Don Williams
Photo by Justin Williams

Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, blogger, fiction writer, sometime TV commentator, and is the founder and editor emeritus of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, a Golden Presscard Award from Sigma Delta Chi Society of Professional Journalists, a best Commentary Award from SDC, Best Feature Writing from the Associated Press Tennessee Managing Editors, the Malcolm Law Journalism Prize from the Associated Press, Best Non-Deadline Reporting from the United Press International, Best Novel Excerpt from the Knoxville Writers Guild, a Peacemaker Award from the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, five Writer of the Month Awards from the Scripps Howard Newspaper chain, and many others. In 2011 he was inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame. His 2005 book of journalism, Heroes, Sheroes and Zeroes is under revision for a second printing, and he is at work on a novel and a book of journalism. His columns appear at and have been featured at many other well-known websites. To run his column, gratis, at your website, post this link to a dedicated spot: Need a speaker, panelist, tv commentator or teacher for your group or to lead a writing workshop, in your town? Email

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How a writer thinks - elementary my dear Watson
(Copyright by Don Williams, All rights reserved   05/25/2012)

During a holiday sometime back, the Williams clan, including in-laws, outlaws and assorted friends, gathered to play Trivial Pursuit.

A competitive lot, we turn such games into raucous entertainment. Lots of praise, derision and laughter pertain, not necessarily in that order.

The games were close and the questions difficult, prompting snorts and catcalls, and three of the teams had flamed out by the time my friend the writer's turn came to answer a question.

My sister Rebecca drew a card and read:

Sherlock Holmes turned into the gate at 221 Baker St, stepped inside the door and climbed ___ steps to his second story flat. How many steps did he climb?

There was a collective groan.

“Bury that one,” a brother-in-law said, even as Rebecca was discarding the question. “He'll never get that.”

“Hold on!” My friend held up his right hand. “I've only read one Arthur Conan Doyle book, and it wasn't Sherlock Holmes, but I'll take a shot at that.”

“No way. How are you going to guess that one?”

“Elementary my dear Watson,” my friend replied. “In the time-honored Holmes-ian way. Deductive Reasoning.”

“That'll be the day,” my brother Tim said.

“Listen up,” said my friend. “It has to be at least 10 steps to Sherlock's apartment, even if the risers are relatively high, say, 10 inches, because they have to clear that first-floor apartment's ceiling. And the answer likely won't be more than, say, 20 steps, even if the risers are short, because that would put the esteemed detective's pad more than ten or twelve feet above street level. See? Already I've reduced the universe of possible answers to 10.”

“Yeah, yeah,” my brother Rodney said.

“So,” my friend continued, “the answer lies somewhere between 10 and 20. Let's take them one by one.”

“Better hurry,” said my sister Kathleen, eyeing the sandglass.

“OK. Ten is a lazy number that would make the author appear lazy too, so a writer like Doyle would never use it. Not here. Nor can it be 11, because that's a lucky number, mildly distracting and therefore intrusive. More importantly, Sherlock's a deductive thinker, so the author wouldn't suggest, even subliminally, that his detective's success owes anything to a lucky number. Number 12? Again, distracting. Sir Doyle wouldn't want his readers to be thinking, even subconsciously, about Twelve Apostles or even 12 months. Unlucky thirteen? Similary distracting.

“Time's almost up,” said Kathleen.

I could see my friend faintly flush, but he continued in a calm if faster voice.

“Fourteen? Now there's a Plain Jane. No writer worth his salt would dull down a book with such tasteless seasoning, even if it is red.”


“See? That could be a subjective thing. And 15? Again, like 10, it's too pat and pregnant. Makes the author appear lazy.

“Sixteen?” a brother-in-law asked, eyeing the fleeting sands.

“Like 14, another Plain Jane, even if it is black,” my friend added.


My friend smiled. You could almost hear bells going off. “Seventeen seems random,” he said, savoring the moment, “but it's actually quite sexy. That unobtrusive 7, peeking from behind the place-holding 1, is subtly mystical, alluring even, hardly rising even to the level of the subliminal, yet there it is.”
Rebecca rolled her eyes. “So, is that your final answer?” she asked in a bored voice, as she glanced at the card, but we knew her attitude was all bluff.

“Yesssss,” my friend whispered aloud, calmly assured. “Seventeen it is. By far the most interesting number between 10 and 20.”

Her eyes widened. “You're right. How did you do that?” she asked as she flashed the card, answer-side up, on the table.

“Elementary, my dear. I'm a writer.”