novel by novel, building it brick by brick, character by character, word by word.

The Alma Alexander Historical Fantasy Bundle

The first three strands of this net are the three currently published historical fantasies – “The Secrets of Jin-shei”, “Embers of Heaven”, and “Empress” – and I am now offering them a Book Bundle.

The bundle is currently only in ebook format. In the meantime, print copies of each book are available now on Amazon and elsewhere and I will offer them as a bundled package later.

Purchasing a three-eBook bundle of these historical fantasies as a package also subscribes you to a quarterly newsletter, and it puts your name on a list of people who will be notified first when the next historical fantasy volume appears. One is currently in progress, and at least one other planned – dealing with medieval Balkans, and the shifting empires and loyalties which roiled in that era, with protagonists which are crying out to have their stories told.

Buy eBook Bundle 1 for $10 via PayPal HERE

The acceptance of moose

A 5-star review of ‘Dawn of Magic’, the fourth and final book in my young adult series, Worldweavers, contains this delightful sentence:

“There is probably some truth there to carry away on what college is, diplomas, and the inevitable acceptance of moose.”

Everyone knows about diplomas, of course. But you might have to read the book to understand where the “acceptance of moose” comes into it. 🙂

Opening lines quizDawn Of Magic poster Which novel started with the above line?

1) “Molloy” by Samuel Beckett
2) “The Sirens of Titan” by Kurt Vonnegut
3) “Murphy” by Samuel Beckett
4)  “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut

I did OK. You?

See the whole quiz at Buzzfeed HERE

I so want to be Ursula Le Guin when I grow up…

The gift of Ursula Le Guin:

‘She makes the ordinary feel as important as the epic’:

Ursula Le Guin head shotsRead the whole article at The Guardian HERE

Another story from The Nation notes that:

Ursula Le Guin Has Stopped Writing Fiction—but We Need Her More Than Ever

The author on sexism, aging, and the radical possibilities of imaginative story telling.

Read it The Nation HERE

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Little Free Library photo

Photo by Mary Anne Mohanraj

You can read anywhere in time and space, but I’m not sure if it is bigger on the inside.

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You read it WHERE?

‘Reading Proust on My Cellphone’

No, not me! It was Sarah Boxer and she writes about the experience in The Atlantic:

Proust at 20 photo

“When I tell people this, they look at me like I have drowned a kitten…Reading Proust on my cellphone was, I have to say, like no other reading experience I’ve had before or since. It was magical and—dare I say it?—Proustian in a very peculiar way…

“Your cellphone screen is like a tiny glass-bottomed boat moving slowly over a vast and glowing ocean of words in the night. There is no shore. There is nothing beyond the words in front of you. It’s a voyage for one in the nighttime. Pure romance.”

.             ..Marcel Proust at about 20 (Corbis)


Read the whole delightful essay at HERE

While I’m not as…uh, grandiloquent?…as Proust, I do write same long novels and my writing is often described as “lush.” A reviewer at Library Thing puts my latest novel, ‘Empress’, in with books she labels “scrumptious.” I rather like that.

The reviewer adds, rather unexpectedly, that “I felt as if I were taken back in time to a place that was as political and as cut-throat, but hopefully we’re not as bloody, as today’s Washington D.C.”

My novel is set in alternative world that’s based on the Byzantine Empire. I’ll leave the implications of the comparison to today’s Washington to my readers to sort out.

(Buy your copy of ‘Empress’ on Amazon HERE)

For people who have trouble finding the time, The Reading Room offers:

Tips on How to Fit as Much Reading Into Your Day as Possible

One suggestion is audio books, something my husband has embraced as a way of making exercise and housework bearable.

Another suggestion is reading with a companion:
Shared Reading Kitten asleep on bookImage courtesy of

Read more suggestions at The Reading Room HERE

Portland Silent Reading Party photo

The Portland Silent Reading Party in action:

Reading with companions, even other humans, can indeed be very rewarding.

At BookRiot, Jeff O’Neal tells us how to:

Host a Silent Reading Party in 7 Easy Steps

Read more at The BookRiot HERE

Then, of course, there is the matter of reading in book clubs. In the New York Times, Jennifer Miller tells us that

Men Have Book Clubs, Too

and writes about The Man Book Club in Marin County, Calif. that is going into its ninth year.

It has 16 members, a number of whom are lawyers and engineers in their mid-50s. Each month, the host must prepare a meal appropriate to the book under discussion. There was an eight-course French supper to accompany Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” and a meal of refined comfort food presented on TV trays for Bill Bryson’s 1950s-era memoir, “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid.”

Read more about the group in the New York Times HERE

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I usually express that sentiment a little more politely, but hell yes!

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What the hell do you call it?

If you are writing a novel about historical events, how do you talk about it? Is it:

Historical Fantasy? Alternative History? Fictionalisation? Reinvention?

When it comes to this particular literary sub-genre, definitions, it would seem, are EVERYTHING. On a panel at a SF/Fantasy convention once, five of us spent fully twenty minutes of our hour just trying to hammer out what we were actually talking about.

This is not just an academic discussion for writers like me, it gets to the heart of how readers can find our books on the shelf in a bookstore or library.

Empress‘, my latest fat *historical fantasy*, was inspired by the story of Justinian and Theodora of Byzantium. They are historical figures, whose complex relationship has been the subject of much analysis and commentary, from the biased and somewhat malicious historian Procopius in their own time, to the present day.

Empress coverWhen I originally began shopping the novel around, I was offered a deal on the condition that I pulled back on the “fantasy” aspect and made this a straight “historical” narrative. The story of ‘Empress’ might have seen publication much earlier had I been willing to do this – but I was not.

The two protagonists of my novel were inspired by people who once lived and loved… but they are not those people. And it is MY characters’ version of this story that I am telling, an emotional truth, rather than a strictly strait-laced historical version of events.

I didn’t want to put dialogue into the mouths of those real people. I transplanted a seed of their spirit into fictional characters who live in a world that is like our own but is not that world. I took pains to underline this.

Some readers and reviewers have problems with this. For example, a Library Thing reviewer of ‘Empress‘ wrote: “This story is so close to historical fiction that a part of me wishes the author had actually not shifted events and names around to make it an alternate history. This is an entirely personal preference, though – I simply like historical fiction with as much accuracy as possible, especially when the author is as skilled at writing powerful prose as this one is.”

The glory of historical fantasy is just this – it is the alchemy inherent in the sub-genre that you can take something from the world the reader has lived in all their lives and change it into something different, something rich and strange, and yet something that is utterly and remarkably and shiveringly familiar if held up to the light in a certain way.

And it is the ability to that which frees my storytelling mind and produces the kind of stories that I write, lush with both the richness and depth of history and the shimmer and shine and power of an imagination unbound.

All of my historical fiction – although individual books may have no actual direct connection with one another – are actually set in the same alternate world. What I am writing is nothing less than a chronicle of a different universe. ‘Secrets of Jin She’” told of a country that I named Syai even though it clearly was inspired by Imperial China; ‘Embers of Heaven‘ is set in that same world, in that same country, some four centuries after the first book.

In ‘Empress’, vigilant readers will catch a reference to a trade expedition which is leaving from my new milieu to “Syai, the place where silk comes from”. These places exist in the same space, much like Imperial China and Byzantium co-existed in our own reality.

This is a complex but fascinating subect. Any reader of my blog who wants more can go to SF Signal and read the whole article HERE


Michigan Couple Faces Jail Time Over Lost Dr. Seuss Library Book


Man returns library book with apology note after 49 years

Teacher seeks to solve mystery of 200-year-old Jane Austen book mailed to high school

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‘Do you even science, bro?’

At Jstor Daily, Chi Luu examines how nouns suddenly become verbs, and talks about popular internet memes like “Let me librarian that for you” and “Do you even science, bro?” in which “librarian” and “science” are nouns weirdly disguised as verbs.

“So is this a playful new linguistic construction,” he asks, “or is it time to roll our eyes at the internet, again?”

Read his whole delightful essay HERE

Two more of my newest novels are now also out as  ebooks

The print version of my newest book, ‘Empress‘, has been available for a short bit, and now the ebook version is out;  as is the ebook version of ‘Shifter‘..

Empress cover‘If you like Guy Gavriel Kay, you will love ‘Empress’. — Kari Sperring, author of ‘Living with Ghosts’ and ‘The Grass King’s Concubine’.

‘Empress’ is a historical fantasy inspired by the saga of real-world Byzantine Emperor Justinian and the courtesan Theodora, one of the greatest love stories in world history.

In my world, my protagonist is Simonis, a woman who lived many lives before rising to the top – a helpless child in circus performances, an accomplished courtesan and spy, a heretic who sheltered men thought to be damned for what they believed. Emperor Maxentius is the man who loves her enough to drape the Imperial purple over her shoulders even though his entire culture recoils.

When he marries Simonis and gives her a new name, Callidora, he makes her a partner in the ruling of the empire. When the Empire faces a rebellion that appears unstoppable, Maxentius and his generals are prepared to flee the raging mobs. But Callidora announces that the men can do what they want, but she will not run.

If I must die, purple makes a good shroud.”

The men are shamed into standing their ground and the Empire survives.

Buy Empress HERE

And now ‘Shifter‘, third book in The Were Chronicles, is finally out as an ebook.

Buy Shifter HERE

At Mental Floss, Jennifer M Wood examines

The $80 million typo – For want of a hyphen…

Mariner One photoMariner 1 on takeoff

NASA’S one little mistake

The damage: $80 million

Hyphens don’t usually score high on the list of most important punctuation. But a single dash led to absolute failure for NASA in 1962 in the case of Mariner 1, America’s first interplanetary probe. The mission was simple: get up close and personal with close neighbor Venus. But a single missing hyphen in the coding used to set trajectory and speed caused the craft to explode just minutes after takeoff. 2001: A Space Odyssey novelist Arthur C. Clarke called it “the most expensive hyphen in history.”

See all the other typos HERE

At The Dodo, Stephen Messenger tells us how

Kids bring shy shelter dogs out of their shells by reading to themKids read to Dogs photoHumane Society of Missouri

An innovative new idea, called the Shelter Buddies Reading Program, is already making a huge difference for animals at the Humane Society of Missouri. The idea is simple: train kids to read to dogs as a way of readying them for forever homes, all while instilling a greater sense of empathy in the youngsters, too.

Read the whole story HERE

At BuzzFeed, Selina Churchill reports on

Sex, misery, and cliffhangers — Writing Fanfiction

For example:

Smut is popular: The fastest way to get your story read by thousands is to write for a big fandom like Supernatural or Buffy, and slap an “Adult” rating on it…show it all in eye-melting detail.

The ubiquity of smut in fanfic is a surprise to nobody. TV writing features hot people in the most intense situations they can invent. Who can be shocked that viewers develop fantasies about The Doctor or Scully or Loki? Come on. You give the world sexy werewolves, and the world will sit at its keyboard typing “Drip the wax on me, Edward.”

Read the whole story HERE


SheKnows Website offers free Ruth Bader Ginsburg Coloring Book

Men Give Up on Books Sooner Than Women: Study

Harper Lee’s estate will no longer allow publication of the inexpensive paperback edition that was popular with schools.

Cheap paperbacks of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ no longer available

Quote of the DayAstrology posterCan’t argue with that.

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Ode to the literary cat

It is a a writerly thing. Some of us have dogs, to be sure, but the classic writerish badge of belonging to the scribe tribe is…a cat.

In some ways it’s inevitable. Dogs worship us, and although that can be invaluable in a world which otherwise largely doesn’t care, it is the cat who serves the ultimate purpose in writers lives, keeping us grounded, and keeping us humble.

In the throes of epic inspiration, wrapped in the arms of your Muse? Forget it. The food bowl is empty, the litter box needs cleaning, and those things need attention now. Screw the Muse. there is first and forever and always CAT. And Cat must be obeyed.

Cats go perfectly with books and cups of tea or coffee, in homes, in libraries, in bookstores, so many bookstores.

I well remember the somewhat disconcerting gaze of the Borderlands Sphynx – the naked hairless ubercat who came to perch on my lectern when I did a reading there and stared at me with those ageless eyes, at the same time giving approval and waiting for me to stumble on a word so that it could have its little snicker of schadenfreude.

There’s Dewey, the library cat whom I knew only from a book but still wept oceans of tears over. There are multifarious fictional cats, whose roles range from window-dressing to full-on characters. And real-life cats named after them.

Boboko in the LibraryA friend of mine named one of his own after Pixel, the Cat Who Walked Through Walls. My own heart’s-beloved, Boboko, was named after a fabulous feline in Charles de LInt’s “Mulengro”, and he apparently knew about his bookish origin. He hung around books in my library, as the photo attests.

Make today a read-a-book-and-hug-your-cat day. I do it every day.

Mashable takes note of the bookstore-owning felines of Instagram and offers us some delightful pictures.

Book store cat“Right this way to the picture book section.”

See more photos HERE

From a review of ‘Shifter, the third book in The Were Chronicles, by Angela Cabezas at her blog, Angela’s Library:

“Alexander’s writing is gorgeous and insightful, and she uses it to full advantage. I’m always sad when I finish a great story, but as I wrote to Alma in a Facebook message while in the throes of book withdrawal, ‘I just finished Shifter and now I have to cancel my plans for the day to eat chocolate and cry!’ The best books leave a hole in you when they’re over, and Shifter certainly left a gaping void in me.

“The experience is worth it, though. And look at it this way – once you’re finished you can always go back and re-read the book’s perfect last line over and over again to bring yourself comfort, as I’ve been doing. So what are you waiting for? Go get some chocolate and start reading this book!”

Read the whole review HERE

HOW many pages? The 10 longest books ever written

Look, I am no slouch in the word-count department. Several of my books – “The Secrets of Jin-shei”, “Embers of Heaven’, the forthcoming “Empress” — even the “Changer of Days” duology, written as a single novel but published in two parts because that’s the only way the skittish publishers would tackle a quarter-million-word epic — all fall in the 200,000 words plus category. That’s a million published words right there.

And I haven’t even counted the epic I wrote in my teens which is just as many words but as yet only exists on 500+ handwritten – in pencil – pages in three hardcover A4 sized notebooks.

Even my YA books are pushing the envelope. Three of the four Worldweavers books are longer than 100,000 words. I managed to contain myself a little more with the Were  Chronicles books because they all fall in roughly at 95-99K words apiece.

But the books here put together by Short List, are in a class beyond that – way beyond that!

Perhaps the headline ought to read ‘The 10 longest stories ever written‘ because the Short List collection includes novels told over several volumes.

But we are talking about long – very long – coherent stories, ranging from near a million words to 2.1 million words.

The number of words is the way most writers judge length, but most readers probably think more in terms of pages. So how many pages are we talking about here?

Well, the shortest book here, the piker, is only 2,400 pages, while the longest is…

drum roll, please

… 13,095 pages.

I suspect you won’t finish it in a day, or maybe a lifetime.

A lot of the books you may never have heard of – OK, probably never heard of. But every reader in the western word has heard of Proust and his ‘In Search of Lost Time’. It might even be on the bottom of their to-read pile – the very bottom.

Short List tells that it is 1,267,069 words in 3,031 pages.

Proust cover

There’s no doubt that Proust’s masterpiece could quite easily double as a mightily  effective doorstop, with 13 volumes clocking up nearly 1.3 million words. Its theme of involuntary memory is repeated through the course of following the narrator’s life, from childhood to adulthood. Published between 1913 and 1927, it had a profound influence on many works that were to follow in the 20th Century; it’s considered the definitive modern novel by many leading scholars. So, to summarize: really long, but really good.


But the undisputed winner in this list is basically a romance, ‘Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus’, 2.1 million word, 13,095 page romance. In 10 volumes.

Le Grand coverThis 17th century novel obliterates the opposition. The work is credited on the page to Geroges de Scudéry, but is usually attributed to his sister Madeleine. The ultimate example of the roman héroïque form, it is, essentially, a romantic novel, with endless twists to keep the suspense, and the action, going. Despite its gargantuan length, at the time it was hugely popular.

However, it was not subsequently published again until an academic project was launched to make it available to read on the Internet.

Yes, you can read it ON THE INTERNET HERE

So what are you waiting for? Those 13,095 pages aren’t going to read themselves, Short List chides..

See the other books HERE

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Slices Of Trees posterYour choice but I know which I opt for.

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You feel WHAT?

Invented words for emotions you never realised anyone else felt

Daniel Dalton of BuzzFeed writes about perfect words invented by graphic designer John Koenig that you can find in his book, “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.”

Take for example an emotion that every writer knows all too wellJouska invented word Daniel Dalton / BuzzFeed / / Via

Then there is a feeling that my husband and I shared at our first meeting in person after months of chatting on the Internet. Walking across a bridge in Vancouver, we both looked at a towering high rise across the river and silently marveled at all the lighted windows and the hidden lives behind them. Neither of us said a word out loud and only discovered our thoughts had been mirrored that night during a discussion years after we were married.
Sonder invented wordDaniel Dalton / BuzzFeed / / Via

See 21 other perfect newly invented words HERE

At The Guardian, author Carolyne Larrington notes that from George RR Martin to Umberto Eco, many writers have been inspired by stories of the middle ages and she selects “some of the best.” (see below)

As I write fantasy and I love that period myself, it made me reflect on my own reading and writing history, which is one reason, of course, that such lists are always popular.

“Kristin Lavransdottir” was a fat book that I picked up when I was thirteen or so and I sank into it and happily drowned in it. But that’s a straight HISTORICAL novel. So, if you leave out the slightly romantizised aspects, it is something like “Ivanhoe”, another early love of mine.

But Larrington’s list also includes mythology (Beowulf) and straight fantasy (the Game of Thrones stuff) – so it’s very much a cart of mixed apples and oranges. Do we want straight history? Then why isn’t Sharon Kay Penman on this list? Do we want historical fantasy? Where’s Judith Tarr or Guy Gavriel Kay?

I realize that it’s only a short list and they were trying for exhaustive, but that’s the problem with lists like this. People like T H White and J R R Tolkien get mentioned only in passing in order to leave space for the “modern”, i.e. post mid-last-century, contributions. Apples and oranges…

I write fantasy myself, both the epic high-fantasy kind (“Hidden Queen”/”Changer of Days” duology) and historical (“Secrets of Jin Shei”, broadly based in a milieu inspired by historical China,  or my forthcoming Byzantine epic, “Empress”), So I have a stake in books like this, I love reading them, I love getting immersed in them, I love the fact that they underlay, through fiction, a real and inspired interest in both literature and history in those who read them… but this list is a little, erm, eclectic…What exactly are the criteria here?

Larrington’s Top 10 modern medieval tales include:
Name Of The Rose, movie

Sean Connery and F Murray Abraham in the film version of The Name of the Rose. Photograph: THE RONALD GRANT ARCHIVE

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (1980): This dazzling first novel has brilliant plotting and witty in-jokes (its hero – played by Sean Connery in the film version – is William of Baskerville in a nod to the great detective), combined with a profound understanding of medieval intellectual history. How might medieval – and, indeed, our own culture – have been different if Aristotle’s lost second book of the Poetics, exploring the importance of comedy, had survived? Vividly explaining the primary political and theological questions of the 13th century, the novel finds a kind of sequel in Baudolino (2000), but it’s this one that I regularly reread.

See the rest of Larrington’s list HERE

In an essay at The Los Angeles Review of Books, Christopher Grobe discusses

The Case of the Missing Detective: William Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes

Gillette As HolmesWhen an actor playing Sherlock Holmes dons the the deerstalker cap, smokes a curved pipe, and crows, ‘Elementary, my dear fellow’, he may believe he’s being faithful to Arthur Conan Doyle, Grobe writes.

“But he’s actually paying homage to William Gillette, the American actor who wrote, produced, and starred in the first dramatization of Doyle’s tales.”

When I tweeted about Grobe’s article and confessed that I had never heard of William Gillette, a New England friend quickly enlightened me.

Gillette CastleNobody does until the 5th grade field trip to Gillette Castle,” Mary Jo Place told me. “After that I think it’s on the Connecticut Residency Test.”

She offered to take me to the castle the next time I visit and I may have to take her up on that.

It is common, Grobe writes in his LARB article, to calculate Gillette’s contribution to the Sherlock Holmes mythology — one deerstalker hat plus a meerschaum pipe times a half-dozen Elementaries! But, he adds, this hardly does justice to Gillette’s impact.

Doyle may have invented the character, but it was Gillette who created the man. He gave a body to that infamous mind, a voice to those words, and a style to Holmes’s very being. As one critic observed in 1929, while announcing Gillette’s return to the stage, Gillette’s face and figure, his voice and manner, gave the entire English-speaking world their mental image of Sherlock Holmes.”

Read the whole fascinating article HERE

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He RemembersAnd you forget THAT at your peril!

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